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Jean McConville, And The Morality Of Recruiting Informers

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.

Gloucestershire Regiment (14)

Soldiers from the Gloucestershire Regiment

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.

Fitt

Gerry Fitt, then West Belfast MP – listened in to phone call to Gloucester’s Intel Officer and threatened to raise boy’s case in parliament

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.

Hoggart

The late Simon Hoggart – wrote up the story for The Guardian

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?

P1060433P1060434

Stornophone

A soldier in the First Gloucesters Regiment uses a Stornophone-type radio in one of the corridors in Divis Flats in April 1972 – the First Gloucester’s War Diary of their tour in Divis from Dec 1971 to April 1972 has been embargoed until 2059

Evidence That The RUC Was Issued Portable Radios ‘Between 1967 and 1970’

When barrister Peter Sefton was studying for his Honours degree in law at Queen’s University Belfast between 1967 and 1971, some of his classmates were members of the RUC, ranging in rank from Constable to Head Constable (station chief) and when chatting with them, some raised a shared gripe.

Their working lives had been transformed, they said, when they were issued with small, hand-held radios, so that when they were out on foot patrol, their bosses could keep in touch with them and vice-versa.

But instead of making their lives easier, a common complaint was that no longer could they wander off, undetected, to a lady friend’s house, for instance, to while away a happy hour or so, out of the reach, so to speak, of their superiors. The radios meant that the boss was always tracking their movements.

Peter can’t remember precisely when the radios were introduced, just that it was some time between 1967 and 1970, the year before he graduated. Why 1970? Well that was when he wrote an essay about life in the RUC in which he mentioned the radios. Remarkably, he kept the essay and this weekend he sent me a copy of  the relevant page which I have reproduced below.

Peter’s testimony provides compelling evidence that some time between 1967 and 1970, the RUC had been issued with portable radios of the sort allegedly provided to Jean McConville, who was accused of being an informer by the IRA, murdered and her remains buried in a secret grave in late 1972.

Peter has another reason to be believed in this matter. His father, James Sefton was an RUC Reservist, so policing was in the family – although the connection meant that the family was to be shattered by an unimaginable horror.

Both his parents were killed in an IRA booby-trap car bomb in June 1990; his father, who had retired by then and could not by any standard be described as ‘a legitimate target’, died instantly in the blast, which occurred outside their North Belfast home. His wife, Ellen, Peter’s mother, succumbed later in hospital.

For years, Peter has been campaigning for the truth behind his parents’ murder. Peter suspects British intelligence had foreknowledge of the plot to kill his parents because at least one informer was privy to the plans for the attack. Implicit in this belief is the suspicion that the agent’s handlers approved his parents’ murder.

Peter emailed me after the last posting on this blog dealing with the RUC’s acquisition of portable radios, some of which, according to a British Army document, had been loaned to the 3rd Batt Royal Anglian Regiment in the summer of 1972, then stationed in the lower Falls area.

He had something significant to add to the story.

The security forces’ use of portable radios is central to the allegation by the IRA in Divis at the time, that Jean McConville was working for the British Army. The late Brendan Hughes said one was found in an IRA search of her apartment, after which she admitted to being an agent.

A recent book, ‘Say Nothing‘, quotes a former RUC Special Branch officer as saying that such radios were not in use at the time of her abduction, in December 1972 and therefore the IRA claim was false. You can read about the controversy, here and here.

Peter Sefton’s testimony, based on a contemporary document, not only challenges that Special Branch assertion, it raises questions about why the RUC’s successors are so intent on challenging the plausibility of the ‘radio story’ in the McConville saga.

First the text of Peter’s email, followed by the page from his 1970 essay:

Ed
Belated happy Thanksgiving.

