The document reproduced above is the opening five paragraph extract of a four page, forty paragraph Ulster Defence Association (UDA) intelligence report, or ‘memo’ as it is titled, describing the genesis of the corrupt relationship that developed in the late 1970’s between the Official IRA and some leading members of the UDA. Since both groups dealt in death as well as thievery and racketeering, some people lost their lives as a result, others came uncomfortably close to that fate.
I was one those who had a lucky escape. Targeted by the Official IRA for my journalism in The Irish Times, my name was put on a hit list by OIRA and the UDA was given a false story that I was an intelligence officer for the INLA, using my work as a cover. But for the fact that the UDA leaders knew me well enough to smell a rat, I almost certainly would have been killed and my name besmirched in death.
On the day I got the phone call from Gawn Street, asking to see me, I assumed a routine encounter would follow. The UDA leaders enjoyed the company of journalists and sometimes what might follow would be a story worth the trip. There were three senior figures waiting to see me. Since two are now long dead – John McMichael and Davy Payne – no harm can be done by naming them. The third is still living so he will remain nameless.
The trio told me that I had been named as an undercover INLA activist but they had investigated and found the charge to be baseless. I subsequently learned that a senior figure in the Official IRA called Harry McKeown, was the source of the accusation. But he was only the errand boy in this case.
The deal began with a self-serving pact between the UDA and the Official IRA but it eventually emerged that the UDA leadership had sanctioned deals with all the republican paramilitary groups, including the Provisional IRA and the INLA – although not everyone in the UDA power structure was aware of the arrangements.
The corrupt relationship between the UDA and OIRA centered on self-enriching rackets – involving the extortion of building sites and/or tax exemption frauds in the construction industry – but in the case of the Provisional IRA it revolved around a so-called ‘top man’s agreement’, in which the Provos and the UDA agreed that their respective leaders would not be targeted for assassination. Needless to say this arrangement was a tightly guarded secret in both organisations and was known about only at the highest echelons of both groups and even then known selectively.
In practice ‘the top man’s’ deal was honoured as much in the breach. It broke down on both sides several times. On two occasions the UDA tried to kill Gerry Adams, while the IRA succeeded in assassinating the UDA’s military leader, John McMichael. This was almost certainly due to the fact that not all those in the UDA’s top tier knew about the deals with the OIRA and PIRA. The fact that McMichael was investigating Jim Craig’s role in the corruption when he met his death may be more than a coincidence, and suggestions persist to this day that Craig set up McMichael for IRA assassination.
Another attempt on Adams’ life was sabotaged by the British Army with the aid of the UDA British Army spy, Brian Nelson. But when Adams was badly wounded in a March 1984 UDA ambush in Belfast city centre, an indignant Joe Haughey phoned the UDA HQ in Gawn Street in East Belfast on behalf of the Provos to complain about this breach of the ‘top man’s agreement’.
Craig was eventually shot dead by his own side, mostly on the initiative of the late Tommy Lyttle who led a putsch which also saw UDA Supreme Commander Andy Tyrie ousted. On the weekend that Craig was gunned down, in an East Belfast bar, Lyttle took a trip to Scotland, giving himself the perfect alibi. All these convulsions can credibly be traced back to the corrupt deal cut between the Official IRA and the UDA.
Much more successful and enduring was the racketeering deal between the Official IRA and the UDA, an arrangement that was sanctioned by at least some of the UDA’s Gawn Street leadership and which enriched both organisations and individuals in leadership positions.
The rackets centred on the construction industry and took two forms. First was the straightforward extortion of building sites using threats of violence. But much more lucrative, albeit more complex and difficult to arrange, were tax exemption frauds. These swindles worked in various ways; the most popular was to deduct income tax from bricklayers, roofers, plumbers etc employed on a job but fail to send the money on to the inland revenue. When the time came to pay up, the tax man would discover the business had folded. In practice, of course, the UDA, the Official IRA and their respective leaders arranged the bankruptcy of their businesses and then pocketed the government’s share of tax owed.,
The key figure in the scam, someone who made all this corruption possible, was Harry McKeown, an Official IRA member and one-time construction company owner who knew the corrupt side of the business better than most involved in the building trade. Without his accumulated knowledge the scam would never have got off the ground.
McKeown had been a member of the IRA before the 1970 split and then went with the Officials at the parting of the ways. He was arrested in the August 1971 internment swoop but released the following year. In April 1972 he gave this interview to the New York Times, in which he indignantly complained that internment had cost him a thriving construction business.
Former Observer and Irish Times journalist, Kevin Myers knew Harry McKeown well, better than I who had met him during my brief sojourn with the Republican Clubs in 1972. He wrote this tribute to him, in the Irish Independent, after his death in July 2008. I must admit to rather different feelings about Harry McKeown for reasons that will become clear further down this page but Kevin, unlike myself, had no reason either to fear or dislike the man.
