The story of the FRU must be one of the most sordid in British Intelligence. It reveals a deep gulf in Northern Ireland's peace process: Britain's willingness to be held accountable.
It has to be one of the most evocative photographs of the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921. A group of British intelligence officers, mostly military men, pose for a group shot in a Dublin street, cigarettes drooping from the mouths of some, a grim, determined look on their faces.
One character stands out. His is one of the few faces that is in full view thanks to the way his hat is tilted backwards and to one side. His right hand is thrust into his trouser pocket as if clutching a hidden pistol, the other holds a cigarette and he is slouched in a way that conveys confidence and even a touch of arrogance. The rest of the group seem to defer to him; he stands at their centre, the others are mostly half a step behind him. He could be their leader. But it is the eyes that draw the beholder. There is something cold, indifferent and quite scary about them.
This is the so-called Cairo Gang, an elite band of spies brought over under cover to Dublin in the summer and early autumn of 1920 to infiltrate and destroy the IRA which, under the leadership of its intelligence chief Michael Collins, seemed always to be half a step ahead of the British administration in Dublin Castle.
The adjective ‘so-called’ is chosen deliberately because the name Cairo Gang, which one account says was derived from a cafe on Grafton Street where they would meet their bosses from Dublin Castle, was not used at the time. Collins’ men apparently called them “the special gang”. It is not even certain that this is a photograph of that gang or that its members have been correctly identified but it long ago entered the accepted legend of Irish history that it is.
Whatever the truth of all that there was no doubt that Michael Collins still had an edge on his adversaries in British intelligence, thanks in no small way to the number of agents he had placed in and around Dublin Castle. Aware that the British were about to cast a net around his operation he struck first.
Early on the morning of Sunday, November 21st, 1920 over 100 armed IRA members visited addresses around Dublin intent on assassinating the Cairo Gang and other military figures. Their efforts met with mixed results as some targets were absent when Collins’ men arrived. But enough were at home to make the day a success for the IRA’s chief of intelligence – and to usher Michael Collins into Irish folklore.
That afternoon an angry and vengeful squad of British Black & Tans invaded Croke Park and opened fired on the crowd watching a GAA football game between Dublin and Tipperary and in the evening three IRA prisoners, all senior figures, were killed by their captors at Dublin Castle as they allegedly tried to escape. By the end of the day fourteen British soldiers were dead as were seventeen GAA fans, players, civilians and IRA members. The day became known, inevitably, as Bloody Sunday.
Amongst those killed by Collins’ men that day was that man with the cold, scary eyes in the photo of the Cairo Gang. Now, accounts vary about his identity but one names him as Lieutenant Donald Lewis MacLean, who was born in London but whose family hailed from Scotland. One Nationalist account extravagantly described him as “the chief of intelligence at Dublin Castle”, which given his lowly rank just could not have been true.
But there seems little doubt that he was a British military spy and very probably a member of the Cairo Gang. The London Gazette of June 21st 1920 records his transfer to Dublin: “Lt. D. L. MacLean, late Serv. Bn., Rif. Brig., to be temp. Lt. whilst specially empld. 11th June 1920.” The phrase “specially employed” suggests exactly the sort of activities for which the Cairo Gang was then being fashioned to conduct in Ireland.
The fascinating aspect of Lt. MacLean’s life story and his role in the Cairo Gang is that it is almost possible to draw a straight line between his narrative and the events and circumstances which have led to this week’s publication of a British sponsored report on the 1989 assassination of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane.
Pat Finucane was shot dead by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) but the moving force behind his death was a secret agent working for a special British Army intelligence unit. The agent was Brian Nelson, a north Belfast Loyalist who had been recruited to burrow into the UDA’s intelligence section and tasked to supply intelligence which the UDA could use to kill IRA members; by the time of Finucane’s death Nelson was its head. The British Army unit that hired him was designated the Force Research Unit or the FRU as everyone called it.