Re your articles on radios, I’m sure that the RUC were issued with “pocket radios” somewhere between 1967 and 1970. I know this for two reasons. In the Law Faculty we had a number of RUC officers getting their law degree whilst still serving. They ranged from constables to Head Constables. Some were disheartened at the introduction of the two way radio because, of an evening it had been their habit to rest a while in a house, perhaps that of a lady. Now the station was constantly in touch.
Additionally , I wrote an essay about the history of the RUC. I wrote it in 1970 and I recorded that the pocket/two-way radio was already in use.

I attach a copy of the relevant page. God knows why I could still find it.

Regards

P

o

RUC Also Had Portable Radios When Jean McConville Was Abducted

By James Kinchin-White and Ed Moloney

In his new book about the disappearing of Jean McConville, ‘Say Nothing‘, American writer and New Yorker journalist, Patrick Radden Keefe writes that a former RUC Special Branch officer told him that hand-held radios of the sort the late IRA leader, Brendan Hughes maintained was found in the Divis Flats apartment of Jean McConville in late 1972, were not in use by either branch of the security forces at the time.

In other words, since neither the British Army nor the RUC had access to such devices at the time, Jean McConville could not have have used one in her capacity as an alleged agent of the British military.

Jean McConville’s possession of the radio is a key part of the IRA allegation that she was a British army spy and the RUC claim to Keefe that such a device was not in use at the time serves to significantly undermine it.

If the radio was not in service in 1972, as Keefe’s RUC officer claimed, then the IRA must be suspected of inventing the story and McConville was thus innocent of the charge against her. It must mean that some other motive, ranging from base sectarianism (Jean McConville was an East Belfast Protestant) to local unpopularity, was the reason for her death.

As Keefe wrote:

‘There was also mystery relating to the detail of the radio itself. Some former police officers, like Trevor Campbell, maintained that neither the army or the police were using hand-held radios to communicate in those days, much less to communicate with informants’.

If, on the other hand, the radio was in service, it adds credibility to the IRA claim against Jean McConville. By no means does it prove she was a spy, merely that she could have been.

So the existence, or otherwise, of such a radio and its use by the security forces circa 1972 is crucial to the McConville narrative.

There is a plethora of evidence, much of it published on this blog, that the British military was using such radios – either Stornophones or the Pye Pocketfones which replaced them – between 1971 and late 1972, important elements of which Keefe either ignored or failed to detect. You can read that part of the story here.

But now evidence has been unearthed from the British government’s own archives at Kew, Surrey showing that the RUC was also using hand-held radios at this time.

The evidence comes in an end of tour report by the 3rd Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment which was based in the lower Falls and Divis Flats area between 12th April 1972 and August 3rd 1972.

The report was prepared for the British Army’s top brass and, significantly, was embargoed until 2017, an interdiction of some forty-five years. Normally, reports are embargoed for twenty years but there are exceptions, usually made, it is assumed, because the contents are still so sensitive.

For instance, War Diaries from 39 Brigade, i.e. Belfast, at the time when Brigadier Frank Kitson ran military operations, are embargoed for 100 years. Kitson is believed to have founded the controversial Mobile Reaction Force (MRF) unit during his time in NI.

In a section describing the system of radio communications used by the Royal Anglians, the report has this to say, in paragraph 83 (e):

Pye Pocketfone RUC – limited number of sets for Bn and Coys Ops rooms for monitoring of local RUC Divisional nets.

Translated into plain language, this paragraph is saying that the RUC gave the Royal Anglians some of their own Pye Pocketfones so that they could communicate with senior RUC personnel.

Pye

The reason for this is that the British Army Pocketfones and the RUC Pocketfones were built to different specifications and operated on different frequency ranges; to make communication with the police possible, the Anglians needed RUC models. And so they were loaned some by the police.

Ergo, RUC personnel were using hand-held radios in 1972; Trevor Campbell was wrong and for reasons only he can explain, gave Patrick Keefe misleading information. What those reasons are is a different matter, but the affair does raise troubling questions.

