Some eighteen months ago, in December 2019, a British court, a body called the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, ruled by a 3 to 2 majority that MI5’s policy of allowing its agents and their informants to participate in serious crime was lawful, thus placing MI5 almost fully beyond the reach of the law.
The judgement, which the Tory government led by Boris Johnson enacted into law In September 2020, scandalized civil libertarians but unnoticed at the time went the fact that MI5 had effectively put its leadership and agents beyond the reach of the law some forty years earlier when the agency refused to allow the RUC to question a senior MI5 officer about what he or his informants knew about sexual abuse at the Kincora Boys Hostel in east Belfast.
The MI5 officer was Ian Cameron who worked at the British Army HQ at Thiepval barracks in mufti, described as an ‘Assistant Secretary (Political)’, but in reality one of three senior MI5 officers stationed in strategic positions in the security apparatus so as to monitor political and security policies during the Troubles. Cameron was, by one account, a seasoned spy and had run the equivalent of MI5’s office in Berlin before coming to Belfast.
A second MI5 officer had an office at RUC headquarters in East Belfast while in 1972, MI5 secured the position of Director and Co-ordinator of Intelligence (DCI) at Stormont and was thus in charge of all British intelligence operations in Northern Ireland.
Although MI6 continued to have a presence, and was represented by officers in Northern Ireland and had a seat on the MI5/MI6 Irish Joint Section (IJS) offices in both Belfast and London, helping to funnel intelligence to the Joint Intelligence Committee in Downing Street, by 1973, MI5 effectively ruled the intelligence roost in Northern Ireland.
When the Kincora scandal finally broke in 1982, the then RUC Chief Constable, John ‘Jack’ Hermon, who would later be knighted, appointed Detective Superintendent George Caskey to head the investigation into a scandal which we now know touched all three branches of the security machine in Northern Ireland, the police, the military and the spies.
Eventually, Caskey found himself knocking at the door of Ian Cameron at Thiepval barracks armed with thirty questions, only to be brusquely dismissed. This was not just Cameron’s doing but the action of MI5’s leadership in London, assisted by agency’s legal adviser Bernard Sheldon who later became legal adviser to MI6 and GCHQ.
An account of this episode is contained in the much neglected (by the media, this reporter included) report of the committee of inquiry into alleged abuse at childrens’ homes in Northern Ireland, headed by former judge Tony Hart whose commentary in his final report in January 2017 was suitably cutting:
Although Ian Cameron was by now retired, he remained subject to the provisions of the Official Secrets Act and therefore required authorisation from MI5 in order to discuss anything relating to his duties as the Assistant Secretary (Political). We are satisfied that the documents to which we have referred make it abundantly clear that MI5 were not prepared to allow him to be interviewed under any circumstances because, as it was put on 5 August 1982, it was their “principle that no serving or former member of the Security Service should be interviewed by the police”. That position was maintained throughout by MI5 despite repeated formal requests by the RUC that Ian Cameron should be made available for interview. Ian Cameron was never made available for interview by the RUC, nor was any statement prepared by him to the RUC in which he answered the 30 questions…...
We consider that MI5’s “principle that no serving or former Officer of the Security agencies should be interviewed by the police” in the course of a criminal investigation was wholly unjustified. We are satisfied that in the ultimate analysis it was for the RUC and not for MI5 to decide what was relevant to that criminal investigation. We criticise MI5 for consistently obstructing a proper line of enquiry by the RUC by their refusal to allow the RUC to interview Ian Cameron, and by their refusal to authorise Ian Cameron to provide a written statement answering the 30 questions.
So, what was it that MI5’s bosses in London did not want Ian Cameron to talk about? And was it this and not just the principle that MI5 believed that to do its job, it had to be beyond the reach or normal law and order agencies that shaped the following events?
That story begins with a British Army intelligence officer based at Thiepval barracks in 1975, a Captain Brian Gemmell, part of whose job was to gather information about Loyalist and Unionist paramilitary groups and funnel it both to his own superiors and to Ian Cameron, who appears to have had the final say in his activities.
Gemmell, who was from Strathclyde, Scotland and was a born again Christian who harboured ambitions of eventually joining MI5, met Roy Garland, the former associate of Tara founder, William McGrath and the person who made the anonymous Confidential Phone call to the RUC in 1973 about McGrath and Kincora. They met through a mutual evangelical Christian friend who worked as a vet.
The Hart reports takes up the story:
He described how his personal contacts in Christian evangelical circles led him to meet James McCormick who raised the topic of McGrath with him. “The question of Tara was raised at one stage and that its leader William McGrath was a homosexual pervert. It was McCormick who actually spoke to me about this and he suggested that I should speak to Roy Garland who was ex-Tara and Garland was trying to expose Tara and McGrath”.