The FRU was in a direct line of descent from another military intelligence unit called the Military Reaction Force or MRF created to battle the modern IRA. The MRF was the brainchild in 1971 of the British Army’s first Brigade Commander of the Troubles in Belfast, General Sir Frank Kitson, as he eventually became. Kitson was a counter insurgency expert and theorist who had seen service against the Mau Mau in Kenya, against Eoka in Cyprus, against Communist guerrillas in Malaya and on behalf of the local Sultan in Oman. In 1963 he was one of a group of counter insurgency experts invited to Washington by the Rand Corporation to give advice on how the US should wage the war in Vietnam, then being expanded by President John F Kennedy.
Both the MRF and the FRU originated from or were variants on Kitson’s theory of Counter Gangs, the idea that armed groups could be subverted by activists drawn from their ranks and turned against former comrades. He ended his military career as Commander of Land Forces in the UK and chief aide-de-camp to the British Queen. He was clearly a man highly regarded by his political masters.
Kitson had also been a commander of one of the three Royal Green Jackets (RGJ) battalions, which together formed arguably the most influential and powerful regiment in the British Army. The Green Jackets were created in 1958 from the merger of three infantry regiments whose histories date back to the Peninsula Wars and before and their officer corps has consistently been over-represented at the highest echelons of the modern British Army. In 1966 the regiment had the prefix Royal added to their name, an indication of its growing sway in the military establishment.
One of the regiments that made up the RGJ was called The Rifle Brigade and it was the Rifle Brigade which Frank Kitson joined when he first became an officer in the British Army just after World War II. And the Rifle Brigade was the unit to which Lt. Donald MacLean belonged when he was seconded to the Cairo Gang in 1920. A mere twenty-five years or so separates the death of Lt. MacLean and the beginning of Frank Kitson’s life in the British Army, a blink of an eye in the span of Anglo-Irish history. It is in this sense that a straight line joins them; the Force Research Unit, and before it the MRF, were the Cairo Gangs of the modern Irish Troubles linked by common membership of the same British regiment.
Like the Cairo gang, the members of FRU had a fondness for posing for group photos although in their case the FRU was not bashful about doing so with weapons in their hands; no suggestive bulges in the trouser pockets for the Force Research Unit!
The following photos of the FRU are all available on the web and have been for some considerable time but it is now possible to identify some of those who feature in them and describe what they did and what part they played in the story of the Troubles and beyond.
The first photo is a portrait of the FRU’s NCO’s, that is non-commissioned officers below the rank of Regimental Sergeant Major aka Warrant Officer Class One (WO1) and it appears to have been taken in 1982 or 1983. From deduction it is seems likely that this photo was taken at a mess night in the Sergeants’ Mess – that is a formal dinner with drinks (usually lots of those) – to which the FRU’s commanding officer (CO), as would be the custom, was invited even though the Sgts Mess would normally not be one of his haunts (more about him below). He would normally be the only officer present at such occasions.
There are forty-one FRU members in the photo, and all but the CO are NCO’s. It is possible from this photo to estimate the total strength of the FRU by comparing it to other similar intelligence organisations such as the SAS and calculating how many officers served with the unit. In the SAS the ratio of officers to NCO’s is around the 1 to 12 level and if the FRU followed that pattern that means there were possibly three or four other officers in the FRU making the unit’s total number well below fifty, not far off the entire operational strength of its major adversary, the Provisional IRA.
The FRU’s NCO’s are wearing what is known as mess or dress uniforms and each one is peculiar to their parent regiment. Members of the FRU were seconded from other regiments to which they would eventually return when their service with the unit had ended. Each regiment takes a pride in its own distinctive mess uniform and some can be quite colourful.
The dreariest suit belongs to the SAS, a standard ‘black tie’ outfit complete with old-fashioned wing collar on their shirts; this may not be their standard mess uniform but an effort to keep their real ensemble a secret even from fellow soldiers. They are dressed incognito in a get up that might be more suitable for an undertaker although some might actually consider such a colour scheme appropriate for the SAS. There are seven FRU members wearing this outfit in the portrait, which means that the FRU may have had seven SAS members seconded to it in the early 1980’s.
