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MARY: The intelligence we gathered for that job from special branch was that two notorious players would be involved in a murder, an assassination.
PETER TAYLOR: Mary belonged to the army's secret undercover unit, 14 Intelligence Company, the eyes and ears of the SAS, 'the troop' in army language.
MARY: I drove the troop in, five of them, in the back of the van.. an unmarked van, and basically I would take them in, drop them off...
TAYLOR: 14 Intelligence Company, the secret army unit known as 'the DET', were monitoring three AK47s at a farm building in County Armagh. There was intelligence that two of the IRA's most wanted men, Martin McCaughey and Dessie Grew, were coming to pick them up that night. The SAS were waiting.
MARY: It was a quiet night, dark, very, very quiet and still. And the next thing was this thunderous roar of 7.62 fire going down, and it was very loud. You feel the jolt. It's not like watching it on TV when you just hear like a crack or a bang. This is like a kerboom, several of them, shattering the quietness of the night.
TAYLOR: Mr McCaughey and Mr Grew wouldn't have stood much of a chance, would they?
MARY: They walked out of that barn carrying AK47s walking in the direction of the troop guys. At the end of the day they were terrorists on a mission. They chose that and they met their maker.
TAYLOR: This programme reveals how British intelligence tightened the net around the IRA and helped draw them into negotiations.
MARY: The real war in Northern Ireland was the intelligence war. I mean this was the main factor in reducing the IRA, or preventing all of the atrocities that may have taken place. It was all down to the gathering of intelligence by the DET and other agencies.
TAYLOR: In the mid 80s the IRA intensified its campaign in the countryside, hoping to create liberated zones, no go areas for the army and the police. They bombed police stations in East Tyrone and killed workmen who were sent to repair them. When they destroyed the Birches Station the bomb was in a JCB. Ballygawley suffered the same fate with the IRA shooting dead two policemen inside. The IRA was brimful of confidence. The next target was the picturesque village of Loughgal, but this time British Intelligence knew. The information came from a listening device DET surveillance and, we understand, a Special Branch informer within the IRA unit. Seven SAS troopers and three Special Branch officers acted as decoys.
TAYLOR: John joined the RUC Special Branch and became a member of its anti-terrorist unit. We've concealed the identities of undercover agents in this series to protect their security.
JOHN: We went in on the night, the Thursday evening, just as darkness approached we entered the station along with our army colleagues.
TAYLOR: The SAS?
JOHN: The SAS, yes, and we set up base at the station. Got ourselves settled and then waited out for further instructions.
TAYLOR: Where were you?
TAYLOR: ANNA joined 14 Intelligence Company, the DET, in the 80s.
And what did you see?
ANNA: I saw the van and we saw the JCB, and initially we thought it was stuck behind a slow moving vehicle.
TAYLOR: Loughgal was a carbon copy of the Birches, a bomb in the bucket of a JCB. It's job was to smash through the station's flimsy defence.
What goes through your mind when you see this JCB coming towards you?
JOHN: Bomb! I just thought of the Birches again, Ballygawley, and I was sitting right outside the window of the police station. I heard gunfire. I took cover and within seconds a massive explosion. I found myself buried at the corner of the station in rubble inhaling dust and in darkness.
TAYLOR: Did you think you were going to survive?
JOHN: No. At that stage I thought - I'm dead. Simple as that. I thought I was dead.
TAYLOR: And what's going through your head as you're listening to all this gunfire?
ANNA: Well me and my partner we were just very quiet. We were just wondering what had happened, who had been killed, if we'd lost friends.
TAYLOR: Outside the SAS were lying in wait, heavily outnumbering and outgunning the IRA's 8 men. The SAS fired over 200 shots. One of them killed the Special Branch informer who was part of the unit. The van was riddled like a sieve.
And there were 8 dead IRA men.
JOHN: That's correct. It's a tragedy but rather than 3 dead policemen. I think that's a better option.
TAYLOR: And when you heard that there were 8 IRA men dead?