McKeown ran the Official IRA’s part of the racket but was also OIRA’s contact man with the UDA. He became especially friendly with North Belfast UDA leader, Davy Payne, easily the most scary Loyalist I have ever met. Kevin Myers had also followed the UDA story in the early 1970’s and captured the terror that walked in Payne’s shadow in this truly memorable Irish Times piece.
Eventually Harry grew weary of his Official IRA masters; when he resisted their demands to hand over the hardware needed to make the tax-exemption fraud possible, he was given a bad beating and was hospitalised. Doubtless concerned about the fate of the tax-exemption racket, a worried Davy Payne visited Harry in hospital. When he recovered from his injuries McKeown cut his ties to the Officials and moved to Warrenpoint in Co Down where, in 2008, he died.
But that was decades after the UDA-Official IRA racketeering deal was cut.
It began way back in June 1979 when an Official IRA member called Joe McKee was shot dead by the Woodvale section of the UDA in a butcher’s shop in Castle Street. Intelligence for the attack had been provided by the UDA’s Jim Craig but the information was faulty. McKee was a member of the Official IRA not the Provisionals and the killing had rattled the Officials. OIRA memories of bloody feuds with the INLA were still fresh and the last thing they wanted was a war with Loyalists.
And so, OIRA leaders asked for a meeting with the UDA to discuss McKee’s murder and here Jim Craig’s contacts proved invaluable. Craig was married to a Catholic from the Markets district, a woman who was related by marriage to a leading republican family in West Belfast. The OIRA leadership reached out to Craig and a meeting was arranged between the section of the UDA responsible for the McKee killing, Craig and OIRA leaders from the Markets whose delegation included, according to the UDA ‘memo’: Harry McKeown, ‘Tonto’ Maxwell, Emmanuel Conway, a man called McGuinness ‘and another man with only one eye’.
The UDA ‘memo’ says that the first meeting between the UDA and OIRA took place in the Royal Bar in Belfast’s Shankill Road area, but other sources have told thebrokenelbow.com that it actually took place in Belfast City Hall, a neutral venue where OIRA’s political wing, eventually called The Workers Party, had offices for their one or two city councillors.
There are one or two errors in the report but they are not significant. For example the unnamed ‘one-eyed man’ who was actually called ‘Dimple’ Valliday, was not shot dead as the report claims but was killed in a car accident en route to a Workers Party ard-fheis. He had lost his eye in an argument with a British Army rubber bullet during an early 1970’s riot in the Markets area. The Royal Bar was not in Ann Street but on the Shankill Road.
But the significance of the encounter is that the two sides agreed to meet each other on a regular basis and in such a way they found common cause in building site racketeering. They would hold alternate meetings in bars and clubs in each other’s strongholds. One location was the Lagan Social Club in the Markets district which not so long before was the location of the Mellows-McCann Republican Club, the local Official IRA’s political headquarters. Loyalist venues included The Royal Bar on the Shankill Road and The Top House.
So well did the building industry conspirators get on that they took foreign holidays together, Craig and Artie Fee for the UDA and Harry McKeown and ‘Tonto’ Maxwell for OIRA (Maxwell’s first name was Anthony but he was nicknamed ‘Tonto’ after the Indian scout character in The Lone Ranger TV series, a popular show when he was a schoolboy). One trip took them to Italy, presumably on the building rackets’ dime. While there, the group of assorted killers, cheats and thieves took in a trip to the Vatican. What good this did their immortal souls remains a mystery to rival the virgin birth.
I have, above, reproduced the five opening paragraphs of a four page UDA intelligence report detailing the birth of the corrupt and deadly alliance between the Official IRA and the UDA, which began in 1979 and, based on mutually enriching criminality, provided both organisations and their leaders with money and, presumably, valuable intelligence on rivals and mutual enemies. (More anon on the remaining unpublished paragraphs)
The report, which came my way via the late Shankill Road UDA chief Tommy Lyttle, was put together in the wake of the UDA killing of their colleague, Jim Craig, one of the architects of the alliance with the Officials. The report was cited internally to justify his slaying by UDA colleagues in an East Belfast bar in October 1988. Craig was, inter alia, suspected of assisting the Provisional IRA to assassinate, amongst others, the UDA chief, John McMichael, who died in a booby trap car bomb explosion at his Lisburn, Co Antrim home eleven months earlier. Judged a corrupt traitor by his UDA peers, Craig was sentenced to death. The ensuing upheaval in the UDA saw Andy Tyrie lose his job as Supreme Commander.
I have reproduced just a fraction of the document since it is this part that deals with the creation of the cross-community paramilitary entente which very nearly claimed my life.
