British Army’s ‘Non-Existent Intelligence’ in 1972 May Explain Use Of Low Level Sources

By Ed Moloney and James Kinchin White

One of the genuinely puzzling aspects about the IRA’s claim that Divis Flats widow and mother-of-ten, Jean McConville was an informer for the British Army is what use she could be, other than perhaps identifying some local IRA members or republican sympathisers.

Wouldn’t the Army’s time have been better spent trying to turn IRA members and by that route seriously infiltrate and damage their enemy rather than endanger the life of widowed mother who was in important ways an outsider in Divis?

Well, one answer to that conundrum can be found in a British Army document, recently unearthed by James Kinchin White, outlining reasons to launch what would become known as Operation Motorman, the military occupation of Republican areas in Derry and West Belfast.

Marked ‘Top Secret’ – and limited to those with Top Secret clearance, hence the tag ‘Perimeter’ – the document argues that the mood in Catholic areas in the wake of the disastrous bombings of Bloody Friday, on July 21st, was sufficiently critical or cool towards the IRA that there would be little resistance if the British Army occupied so-called no go areas in Derry and West Belfast.

The plan was approved at the highest political and military levels and just ten days after Bloody Friday – on July 31st – the British Army, employing heavy armour, duly occupied previously strong IRA redoubts in both cities, setting up forts from which to launch military operations against the Provisionals.

But the real significance of the document is that it reveals that a dearth of intelligence on the IRA was a major, if not the major reason for launching Motorman.

Describing military operations in the wake of Bloody Friday, the document paints a picture of a British Army that had virtually no contemporary intelligence on the IRA:

The Army’s search operations (in the wake of Bloody Friday) have been based on old or almost non-existent intelligence. Their success has been exaggerated for political or PR reasons. Such yields as have been obtained were principally due to chance. Continuation at the present level cannot be expected to produce any better results and is likely in fact to produce diminishing returns. The degree of antagonism these operations are likely to arouse will probably increase as the memory of July 21st fades and the Army’s searches are seen to be random and resulting in searches of houses and arrests of individuals with no direct connection with the hard-line Provisional IRA.

So, was it in such circumstances that the British Army, desperate for any intelligence on the IRA, turned to a widow and mother-of-ten for help?

8 responses to “British Army’s ‘Non-Existent Intelligence’ in 1972 May Explain Use Of Low Level Sources

  1. while i agree that there was a lack of intelligence material available, i just don’t see any value of having Mrs McConville as an agent, she wasn’t involved in republican activity & the claims of PIRA on her involvement have changed multiple times over the years in the hope of making some ‘mud stick to her’ they can then assolve themselves of a brutal sectarian murder & that remains the most logical option to this day.

    Remember the furore over Nairac who many years it was claimed was a member of SAS, though his name doesn’t appear on any SAS memorials, ir’s just bull.

    • I commend your continuing support for the Jean McConville case but I don’t think your views on intelligence gathering bear scrutiny. If one accepts that the British Army was starved of reliable intelligence on the IRA during 1972 as the document in our piece demonstrates, then how would they have gone about improving it? Where do they start? It doesn’t begin with IRA members because they don’t know who they are. It begins by finding out who is in the IRA and who is not. Once they have an idea who their enemy is then they can make meaningful inroads. But it starts by having people in an area who are not necessarily involved themselves but who are willing to pinpoint those in the community they know are activists. In those early days, when the IRA believed victory was close, its members would openly patrol areas like Divis to demonstrate their control and power. With a willing informant able to pinpoint such activists on their payroll a start could then be made to a serious intelligence effort against the IRA. That is the role some of those in the IRA who had interaction with Jean McConville says she played, people like Brendan Hughes and Dolours Price.

  2. The level of intelligence that you suggest could easily have been obtained from one of the many British Army observation posts in the area. In the days prior to household washing machines, tumble dryers and microwaves it’s hard to imagine what a single mother of ten would find time to observe.

    Those two disgruntled ex Provo’s are hardly what would be called reliable witnesses. Having lied for years about this and other cases I hate to suggest it, but they may have lied to you.

    Full marks for finding and uploading those documents. Keep up the good work.

  3. Not in, but near Divis complex. And in sufficient numbers to have a good idea what was happening with regards activity such as IRA patrols. Do you think the British Army authorised foot patrols in and around Divis without doing the most basic of reconnaissance i.e having a look?

    • And your evidence? So why were the BA’s top brass complaining about lack of intel when it was all there visible from the OP’s you claim were around Divis?

