Transcript of Westminster Hall Debate - Glenanne Gang Murders
PFC | 12 November 2013
Debate with contributions by Mark Durkan MP and Anna Soubry MP on Glenanne Gang
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan, even if the subject matter is sombre.
A recently published book by Anne Cadwallader, “Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland”, is the result of work by the Pat Finucane Centre and work previously conducted by members of the Historical Enquiries Team in investigating a number of historical murders in Northern Ireland. The reports by the Historical Enquiries Team, of course, were made available to families, but were not published. That is the basis on which it has worked. The reports on 10 murders were made available to the Pat Finucane Centre.
The Pat Finucane Centre, through Anne Cadwallader, has worked painstakingly to spell out the narrative that emerges from those 10 reports by the HET, but also to build on the work of document recovery and evidential pursuit, which has taken the Pat Finucane centre to the National Archives in Kew. Although the issues in the book “Lethal Allies” pose fundamental questions about the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Northern Ireland Office and armed groups, we should not ignore the fact that it also spells out sharp questions about the Ministry of Defence—not least, but not only, in respect of its oversight of the Ulster Defence Regiment in those years.
The book dwells on the deadly, devastating work of what was called the Glenanne gang. It was more of a syndrome than a fixed gang, because, as the book points out, what was initially thought of as a gang operating in what was called the “triangle of death” or “murder triangle”, ended up being a network, able to source members in the UDR or serving in the RUC—particularly in the part-time reserve—at the time of its involvement in the paramilitary activities. It was also able to source a lot of its weaponry in raids in UDR armouries, one of which was a joint UDR-Territorial and Army Volunteer Reserve armoury. The documentary evidence shows that even the MOD suspected that the raids involved large degrees of collusion.
I shall take a selective skimming of the evidence, but I hope that it is relevant. A letter in July 1972 from Army headquarters Northern Ireland, from the civil adviser to the general officer commanding, acknowledges an earlier letter asking about UDR involvement in the UDA. The letter, to Lieutenant-Colonel J.L. Powell in the Adjutant General Secretariat at the Minister of Defence main building in Whitehall, also says, among other things:
“The UDR has to draw a line somewhere between hard-line Protestants who can safely be contained in the UDR, and those who cannot. The UDA is not an illegal organisation, and membership of the UDA is not an offence under the military laws; it is also a large organisation not all of whose members can be regarded as dangerous extremists. One important (but unspoken) function of the UDR is to channel into a constructive and disciplined direction Protestant energies which might otherwise become disruptive. For these reasons it is felt that it would be counter-productive to discharge a UDR member solely on the grounds that he was a member of the UDA.”
The letter later says:
“Similarly, it is not formally laid down that where an applicant to join the UDR is found to be a member of the UDA, his application must automatically be rejected.”
It goes on:
“I am sure that this moderate line towards UDA supporters is the right one in view of the role of the UDA as a safety valve. In my opinion it would be politically unwise to dismiss a member of the UDA from the UDR unless he had committed a military offence; the dismissal of a member of the UDR on lesser grounds could well lead to wide-spread morale problems particularly in certain areas.”
Tellingly for MPs, it goes on to say:
“I recognise the reasons why Ministers might wish to be able to say unequivocally, in reply to Parliamentary Questions, that membership of the UDA is not compatible with membership of the UDR and that we have no evidence that any UDR member is actively associated with the UDA. But I fear it would be wrong to offer categorical assurances on either point, and indeed it might be very damaging politically if Ministers were to make a public statement which implied that the UDA was an outlawed organisation.”
That, Mr Sheridan, tells us that the mentality was more about sensitivity to the reputation of the UDA than to the integrity of the UDR as part of the security forces.
As we go through the various documents from the MOD in 1973, we see that it casually and frequently refers to collusion in its internal documents when describing overlapping membership between the UDA and UDR.
There is also evidence from 1973 of the Irish Government, on the basis of representations and complaints from the SDLP and many other people with pastoral and other community interests, registering strong concerns with the British Government about what was going on in relation to some members of the UDR, their overlapping membership of the UDA and the seepage of weapons.
I shall not dwell on the issue here, because you, Mr Sheridan, might rule that that was about the Foreign Office side, but we have a letter from the British Government that basically dismisses the clear concerns of the Irish Government in early 1973 as mere electoral gimmicks.
A series of internal Army and Ministry of Defence reports in 1973 show the ongoing loss of weapons from UDR armouries—and, in some cases, the homes of UDR members. Those reports point to suspicions of and concerns about collusion. A significant MOD report in August 1973, called “Subversion in the UDR”, said:
“Since the beginning of the current campaign the best single source of weapons (and the only significant source of modern weapons) for Protestant extremist groups has been the UDR.”