(Interestingly, the report reveals that the Pye radios were issued to the Royal Anglians mid-tour, circa early July 1972, suggesting this was when they replaced the Stornophone as standard issue.)

Beneath the following extract, the reader can see other evidence for this report’s bona fides along with an interesting photograph of a violent episode in the Divis area during the Royal Anglians’ tour of duty. It lasted for four days and was called the ‘Divis Battle’.

The Divis Battle

May’s Brexit Deal Will Copper-fasten Neo-Liberalism In The UK……

Canadian blogger Ian Welsh can always be counted on to spot an angle on a story that has passed by nearly everyone else. Here he has spotted a clause in Teresa May’s Brexit deal which will, if approved by the British parliament, copper-fasten neo-liberal economics in the UK and make any attempt by a Corbyn government to roll it back nigh impossible, without a greater break with the European powers:

What May’s Brexit Deal Tells Us About The EU and Britain’s Future

2018 November 16
by Ian Welsh

So, May has a Brexit deal. It’s a terrible deal, which makes the UK subject to many EU laws, and which doesn’t allow Britain to withdraw from the deal if the EU doesn’t want it to.

This has caused ministerial resignations, and Corbyn has come out against it.

But the interesting part is what the EU and May have negotiated. This clause, for example:

Corbyn’s policies include straight up re-nationalization of the railways, regulation of housing prices and the government outright building vast numbers of flats, among many other similar policies.

In other words, Corbyn’s policies interfere with liberal market rules. They are, actually, forbidden by the EU, but on occasion exceptions are made.

Now, retaining privileged access to the EU market was going to require some rule taking, but May has chosen to take more rules that are “no socialism” and less rules that are “treat your people decently.”

What May has done is negotiate a deal which ties Corbyn’s hands: he can’t do his policies if he becomes Prime Minister, and he can’t leave the deal. (Well, in theory, and perhaps in practice.)

Of course, Britain can still leave the deal: parliament is supreme, and one parliament cannot tie the hands of another parliament. Nonetheless, doing so would be damaging to Britain’s relationship with the EU, to put it mildly.

These sorts of efforts to tie future government’s hands, so that they can’t not do neoliberal policies are common. The now-dead Canadian Chinese trade deal had a clause which required a 20 year withdrawal notice, for example. The Canadian-EU free trade deal forbids the Canadian government from many of these sorts of policies as well.

This is the great problem with the neoliberal world order: it is set up to force countries into a specific sort of economy, and to punish them if they resist or refuse. That would be somewhat ok, but only somewhat, if neoliberal economics worked, but they don’t.

What they do, instead, is impoverish large minorities, even pluralities, in countries which adopt them. Those pluralities then become demagogue bait (hello Trump.)

Meanwhile Macron has proposed an EU military, and Germany’s Merkel has said she supports the idea.

EU elites are absolutely convinced their way is best, and that anyone who is against it is wrong. They are not primarily concerned with democracy (the EU is run primarily by un-elected bureaucrats), and do not consider democratic legitimacy as primary. If people vote for the “wrong” thing, EU elites feel they have the right to over-ride that. They have overseen what amount to coups in both Greece and Italy in the past 10 years.

The funny thing is that orthodox neoliberal economic theory admits there will be losers to neoliberal policies and states that they must be compensated. The problem is that has never been done, and indeed, with accelerating austerity, the opposite has been done: at the same time as a plurality is impoverished, the social supports have been kicked out from under them.

Macron has been particularly pointed in this: gutting labor rights in the name of labor market flexibility.

Neoliberalism, in other words, creates the conditions of its own failure. It is failing around the world: in America (Trump does not believe in the mulilateral neoliberal order), in Europe, and so on.

Even in countries that “support” the EU, there are substantial minorities, pushing into plurality status, which don’t support it.