    • This is a reply to Terrytonic and Paul Mead from James Kinchin-White, co-author of the article on pre-Motorman dearth of intelligence on part of the British Army:

      The British Army’s interest in ordinary people and the to-and-fro within Divis flats didn’t end with the abduction of Jean McConville. Indeed, they had ‘assessed’ that she had not been abducted at all, citing, correctly, that it was the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association that first reported the woman missing in their fortnightly magazine “Civil Rights” published on the week commencing 15 January 1973. The army were to ‘blame’ NICRA for this ‘fake news’ – news that proved, in time, to be all too accurate. The ‘military source’ document in which the statement was made was the initial ‘source’ of information gained by the RUC. In short, NICRA had begun a process of investigation that was the rightful responsibility of the police.
      By August 1973 the army unit responsible for the Divis tactical area of responsibility (TAOR) – better described as the sub-standard public housing complex a mere ‘stone-throw’ from Belfast’s relatively wealthy city centre – had soldiers scouring the architectural carbuncle for snippets of information, talking to residents and ‘chatting up the birds’ in search of the odd nugget. Had this been a ‘bright moment’ notion from the battalion commander, doubtless it would have won him a visit to Buckingham Palace for a suitable ‘gong’ to be pinned to his chest. But this was no accident.
      In a contribution to an international symposium on Counterinsurgency (COIN) held in the USA in 1962, the British contributor, Lt Col Frank Kitson speaking of his theory of COIN, developed during the Mau Mau campaign in Kenya, describes the basis of his how the insurgents were organized in ‘gangs’ reliant upon the civil population and that countering the gangs demanded large volumes of information from ‘low-grade’ agents that would help to reveal enemy behaviour. In developing agents Kitson argued that “…speed is of the essence, even at the expense of quality…the screening and sorting out can come later.

      This paper does not seek to build a justification for those responsible for the despicable killing of a vulnerable mother of ten, nor does it provide any evidence, nor do the authors have any evidence that Jean McConville passed information to the security forces by any means. What does concern us is why do others make such an effort to deny aspects of the story that are blatantly true and demonstrable by evidence?

      Part of the answer to that question might have nothing to do with Jean McConville – it may have much to do with the lengths the security forces were prepared to go, particularly to find ‘actionable’ intelligence which was the product of a process that began at the coal face.

      See these documents:

      Due to difficulties posting copies of the original documents, here is a transcribed version. First the quote from a British Army report refuting suggestions Jean McConville had been abducted, next the excerpt from the Royal Green Jackets publication:

      Abduction of Mrs McConville
      “The supposed abduction of Mrs McConville, 1 St Judes Row, Divis Flats, received wide press coverage. Information received has suggested that she was not abducted and that she left of her own free will and that she is known to be safe.
      Comment: The abduction story is almost certainly a hoax but the reasons for it are not clear. Apart from possibly attempting to show that Security Forces are incapable of protecting the occupants of the flats it is difficult to see how this story benefits anyone. Following a Security Forces meeting with members of Mrs McConville’s family it is now believed that NICRA had a hand n the publication of the alleged abduction.
      Source: Annex B to HQ 39 Inf Bde 3318 INT dated 23 January 1973

      “B” Company had a somewhat strange area of responsibility. It consisted of a large block of flats known as the Divis Complex. Nearly 5,000 people live there and the majority had moved in from the nearby Lower Falls during the last two years. Whilst many members of the company knew Divis from the 1971 tour, the size of the place had grown enormously since then.
      The Company Commander Major xxxxxxxxxxx realised the need to get the whole company into the blocks of flats to learn the routs, staircases and lifts in detail, to say nothing of getting to know the people and their habits. The company had no other area of responsibility, which was of great operational consequence. This meant that the officers, NCOs and riflemen of “B” Company would spend the next four months, day and night, patrolling these flats…. all the blocks, except the tower block, are connected at every floor. This makes tactics somewhat complex, as it is important to be able to cover each other’s movement, thus denying the gunman and bomber a chance to attack.
      One important aspect of our work in Divis was to be able to “chat” up the occupants and thereby obtain useful information. Both xxxxxxx and subsequently Major xxxxxxx to whom he handed over “B” Company, monopolised all the pretty birds in the flats as their “sources”, but despite this, by the end of the tour, all sections had established a friendly contact here and there.
      Source: The Regimental Chronicle, The Royal Green Jackets, 1st Battalion Letter, 1973

  4. Yes, intelligence gathering wasn’t gaining any notable pace by 1972, but basic infantry procedure was in place the very minute the first regiments stepped of the boat in 1969. Foot and mobile patrols, vehicle check points, stop and search/arrest powers and observation posts, both overt and covert, are the very foundations of such a military operation. ALL were in place by 1972.

    The fact that soldiers were attempting to engage the locals just proves that no solid intelligence was in place so the more basic and rudimentary approach was used including those non to subtle methods listed above.

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