It then sets out the details of significant arms losses for 1972-73. I do not wish to go through all the figures for the self-loading rifles, sub-machine guns and pistols that were lost or the much smaller number that were recovered.
That internal British Government report on subversion in the UDR indicated that a significant proportion, perhaps 5% to 15%, of UDR soldiers would also have been members of the UDA, the Ulster Vanguard Service Corps, the Orange Volunteers or the UVP. Another part of that report confirms that:
“The discovery of members of para-military or extremist organisations in the UDR is not, and has not been, a major intelligence target.”
There we have wilful negligence—people recognise that there is a risk, they see that there has been a pattern of collusion, with arms being removed into the clutches of loyalist paramilitaries, and they know there is overlapping membership, but at no point does anybody make it their business to make it a serious matter and intelligence target.
That document on subversion in the UDR was circulated in Government and there were a number of replies from a number of people. We will be able to present all the documents at a later date—hopefully, not too much later—to the Minister and the MOD, if it is too much to expect the Minister to reply to all the information today. We might say that it is depressing and regrettable, but those memos and letters in response to that document confirm the accuracy of the report. There was no real dispute about its assessment.
The document tried to indicate that the security vetting process had improved, so some reliance might be put on it. It is interesting to note that the Army director of security said, in response to that suggestion in a memo dated 20 August 1973:
“I would make the general point first that the process is in fact only a screening procedure and has no relationship to normal security vetting carried out on people who require to have access to classified information.”
In a subsequent paragraph in the same letter, he says:
“In order to counter doubts expressed by some MPs about the impartiality of RUC records, the check was extended to include the interview of at least one character referee ‘to establish that an applicant is of good character, is not an active supporter of any organization at one or other extreme of the political spectrum and is likely to act in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland as a whole.’”
In the next paragraph, he says:
“Although the injection of the interview has probably been successful as part of the PR exercise involved on the checks, it can have had little effect on improving the value of the screening. The applicant nominates the referee, who is almost certain to be influenced in his favour and can add little to the security knowledge of the applicant.”
We have a clear picture: the Ministry of Defence knew the concerns but was not itself concerned, and did nothing to stem members’ involvement in the UDA or the weapons leakage that went with it.
Weapons leakage happened at numerous levels. The most significant raid occurred at the Lurgan UDR and Territorial Army Voluntary Reserve base in October 1972; they raided so much that they could not carry it all away. There was another raid exactly a year later, on 23 October 1973, on the Fort Seagoe UDR base, and another major arms raid at the Magherafelt UDR base in 1975. All of them were conducted similarly, and the lack of proactive security in place showed that no lessons were learned.
What then happened to those weapons? It was not just an embarrassing lapse of security; they were then used by an absolutely ruthless killer gang network. One Sterling submachine gun was stolen from the Glenanne UDR base before the other raids to which I referred. It was stolen some time between 20 and 21 May 1971, as the Historical Enquiries Team found.
The HET was unable to find any documentation explaining the circumstances of the theft, nor could it find any evidence that any investigation had taken place. The whereabouts and use of the weapon during the four-year period between May 1971 and 1 September 1975 are unknown. It did not feature in any ballistics report before the murder of Denis Mullen. After that, it was used to kill 10 other people over a period of 11 months.
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On 1 September 1975, a Sterling submachine gun—UF57, and then a long serial number—was used to kill Denis Mullen, a Social Democratic and Labour party branch secretary who had just won promotion to become the first Catholic ambulance controller at the new South Tyrone hospital in Dungannon. Gunmen threw a clod of mud through a window of his home at Collegeland. He went to the front door to investigate, and they opened fire, shooting him 27 times at close range. His wife Olive ran for her life through the house with bullets slamming into the walls behind her and crawled across the kitchen floor before climbing out through a window to run for help.
Their daughter, Denise, aged four, heard the shots and got out of bed to find her father bleeding and dead at the front door. She stood over his body for an hour, her nightdress soaked in blood, before the police considered it safe enough to remove her and her 11-month-old brother, who was still in his cot. A former Member of this House, Seamus Mallon, also arrived at the scene. He had heard interference on the police radio in his car, was immediately alarmed that it might be his friend and party agent Denny Mullen and went to the house. Denise Mullen, now Denise Fox, spoke about those events at her party conference this weekend, along with Seamus Mallon, to put them on record.