ANNA: I think that you could say we were jubilant. I was amazed that 8 had actually been killed, but yes, we were happy. We thought it was a job well done.
Sir Robert Andrew
TAYLOR: What message did Loughgal and similar incidents send to the IRA?
ANDREW: I hope it sent a message that the British Government was resolute and was going to fight them.
TAYLOR: It was the IRA's biggest loss in modern times. Among the dead were some of its most experienced and ruthless men. Republicans accused the Brits of murder claiming the IRA unit need not have been mowed down in cold blood.
Why wasn't the IRA unit intercepted?
Sir Ronnie Flanagan
TAYLOR: Why weren't they arrested?
FLANAGAN: Well again these are people who attack with such ferocity. They demolished a police station. They opened fire with a whole variety of weapons. So clearly it wasn't possible to arrest them in those circumstances, through the circumstances that they had brought about.
TAYLOR: A few hundred yards from the police station there was a white car. Two brothers were inside. They were innocent civilians caught up in the IRA attack and SAS ambush.
How many times were you hit?
TAYLOR: In the head?
TAYLOR: Where abouts in the head?
HUGHES: To the left-hand side of it, and the back.
TAYLOR: His brother Antony was killed outright. The SAS fired 40 shots into the car.
Do you remember your brother saying anything?
HUGHES: Well he gave a bit of a shout. "Oliver, Oliver, help me". Those are the last few words he said.
FLANAGAN: This is an absolutely unspeakable tragedy. But I have no doubt that that was brought about by a gang of people determined to engage in murder, determined to carry out a gun attack and a bombing attack.
TAYLOR: The SAS did the shooting, not the IRA. They killed Antony Hughes.
FLANAGAN: This is an absolutely unspeakable tragedy and there are no words that can dilute that and I have no doubt where the responsibility and where the blame lies.
TAYLOR: The SAS thought it was an IRA car. It wasn't. The brothers were just returning home from work.
When you look back on what happened, how do you think of that night?
HUGHES: Well I think it was very unjust because they could have had a checkpoint and stopped us from going into there, told of the danger about to take place.
TAYLOR: But there was no checkpoint?
FLANAGAN: I don't know how that would have been possible because the timescale wasn't known. I don't know how you could have brought the village life to a stop, not having detailed information at disposal.
TAYLOR: But wasn't the real reason why there was no cordon around the village is that a cordon would have alerted the IRA to the fact that something was afoot, that their plans were known.
FLANAGAN: No, I'm certain that that isn't the case. I'm certain that had intelligence, had information been precise, then the planning could have been much more precise.
TAYLOR: Did anybody ever say sorry?
TAYLOR: Ministry of Defence?
TAYLOR: British Army?
TAYLOR: No apology.
HUGHES: No, no apology.
TAYLOR: Informants remained the life blood of intelligence, and the Army as well as Special Branch recruits and runs them. Their handlers belong to the Force Research Unit, the FRU. It's so secret it doesn't officially exist. Its motto 'fishers of men' says it all. As much as anything, its fishers need nerve.
GEOFF: You physically walk up to them..
TAYLOR: And say?
GEOFF: And say "I want a word with you", or "hello" use his name and say something like "I'm from British Intelligence, I want 20 seconds of your time. Don't panic, don't run away" and hope that he stands still. If he doesn't, physically hold him. It wouldn't be the first time I was left with a duffle coat in my hands from one of them just taking off.
TAYLOR: Geoff joined the FRU in the mid 80s and handled both IRA and Loyalist agents. One of the agents he ran became notorious, a former British soldier from Belfast called Brian Nelson. By the early 70s Nelson had left the army and joined the Loyalist paramilitaries of the UDA. In 1983 he offered his services to the FRU but disillusioned left after a year and went to live in Germany. In 1986 the FRU brought him back against the specific advice of MI5. Geoff became Brian Nelson's handler.
TAYLOR: Were you involved in that rehabilitation here?
