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Wednesday, 31 May, 2000, 21:21 GMT 22:21 UK
Dark side of the war
By Peter Taylor
The story of Brian Nelson is one of the murkiest episodes in Britain's secret intelligence war in Northern Ireland.
Nelson, a former British soldier from the Shankill Road, was a British agent operating as the intelligence chief of the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA), providing the vital intelligence that guided its killers to their targets.
He was directed to do so by the secret army unit for which he worked known as the Force Research Unit - the FRU. The FRU recruited and handled agents. Its crest is a man with a net - its motto "Fishers of Men".
Beyond the law
Astonishingly, the FRU helped Nelson with the intelligence he handed on to the killers. It's a shocking story straight out of the pages of a fantasy thriller but it's true, confirmed in a remarkable interview with "Geoff", one of Nelson's handlers, for our BBC2 series, "Brits".
Tracking him down took months. When it comes to covert operations, the MOD's doors are double-locked and bolted. Geoff admits that Nelson "strayed outside the law at our behest" and feels disgusted that when his activities came to light, he was "hung out to dry" by the Establishment.
He's the first Nelson handler to break his silence. The implications of what he says and the questions raised by it are massive.
The killing of Gerard Slane on 22 September 1988 sheds chilling light on how Nelson operated and shows how fine was the line the FRU trod.
They claimed that he'd been involved in the killing of one of their own a fortnight earlier. An RUC detective said there was nothing to suggest that he had.
The last words his wife heard were Gerard screaming, "Teresa, it's the "Orangies"!". She rushed out onto the landing and saw her husband lying dead.
Unmasking an agent
Brian Nelson had provided the UFF with the detailed intelligence that had enabled the "hit" to go ahead. He had found Slane's address, checked it in the electoral register, got hold of a photograph and made out a personal file on him - all with the blessing of the FRU.
Nelson was finally unmasked as an army agent involved in murder in 1990 after John Stevens, then the Deputy Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire, investigated collusion between the security forces and the loyalist paramilitaries.
But these charges were suspected to be only the tip of an iceberg of conspiracy and killing that involved Nelson, the FRU and British intelligence.
Geoff first met Brian Nelson at the beginning of 1987. "He seemed quite a nice person. A family man. He told me he hated violence and he didn't agree with the way in which loyalists were carrying out their attacks.
He saw himself as the spear-point in the thrust against terrorism." That's why in the early 1980s, Nelson had originally offered his services the FRU and became the UDA's intelligence chief in West Belfast.
After two years, he decided to quit and went to work in Germany. Whilst he was away, loyalist killings dramatically increased from four in 1985 to fifteen in 1986. Most of the victims were innocent Catholics.
Apparently MI5 was dead against the idea and believed that Nelson should be left where he was. Army intelligence felt differently. Nelson was given a code-name - Agent 6137.
Geoff became his co-handler and was responsible for his resettlement in Belfast. "We brought his family back into this dangerous job, paid the deposit on a house and car and set him up in a taxi firm. We paid him a salary of £100 a month in cash to do this job specifically for us.
" At the time there was a lack of information coming in from the loyalist side and we needed someone to give us that information. They were just killing people and they didn't care who they were. To me Brian Nelson was a patriot doing an extraordinary job."
Again, with surprising rapidity, Nelson rose to become the UDA's intelligence chief for the whole of the province. His orders from the FRU were to encourage the UFF to stop killing innocent Catholics and concentrate its murderous energies on targeting suspected republican terrorists.
The FRU helped Nelson with the intelligence to carry out the killings. "We suggested that he collate all the information and we taught him the rudimentary system of compiling file cards and photographs."
Geoff showed him how to do it. It was naïve of army intelligence to imagine that Nelson could carry out his mission without becoming involved in conspiracies to murder and even in murder itself.
To do otherwise would mean his life expectancy would be short in such a dangerous double game.