The white-haired man wearing a red dinner jacket with black lapels and tartan trousers – the Mess uniform of the Royal Highland Fusiliers – whose head is encircled in green is the FRU’s Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) the highest rank an NCO can reach. Just above that rank in the military totem pole is a Lieutenant. Immediately to his left, to the right as the reader sees it, and circled in blue is the famous “Colonel J” the commander of the FRU.
He is the RSM’s guest and chief and so he is seated next to him. His real name was Gordon Kerr, his parent regiment was the the Gordon Highlanders and he was last heard of in Bejing where he was the military attache at the British Embassy. “Colonel J” gave exculpatory evidence at the trial of Brian Nelson, the UDA intelligence chief and FRU agent who was at the centre of the plot to kill Pat Finucane. Nelson, he claimed, had been recruited to save lives, a claim that was greeted with scepticism in many parts of Northern Ireland.
Circled in yellow is the only woman in the FRU at that time. She is called Margaret Walshaw, known by her colleagues as ‘Mags’, and she was one of Brian Nelson’s handlers and therefore played a key role in his activities, including the murder of Pat Finucane.
There are two FRU members circled in purple and their stories are also of particular interest. The character in the front row, with red hair, is Peter Charles Jones who began working for British military intelligence in Northern Ireland back in 1976. One of the first double agents he handled is also the most famous IRA spy of the Troubles – and possibly the most damaging. Jones was the first handler for Freddie Scappaticci, known as ‘Scap’ to his IRA comrades, whose FRU moniker was Steaknife (that was his proper codename, not Stakeknife which was adopted to avoid legal action against a FRU whistle blower by the British Ministry of Defence).
There is another more engaging photo of Jones below but the man himself is not at all shy about his history with the FRU. On his Linkedin page he freely admits his membership of the FRU, where he was a “Det Commander’, between 1976 and 1984 while FRU’s activities he describes as “Reconnaissance, Special Operations, Counterinsurgency”. “Det” incidentally is a throwback term to the FRU’s immediate predecessor, the 14th Intelligence Company which originally was divided into three detachments or “Dets”. During his service with the FRU he was awarded the Queens Gallantry Medal (1984) and the George Medal (1980). Jones is now a screenwriter but his profile does not say whether any of his work has been professionally produced. If it has been it would be fascinating to watch.
Freddie Scappaticci was a senior figure in the IRA’s counter espionage section, the internal security unit or the IRA’s spy catchers. Born out of the debate about the IRA’s future undertaken by Gerry Adams, Ivor Bell and Brendan Hughes in Long Kesh during the mid 1970’s, the internal security unit was given extraordinary powers to investigate the IRA at all and any levels to uncover RUC, British Army or MI5 agents.
In practice there was little that the unit did not know about the IRA’s affairs and so an agent inside the spy catchers would be of enormous value to the British. According to IRA sources, over the years several key members of the internal security unit were suspected of being informers. Not surprisingly the unit appears not to have been very effective; US sources with inside knowledge say that MI5 has in the past claimed that 30 per cent of the IRA was on the books of British intelligence by the time of the peace process. If true this raises the question of who was really running the organisation at the end. It may well have been people like Peter Jones.
The other FRU member circled in purple was Scappaticci’s other handler, David Moyles. Like Mags Walshaw who is standing beside him, Moyles latter applied for a commission – i.e. promotion to officer rank – and was successful.
The second FRU photo shows members of the unit in portrait pose as Starsky and Hutch wannabes with their vehicles, and is the real equivalent of the Cairo Gang picture. There are nine FRU members in the shot, toting their weapons, which in two cases are non standard issue shotguns; it is possible to infer from the photo that there were three members to each FRU team, a driver and two operatives. The figure circled in yellow is Peter Jones once again, Scappaticci’s original handler. Judging by the colour of the brick in the wall behind them, the photo may well have been taken at British Army headquarters at Thiepval barracks, Lisburn, Co. Antrim.