So Europe needs an army. Because Eurocrats know best, and since neoliberalism isn’t working for enough people that things like Brexit happen; that Italy is ignoring rules, that the East is boiling over with right wing xenophobia, well, force is going to be needed. A European military, with French nukes, is the core of a great power military. And soon countries won’t be able to leave.

That, at any rate, is where things are headed. We’ll see if the EU cracks up first.

In the meantime, May’s Brexit deal really is worse than no deal, and in should in no way be passed. In fact, if I were Corbyn, and it was passed, if I became PM I’d get rid of it. Because it either goes or he breaks substantially all of his most important electoral promises.

The EU is loathsome. I won’t say it’s done no good, but it’s now doing more harm than good (indeed it has been for at least a decade.) As with the US, since it is misusing its power, it needs to lose it. That process will be ugly, since a lot of those who are rising to challenge it are right wing assholes (because the left has abandoned sovereignty).

But you can’t fail pluralities of your population and stay stable without being a police state and holding yourself together with brutal force.

Those are the EU’s two most likely futures: brutal police state, or crackup.

Pity, but that’s what EUcrats, with their insistence on neoliberal rules and hatred of democracy have made damn near inevitable.

Future Screenings Of ‘I, Dolours’…….

A number of people have been asking where and when can they see ‘I, Dolours’. It was screened in sixteen cinemas in all four provinces during the summer but not since then.

However, RTE, which partially funded the production, have the right to screen the documentary on television. When, or even if that happens, I cannot at this moment say. But I would be surprised if the national broadcaster did not exercise its right to show the film.

When we have a firm date, I will be sure to let readers of this blog know in good time.

‘I, Dolours’ Wins International Prize For Docudrama

Congratulations to Kate McCullough who was Director of Photography on ‘I, Dolours’, for winning best docudrama prize at the prestigious Energacamerimage festival, held this year in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

You can read the full story here.

The Appalling Idiot, Michael Gove

Am in Dublin en route to a screening of ‘I, Dolours’, at the Foyle film festival in Derry and the Brexit story in London is totally dominating the headlines in Ireland.

Teresa May’s future as British prime minister is the subject of intense speculation and Michael Gove is at its centre. It is conventional wisdom that if he joins those who have resigned from May’s Cabinet in protest at her Brexit deal, then she is toast.

Apparently he has turned down May’s offer of replacing the former Brexit Secretary, someone called Raab who quit the Cabinet in protest, saying that he would only take the job if she gave him a free hand to renegotiate the deal she struck with Brussels. Predictably that was a non-starter.

Before Gove became an elected politician he was a leader writer for The Times newspaper and one day, not long after the first IRA ceasefire in 1994, I got a phone call ffrom him.

I didn’t know much about the guy then and it was only later that I learned that he was a signed-up, fervent neo-conservative. You’ll remember the neo-cons, dear reader, they were the people who, amongst a cornucopia of other horrors, brought us the Iraq war, the destruction of Libya and, in their wake, those nice people from ISIS.

The neo-cons saw left-wing, terrorist plots everywhere. And so it was with the Irish peace process.

Gove proceeded to bounce the neocon analysis off my good self. It ran something like this: it was all a sham; Gerry Adams and his friends intended to gull everyone into a false sense of security and donning a new respectable face to present to the world, the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein would gobble up the SDLP and dominate Nationalist politics in NI.

Once that was done and there was no longer a genuine, moderate Nationalist party to hamper the Provos, the IRA would resume its war and a disenchanted and demoralised British government would collapse and Irish unity, in defiance of Unionism, would be achieved.

What did I think, he asked?

My regular readers will guess at my response but when Gove realised he was speaking to the wrong man, he got quite shirty.

As we all know, Gove’s prognosis was wildly, wildly wrong. To be fair to him he has recently changed tack somewhat – but considering that the IRA had given up all the weapons it was supposed to use in Gove’s, post-SDLP demise offensive, he really didn’t have much choice.

But what to make of a political system in which such an appalling idiot can be made king or queen-maker or destroyer?