Page last updated at 15:29 GMT, Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Informant questions unanswered

Murals in republican area of Belfast
Some informers had never been out of their home areas

By Ruth McDonald
BBC News

Brian Maynard (not his real name) sits in his reclining chair in his sitting room, remembering his old job.

Today, he is retired, and can often be found relaxing at home with his family, or enjoying a game of golf.

But for 30 years he was at the heart of Northern Ireland's intelligence-gathering operation. He ran informers, and trained informant handlers in the old RUC Special Branch.

"Some of these people, believe it or believe it not, have never been out of the areas from which they are born in," he remembers.

"When you say 'meet me in Newcastle, meet me in Bangor' they don't know what you are talking about, and if you are going into their area of occupation, well then, it's manpower intensive again, and you run the risk of being spotted or him being spotted.

"Obviously the worst compromise you can have is an agent handler shot in the company of his resource, because it's very hard to say we weren't seeing him for gathering intelligence if he's lying dead beside you - if you're still alive yourself that is."

Newspaper featuring bomb headline
Using agents stopped bombings and saved lives, the ex-officers say

Brian and his Special Branch colleagues were essentially inventing an intelligence system that had never been tried anywhere in the UK.

Raymond White was the former head of Special Branch in the old RUC, but before the Troubles started, he was a country policeman working the beat in Fermanagh.

"There was no text book you can lift off the shelf," he said.

"There was nothing that the Association of Chief Police Officers or anyone in Scotland and Wales could hand to you because nobody had experienced it in any shape or form."

"So when you looked at what was available to you, you had a page and a half of home office guidelines issued in 1969 which did not even recognise at that stage what you would call organised crime let alone terrorism... it was steep learning curve".

Part of that learning curve encompassed people like Kevin Fulton (not his real name), a former agent who claims to have saved many lives by passing intelligence about the IRA to the security forces.

We met him in a London hotel, and on a hot September day he is bundled up in a big blue jacket.

Halfway through the interview, when the tea we've ordered finally arrives, he opens his jacket and pulls out a long wire and a microphone.

He calmly informs us that he's been recording us in case we "stitched him up".

"I basically had to become a terrorist," he said calmly. "I had to live a lie seven days a week."

He felt a sense of kinship with his handlers.

Nuala O'Loan
Dame Nuala O'Loan said there were questions over informant handling

"We were all living in a biscuit tin", he said.

"We were all fighting the same war, a secret war. Basically my secrets were their secrets. We lived in our own little world, we were basically doing an undercover war."

Even those closest to him didn't realise what he was doing, he claims.

He said he was watching a television programme one night - ironically about informers - and he realised it was his chance to reveal what he did to his family.

"I said to my wife, 'Listen, I am one of those people', and my wife laughed. She thought I was mad, and I said, 'Honestly I am one of those people'... and I would say the ground just opened up on her," he said.

Brian Maynard knows the danger of exposure only too well.

"I had to remove some people out of the country or they would have been shot" he remembers.

"And you had some people working as informers and their families had absolutely no idea.

"They couldn't tell them because of the inherent dangers... and if they did tell them, especially in the republican psyche, their families may have given them up.

"So the families didn't know they were passing intelligence - didn't know they were saving lives, didn't know they were stopping bombings and robberies and mutilations and kidnappings."

Lessons

But the former Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Dame Nuala O'Loan, said there were serious questions about the RUC's informant handling over the years.

Her investigations into how the Branch conducted informant handling led her to a firm conclusion.

"They didn't comply with the law", she states.

"They routinely destroyed papers, they didn't report honestly and accurately on what informers were involved in, they didn't allow the detectives to have the information which might have allowed them to apprehend murderers and the perpetrators of other serious crime... of course they broke the law."

"I was doing it for over 30 years. Don't judge me on what's available today," Brian Maynard said.

"Me and the people who worked with me got intelligence, and dealt with it in a professional manner based on what we had available to us... obviously it's 30 years past".

Raymond White admits to coming close to breaking the law, but says intelligence isn't an exact science.

"You were lucky on some occasions if you could actually see the tree, let alone the forest," he said.

But Mrs O'Loan said the past needs to be looked at again, to bring lessons forward into the future.

"There are too many questions to which there are no answers" she said.

"And I think the essence of it was because there was no structure, because there was no process. In running the informants and not managing them in accordance with the rules they actually created a situation in which the informants went on committing more and more crime.

"And you have to get to the stage in which you ask yourself in the way they handled informants was the situation exacerbated - and you have to ask yourself, what's the learning?

"What's the learning for England and Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland and all the other places who face... the global terrorist threat."

Part one of Enemies Within is on BBC Radio 4 at 1100 GMT on Friday, 7 November.


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