Belfast brigade preparing to attack British army forces in 1989

Units of state terrorism

David John Douglass reviews Harry McCallion 'Undercover war: Britain’s special forces and their secret battle against the IRA'

Harry McCallion is in a good position to know what the real situation was, following his seven tours of the occupied Six Counties of Northern Ireland with the Parachute Regiment and the Intelligence Company, together with six years service with the Special Air Service (SAS) and the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

The British army’s war against the Provisional IRA between 1970 and 1998, and its associated war against the republican community, is one of its most bitter and controversial in the history of the British empire. The fact that this is acknowledged within the first two pages of the book is a refreshing piece of honesty at least. As a result of its “murderous ill-discipline”, says McCallion, the “British army’s reputation was damaged for decades”. The author lays the blame for the early disasters firmly on the shoulders of brigadier Frank Kitson - a person well known to many of us on the left in this period as an open advocate, if push comes to shove, of ‘a very British coup’.

McCallion describes Kitson’s Military Reaction Force (MRF) as basically a self-acting terrorist organisation under no outside control and revolving almost entirely round the brigadier and his anti-guerrilla warfare techniques, which were developed in Kenya when fighting the Mau Mau. We are told that the SAS and other covert sections of the army were banned from operating in Ulster initially, but all these regiments assigned men to the MRF. They operated in civilian clothes, with hairstyles, beards and dress common to young males of the period, and for all intents and purposes were indeed a state terrorist organisation with no formal connection to the armed forces - not least since they were ordered to murder people.

There were no ‘rules of engagement’. The British state took no responsibility for them and troops assigned to them were instructed under the so-called ‘deniable missions’. There was something of the rationale of the Black and Tans in much of this. Their murders, of which there were many - and McCallion exposes this early on with many of the names and circumstances of those killed - were either not reported at all (it being left for the RUC and public at large to conclude that these were sectarian murders or para-military executions); or else were explained as having occurred after members of the military ‘returned fire’, having been ‘caught in an ambush’. These crimes were ‘investigated’ by the military police, and the ‘murder squad’ version was recorded as fact without further enquiry. Their so-called ‘intelligence’ was woeful, having been brutalised and tortured out of basically anyone from the community - sometimes, it seems, because of their non-involvement with the armed struggle, on the twisted logic that such innocents would have no loyalty to the republican cause and be more willing to point the finger. In fact, the attitude of this unit was that everyone in the community was guilty or potentially guilty, so there was no presumption of innocence on the part of anyone.

A consequence of the murder of unarmed Catholic civilians in drive-by shootings was that the RUC, and more generally the British army, blamed the loyalist militias, which often resulted in counterattacks or - worse - sectarian attacks on unarmed loyalist civilians. One would be naive indeed to see this as an unintended bonus rather than part of the overall reign of state-authorised terror.

For example, MRF sergeant ‘Taff’ Williams machine-gunned three Catholic men standing by a car in the same spot where innocent car passenger Jean Smyth had been murdered in an attack on their car previously. Williams used a Thompson submachine gun - a weapon favoured by the Provisionals. Another person in his own house was injured in the gunfire that killed the Catholic men. By sheer fluke the MSR car was intercepted by an RUC patrol and Williams was arrested. He was prosecuted for attempted murder. His cover story that the men had been armed was disproved by forensic evidence and eyewitnesses. But he was acquitted and stayed with the unit. Indeed, fellow unit members later swore to the author that he had killed at least 15 civilians to their knowledge.

There was concern that such cavalier murder and indiscipline was highly counterproductive and helped intensify the solidarity of the republican community, and this set alarm bells ringing amongst the more conventional of the state’s armed forces. By the time they moved to disband the MRF, it had killed at least 40 identifiably innocent civilians - but comrades in the republican community say this is a gross underestimate and put the real number at over 100. The author himself comments: “The total number of people killed by MRF will never be known.”


The mantle of conducting Britain’s undercover surveillance and counterinsurgency operations now passed to the SAS (although the problem for the government was one of recognising the war in Ireland as just that, when it had throughout claimed the violence was just down to criminal political gangs and was not a liberation struggle).

The B company of the SAS was consequently ‘disbanded’ (or ‘debadged’). While half the unit was then engaged in recruiting and training a force to replace the MRF, the other half was formally disengaged from the SAS and now operated in plain clothes despite being armed. Far from being a ‘clean’ replacement for the murderous MRF, however, the new force aspired to be a more efficient version of the old one, taking over its old barracks in Hollywood, County Down.

It is interesting that the author mentions the fact that the briefings given to this new team on republican and loyalist militias were built on MI5 infiltration - sleepers and informers within the respective ranks of the rival militias. It was after a period of strenuous operations to break the command chain of the respective Belfast brigades, including the identification and arrest of alleged brigade commanders, that the ‘debadged’ unit was disbanded. It was replaced by the other half of what had been ‘B Company’ - now under the new title of the 14th Intelligence Detachment (nicknamed ‘The Det’ and officially titled the Special Reconnaissance Unit).