Warnings that failed
Theoretically, the FRU encouraged Nelson to focus the UFF's targeting on IRA suspects so it could save lives, the idea being that once it was known that an attack was due to take place, the target could be warned or steps taken to prevent it.
This is how the chain was supposed to work. Nelson would warn Geoff: Geoff would alert his superiors; the FRU would then alert the RUC's Tasking and Coordinating Group (TCG) that comprises all the intelligence agencies from Special Branch to M15.
They then would decide what, if any, action to take. On some occasions the system worked as intended and lives were saved. On many others it did not and lives were lost, sometimes by mistake.
But when Nelson passed on information to his handlers, it wasn't always acted upon. In the case of Gerard Slane, Nelson warned one of Geoff's successors on two occasions that Slane was being targeted, ten days before the attack and finally the day before the attack itself.
Teresa Slane knew nothing of it. She had no warning visit from the RUC and no attempt was made to thwart it. "My husband might have been here today were it not for the RUC," she says bitterly.
There are many questions still to be answered, not least why the killers themselves, whose identities Nelson knew, were not arrested and stopped.
But Nelson didn't always pass on the information. Those who came to know him said he also had a passionate hatred for the IRA and a "psychopathic tendency".
This may have inclined him to act on his own as well as with the encouragement of the FRU. Geoff claims Nelson did much of the intelligence work himself and had to do so to maintain his own credibility with the UFF.
Treading a fine line
Geoff was aware that people would get suspicious and his agent's life was on the line every day. But did Geoff personally ever supply him with information? "No, not directly. But if he said, "is that so-and-so's registration, I would say to him, "you don't have that wrong."
It was the beginning of the slippery slope. If that was the case, I asked, and the car owner was killed, weren't he and the FRU complicit in murder? Geoff was matter of fact.
"Well, it's a fine line you walk," he said. I pointed out that in the end Nelson went to gaol for conspiracies to murder. "Yes," he replied, "at our request." Encouraged by him and his colleagues? "Yes". And by the FRU? "Yes". And by British intelligence? "Yes".
As a result, I added, Nelson went to gaol. "Yes and I'm ashamed of it. Brian believed, not that he was bullet proof, but that he had protection from us and that what he was doing, he was doing at our request and therefore he had immunity - and he didn't."
Geoff is bitter. "He saved, in my estimation, dozens of lives. He was essential to the war effort and gave us an insight into the loyalist organisations we never had in the past - and I believe don't have now.
" He was the jewel in the crown. I'm ashamed at the way he's been treated by the Establishment who had used him and guided him and put him in that position. I promised Brian that the Establishment would look after him and it didn't. It let him down and I'm ashamed of that."
Towards the end of his time as handler, Geoff did become concerned at the way that Nelson was behaving and recommended to his superiors that he should be stood down for a while.
But his report was ignored. "I was told that he was too important and that he had to stay in place because of the information coming in was so vital."
Nelson had provided the killers with a photograph that featured Finucane leaving the court with one of his clients. This remains one of the matters still under investigation by John Stevens, now, eleven years later, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.
But Brian Nelson's legacy did not end with his sentencing. He not only distributed his intelligence storehouse to the UFF in Belfast but to its organisation all over the province - and he did so without the knowledge or approval of his handlers.
Likewise, dissemination didn't stop with the UFF. On several occasions, Nelson copied his intelligence material and handed it over to the UFF's loyalist rivals in the UVF and Red Hand Commando.
Nelson spread his net wide with the result that, should the ceasefires end, the loyalist paramilitaries still have a republican hit list provided by a British agent.
There's still one question to be asked. If, when his inquiries are finally complete, Sir John Stevens recommends prosecution of members of the FRU - or higher - on conspiracy charges, will the prosecutions go ahead?
Or will they, like those in the wake of the Stalker inquiry, be conveniently buried "in the national interest". Such are the political dilemmas when covert operations become public.
Peter Taylor's series, Brits, was broadcast in May 2000 as the final part of his trilogy on The Troubles.
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