It should be remembered that some convictions were obtained for all 11 subsequent murders committed with that submachine gun, unlike many of the other murders committed by the Glenanne gang. Those convicted included a private in the Territorial Army, a former UDR man and a serving RUC officer. That UDR weapon’s 10 other victims included Peter and Jenny McKearney, an elderly couple shot dead at their farmhouse near Moy on 23 October that year; Michael Donnelly, 14, Patsy Donnelly, 23, and Trevor Brecknell, 32, killed on 19 December; Brian, John, Martin and Anthony Reavey, shot dead on 4 January 1976; Fred McLoughlin, shot dead on 15 May 1976; and Patsy McNeice, shot dead on 25 July 1976. Altogether, that weapon rendered 19 children fatherless and orphaned five.
I am citing only one weapon as an example. The book catalogues 120 killings, all of which relate to the murderous machinations of the Glenanne gang. That is not something being said only now, with hindsight; these allegations and concerns were apparent at the time, as we know from the suggestions in the papers about how to offset the complaints and allegations being made by MPs and others, and the dismissal of active concerns from the Irish Government and at the community and pastoral level.
I am particularly struck by a quotation by Father Denis Faul two days after a bombing in Killyliss in which two men, their sister and her unborn child were blown to pieces by a gang in which the HET believes a UDR man was involved. Only a few days after those murders, on 26 April 1975, Father Denis Faul said:
“The Government are teaching a deadly lesson to the people: that power comes out of the barrel of a gun; that the ballot box is powerless against force; that police and army can betray their trust and not be the impartial servants of government and people; that the judiciary can fail to oppose tyranny and to protect life.”
Many of us tried to scream those concerns at the British Government, the British establishment and the MOD. We know that there were layers and lines of dismissal and denial, and that the people offering those concerns were denounced as subversive or irresponsible.
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Dr Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast South) (SDLP): Does my hon. Friend agree that substantive amounts of key information and British Army records are stored in the National Archives at Kew that could help bring justice to some of the victims and survivors?
Mark Durkan: I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which relates not only to Kew, but to other locations as well. Sadly, our hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie) cannot be with us, as her predecessor, Eddie McGrady, died yesterday. Down the years, Eddie McGrady supported Seamus Mallon in making these very allegations and voicing these concerns.
In touching on those murders, I have in no way decided that they are the worst or the most egregious. I have tried to edit my concerns in this debate to focus on angles of responsibility and irresponsibility on the MOD’s part. I doubt whether the Minister has been briefed on what exactly is in all the documents that the Pat Finucane Centre has unearthed, and on which the HET has drawn, but I assure her that the Pat Finucane Centre is more than willing to assemble a thorough compendium of papers for the MOD’s fuller consideration, and for the sake of a fuller response from the British Government.
An important process is under way in Northern Ireland that we hope will produce ways to address some of the wider concerns about the past. The Haass process should not be used by the British Government, particularly the MOD, to dodge their responsibility to tell a truth that they denied for so long.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Anna Soubry): It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan. I congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) on securing the debate. He raised a serious issue that has been the subject of much comment over a considerable period of time. In recent weeks, the allegations that members of the security forces were part of a murderous gang that killed more than 100 people in the 1970s have been given further currency in the recently published book to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.
I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman has raised some points that I will not be able to address in my speech. I apologise for that, but I assure him that I will write to him with responses to as many as possible of those questions. The hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) mentioned the records at Kew, and I am told that those records have been made available to researchers and feature heavily in the book “Lethal Allies”.
The hon. Member for Foyle will be aware that such serious allegations should properly be dealt with by the police, so I can say little about them. It is right and proper for me to condemn all sectarian attacks, by whomsoever they may have been carried out, but I cannot comment on the accuracy or otherwise of the allegations, and it is not for the Ministry of Defence to usurp the function of the police by seeking to carry out investigations about those who may have been involved. As I understand it, the historical enquiries team have investigated several cases associated with the Glenanne gang, but I am not aware that those investigations have led to any fresh allegations of specific criminal activity by soldiers that are to be investigated further. Of course,
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if such evidence were found and given to the police, it would be for them to decide whether any further inquiries should be made. If they decided to pursue the matter, my Department would provide every assistance to any subsequent investigation.
It is clear to me, as it will be to most Members here today, that during the long period that we refer to as the troubles, terrible crimes and atrocities were perpetrated by extremists on both sides of the community. The account by the hon. Member for Foyle of a number of terrible murders and killings brought back to me large chunks of my childhood. It is easy to forget that 40 years ago, such events were almost a feature of life. Here we are, 40 years on, enjoying a period of peace that we could not foresee within our own lifetimes. There were incidents of great tragedy when members of the community were innocently and accidentally caught up in events that led to serious injury or death.
