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Those at the top knew about British army’s Northern Ireland death squad killings

This article is over 8 years, 2 months old
Simon Basketter looks at part of the history of British army terror tactics in Northern Ireland and what BBC’s Panorama didn’t tell us about death squads.
Issue 2381

A secret army “terror” unit set up in the early 1970s was given licence to operate a shoot-to-kill policy. 

Soldiers from the Military Reaction Force (MRF) undercover unit carried out a series of drive-by shootings where people were killed and injured.

“We were in a position to go after IRA and kill them when we found them,” a former MRF soldier told the BBC’s Panorama.

The unit’s existence is well known, but the BBC got some  of its members to speak on camera last week. The soldiers are unrepentant.

Comprised of 40 men, the secret unit carried out patrols of west Belfast between 1971 and 1973.

They would drive by barricades—which were set up in West Belfast to keep out the British army and Loyalist mobs—and open fire. 

According to the official history, the conflict in Northern Ireland was about two warring tribes—the Catholics and Protestants, who had to be kept apart for their own sake by British soldiers.


But in reality the British occupation of Northern Ireland was brutal, repressive and murderous. 

In 1972, the British Army took overall responsibility for security in Northern Ireland.  

In a document prepared by Army General Staff in October 1971, under the heading, Tougher Military Measures and Their Implications, the following suggestion was included.

“More aggressive tactics against gunmen such as the formation of Q squads in special areas, to mystify, mislead and destroy the terrorists. 

“The IRA has the initiative and is causing disruption out of all proportion to the relatively small numbers engaged. 

“This is not to credit the IRA with any unusual skill; it is the normal pattern of urban guerrilla activity when the guerrillas are not opposed by a ruthless and authoritarian governmental machine.”

On May 12, 1972 the MRF killed Patrick McVeigh and injured four others at a west Belfast barricade.

Patrick’s daughter Patricia said, “I’m astonished, astounded, angry, that the forces that were supposed to be protecting us had actually killed my father and injured four other men.”

Six weeks later another drive-by shooting at the Glen Road bus terminus left four men injured. 

In another shooting, 18 year old Daniel Rooney was killed and his friend Brendan Brennan wounded.

As Socialist Worker reported in 2007, former Loyalists have claimed that the MRF also trained Loyalist paramilitaries.

Politicians at the highest levels knew about the death squads. The Tory Home secretary Willie Whitelaw was told about them at their launch. 

And a secret briefing paper was put together for Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in 1974 which outlined the history of the death squads—so he could deny their existence to the Irish government.

Any operational records for the MRF have been destroyed.

Brutal philosophy of British terror unit commander

In 1971 British army brigadier Frank Kitson proposed establishing “counter gangs” to defeat the rapidly developing “insurgency” in Northern Ireland.

The philosophy was simple and brutal—terrorise Catholics. Kitson had served in several colonial campaigns for the British Empire. These convinced him that conventional warfare was on the way out. 

He is credited with introducing the technique into Kenya during the Mau Mau war. 

Kitson was posted to Northern Ireland as commander of 39 Brigade in Belfast in 1970. 

Counter-insurgency methods were introduced including psychological warfare and the use of black propaganda. 

The “black propaganda” team was part of creating the cover up of Bloody Sunday, when British troops murdered 14 civilians in Derry in 1972.

But beyond murdering people they were often ineffective. The Four Square Laundry was a bogus service operated by MRF in order to carry out surveillance. 

Clothes were taken to Army HQ at Lisburn to be forensically tested for explosive residues. 

The IRA shot a plainclothes soldier driving a van for the Four Square Laundry and two other spies hidden in the roof. 

The same day Gemini Massage Parlour, another MRF operation was also attacked by the IRA.

Rather than winding up the death squads the army responded by professionalising them.

From the late 1970s onwards, both Labour and Tory governments backed the Force Research Unit (FRU) which supplied names, addresses and photographs of targets to paramilitaries. 

During this time the FRU worked alongside the Special Branch of Northern Ireland’s police force. In the 1980s, the FRU was led by Colonel Gordon Kerr. 

Later, he headed British intelligence in Iraq. The unit is now called the Special Reconnaissance Regiment. 

As well as deploying in the Middle East and Somalia it provided the “intelligence” behind the shooting of Jean Charles De Menezes.

‘You shot the wrong fuckers’

Gerry and John Conway were walking to the Falls Road to catch a bus when a car pulled up in front of them in April 1972. 

Three men jumped from the car and fired automatic pistols at them. One of the men pursued them, firing as he went, and succeeded in wounding both of them. 

According to one Military Reaction Force officer, “We ran after them and the patrol commander gave the order ‘bullets’. I scored several hits myself—both men were severely wounded. 

“We radioed for a uniformed patrol. When it turned up, their commander said to ours, ‘You stupid bastards, you’ve shot the wrong fuckers’.”

MRF soldiers shot at one another 

An hour-long gun battle took place in the Catholic New Lodge area of Belfast. 

When it ended, one soldier lay dead, Robert Cutting of the Royal Marines, while a second was seriously injured. 

Both sides in the gun battle were soldiers—one side in uniform and the other in civilian clothes from the MRF. 

Getting away with murder?

John Larkin QC, the Attorney General in Northern Ireland, has called for an end to “prosecutions, inquests and other inquiries” into deaths before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. 

This would prevent any investigation into the death squads.

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