From its inception this unit had the operational strength of a normal infantry company - a lot of plain-clothes, civilian-looking assassins in normal cars with lethal weaponry, coming and going without apparent constraint and control. McCallion was a leading member of this unit. He outlines how operators were encouraged to grow long hair and moustaches, which was fashionable among young men of their age in civilian life. A nice touch also was the inclusion of shopping bags, cots or child seats in their cars. Operators were taught to imitate an Ulster accent for one-sentence replies to questions.

But they were also trained in ‘CQB’ (close-quarter battle) techniques, including the close-range use of the Browning 9mm pistol (“the workhorse of the Det”) - in fact, according to the author, “most operators could draw and hit a target in less than a second”. The weapons, we are told, were frequently “customised”: eg, an extended 20-round magazine, which one would not have normally associated with ‘targeted’, still less ‘low-key, surveillance’ operations. All operators would carry a ‘car weapon’ - sometimes an American MAC-10. This is a highly inaccurate, rapid-firing weapon that fires a large number of lethal bullets in a very short time - never mind the accuracy: judge it by the death count. This weapon was not removed from usage by ‘the Det’ or SBS until the 1980s, when it was replaced by the Heckler and Kosh MP5. The author makes no apology for the fact that the purpose of the Det was to wage war on the insurgency, although by 1976 the ‘non-political’ game was up, and the SAS was officially sent into Ulster - where, of course, in one form or another it had been from the start.

McCallion, while trying to persuade us that his unit was now the ‘good guys’, admits to the murder of two Protestant civilians with no political or military affiliation, who they had assumed, he claims, were members of the Provisional IRA. The two men had been shooting pigeons, but had had the air let out of their tyres by someone while they were doing that. Members of a passing Det unit laughed loudly as they drove by and the men assumed that these were the people responsible for letting the air out and set off in hot pursuit - only to be shot dead as they confronted the unit. McCallion here is more honest than when he offers his cover for other deaths associated with the unit - when he claims it was ‘a mistake’ or ‘not us’. Indeed, as his story unfolds, the number of innocent people mentioned as accidently or mistakenly killed is quite breath-taking.

We had previously always been accused of making up such accusations, and/or it was blamed on republican or loyalist fighters, but here we have it from the horse’s mouth. Additionally, the explanation repeated more than once that captured republicans ‘had attempted to grab weapons and were shot dead’ must be taken with a large pinch of salt, I think. There was the ‘murder on the rock’ (Gibraltar), in which three unarmed members of the IRA were shot dead in public because they went for their (non-existent) guns; or the case of the woman who suffered the same fate for attempting to detonate a car bomb (in a vehicle found to have no explosives in it). The original allegations were repeated in the teeth of witness’s evidence to the contrary, but now the author admits that in fact the victims were unarmed in those two cases. Republicans, of course, will not be surprised, as they lived through these events in their communities, but the British public might well be, if this book is widely read, as it surely should be.

Absent analysis

In among McCallion’s review of the struggles, his chronicles of who shot who and how it happened, there is one thing that is notable by its absence. Although Bloody Sunday is mentioned in passing as just one of the “events” of the war, there is not any description or analysis of it. There is no attempt at justification or explanation for what is now virtually acknowledged by the British state to have been cold-blooded murder - just a deafening silence from McCallion.

Another absent analysis concerns the degree of penetration by state forces into the commanding areas of the IRA in an attempt to influence the political direction of the republican movement. Some of this came to the surface following the signing of the Good Friday agreement, with former senior Provisionals breaking cover. But I suppose such a book was always unlikely to give us chapter and verse on such matters, even supposing the author was in a position to provide some kind of comprehensive revelation. He doubtless knows much more than he says - as do current key players in the republican movement in my view.

The early, highly accurate targeting of commanders of the IRA Belfast Brigade, revealed in this book, was not, as suggested due to undercover intelligence work, when so much else of it was so wrong. Someone was simply tipping off the occupying forces - including even the commanders’ quite sophisticated undercover identities and remote safe-house operations. The author tells us that, in response to the “increasing penetration of their organisation by both MI5 and RUC special branch”, the Provos formed an internal security organisation aimed at discovering and eliminating informers and sleepers. He happily informs us that the senior officer of the IRA, who had been charged with setting it up and operating it, was in fact an RUC special branch double agent.

It is literally breathtaking how so many once respected and trusted ‘leaders’ of the republican movement, in full knowledge of the sacrifice and loss suffered by the people, were all the while committing such treachery. It is hard to credit that even tiny breakaway groups like the Irish People’s Liberation Organisation (a split from the Irish National Liberation Army, but with some left-dissident former IRA members in its ranks) had also been penetrated and the RUC had known before it happened about an attack that was one of its few anti-state operations.

It is illustrative that the book states that a major strategy of the undercover units was recruiting informers and so having deep plants inside the Provisional IRA - together with misdirecting the movement’s own internal security, so that men totally innocent of collaboration with the state were killed. McCallion claims that one of the main drives behind the abandonment of the armed struggle was this degree of penetration - with three out of every four operations known to the army in advance, thanks to information received from within the Belfast brigade in particular. The special branch later claimed that one in every 20 members of the brigade was an informer or plant. Such penetration could not have happened without the gross treachery we had long suspected and this book confirms it. But it must also be said that the book reluctantly admits the occupying forces were far from having things all their own way, and many daring and skilful engagements by the Provos are recounted, in which their members sometimes paid the ultimate price. However, the author concedes that for every operation that ended in the capture or death of a “terrorist”, there were hundreds that did not.

