By James Kinchin-White & Ed Moloney
Just after three o’clock on the afternoon of May 23rd 1973, the Confidential Telephone in Belfast – number: 652155 – housed at RUC headquarters in Knock, East Belfast, rang, a switch automatically turned on a tape recorder and the caller, a man, began telling a story he hoped would bring an end to the sexual torture of dozens of boys and young men, many of them orphans, and expose a scandal that had, in different ways, been covered up by some of the most powerful figures in Northern Ireland’s Orange and Unionist power structure.
When the phone call was transcribed, the message ran to over 500 words and the duty Chief Superintendent who read the document, thought the contents so disturbing that he did two things. He sent a copy to Special Branch headquarters in Belfast and ordered a senior colleague, an Inspector, to personally check the information that had been phoned in.
And so began a series of events that could and should have ended the ordeal of boys then lodged at the home, but didn’t. Instead the hostel, whose name was Kincora, would continue to be the site for a further seven years of sexual abuse of young, vulnerable boys at the hands of the three men charged with safeguarding their physical and mental welfare.
Kincora would become a byword for sexual abuse and a metaphor for the weirder fringes of political Unionism and Orangeism, but that did not happen until seven years after the anonymous phone call to RUC headquarters. It was not until 1980 that the scandal was uncovered but it took much longer for the fuller story to be told and even then, many suspect that the story of who knew what, when and how much was covered up and most important of all, why the Kincora abuse was allowed to fester for so long, remains unexplained.
Four years ago, nearly two decades after abuse at Kincora was exposed, another lengthy and expensive inquiry came to the conclusion that most people suspected was the one the British state hoped for, a verdict that would, ideally, bring an end to the wild speculation about the role of the state’s intelligence agencies. The Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) inquiry came to the conclusion that abuse at Kincora was solely the responsibility of the three wardens who ran the home. And that seemed to be an end to the matter.
Bored and made wary by decades of sometimes wild speculation about who knew what and when, the local media gave scant coverage to the report published by the inquiry’s chairman, former judge, Sir Anthony Hart in 2017. None appear to have examined the many documents that his inquiry had access to. Had they done so, they would have come across evidence that the intelligence agencies, particularly the RUC Special Branch knew much more about one of the key figures in the scandal than has ever been publicly admitted, enough to have asked the obvious questions about his work at Kincora. Unless, of course, they had reason to ask no questions at all.
The documents were part of a tranche of papers that were handed over to the HIA investigation by MI5, MI6, Britain’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, and the PSNI, on behalf of the old RUC.
The documents, which reveal much about the murky world of intelligence work during the Troubles, were cited in Aaron Edwards recently published book, ‘Agents of Influence…‘ but for reasons best known to himself, the author was more interested in what the papers revealed about the recruitment and handling of confidential sources than what they had to say about the Kincora scandal.
Nor is the existence of the confidential phone call or the identity of the caller news. The phone call, the thrust of what was said and the identity of the caller were all revealed in Chris Moore’s seminal book, ‘The Kincora Scandal‘. The caller was Roy Garland, also known for a while as ‘Mr X’, who was an important source, along with former Free Presbyterian missionary, the late Valerie Shaw, for coverage of Kincora by myself and former colleague Andy Pollak in The Irish Times in 1980 and 1981.
What is new in these disclosures is the full and extraordinarily revealing text of what Garland said in his confidential phone call, the inexcusable complacence and incompetence of the RUC officer tasked to investigate the call (and presumably his superiors) and the criminal dishonesty of the Special Branch which knew that much of Garland’s phone call was absolutely accurate but did nothing – presumably in the cause of preserving a source close to the leadership of Tara, the bizarrre and strange paramilitary body founded by McGrath.
But, first of all Roy Garland’s call to the Confidential Phone number and what he told the RUC about the man at the centre of the Kincora scandal, William McGrath, a figure whose influence over Northern Ireland’s two main Unionist parties and their leaders, and the course of Unionism before and during the early days of the Troubles, would be difficult to overstate.
