By James Kinchin-White and Ed Moloney
‘I can be a bad bastard if I feel like it. It’s my job’…….Intelligence Officer code-named ‘Kent’, the Gloucester Regiment, circa April 29, 1973
There is little doubt that most people inclined to be sceptical about the claim that Jean McConville worked as an informer against the IRA, are unconvinced because they have difficulty accepting that the British Army would stoop so low as to put the life of a widow with ten children in mortal danger.
Which raises the question of how low the British Army was actually prepared to stoop in its intelligence war against the Provos, especially in the early years of the Troubles when there was a premium on accurate information about the IRA and its activities.
In other words was the military’s intelligence war in Northern Ireland fought in accordance with a moral code of any sort? Were some potential informers off limits – like Jean McConville – or were there no limits?
Well, to judge from the following document plucked from the shelves of the British government’s own archives at Kew, Surrey, the answer is that more or less any vulnerable target with even a minimal amount of access to the IRA was fair game and that in the process of recruiting them as agents, the military was prepared to stoop pretty darned low.
The document, a so-called ‘loose minute’ distributed to political, military and intelligence heads in Belfast on May 1st, 1973, describes the recruitment of a 17/18 year old boy as an informer by soldiers from the intelligence unit of the Gloucester Regiment, then based in the lower Falls/Divis Flats area of West Belfast.
The recruitment effort backfired badly and the UK media got to know about it, causing consternation in military, political and intelligence circles in Belfast.
The boy, a hotel worker named as William Shields, was arrested in the lower Falls in the early hours of Sunday, April 29th, 1973 and then taken to Hastings Street Army base where he was blackmailed by the Gloucesters into becoming an agent.
The soldiers ‘extracted’ an admission from Shields that he was having sex with the wife of a Provisional IRA internee and that he was ‘living with the woman’. The Gloucester’s Battalion Intelligence Officer then got the boy to sign a letter to the OC of the local IRA admitting all this, and was then pressured to become an informer, on the basis that if he refused, the letter to the IRA would be delivered, with predictable consequences for young Shields.
Afterwards, Shields had the good sense to go to the then West Belfast MP, Gerry Fitt for help. Fitt, according to the British document, witnessed Shields phoning his handler in the Gloucester’s, thereby confirming the boy’s story. The West Belfast MP then got on the phone and informed the handler that he intended to raise the matter in the House of Commons.
Gerry Fitt had alerted two Fleet Street reporters, Simon Hoggart of The Guardian and Robert Fisk of The Times who duly wrote up the story. Hoggart was present when Shields and Fitt phoned the Gloucester’s handler and his story, which led the back page of The Guardian on May 2nd, 1973, is reproduced below. Fisk also wrote about the incident but his article could not be located.
After Fitt’s phone conversation, the proverbial hit the fan, leading to the involvement of the then NI Secretary, William Whitelaw who was told by an unnamed official that:
‘…..the press line was that this was a piece of over-enthusiasm at a junior level’.
In other words, nothing to do with the Gloucester’s command. The blame would be carried by junior officers.
Simon Hoggart’s account is worth reading (see below), not least because he was a respected reporter, but also he had details in his account conspicuously absent, or at significant variance from the official report of young Shields’ attempted recruitment circulated, inter alia, to Willie Whitelaw’s office.
According to Hoggart, the boy was only 16, not 17 or 18 as the British document claims and was thus virtually still a child; the boy was also tricked into signing a forged admission of having sex with the IRA internee’s wife (which he denied had happened to Hoggart and Fitt), and the Gloucester’s Intelligence handler, who went by the code name ‘Kent’, threatened to give ‘dozens of copies’ of the boy’s alleged admission to the IRA, effectively delivering a death threat to the youngster.
The handler also told the boy, according to the account given to Hoggart:
‘I can be a bad bastard if I feel like it. It’s my job’.
So this under-age, innocent young lad was tricked, terrified and blackmailed into becoming a British Army agent and despatched down a path which, but for the intervention of Gerry Fitt and a couple of journalists, might very well have ended with his death.
As to what conclusions one can come to about whether Jean McConville’s own very evident vulnerability would have deterred someone like “Kent’ from considering her a candidate for recruitment, the reader can make up his or her own mind.
It is interesting to note that this was the Gloucester’s second recent tour in the lower Falls/Divis Flats area. They had first served a three month tour in that district between December 7th, 1971 and April 13th, 1972, about a year before the incident described above.
The regiment’s War Diary for that tour has been embargoed until 2059. Most other regimental War Diaries during the years of the Troubles have not been embargoed and some can even be purchased on eBay. Why is that?