One of the not so well-known facts about SAS operations concerns their possession of American fragmentation grenades apparently without official authorisation: the author confesses that they were ready for deployment with attack units and their use was threatened. We are not told how it was possible to have large numbers of unauthorised weapons present on raids and how they were obtained.

There is one very telling line used by McCallion, given the subsequent, unprovoked, mass civilian murder on Bloody Sunday. In a lull in operations on all sides, he tells us, SAS troops decided to make themselves a target “and invite the PIRA to come out and play” on the day of the massacre. I have always thought the Parachute Regiment was doing just that when it went into Derry - what the paras considered to be the Provos’ back yard and certainly the community in which their families lived. It was a come-on meant to draw an enraged IRA into a full-blown, no-holds-barred shoot-out. But republican units had, by agreement with the marchers, withdrawn from the area, to prevent just such an excuse for murder. As we know, no-one was there to be drawn out, and the people who were shot down were all unarmed civilians. So that throwaway line has a wider ring of truth to it.

The heavy penetration of the leadership caused the IRA’s active service units (ASUs) to become almost self-acting and self-contained, as there was only a very loose overall control of operations. This was aimed at stopping plants and informers, but the downside was very dubious, not to say murderous: targets were selected without any clear strategy guiding the armed struggle. For the Provisionals, the ostensible overall control tactics and direction had been given by the eight-member Army Council.


However, by the mid-70s the overall political and military leadership had been transferred to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness of Sinn Féin, who by that time had lost any belief in a military victory for the republican movement (although they did not admit that publicly). This had serious implications for the ongoing military campaign - and the poor sods at the front end of it. Politically it meant taking the movement back to where they had come from when they were formed. It meant steering the whole movement away from military insurgency and toward (at first) radical politics and then ultimately constitutionalism.

Opposition within the military and the political movement by key individuals was put down to the upfront threat of assassination in the case of Ivor Bell, the former IRA chief of staff, who later split from Sinn Féin. But other, less isolated military and political leaders moved into open opposition to the leadership and its new strategy. Not only did they devise new military tactics, but they were the most successful of the whole campaign. However, a well-placed double agent within the IRA - and possibly at least one of the eight on the Army Council - started to work for the defeat of the revised military campaign.

The SAS spent the five years between 1985 and 1990 directing its operations against this new military initiative and leadership. From this point on, the most meticulous of IRA operations, which were skilfully planned and prepared, became excuses for mass executions, as “senior sources within the PIRA” gave away the full operational details directly to the MI5, enabling ambushes to be set up. The Provisional ‘dissidents’ were being purged with direct help from the SAS. The authenticity of this evidence, quoting who was being set up and what was known of the plans which were supposed to be highly secret, can hardly be in question. McCallion had earlier in his book noted the intention of Adams and McGuiness to wage war on anyone within or without the organisation in order to be the only game in town - and one whose aims would be directed by themselves alone. But - speaking either for himself or for the SAS and their handlers - he states that this was seen as mutually beneficial: “Ultimately the crushing of internal dissent and the forging of a largely unified republican policy was to be one of the most decisive factors in bringing the Troubles to an end” (p143).

The leading opposition faction within the IRA was focused around the East Tyrone brigade. It had become the main focus of the state’s conscious effort to intervene in the internal political division (not for the first time in republican history):

In the coming decade, the SAS, acting on high-level source intelligence from the very top of the PIRA, would further degrade the capabilities of the East Tyrone brigade. By the time a political compromise was reached between the republican movement and the British government, the Tyrone brigade would be in no position to challenge its own leadership’s new commitment to peace (p219).

The South Armagh and East Tyrone brigades were the only main units of the PIRA which state forces were totally unable to penetrate and so compromise from within. The author claims it was not until the 1994 ceasefire - when these units, on instruction from above, lowered their guard - that the penetration of these brigades was facilitated.

The suggestion from the author is that Gerry Adams himself was the MI5 informer - the Daily Mail has run with a double-page inside story focusing solely on this accusation, while ignoring the army’s history of murder also revealed by McCallion (August 8). For us, of course, the two are inseparably connected.

This is a valuable book, and it is, as claimed, “from the horse’s mouth”. It gives credence to long-held suspicions that the Provisional leadership, both political and military, was both penetrated from without and weakened by internal political degeneration and outright treachery. For ordinary members of the British public - who have taken at face value the story of brave and principled British soldiers fighting a ruthless enemy by Queensbury rules - this book should be a revelation.

For that reason, I doubt it will be given huge publicity or be widely distributed. I cannot, for example, see any Panorama TV documentary based upon it. Undercover war is, of course, written by a faithful former member of many of the assassination squads he writes about and he has doubtless kept to his chest far more than he has revealed (the fact he was allowed to publish all this begs a number of questions). But I totally recommend this book, the implications of which are shocking and far-reaching.