TAYLOR: Astonishingly Nelson rapidly rose to become the UDA's intelligence chief. In theory his job was to alert his handlers about the UDA's latest target. They, in turn, would inform the Tasking and Coordinating Group, the TCG. The TCG operates from this office and consists of representatives from the agencies of British Intelligence. They decide what action should be taken to thwart terrorist operations and thus save life. But it didn't always work out like that. Nelson didn't tell his handlers everything, and even when he did, their superiors didn't always act. Nelson gave the killers cards containing personal details of dozens of Republican suspects. He'd compiled them with the help of his handlers. Geoff now admits that his secret army unit actually aided and abetted in murder. On occasions would you have give him the kind of information he was looking for?
GEOFF: No, but I would say to him perhaps you don't have that wrong now.
TAYLOR: But if you confirmed the vehicle registration, and if the person who owns that car is targeted by the UDA, UFF, and killed, then you're complicit in the killing of that person aren't you because you've confirmed the registration number. That's the real difficulty.
GEOFF: Well it's a fine line you walk.
TAYLOR: But the secret unit didn't stop Nelson crossing that line. He's believed to have been involved in over a dozen killings. In the end he pleaded guilty to five charges of conspiracy to murder. Three of those targeted survived. One was killed by mistake, and one was attacked in the middle of the night. His name was Gerard Slane. Nelson had supplied his photograph and file card to the killers.
TERESA SLANE: There was four gunmen and they just took him down on the stairs, just gunned him down. Blood was all over the walls.
TAYLOR: In the end things got too hot for both Nelson and the FRU. He was exposed as a British agent. The judge sentenced him to 10 years for his part in planning murders. At his trial, the FRU's commanding officer paid tribute to Nelson's work. Geoff was of the same view.
GEOFF: He saved, in my estimation, dozens of lives. He was essential to what.. I'll use the word the war effort, and gave us an insight into the Loyalist organisations that we never ever had in the past, and I believe don't now. He was a jewel in the crown.
TAYLOR: But to Republicans, Brian Nelson was living proof of collusion, the instrument used by British Intelligence to wipe out its enemies. The fact that Nelson usually tipped off his handlers cut no ice.
Brian Nelson had warned his handler 11 days before your husband was killed, and what is more, the day before your husband was killed, that he was being targeted.
TAYLOR: We don't know that the warning ever got to the RUC, but we do know, astonishingly from Geoff's own lips, that the FRU helped Nelson plan murder.
Brian Nelson went to gaol because he was involved in conspiracies to murder.
GEOFF: Yes, at our behest.
TAYLOR: He was encouraged to be involved in those conspiracies.
GEOFF: Yes he was.
TAYLOR: By you and your colleagues.
GEOFF: Yes he was.
TAYLOR: By the FRU.
TAYLOR: By British Intelligence.
TAYLOR: Served their purpose.
TAYLOR: And he went to gaol.
GEOFF: Yes. I am ashamed of it. He wasn't protected as was promised to him. 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.
TAYLOR: British Intelligence relied not just on agents but on blanket surveillance, in particular in the border areas of South Armagh. Here in the IRA's most impenetrable stronghold the DET couldn't mingle with the locals with the freedom it did elsewhere. In order to watch their movements, increasingly sophisticated technology took over, not just from the air but also on the ground.
Did you monitor IRA suspects on the other side of the border?
KEN: Yes, we did, one particular one, yes, which we were watching him for some two years.
TAYLOR: Two years?
TAYLOR: Ken served with the DET for a number of years. His speciality was high-tech surveillance.
And what could you see?
KEN: You could see.. well we could read his number plate on his car, let's put it that way. Using a large lens we could look into this character's house. We would watch him morning, noon, night. We could see even in pitch black we could see what he was actually doing. Day time in colour we could see what he's having for breakfast, if he's having a cooked breakfast or he's having cornflakes, whether his children were ready for school.
TAYLOR: Is this a live camera you're trying to put in place?