The next set of photos divide that portrait photo into two halves. The first one shows Ian Hurst, who used the name Martin Ingram in his early dealings with journalists, circled in white. Hurst has played the role of the FRU whistleblower who slowly but surely leaked the identity of Steaknife/Freddie Scappaticci to the media. Hurst met and married a girl from Co Donegal (he was stationed in nearby Derry with the FRU for a while) and this appears to have accelerated his disenchantment with the FRU over the use of Scappaticci and other aspects of their operations.
A chirpy Mancunian, Hurst claims to have discovered Steaknife and his activities by chance; he was on duty when the FRU office was phoned by the RUC who had arrested Scappaticci for drunken driving and ‘Scap’ was cashing in his get out of jail card. Scappaticci’s role with the FRU appears to have involved protecting real informers by sacrificing innocent IRA members many of who died lonely, terrifying deaths sometimes after petrifying interrogations. Morally outraged at all this, Hurst decided to get the Steaknife story into the public domain. There is no doubt at all that his revelations added to public concern over the Pat Finucane killing; if what Hurst was saying about how the FRU did its business was correct then the allegation the unit helped to get Finucane killed became all the more credible.
In the process he earned the enmity of one former FRU colleague in particular (although there is little doubt he would not win any popularity contest with the remainder of his former associates). That particular adversary is the second character circled in white both in the portrait pic and in the second enlarged half. His name is Philip Campbell-Smith and by the looks of him not someone you would like to cross and then encounter in a badly-lit alleyway on a dark night.
Hurst did cross him. Campbell-Smith was reportedly arrested by the Stevens inquiry, set up to investigate leakages of intelligence to Loyalists, for allegedly intimidating Hurst when he declared his willingness to tell Stevens all he knew about the FRU’s activities. Campbell-Smith however was in no position to criticise others for publicising the unit’s deeds. Using the pen name Rob Lewis he published an account of the FRU’s activities, ‘Fishers of Men’, the unit’s official motto. The Amazon blurb reads: “Through the author’s own experiences, the story of an essential instrument in the fight against terrorism, that of covert intelligence gathering, is told.”
In February 2011, Campbell-Smith and three other men – all of them private investigators of one sort or another – pleaded guilty to “blagging” charges. “Blagging” means obtaining confidential information by deception or by impersonating someone else. In their case they had “blagged” information from banks, Interpol, the Criminal Records Bureau and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in Britain and sold it to lawyers. Campbell Smith got an eight month jail term.
The conclusion of the case meant that even more sensational charges against Campbell-Smith could be made public, charges that brought these former FRU operatives to the heart of the hacking scandal that has enveloped Rupert Murdoch and the Cameron Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government in a mire of corruption and wrongdoing.
The hacking scandal was investigated by a senior judge, Lord Leveson who held public hearings in which characters in the drama were cross-examined. One of his witnesses was none other than Ian Hurst who alleged that his computer had been hacked in 2006 on the orders of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, which wanted to know what he was telling journalists about Steaknife.
The hacker, who could only be identified as ‘X’ because of reporting restrictions, inserted a trojan virus into his email system which then copied his emails and other material back to the hacker. The BBC Panorama programme investigated Hurst’s claims and discovered that Campbell-Smith was working for Jonathan Rees, a private investigator who had been contracted by Alex Marunchak, a senior executive at the News of the World, at that point edited by Andy Coulson who was subsequently made David Cameron’s director of communications when the Conservative leader became British prime minister.
Hurst secretly tape-recording an exchange with ‘X’ in which he claimed to be in contact with Coulson and had his number on his rolodex. MI5 discovered that Hurst’s computer had been hacked but failed to tell him. The full story can be read here.
After the “blagging” trial ended the identity of ‘X’ could finally be revealed. It was none other than Philip Campbell-Smith.
So that is the story of the FRU, a unit that makes the Cairo Gang look tame and well-behaved. Its track record of direct and indirect involvement in murder, the endless lies and cover up’s, the deceptions and dirty tricks all culminating in FRU veterans hacking computers for Rupert Murdoch must be one of the most sordid tales in the history of British intelligence.
Little wonder then, that David Cameron, or behind him the shadowy figures who really rule Whitehall, refused to hold a proper public inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane.
This article was first published on The Broken Elbow on December 12th 2012