Many allegations have been made about the armed forces’ role in various cases involving violent deaths during the troubles, which remain unsolved. As I have said, such allegations must be investigated. At the same time, however, it is only right for me to make the point that some of these allegations may well be untrue. The truth can be uncovered only by painstaking and professional investigation. Although I am aware of the criticisms that have been made of the historical enquiries team of the Police Service of Northern Ireland—that is not a matter for me, of course—I pay tribute to the work they have done in carrying out this necessary task over a period of several years.
Mark Durkan: The Minister has made the point that some of the allegations against individuals may be untrue, but does she accept that the documentation shows that the Ministry of Defence knew one thing in private but told an entirely different story in public? Does she accept that the evidence points to the fact that the MOD dismissed the concerns that were being legitimately expressed by Members of this House, by other representatives in Northern Ireland and by other Governments?
Anna Soubry: I am in danger of repeating myself, but those are matters for the police to investigate. It would not be appropriate for me to comment. Those matters should be investigated thoroughly, honestly and vigorously by the police. It is not my Department’s intention to shy away from acknowledging or apologising when genuine mistakes or errors have been made, or where, as a Department, we have failed in our obligation properly to manage our activities in Northern Ireland. We know from the conclusions reached by Sir Desmond de Silva in his review of the circumstances leading to the murder of Pat Finucane that the Ministry of Defence made important failures in managing important aspects of our intelligence operations during the mid to late 1980s. Some reports have suggested that that situation may have prevailed for several years. We know, for example, that some members of the security forces bore responsibility for the leaking of some sensitive intelligence information to loyalist organisations. Indeed, there have been convictions as a result, and rightly so. We also know that Army weapons, as the hon. Member for Foyle has described, have been stolen from military establishments and used in terrorist attacks by loyalist gangs.
Those failings were totally unacceptable and should never have occurred. Equally, however, attempts to claim that such practices were endemic throughout the security forces serving in Northern Ireland are, in our view, quite unsubstantiated. Sir Desmond goes into great detail on the matter in his report, which was based on unhindered access to the archives of the police, the Army, and the Security Service. He shows, to my mind incontrovertibly, that the actions of the security forces frustrate loyalist terrorists and significantly reduced their operational capacity in Northern Ireland.
Mark Durkan: I want to assure the Minister and anyone else who may be concerned that in pointing to the seriousness of the allegations and the fact that they are supported by MOD documentation, I do not want in any way to traduce or hurt the memory of many other members of the security forces, including those of the Ulster Defence Regiment, who served with honourable motives and who believed that they were serving their community. They were let down every bit as much as the civilian community was by the corruption at the heart of the process.
Anna Soubry: I absolutely agree that we must pay tribute to the majority of those individuals who served in the way that the hon. Gentleman has described. As the Minister with responsibility for veterans, I feel strongly that we owe the security forces who served in Northern Ireland a great deal of gratitude. The vast majority served with courage, fortitude, integrity and dignity, risking their lives to bring about the conditions that eventually enabled a process to take place that allowed the people of Northern Ireland to lead peaceful lives without fear for themselves or their families. Northern Ireland has been transformed since the Good Friday agreement was signed.
Devolution has brought about many improvements for the people of Northern Ireland, and the recent positive achievements such as the city of culture award, the investment conference and improved tourism, against a backdrop of relative peace, have been welcomed by all sections of the community. Although a number of people continue to pursue their aims through violence and maintain destructive links to the past, they are, thankfully, few and there is very little public support for their actions.
Dr McDonnell: Is the Minister aware of, and will she comment on, an inquest that is being undertaken at the moment, which has been delayed for years, in which despite Army surveillance on the house that was attacked by the UVF—
Jim Sheridan (in the Chair): Order. I think we may be moving into the area of sub judice.
Dr McDonnell: The Roseanne Mallon case is very significant.
Jim Sheridan (in the Chair): Order. The Minister has very little time as it is.
Anna Soubry: I would be quite happy for the hon. Gentleman to write to me, which would be the proper way to raise the subject. The Chair has made a good point that the case may, in any event, be sub judice. As the representative of a Department that has, I believe, made a huge contribution to the current stable and optimistic situation in Northern Ireland, I share the hopes of many that the Executive’s invitation to Richard Haass to address a range of issues, including those arising from the past, will lead to some real progress on this difficult issue. Although we should never seek to ignore the past, I hope that there will be a great emphasis across all parts of the community on shifting our collective focus to a future shared by all the citizens of Northern Ireland. Where things have been done that should not have been done, it is right that the police carry out full, rigorous and professional investigation, and when people have done wrong, they should be brought to justice.
Question put and agreed to.