KEN: It is, yes.
TAYLOR: Transmitting live..
KEN: Live pictures going back via microwave link to Portadown.
TAYLOR: So people in Portadown can sit and watch a senior IRA suspect going about his business.
KEN: His day to day business, or his not so day to day business.
TAYLOR: However covert the techniques, there were few the IRA did not know about. Cameras were found in fields, bugs in houses and tracking devices in cars. But most remained in place transmitting vital intelligence on the IRA. The effect was devastating.
What did the technology enable British Intelligence to do?
TAYLOR: Contain them.
B. HUGHES: To contain it, yes.
TAYLOR: By the early 90s British Intelligence had dealt the IRA a series of crushing blows. The policy of attrition and containment was paying off. The IRA's leadership knew it now had a choice, to carry on killing and dying or talk.
Why did the IRA decide to talk?
Sir Ronnie Flanagan
B. HUGHES: I think prominent IRA people came to the conclusion that the British military regime could not be defeated and there had to be negotiations and that was the only way through it.
Did the operations of the police and the army, in particular the covert units of both, force the IRA down that road?
FLANAGAN: I think undoubtedly that was a factor in the equation. It wasn't the only factor but I think it was a very important factor.
TAYLOR: By early 1991 the pieces were beginning to fall into place. Putting them together involved the government in the most sensitive operation of all, communicating with the IRA. It was done in the utmost secrecy. The ground was laid by the MI6 officer Michael Oatley. He'd negotiated the IRA ceasefire in the mid 70s and helped end the first hunger strike. He now re-emerged from the shadows.
TAYLOR: How did Martin McGuinness strike you?
OATLEY: Well I hadn't met him before and I was very considerably impressed by his firmness of manner. I thought he was obviously an intelligent interlocutor, in some ways rather like talking to a middle ranking British Army officer of one of the tougher regiments like the Paras of the SAS.
TAYLOR: Although Oatley had not been authorised to meet McGuinness, he told the government what he had done. MI5 then officially took over. In 1993 the government received a dramatic message, allegedly from McGuinness himself. It said "The conflict is over but we need your advice on how to end it".
Sir Patrick Mayhew
TAYLOR: But the secret exchanges ended when the IRA bombed a fish shop on the Protestant Shankill Road. Their target was Loyalist Paramilitaries, thought to be meeting upstairs - they were not. Ten people died in the blast, including one of the bombers. Gerry Adams carried the bomber's coffin. The Prime Minister John Major made no secret of his feelings about talking to Adams.
JOHN MAJOR: I can only say that would turn my stomach over and that of most people in this House and we will not do it.
TAYLOR: Yet this was the man with whose organisation the government had been conducting a secret dialogue for over two years. Within days of the Shankill bomb the secret contacts were dramatically revealed. Mayhew faced the press.
Were you nervous?
MAYHEW: Oh of course, of course, because there they all were, slavering for blood, a good opportunity to screw this minister, here he is on the most tender of all subjects and it looks as though he's been negotiating when he said he hadn't.
[28th November 1993]
"Nobody has been authorised to undertake talks or negotiations on behalf of the government with the IRA, with Sinn Fein, with any organisation that undertakes terrorism, undertakes violence, for political purposes."
Perfectly true I'd said we hadn't been negotiating. I never said that there had been no conversation of any sort. And so that was a very difficult time.
TAYLOR: After much further blood letting on both sides, the IRA finally declared a ceasefire. The Loyalist Paramilitaries soon followed suit. But the government was not convinced that the IRA were sincere and demanded assurances that its ceasefire was permanent. The Brits were not going to lower their guard.
TAYLOR: And what was the IRA doing during its ceasefire?
KEN: It was targeting various organisations, people from RUC, posing organisations to sectarian targeting, and planning operations for future.
TAYLOR: So during the ceasefire you carried on with your operations?
KEN: Yes, we did.
TAYLOR: The IRA ceasefire held, but the political talks it had been led to believe would follow did not materialise. The rank and file grew impatient, in particular in South Armagh. Increasingly the IRA felt they'd been duped by the Brits.
Chief of Staff
TAYLOR: The impact came in the heart of London's Docklands and it was massive. However far reaching the Intelligence umbrella, the Brits were unable to anticipate the IRA's every move.
Sir Ronnie Flanagan
TAYLOR: The hopes of the emerging peace process were shattered in a night. Hardly the best start for the new head of the anti-terrorist squad.
TAYLOR: And when you're standing there in the debris, about to start the new job, what goes through your mind?
GRIEVE: Well I suppose you wouldn't be human if you didn't ask yourself gosh, where do I start here, looking at the scale of the devastation.
TAYLOR: Grieve and his team then profiled the vehicle that had delivered the bomb. By studying motorway surveillance cameras they tracked its journey from Carlisle to London. The public was then asked to help.
GRIEVE: About the 300th call out of 800 from the public was somebody who said your bomb truck was parked outside my business on a piece of wasteland and there is material still here after three of four days that I think they threw off the vehicle, and out of that we found clues to the bomb truck's route and eventually to its delivery mechanism.
TAYLOR: The Breakthrough came from three sets of thumb prints all belonging to the bomber - the triple thumb print man. But his identity remained a mystery, at least for the time being. With the ceasefire shattered, the Brits faced a renewed IRA campaign. In South Armagh a single shot sniper became the soldiers deadly nightmare. He'd already killed nine members of the Security Forces. One had been lucky to survive. His helmet took the force of the high velocity round.
TAYLOR: What was the psychological impact on soldiers of the sniper?
CHIEF of STAFF: I think the sniper had quite a major impact. You never knew where it was going to come from. You got virtually no warning. The fact that the sniper was very successful that if he fired in the majority of cases you were killed. That clearly had an impact.
CORPORAL: I think it's the fact that you suddenly realise that somebody is there to kill you. You know, it doesn't sort of hit you when you have shoots before, but when.. with it being a sniper it's one to one. Well it's not even one to one, I mean you haven't got the chance that he has. But for somebody to pick you out and say right, you're the one, you are going to die. That's been the hardest think.
TAYLOR: The five foot long Barrett sniper rifle was mounted in the back of a Mazda and fired from behind a hinged armoured plate. Stephen Restorick was unemployed and desperately wanted a job, so he joined the army.
TAYLOR: In February 1997 Stephen was manning a checkpoint in the village of Bessbrook in South Armagh. He was checking a woman's driving license when the sniper squeezed the trigger.
And when you heard what had happened?
RITA: I think it's the usual reaction of anybody who hears the same thing, it's just total disbelief. Slowly.. you know, I mean I just.. when the policeman told me I just said no, it's not true, it's not true. And.. you know, from there you have to make the.. well what I would say the hardest journey anyone has to make.
TAYLOR: The intelligence agencies had their suspicions as to who the sniper team were. The problem was getting the evidence. Gradually, over long months, 14 Intelligence Company - the DET - helped build up the picture.
TAYLOR: Covert technical surveillance in such a hostile environment was enormously difficult and the DET's ingenuity was stretched to the limit.
KEN: You would be picking out things in day time what you could probably use to disguise the cameras, whether it be an old wellington boot that lays there or a rock, a significant rock.
TAYLOR: A rock?
KEN: Yes. You would photograph the rock with infrared, take it back and try and replicate that rock as best as you can and replace that rock with another one with a camera hidden in it.
TAYLOR: So the camera is hidden inside..
KEN: Inside a rock, yes.
TAYLOR: Presumably the operation that you were involved in was replicated all over the place.
KEN: All across, to find out exactly who it was, yes.
TAYLOR: So all the suspects were identified, monitored.
KEN: Identified. Monitored.
TAYLOR: Movements known.
TAYLOR: Watched, recorded.
KEN: Recorded and acted upon, yes, as and when required.
TAYLOR: Intelligence pinpointed a border farm where the team were preparing a shoot. Four IRA men were getting their vehicles ready when the SAS swooped and made the arrest. In the search they found the rifle's lethal ammunition, and in end the rifle itself, concealed under the floor of a horsebox.
CHIEF of STAFF: We caught them. We caught them red-handed. We'd struck a blow.. the first proper blow probably for 20 years against South Armagh Para who'd almost thought they had become invincible. We'd struck right at the heart of their morale and their feeling of invincibility. It was a great feeling for all the members of the army and for the police because we'd worked a long time to achieve this. We'd lost Bombardier Restorick a couple of months before and we really felt that this was one back for him.
Sir Ronnie Flanagan
TAYLOR: The IRA weren't actually holding weapons at the time of the arrest. Unlike previous allegations of shoot to kill, in this case no shots were fired.
CHIEF of STAFF: Above all, I think the fact that we had arrested them and not shot them, not killed them, was, I think, very important as well because it sent a message that there weren't going to be any martyrs. They'd been caught red-handed, they were going to go down, that they were no longer invincible.
TAYLOR: One of those arrested was Seamus McAardle. He wasn't just a member of the sniper team, he was also the illusive triple thumb print man behind the Docklands bomb. John Grieve's mystery was solved.
TAYLOR: The sniper team was tried and convicted in Belfast and sentenced to long years in prison. The irony is that following the election of Tony Blair, a second IRA ceasefire and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the sniper team will soon be released. Such is the price of the hoped for peace. In Belfast Rita Restorick was in court to see her son's killers tried and convicted.
Those who were sentenced for the killing of your son and others too, will be released very shortly under the Good Friday Agreement. How do you feel about that, to see your son's killers go free and the killers of others?
RITA RESTORICK: It's very hard, like it is for all the other people who are having to see this happen, but if we could be sure that this route we're taking works, and there'd be no more killing, then it's something we have to accept.
TAYLOR: At the moment there's no guarantee that the route will work. For years the stumbling block to cementing a lasting peace has been the IRA's refusal to hand over or destroy its weapons. That's what the British Government and the Ulster Unionists have always demanded. But for the IRA it's been a step too far. Why is it so illogical to ask the IRA to decommission its arsenal if the IRA is really interested in peace?
TAYLOR: The restoration of the Executive and the return of Martin McGuinness as Minister for Education is reason for optimism. It's happened because the IRA was prepared to open its bunkers for inspection. But the gesture doesn't impress many who spent their lives putting McGuinness' colleagues behind bars. To them, opening up bunkers isn't the same as giving up guns.
TAYLOR: For now the peace process is back on track. Hundreds of soldiers are preparing to go home. They believe their job has been done.
What has the army achieved?
CHIEF of STAFF: Six hundred killed, six thousand wounded, thirty years of experience. I think what we have achieved is that we've held the line. We've contained terrorism to allow a wider strategic political plan to be developed and implemented, and I think we've done that job pretty well.
TAYLOR: If the peace process moves to its conclusion, these soldiers will be the first of many to leave. Much rides on the IRA statement that it will put its arms completely and verifiably beyond use. We are where we are today because the Brits pursued their own armalite and ballot box strategy, tough security matched by political initiatives. After 30 years the Brits have not defeated the IRA but forced it to face political reality.
In the light of the IRA's recent statement, do you believe that the war is over?
FLANAGAN: That's a very significant statement. It goes further than anything we've heard publicly from them before.
BURNS: I think its amazing and to the credit of all the parties in Northern Ireland that we've made the progress we have. I think we delude ourselves if we think that the process of healing and of finding a peaceful way forward is yet complete.
FLANAGAN: What I can say with confidence and optimism is that we'll never go back to the dark days. The public of Northern Ireland won't have to go back to the dark days, and the public further a field won't have to go back to the dark days they had to endure for almost 30 years. It may be too soon to say the war is over. I think we can say the war is ending.
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