The threat to myself began when a spiked Irish Times article – the weekly Northern Notebook – dealing in part with the Official IRA’s continuing paramilitary criminality made its way to the WP’s late PR guru, Sean O Cionnaith. The article was scheduled to appear a few days after OIRA’s political wing, the Workers Party had members elected to the Dail, a major political breakthrough, bestowing on the party the balance of power in an otherwise hung Dail.
My article contrasted the WP’s popularity and success in the South to the party’s darker activities North of the Border and I argued that the OIRA’s continuing existence and illegal activity threatened to vitiate a long hoped-for political breakthrough. The first part survived, but not the second.
At the time I was told that a sub-editor with known sympathies for the WP had passed on the spiked part of my article to O Cionnaith. I have no reason to doubt that is what happened. But I have recently rediscovered in my papers from that time, a note I wrote which says that The Irish Times‘ deputy editor, the now-deceased Bruce Williamson, also phoned O Cionnaith and discussed my article with him. So the WP/OIRA had two sources and may have been given a copy of the spiked part of my Northern Notebook dealing with aspects of their activities that normally were avoided by the Dublin media like the plague.
I knew none of this at the time. I was not asked to justify the article nor was I informed that it had been spiked. Williamson never contacted me to discuss the article, nor to say that he had raised it with the WP’s PR man, and I learned that my Northern Notebook had been censored only when, along with Joe Citizen, I bought a copy of The Irish Times that Saturday. Not only had The Times discussed my piece with the spokesman for the Officials but they had taken his word, and without asking for my input, had killed half my article.
A month or two later, Vincent Browne visited me at The Irish Times’ offices in Belfast. Like myself, Vincent knew very well that the Officials retained an armed wing and were involved in all sorts of villainous activity. The claim that the WP no longer had an armed wing was central to this web of lies.
We talked and I shared with him what I knew. In April 1982, he published the first of two blockbuster exposes of the Workers Party’s deceit. Armed with what they knew about my spiked Irish Times article, the WP worked out, not incorrectly, that I had provided Vincent Browne with at least some of the material he had made public.
It was after this that the Official IRA, through Harry McKeown, approached the UDA and told them I was a secret INLA member, knowing that the UDA was keen on targeting INLA activists. Sometime after I met the UDA leadership to be told of the plot, I again encountered Davy Payne and he told me that the source had been Harry McKeown.
Some time before that I had been in the Provos’ Felons Club in Andersonstown and to my great surprise who was drinking there but Harry. ‘Ah’, I thought, ‘The Provos must now be into building site scams. How interesting’. So, I approached and greeted him: ‘Hi Harry, how are you doing?’ He turned his back on me and didn’t answer.
None of this would have happened if The Irish Times had not been so infiltrated by the OIRA and the Workers Party. It was of course a deliberate strategy by OIRA/WP and they had been spectacularly successful both in the Times and in RTE where for a while a WP cumann, named after Ned Stapleton, existed, inspired by Eoghan Harris and dedicated to suppressing Nationalist and traditional republican analyses of the conflict in the North. In The Irish Times, Harris’ equivalent was Dick Walsh, the paper’s respected Political Correspondent.
The influence of the Workers Party on The Irish Times’ journalism cannot be exaggerated. I remember the late Douglas Gageby, one of the paper’s great editors, perhaps in an implicit, albeit tardy admission of regret over my treatment at the paper, telling me in exasperation that he once had a delegation of WP employees beard him in his office, complaining that Danny Morrison’s name had appeared twice in the paper that week!
When I went on RTE radio and predicted that Sinn Fein would certainly win three, very possibly five and perhaps as many as seven seats in the 1983 Assembly elections in the North – the party’s first foray as SF into electoral politics – plans were laid to sack me on the spot if I was wrong. As it turned out SF got five seats and were a whisker away from seven and I kept my job. Journalists elsewhere who had predicted a derisory vote for Sinn Fein, getting the story seriously wrong, suffered no penalty.
In such ways did the WP/OIRA influence corrode Irish journalism. The Independent group has lanced its Workers Party boil, sacking Eoghan Harris, the WP’s eminence gris in RTE for so long. It is past time for The Irish Times to deal with its own OIRA/WP ghosts.
Since August 2000 I have been in correspondence with The Irish Times Trust and the paper’s current editor, Paul O’Neill, in an effort to persuade them to confront this shameful chapter in the paper’s history and perhaps present me with an overdue apology.
In September 2020, I sent both O’Neill and the Trust a five page letter along with a lengthy extract from The Lost Revolution, an acclaimed study of OIRA and its political wing where my story first appeared. (The Lost Revolution also reported that Vincent Browne was the subject of a death threat from OIRA/WP). To make sure my correspondence arrived safely I dispatched this material not by post but by UPS, a version of Fed Ex.
The Trust has never responded, not even an acknowledgement of receipt. How seriously Paul O’Neill has taken this matter can be judged by his response which began: ‘Thank you for your email’.