Statewatch article: RefNo# 25621
Britain’s Force Research Unit
Statewatch Bulletin; vol 13 no 5 August-October 2003
It is now impossible to deny systematic collusion with loyalist paramilitaries

In April 2003, Sir John Stevens, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, gave the first official description of the British Army’s Force Research Unit (FRU). In his brief 24-page report of 17th April, FRU was described simply as ‘the Army’s agent handling unit in Northern Ireland’. This came as part of the only public report on Stevens’ fourteen years of investigation into collusion between the official security forces and unofficial loyalist armed groups.

The significance of the Stevens Report and its public acknowledgement of FRU should not be underestimated. FRU was at the heart of a counter terrorist strategy in which intelligence, police and military operatives actively supported loyalist paramilitary groups and dramatically increased their killing capacity. That support included the sourcing of weapons, the provision of surveillance, the identification of targets and the facilitation of murder operations. Over many years, and especially since the murder of lawyer Pat Finucane in February 1989, a range of evidence has come to light which makes it impossible to continue to deny the reality of systematic collusion. Stevens was obliged to reveal that his inquiries ‘have highlighted collusion, the willful failure to keep records, the absence of accountability, the withholding of intelligence and evidence, and the extreme of agents being involved in murder. These serious acts and omissions have meant that people have been killed or seriously injured.’

It is no surprise that it took Stevens fourteen years to reach this conclusion and to air it publicly. The only surprise is that he has been able to withstand the pressures and has not had his career ruined. Stevens’ investigations have been obstructed on several occasions and he devotes a chapter to the subject in his report. Stevens writes, ‘throughout my three Enquiries I recognised that I was being obstructed. This obstruction was cultural in its nature and widespread within parts of the Army and the RUC.’

FRU was central in obstructing Stevens, once it was clear that Stevens wanted to arrest Army agent Brian Nelson who was acting as head of intelligence for the largest loyalist group, the Ulster Defence Association, at the time of Finucane’s murder. FRU took Nelson’s intelligence records (which FRU itself had been instrumental in creating and organising) into ‘safekeeping’ in an effort to prevent Stevens finding out the significance of Nelson’s role. FRU also tipped Nelson off that Stevens was about to arrest him:

There was a clear breach of security before the planned arrest of Nelson and other senior loyalists. Information was leaked to the loyalist paramilitaries and the press. This resulted in the operation being aborted. Nelson was advised by his FRU handlers to leave home the night before.’ (Stevens Report, p. 13)

A fresh date was set for Nelson’s arrest but the night before, there was a fire in Stevens’ incident room which was ‘never properly investigated’ and which Stevens regards as ‘a deliberate act of arson’.

At the time of Stevens first investigation he sought to examine certain documents (most likely the contact records of agent handlers) but was told in writing that these did not exist. This was a lie and some of the records were eventually handed over to Stevens as recently as November 2002.

FRU: hidden from public scrutiny

Alongside this obstruction, the Ministry of Defence and successive governments have worked hard to prevent any information about FRU from reaching the public domain. As recently as 16th May 2003, the Secretary of State for Defence refused to answer a parliamentary question which merely asked when FRU was established, when it was disbanded and what its mission was. No answers were given and all that exists as a ‘mission statement’ is the FRU’s motto – ‘Fishers of Men’. FRU has now been renamed as the Joint Support Group. While most of the recent revelations about FRU have come in the context of Finucane's murder, FRU's activities, or those of similar units, extend back to the early 1970s and the well-documented attempts to overthrow the Wilson government as part of the Clockwork Orange operation (see Paul Foot's book, Who Framed Colin Wallace? Macmillan 1989).

The only point of substance to have emerged from parliament was that Stevens had by May 2000 interviewed 15 former members of FRU. In December 2000, the Defence Secretary was asked about the number and costs of legal proceedings against newspapers designed to prevent information about FRU being published – information supplied by ex-agents who have been campaigning for better treatment (eg pensions) by the MoD. At the time five court hearings had been held preventing the Mirror Group Newspapers and specifically the Sunday People and the Sunday Times from printing stories about FRU.

Secret, undercover and "independent"

Former foreign editor of Mirror Group Newspapers, Nicholas Davies, succeeded in publishing ‘Ten Thirty-Three, the inside story of Britain’s secret killing machine in Northern Ireland in 1999 (Mainstream Publishing), but only after a delay of two years and the deletion of material from several chapters at the insistence of the MoD. The book claims that its title Ten Thirty-Three refers to Nelson’s secret code number but this is not the case. Part of the game of obfuscation is to set up false leads of names – Stakeknife or Steaknife; Force Reaction Unit, Force Reconnaissance Unit, Field Research Unit; Joint Services Group or Joint Support Group are all examples.

Davies claims that FRU was set up in the early 1980s. One of its forerunners was the Mobile Reaction Force, a unit that was quickly disbanded 'before questions could be asked as to why the squad appeared to have a licence to kill'. MRF's functions were taken over by 14th Intelligence Company, a unit under the control of, and largely staffed by, the SAS. FRU was established as an elite military intelligence unit and operatives were trained by 14th Intelligence and the SAS. FRU had up to 80 officers and about 100 support staff. It became the most important source of high grade human intelligence and the products of its work were passed upwards to the Joint Irish Section and on to the Joint Intelligence Committee in London. FRU, the SAS and 14th Intelligence were operationally coordinated by the Tasking and Coordinating Group, in theory linking MI5 with Army intelligence and RUC Special Branch information. In practice, FRU often acted independently. It often put out 'restriction orders', cleared by the TCG, which meant that all police and military personnel had to leave the designated area. Loyalist gunmen were thereby free to move into republican districts, carry out shootings and escape.

It is tempting to regard the whole FRU scandal as belonging to the ‘dirty war’ in the decades prior to the mid-1990s but special intelligence-led operations continue to dominate policing. As one member of the Stevens' investigation team commented to the Guardian in June (14th ) 2002, the agencies are so obsessed with gathering intelligence that ‘there's no attempt to keep law and order. That is the story of what is going on in Northern Ireland at the moment, not what happened more than ten years ago.’

The present government seems determined to delay for as long as possible the holding of a public inquiry in to the role of FRU or any aspect of its involvement in a substantial number of killings in Northern Ireland. It is incomprehensible why, for example in the Finucane and Lambert cases, the government delays holding a judicial public inquiry, given Stevens’ conclusion that ‘there was collusion in both murders and the circumstances surrounding them’.

Conclusion

For the past eighteen months, Canadian Judge, Peter Cory, has been looking through documents relating to six controversial killings in which collusion has been alleged. This exercise, carried out at the behest of the British and Irish governments, is widely seen as a further delaying tactic. On 7th October (2003), Cory presented his findings but even his recommendations will remain secret for several months until the British and Irish government decide on the information that can be published. It may be that Cory recommends the holding of a ‘truth commission’ as a way of making the acknowledgement of state killings reliant on voluntary testimony. Alternatively, an inquiry held along the lines of the Bloody Sunday inquiry would provide immunity from prosecution for the key operatives involved and give the MoD similar scope for defending them.

There is a long way to go before the governments and ministers who presided over FRU’s activities are brought to account for the murders it colluded in. The fact that the FRU scandal has not shaken the British political establishment suggests the long hard fight to expose the true nature of secret counter terrorist intelligence units is far from over.

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