He then described what Roy Garland said to him in the following passage in the police statement:“I was introduced to Garland by McCormick and I remember the gist of what he said. Garland was afraid of McGrath and he mentioned that McGrath owed him a lot of money and also owed other people money. He told me how McGrath had recruited young boys into his circle of influence and it was partly religious and partly sexual – masturbation being the main theme – how McGrath had spoken to small boys about this subject. This occurred back in the 1960s and Garland was one of these boys. Some of it developed into homosexuality and I believe this also included Garland. I recollect Garland saying something about McGrath pursuing him after Garland got married and this was causing him distress and that it might break up his marriage”.
He went on to describe a second meeting with Roy Garland: “Again McGrath’s homosexual tendencies, his background and all aspects of Tara were discussed. Although I can’t remember if it was named I do know that Garland told me about McGrath being in charge of a boys’ home However, I do remember going to the Newtownards Road area looking for this home I went there to get the picture in my mind as to what we were working on. I remember seeing a large detached house which I thought it was. I did not go into this house. I remember that Garland was quite outraged that McGrath should be in charge of a boys’ home. I didn’t feel too happy about it myself especially for potential victims and the fact that McGrath was presenting an evangelical front”.
“I made a written report of my second meeting with Garland I believe that this was a four side MISOR [sic], which would have been graded SECRET-UK eyes A. Because of the political implications surrounding Tara the information was only passed to Headquarters N Ireland and retained at 39 Infantry Brigade HQ. After this inter view I was debriefed by the Assistant Secretary (Political) in his office at HQNI I believe it was on a Saturday morning just prior to lunch. The Assistant Secretary, Mr Ian Cameron, was told by me the details of the interview I had with Garland. I believe that the interview I had with the Assistant Secretary was either tape recorded or his secretary, a female, took notes. When I told Mr Cameron about the homosexual involvement of various persons in Tara he reacted very strongly and said that we did not want to be involved in this kind of thing. He was abrupt to the point of being rude and instructed me to terminate my enquiries concerning Tara and in particular to get rid of another informant with whom I had been associating. This other informant was not throwing any light on the subject in question, ie the homosexuality. However, other events took place shortly afterwards which resulted in the Assistant Secretary reversing his decisions and allowing me to pursue the enquiry concerning Tara through the other informant. I can’t remember any other specific information regarding McGrath and the boys’ home. As I said I only had two meetings with Garland and it was he who gave me this information about McGrath and the home.” (MISOR should read MISR which stands for Military Intelligence Source Report)
Gemmell, using a false name, was later interviewed on the BBC Public Eye TV programme, an episode titled ‘Kincora – The MI5 Connection’. Here is the exchange:
“Question: Does Roy Garland mention Kincora?
(Brian Gemmell):Yes he tells me that at that stage McGrath has a position in Kincora and that Kincora is a boys’ home, he’s very concerned about that.
Question: Does he mention Kincora by name or does he just say boys’ home?
(Brian Gemmell):I believe it’s by name, I can’t remember exactly but I believe it’s by name He doesn’t know exactly what is going on but we are putting 2 and 2 together and making 4 when history shows that we should have made 6.
Question: Does he say that he believes that boys or young people are being abused in the boys’ home?
(Brian Gemmell):I think he says he believes it but he doesn’t know it to be true.
Question: No evidence?
(Brian Gemmell):I do not think he has been into the boys’ home, put it that way.
Question: Are you concerned at the allegation?
(Brian Gemmell):I am concerned at the allegation Yes.
Question: Did you believe him?
(Brian Gemmell):I believed that Mr Garland believes he is telling me the truth. It obviously has to be investigated and enquired into”.
The programme continues with the statement that: “James wrote a report of his meeting and sent it up to his Army superiors as a matter of routine. He says it was then passed to MI5 who shared the same building at Army Head Quarters”.
Much of the Hart report dealing with Brian Gemmell’s allegations is taken up with a dismantling of his claims. Like Roy Garland, he declined to give evidence at the investigation and thus missed the opportunity to answer the inquiry’s criticisms, which ranged from there being no four-page MISR, of the sort he described, in military records; that he had just one meeting with Garland, not two; that Garland never mentioned Kincora in any report sourced to him or which he handed on to Ian Cameron.
Against that this is a story that is replete with missing documents, fading memories and some inconsistencies that Judge Hart fails to address, such as why Roy Garland would not raise Kincora with Gemmell since just a short time before he was so exercised by the possible fate of the Kincora boys that he made an anonymous phone call to the Confidential police hotline which was entirely about his fears regarding abuse at the home.
Not only that but the MI5 officer to whom Gemmell reported was never allowed to be quizzed by the RUC’s George Caskey and the truth or otherwise of his part in the Kincora scandal scrutinised by a professional inquisitor. Nor, thanks to that precedent, will any other alleged misdeeds by MI5 committed in the course of their trade be subjected to outside dissection.
If refusing to answer police questions about a crime was the thin end of the wedge, the thick end will see MI5 and presumably its cousins in MI6, committing the worst outrages in the book and getting away with them.
The spies have won.