Here is the text of Garland’s call to the confidential phone number as transcribed by the RUC:
So, as one would hope and expect, the duty Chief Superintendent assigned a senior officer to visit the Kincora hostel to establish what truth there was to these extraordinarily serious allegations. And so a month or so later the unnamed senior policeman, whose rank is revealed in the documents as an Inspector, visited the home and spoke to the senior worker on duty, a man by the name of Joseph Mains.
We now know, of course, that along with the third Kincora employee, Raymond Semple, Mains was involved with McGrath in sexually abusing boys at Kincora. All three pleaded guilty at their trials many years later, a course they took to avoid the salacious and scandalous details of their behaviour from becoming public.
The reproduction of the copy of the Inspector’s report to his superiors presented to the Hart inquiry is of such bad quality that it is only partly legible:
The important section is though partly legible on an iPad and reads:
“On 4.6.73, I spoke to Mr Mains, head house father at Kincora Boys Hostel, Upper Newtownards Road, regarding a social worker at the hostel William McGrath. Apparently McGrath has been employed since August 1971 and is 36……..According to Mr Mains, McGrath is a very decent type of man and has deep religious convictions and is high up in the Orange Order……Mr Mains is satisfied that this information came from some crank and that although McGrath is not popular with the boys at the hostel he is convinced no one there could be capable of this. Mr Mains has no idea of who might have passed this information on the phone.”
And this is precisely what was reported back to his superiors by the investigating Inspector on June 5, 1973:
‘Reference attached copy of message received on Confidential Telephone line, enquiries reveal that the subject McGrath, is a decent type of person and there is nothing to indicate that he is engaged in the type of conduct alleged by the caller. It would appear from enquiries into this matter that the allegations are totally malicious and would not, in my opinion merit further investigation.’
A copy of this report was forwarded to RUC Special Branch, whose reaction upon receipt is not recorded. Ribald laughter would not have been out of order, however, in the light of the following report, received some two or so months before the RUC Inspector’s visit to Kincora took place.
Dated April 17, 1973, two months before Roy Garland made his call to the Confidential Phone, the document is a Special Branch report on Tara, originating in Newtwnards, which names McGrath as the ‘C.O.’ of Tara; Frankie Millar as his ‘assistant’ and Clifford Smyth, a senior figure in Paisley’s DUP as the ‘former intelligence officer. The Administration Officer was David Brown, deputy editor of Ian Paisley’s Protestant Telegraph.
Of McGrath’s sexual proclivities the Special Branch document reads: ‘McGrath is a reputed homosexual who is alleged to have kept members ensnared in the organisation by threatening to reveal homosexual activities which he had initiated.’
So, when Roy Garland used the Confidential Phone in an attempt to expose McGrath and save boys at Kincora from further abuse he was wasting his time. The Special Branch already knew about McGrath’s sexual tendencies and must have known where he worked and suspected that he was using his job to satisfy his sexual appetites.
When intelligence agencies know about or suspect criminality but do nothing, it is usually to protect sources. Did the Special Branch have an agent inside McGrath’s paramilitary group, Tara, feeding them intelligence on Paisley’s DUP, or the Ulster Volunteer Force which had infiltrated Tara after Gusty Spence’s imprisonment? Was that why they did nothing about Kincora?
How many young lives were blighted and destroyed as a result? The Special Branch knew who McGrath was, knew about his role as leader of Tara, knew about about who in the world of Loyalism he associated with, not least the leadership of the DUP and they knew about his sexuality. It stands to reason the Branch also knew that he worked in Kincora, and that the young charges under his control .were extraordinarily vulnerable and were ripe to satisfy his sexual appetite, yet they did nothing to protect them.
It is time the real truth about Kincora was told and the filing cabinets opened. In fact, beyond time. It is the least that is owed to the boys and young men whose lives were blighted by Britain’s spooks. Here is the RUC Special Branch report on McGrath and Tara, logged two months before Roy Garland dialed the confidential phone number at RUC HQ: