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‘The Irishman’ Panned

When every reviewer with access to a computer praises a movie, take that as a warning sign, and a signal that the various writers have decided their careers can only be damaged if they don’t join the galloping herd.

So when a single reviewer has the courage, temerity or stupidity to buck the trend it’s worth paying attention to. That’s why I recommend people read this article in Slate magazine by Bill Tonelli. He knows something about which he writes, which is more than can be said for most reviewers.

Here it is:


The Ivor Bell Hearing – The Most Political Trial Of The Troubles?

This is the first of several articles I plan to devote to the Ivor Bell trial and its aftermath in the coming days.

This article revolves around one question, from which others proliferate: why was Ivor Bell acquitted?

The given reason for the ‘not guilty’ verdict can be found in the criticism of the Boston oral history archive made by the judge, which was that either the interviewer, Anthony McIntyre was less than professional in his questioning or that the guarantee of confidentiality that I negotiated was at fault.

I will deal in much greater detail with the issue of confidentiality in a later posting but first a word or two in explanation about Anthony McIntyre’s interviewing technique.

Conventional oral history projects involve professional interviewers with little or no connection to their subjects sitting down and asking questions of their subjects. The key here is that interviewer and interviewee would in most cases be strangers to each other, bound together only for the few hours the interview took to complete.

That is the ideal version of oral history. It was not possible to replicate that for this project for the simple reason that former members of the Provisional and Official IRA’s, the INLA, the UVF and Red Hand Commandos would not reveal their innermost thoughts, recollections and secrets to a stranger. The reason for that is obvious – the absence of trust.

They would only do so to one of their own, or someone who was as close to one of their own as made no difference. This is the feature that defined the Boston College project and made it different and special from normal oral history ventures. In that respect what we put together was far from being a conventional oral history research.

And so Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA prisoner with a First Class Honours degree in politics and a PhD in the same subject – based on a thesis dealing with the IRA – and Wilson McArthur, another Honours graduate in politics with family ties to the Loyalist paramilitary world, were chosen as interviewers. They were academically qualified and likely to evoke trust in the people they talked to.

What followed from that was a level of intimacy, familiarity and conversational informality that would be out of bounds in any other oral history project – but the consequence was that interviewees felt freer to speak more fully and honestly about their paramilitary lives.

Unlike the judge or the ‘expert’ witness on whose testimony he so heavily relied, I have read all of Ivor Bell’s interviews. they stretch back to the involvement of the Belfast IRA in the 1956-62 campaign, the 1969 split, the creation of the Provisional IRA, the early campaign of violence, internment, the importance of Adams’ influence, the takeover of the IRA by Northerners, the re-organisation of the IRA, the post-hunger strike IRA and finally his break with Adams as the organisation began the journey to the peace process.

It is a story told in unprecedented detail, a document of immeasurable historical value and none of it would have been possible without McIntyre’s unconventional approach.

That defining difference was never understood nor appreciated by the court – nor even explained as far as I can tell – but it allowed the judge, guided by a hostile witness (hostile to myself and McIntyre), to deem the interviewing technique unprofessional and biased.

What was never factored into all this was that Anthony McIntyre was interviewing people who were friends, former colleagues and even comrades – that made for a very different interviewing style. Purists, and  Judge John O’Hara, chose to condemn the technique and that led directly to the acquittal of Ivor Bell. But we knew it could happen no other way.

Ivor Bell’s acquittal meant that Gerry Adams was off the hook. Had Bell been convicted then, by extension, Adams would also be deemed guilty; demands for his arrest from Unionists would have quickly followed (and possibly from Jean McConville’s family) and, at a time of Brexit-induced crisis, the republican part of the peace process would have been pitched into potentially fatal calamity.

So to save Adams and the peace process, Ivor Bell had to be acquitted. And so he was. But in the process other reputations needed to be trashed.

A couple of puzzling questions remain unanswered out of all this (questions unasked by the media).

What was the purpose of the gagging order? Why was it necessary to keep the trial a secret from the world not just as it happened but in the weeks leading up to it? One consequence was that media coverage concentrated on the final day when the judge took complete control of proceedings? But were there other reasons?

Finally, the most intriguing, unanswered question of all. Why did the judge take the final decision away from the jury, dismiss them and deliver his verdict and judgement without their assistance? What, one wonders, would a jury have thought of the evidence?

We may just have witnessed one of the most political, no-jury trials of the Troubles.

What On Earth Does ‘Blowing Bubbles’ Mean?

Many thanks to DE for alerting me to this:

Ivor Bell ‘Expert’ Witness Kevin O’Neill Read Just One Interview.

The defence witness Kevin O’Neill, whose testimony was cited by the presiding judge at the Belfast trial of Ivor Bell as evidence of a lack of professionalism in the compiling of interviews for the Boston College oral history archive, based his opinion on his reading of just one interview conducted by Anthony McIntyre at the very start of the project.

The archive in total contained over 200 interviews in the republican section while about half that number was devoted to Loyalists. The Ivor Bell section of the archive alone contained over forty interviews which stretched back to the 1956-62 IRA campaign all the way through to Bell’s court martial in the mid-1980’s, following an unsuccessful putsch he had led against Gerry Adams by organising an IRA Convention intended to displace the Adams’ leadership.

He was found guilty of treason and was sentenced to death; the sentence was subsequently suspended although never removed.

A teacher in the history department, O’Neill was one of a number of Boston College academics who had been asked by senior staff to critique Anthony McIntyre’s interviewing technique not long after the project had begun.

This was McIntyre’s first foray into oral history, there were rough edges that needed to be smoothed out and the exercise was designed to help improve his performance.

In his testimony to Bell’s trial, conducted via video link from Boston, O’Neill claimed McIntyre’s interviews were ‘a model of how not to do oral history’, but he failed to make it clear that his exposure to the archive and to interviews by McIntyre was limited to a single interview conducted at the very start of the project when McIntyre was learning the ropes.

He had never read any of Bell’s interviews for instance and until the trial was completely unaware of what had been revealed and alleged by Bell. Meanwhile his antipathy to the Republican part of the project was so well known to other staff members at the college that this writer avoided his company when visiting Boston College.

In short, he was no expert witness.

Ivor Bell Verdict – A Statement

Statement by Ed Moloney:

First of all, I would like to welcome the acquittal of Ivor Bell on charges connected to the murder and disappearance of Jean McConville. This marks the end of a nearly six-year ordeal for him and his family, during which his health has deteriorated seriously.

I now call on the authorities to drop all charges against others awaiting legal proceedings arising from the PSNI’s seizure of tapes from the Boston College archive. It is time to draw a line under this ill-conceived chapter in the North’s sorry history.

In the end Ivor Bell’s hearing – I hesitate to use the word trial – was held in secret and even the fact that it was a secret hearing kept hidden from the general public by an edict issued from the judge’s bench. Sadly, the media in Northern Ireland decided not to defy this ban on free speech, nor even to tell their readers and viewers that it was in place.

The motives of those who decided to pursue the Boston College archive have equally gone unexamined. Ostensibly, the PSNI moved against the archive in an attempt to secure justice for the family of Jean McConville, whose disappearance and killing by the IRA had been shamefully ignored for many years by the same forces of law and order.

But I have always suspected that a hidden motive for the action against the archive was to discourage others from following in our path with the result that interested parties involved in the Troubles – State and non-State – would lose control of the narrative of the past and would be denied their monopoly on the telling of our troubled past.

Killing off the Boston archive caused the stillbirth of many other attempts to launch independent excursions into the story of our 30-year Troubles. Allied to this effort, and a warning to others, has come a concerted effort to disparage the reputation and motives of those involved in the project. Others tempted to follow in our path were thus made aware of what could be said about them or done to them.

In that regard I note that one of the Crown witnesses, Kevin O’Neill, an academic from Boston College who replaced the indisposed college librarian, Bob O’Neill, told the court that the project, “was now held up as a model of how not to do oral history”.

If Dr O’Neill felt that way when he was asked by his superiors at the college at the outset of the project to examine and critique some of early interviews conducted by Dr Anthony McIntyre, then he kept his views very much to himself, despite his well known reservations about putting Sinn Fein, the IRA and its leadership under the microscope.

As for those who accused the Boston archive at the Bell hearing and outside it of political bias let me remind them that running in parallel with the Republican archive was one devoted to the UVF and Red Hand Commandos and, alas for only a short while, an archive devoted to the RUC.

At one point Boston College’s ambitions ran to an archive on the British Army and both the US State Department and the Northern Ireland Office saw in our work a possible model for dealing with one element of the past. That was until the PSNI and possibly others in the security world decided otherwise.

Those who have been lavish in their criticism of the Boston archive have said little or nothing about the reality that without our efforts, the family of Jean McConville would still know little or nothing about what happened to their mother or who was involved in ordering or carrying out her disappearance.

If the McConville family had been reliant on the PSNI or other intelligence agencies for information about their mother’s final days, they would be in for a long wait.

Finally, I wish to say a few words in defence of my republican researcher, Dr Anthony McIntyre. ‘Mackers’, as we all know him, is a hugely talented researcher and commentator and a man not known for keeping his views on many matters to himself.

Those in the media tempted to join in the disgraceful disparagement of him exhibited by certain lawyers at the Bell hearing should remember how often they have called at his door for interviews and how often they are admitted and provided with all they need.

This was a difficult project for any researcher and inevitably there were teething problems. But these were overcome and Mackers conducted sometimes lengthy series of interviews with nearly thirty republicans of various hues, the professional quality of which is evidenced by the fact that his work has provided the basis for one best-selling book and a prize-winning television documentary.

We had only one governing rule while the project was underway. That was to seek out the truth. Those who we knew dealt in lies and deceit were ignored. If we are to be criticised for that then we embrace that gladly.



Sorry, Mr Simpson – We Need You To Tell All You Know About Finucane Murder

For instance, who was the guy involved in Pat Finucane’s killing who hanged himself? And why did he do it? Why are we learning about this key detail only now, thirty years afterwards? You have a responsibility to tell the full truth, the full story.

Here is what retired RUC cop Alan Simpson wrote about the Pat Finucane killing in the Belfast Telegraph. What he writes is a tease, like a high class stripper he only hints at what lies beneath the beguiling bulges, leaving the reader gasping for more. But the audience won’t leave the theatre until all is revealed.

Alan Simpson: An RUC detective colleague told me the Finucane murder would follow me to my grave… I don’t believe we’ve heard the last of it yet

Pat Finucane
Pat Finucane

When I joined the RUC in 1970, Northern Ireland had just experienced almost two years of civil unrest, but, like many, I felt it was but another episode in the troubled history of Ireland and would soon pass. How wrong I was.

Little did I realise that 30 years of bitter violence lay ahead, which would result in almost 3,700 deaths, with thousands more injured.

I was at the coal-face of anti-terror policing during most of those terrible years and it began for me when I was posted as a probationer constable to Tennent Street in north Belfast. The station was responsible for policing the Shankill, Ardoyne and Oldpark areas.

The reality of my posting was to prove that the Troubles were far from over as, during my first two years of uniformed service, I was the first officer at the scene of 12 sectarian murders. Most of these victims had been shot, but others had been savagely beaten to death.

The faces of these unfortunates were like something from a horror movie. It was clear that the hatred some people had for each other ran much deeper than I could ever have imagined.

In late 1972, I was accepted into the CID and gradually worked my way up the ladder, ending my service as a detective superintendent and deputy head of the CID for Belfast. At that stage, I had attended approximately 100 murder scenes and had faced down some of the most notorious terrorists, ranging from Martin Meehan of the IRA to Lenny Murphy, leader of the Shankill Butcher gang. I thought I had seen and heard everything.

But I was totally unprepared for the phone call I received at home on the evening of Sunday, February 12, 1989, informing me that leading solicitor Pat Finucane had been shot dead at his home.

I had known Mr Finucane from my many days at Belfast Crown Court and while it would have been unwise for him to be seen speaking to me in the crowded foyer, occasionally I would meet him in an isolated corridor and he would give me a friendly nod.

On arriving at the scene, it was cordoned off and I was led to the kitchen of the house by the local CID duty officer, where I saw Mr Finucane lying on his back. His face was a mass of bullet holes and powder burns and this indicated that the killer had stood over him and pumped bullets into his head from a distance not greater than 18 inches.

We also noted two bullet holes in the glass kitchen door; the gunman had downed his victim by first firing two shots through the door and into Mr Finucane’s body.

Retired policeman Alan Simpson
Retired policeman Alan Simpson

Several spent 9mm cartridges littered the floor, so the likely weapon was a Browning automatic. This was undoubtedly the work of a very professional assassin from either the UFF or UVF.

Geraldine Finucane, the victim’s wife, had been shot in the foot and was in hospital, but the rest of the family had isolated themselves from us by staying in the front lounge behind a closed door.

I had the scene photographed, videotaped and expertly examined by forensic scientists, in addition to Professor Marshall, the State Pathologist, after which we placed Mr Finucane in a body-bag and had him removed to the mortuary.

I then went to the nearby Antrim Road RUC station, where I summoned extra detectives to work on the case and set up an incident room.

Many observers have written about the case and I am correctly presented as the senior investigating officer, but this was just another killing to add to the list of murder investigations then under supervision by me.

However, I did realise that the murder of Mr Finucane was causing a political storm and hitting the news headlines worldwide, so, in reality, I dedicated myself more to his case.

Two days after the murder, I was surprised to receive a phone call from RUC HQ, advising me that the head of the CID for Northern Ireland, Assistant Chief Constable Wilfred Monahan, was on his way to visit the Finucane incident room. He stayed for about 15 minutes and I saw him back down to his car.

Before getting in, he turned to me and said, “Alan, if I were you, I wouldn’t get too deeply involved in this one.” He then closed his car door and was driven off.

I was quite stunned by his advice and not a little confused. Was he saying I had a lot of murders on my hands and Mr Finucane was a republican sympathiser unworthy of too much police time? Or was there some deeper meaning?

I returned to the incident room and continued with the investigation full steam ahead, but the following day I received another unexpected visitor from RUC HQ in the form of a Special Branch detective chief superintendent, who was deputy head of Special Branch for Northern Ireland. I thought he was going to offer me some vital information, but I simply briefed him and he left.

Almost from the moment I arrived at the scene of the murder of Pat Finucane, I sensed that there was a great deal of hostility towards the RUC from the family. I wasn’t in the least surprised as it was widely known they held strong republican views.

However, as the days wore on, the Press began to report that the family suspected some form of state involvement in the killing. It was not an idea that I took onboard easily, as I didn’t believe any state agency would be so stupid as to arrange such a killing. The ramifications for that, if true, would be disastrous and far-reaching.

My investigation ran for about six weeks and, as with so many other cases, it had to be shelved until some new information came to light.

The next significant event for me in the Pat Finucane case was the inquest into his killing, which was heard in September 1990. I was the sole police officer in attendance and, as anticipated, the courtroom was filled with members of the Finucane family and representatives from the world’s media.

After the formal evidence had been presented, such as the post-mortem examination report, I was called to the witness stand.

Junior barrister Seamus Treacy (now Lord Justice Treacy) represented the Finucane family. He cross-examined me at length and there was undoubtedly a suggestion of collusion in his questions.

I fielded his examination as best I could, but more in the interests of the reputation of the RUC, as by then I had a distinct unease about the whole case.

In short, I had a nagging feeling that there had, indeed, been dirty work afoot by the intelligence services.

I was starting to believe that I had given them too much credit by believing they would not be so stupid as to murder Pat Finucane by proxy — ie using a loyalist terror gang to carry out their dirty work.

The following year, the case was cracked wide open by two of the best detectives I had ever worked with: Detective Sergeant Johnston Brown and Detective Constable Trevor McIlwrath.

A well-known UFF assassin, Ken Barrett, had approached them, offering to give evidence and they had cleverly pulled him onto the punch by getting him to boast about his killings. These included the murder of Pat Finucane.

In due course, Barrett was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, but under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement he served only two years.

It was also established that UFF man William Stobie had provided the weapons for the murder. He was shot dead by the organisation, as they feared he would give evidence against them. A third man involved in the killing hanged himself from the goalposts of Glencairn playing fields.

One of the many things that stick in my mind from the Finucane case is that a close colleague told me it was a case that would follow me to my grave.

I don’t believe we’ve heard the last of it yet.

** Retired RUC Detective Superintendent Alan Simpson is the author of Duplicity and Deception (Brandon Books)

British Spying On Paisley

Interesting piece from about two years ago that appeared in Spinwatch. Tom Griffin writes that Clifford Smyth was accused by the DUP of passing insider party intel to the Northern Ireland Office. In fact he was passing DUP secrets to MI5.

Wednesday, 09 August 2017 14:45

Spying on Paisley: How MI5 used Tara to infiltrate the DUP


Ian Paisley

Ian Paisley

The DUP-Conservative alliance that emerged from the 2017 election might seem like a natural one given the long history of the ‘Orange card’ as a Tory expedient at Westminster. 

There is however an equally long record of conflict between the British establishment and the the particular strand of unionism represented by the DUP.

One significant episode in this story came to light in 1976, when DUP leader Ian Paisley complained in the Commons about the activities of intelligence officials at the Northern Ireland Office.

An affirmation has been made—I affirm this in the House tonight—that there is an attempt in this unit of psychological warfare to discredit and undermine the Loyalist leadership in the Province [1].

Paisley’s allegation was a credible one. The following year, the Sunday Times reported that the Northern Ireland Information Policy Co-ordinating Committee was involved in just such activities.

On the political front, we have discovered that, towards the end of 1974 a committee consisting of representatives from the Northern Ireland Office, the Army, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary met at Stormont Castle and discussed among other things, ways of discrediting politicians judged hostile to Government policy [2].

The IPCC had been established in part to get a grip on projects that were already being carried out by the Army. In 1990, the Ministry of Defence admitted that Army information officer Colin Wallace may have been authorised to carry out disinformation activities. The strongest assurance Minister Archie Hamilton could give the Commons was that ‘It has not since the mid 1970s been the policy to disseminate disinformation in Northern Ireland in ways designed to denigrate individuals and/or organisations or for propaganda purposes’ [3]

This was not the only occasion during 1976 when the DUP pushed back against what it saw as Whitehall operations against it.

Towards the end of the year, DUP member Clifford Smyth was expelled from the party, over alleged contacts with the Northern Ireland Office. He later recounted:

In November 1976 I had been called to a meeting in Ian Paisley’s Parsonage where I would be accused of passing on information to Merlyn Rees’s office at Stormont and of having compiled a document which made scandalous allegations about leading loyalist politicians. Ian Paisley was irate and the whole atmosphere was deeply hostile. Nothing had prepared me for this. I didn’t know what was going on. I was mystified but some of the information that I was aware of, had come from the lips of Ian Paisley’s paid employees. I felt there was little alternative but to take whatever was coming to me however unfair the situation might be [4]

Smyth denied the accusation, but in his later book on Paisley, he claims to have some heavily compromising information on the DUP. He states that in June 1976, the party secretary Peter Robinson told him that the DUP should form its own paramilitary force (something that would occur a decade later with the formation of Ulster Resistance) [5].

Smyth goes on to note that he had some experience of the paramilitary world, having been approached at one time to join the UVF [6]. This was probably a result of his role as intelligence officer of Tara, a shadowy group run by the paedophile William McGrath [7].

As with Clockwork Orange, there is evidence to substantiate DUP suspicions about official surveillance. If Smyth was not passing information to the authorities, someone else close to William McGrath was doing so at around the same time.

In his book The Kincora Scandal, journalist Chris Moore described how an army officer he called ‘James’ made contact with two individuals with information on Tara in the mid-1970s. One was ‘Sydney’ a politically astute and well-informed Tara member, the other was Roy Garland, a former member who was trying to expose William McGrath’s sexual proclivities [8].

When James put Garland’s allegations to the political advisor at HQ Northern Ireland, he was peremptorily ordered to break off contact with both sources. Contacts with Sidney, though not Garland, resumed following a meeting in 1976:

With approval from his authorities, James set off to a Belfast cemetery for the meeting and what he learned there was to make him the political advisor’s ‘blue-eyed boy’.Sidney informed James that certain political figures were seriously examining the possibility of UDI and in the short-term were planning an announcement to that effect [9].

The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, which reported earlier this year, confirmed many of the details of this story. it made clear that ‘James’ was Captain Brian Gemmell, and that the political advisor was Ian Cameron of MI5. It confirms that Cameron and Gemmill discussed a second source as well as Garland [10]. This source is referred to as ‘an agent whose identity is known to the Inquiry’ suggesting that, unlike Garland, he was formally recruited by army intelligence [11].

The inquiry says very little else about this other source, but the evidence strongly suggests it was ‘Sidney’. MI5 documents disclosed to the inquiry show that an agent close to McGrath was debriefed following the exposure of the Kincora scandal in 1980. The agent admitted to MI5 officers that he had told McGrath of his relationship with them, possibly in 1976 [12].

The question that the HIA Inquiry never addressed is this: If MI5’s agent feared a threat to him in the aftermath of McGrath’s exposure in 1980, could his recruitment have given MI5 a motive to protect McGrath earlier?

If the agent was ‘Sidney’ he was himself a member of Tara, and one who claimed to have have heard that McGrath was working for MI5. This raises a number of other questions.

Did the HIA Inquiry ever seek to question Sidney about this, assuming he is still alive? Did the inquiry give Sidney an assurances in relation to the Official Secrets Act? What did Sidney tell MI5 about Tara’s activities, including its involvement in loyalist arms dealing and overseas paramilitary contacts?

Finally, there’s the issue of who exactly were the politicans plotting UDI that ‘Sidney’ was reporting on. Given the eclipse of William Craig’s Vanguard the previous year, the major force to the right of Ulster Unionism in 1976 was the DUP, which was indeed gearing up for a challenge to the British state, the United Unionist Action Council strike of 1977, backed by the UDA and other paramilitary groups. Was Sidney’s information instrumental in the strike’s failure?

This covert intelligence struggle between the NIO and the DUP, which seems to have spanned both Labour and Conservative Governments, may be one reason why neither side in the Tory-DUP deal was anxious to look too closely at the past activities of the state.


[1] Hansard, House of Commons Debates, 19 February 1976, vol 905, cc1653-64. <>.

[2]David Blundy, The Army’s Secret War in Northern Ireland, Sunday Times, 13 March 1977

[3]Hansard, House of Commons, 30 January 1990, Written Answers to Questions, cc108-110. <>.

[4]  Clifford Smyth, Dealing with my sexual brokenness, Belfast Telegraph, 20 July 2005. <>

[5] Clifford Smyth, Ian Paisley: Voice of Protestant Ulster, Scottish Academic Press, 1987, p.106.

[6] Ibid. p.108.

[7] Chris Moore, The Kincora Scandal, Marino Books, 1996, p.73.

[8] Ibid. pp.16-139.

[9] Ibid. pp.142-143.

[10] Report of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, Chapter 28: Module 15 – Kincora Boys’ Home (Part 2), Ian Cameron, Roy Garland and Brian Gemmell, pp.42-46.<>.

[11]  Report of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, Chapter 28: Module 15 – Kincora Boys’ Home (Part 2), The interaction between Brian Gemmell and Ian Cameron in 1976, p.66.<>.

[12] The relevant MI5 reports are archived at Powerbase:

29 April 1980. <>

1 May 1980. <>

See also my article: Loose ends from the Hart Inquiry – significant evidence from the RUC and MI5, Spinwatch, 27 February 2017.

Tom Griffin

Tom Griffin is a freelance journalist and researcher. He is a former editor of the Irish World newspaper, and is currently undertaking a Ph.D at the University of Bath. He was a contributor to Fight Back! OpenDemocracy’s book on the 2010 student protests, and a co-author of the Spinwatch pamphlet The Cold War on British Muslims. His website is at: