By Neil Mackay Home Affairs Editor, Sunday Herald, Nov 19 2000
THERE is no hesitation in his voice.
"Oh, yeah,"the former military intelligence officer says.
"There's no doubt about this. My unit was guilty of conspiring in the murder of civilians in Northern Ireland, on about 14 occasions."
The team behind the killings is the Force Research Unit or FRU, the British army's most covert and elite military intelligence squad. It ran a series of double agents across the Province at the height of Ulster's "dirty war" conducting an horrific anti-terrorist campaign. The FRU was under the command of Brigadier Gordon Kerr. Kerr, an Aberdeen man and former Gordon Highlander, was in charge of this shadowy network of British army agents, who quite simply collaborated with their loyalist informers to murder civilians in Ulster, between 1987 and 1991. Sometimes their victims were Provos, sometimes high-ranking republicans, but on at least four occasions they were innocent Catholics.
Now in his early 50s, Kerr, a graduate and career officer who later moved to the Intelligence Corps, is currently the British military attaché in Beijing, one of the most distinguished positions in the diplomatic service.
Kerr's FRU has been the subject of a long-running and top secret inquiry by Sir John Stevens, Scotland Yard Commissioner, into whether or not they colluded with loyalists as part of a campaign of organised state-sanctioned murder. The FRU are suspected of carrying out an arson attack on Stevens' office in an attempt to destroy key evidence linking the unit with UDA murder gangs. This is a story that military chiefs do not want out.
Most of Stevens' work has focused on the death of Pat Finucane. The Catholic solicitor, who had many high-profile republican clients, was gunned down by loyalist hitmen in Belfast in 1989. Finucane's death was planned by Brian Nelson, the Ulster Defence Association intelligence officer who was also the FRU's most prized agent.
A former FRU sergeant, who goes under the cover-name of Martin Ingram, has co-operated with the Stevens Inquiry by giving a voluntary statement to detectives about the FRU's undercover activities. The Stevens team are now clear that there was "institutionalised collusion" between the security forces and loyalist terrorists. FRU handlers did give dossiers on republican targets to loyalist agents. These were then used by UDA murderers to carry out assassinations. Another FRU soldier, Philip Campbell Smith, was charged this week in England by Stevens' detectives for intimidating Ingram.
He allegedly sent e-mails identifying Ingram's whereabouts. This could have exposed Ingram to a republican assassination bid. Nearly all former FRU soldiers are still loyal to Kerr. They don't want him to fall foul of police inquiries. Ingram is now hated by his former comrades. Over the past few weeks in Ulster, five loyalists have been arrested by Stevens' detectives. Two were interrogated for allegedly possessing documents containing information which could have been used by terrorists "to carry out acts of violence". Three RUC agent handlers have also been suspended pending inquiries related to Finucane's death.
The FRU officer who spoke to the Sunday Herald, under guarantee of anonymity, said Kerr was in charge of the day-to-day handling of loyalist informers. He knew his officers were handing information to UDA terrorists to be used to kill Republicans. The source worked with Kerr before and after Finucane's death.
The fingerprints of a number of FRU officers have been found on photographs and papers giving the addresses and movements of Catholics killed by loyalists.
This indicates that information from military intelligence was winding up in the hands of loyalist murder gangs.
"Under Kerr's command, the FRU were giving information to Nelson to help him prepare intelligence for attacks,"the source said.
"The mind-set was one of 'the right people would be allowed to live and the wrong people should die'."Nelson was later jailed for his terrorist crimes and was subsequently released. He is currently in hiding in Germany. At least two other Scottish FRU soldiers and a Scots RUC officer were also Nelson's handlers.
According to the FRU source, there was an unbroken chain of command running from the handlers, to Kerr, then through to the military top brass in Ulster, on to the Ministry of Defence Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and finally the Prime Minister. At the time of Finucane's death George Younger was Secretary of State for Defence, Tom King was Ulster Secretary, Thatcher was Prime Minister and General Sir John Waters was the general officer commanding in Northern Ireland.
"It is rubbish to suggest that we were mavericks,"the FRU source said.
"What was happening may have been occurring outside the law but the establishment knew what was happening."Kerr was known for his "gung-ho" aggressive style of executing the war against terrorism. Kerr learned the ropes of counter-insurgency as a member of 14th Intelligence. Also known as the Det, this SAS-run unit, was, until the creation of the FRU, Ulster's main counter-intelligence squad. He was a senior instructor with the Special Intelligence Wing between 1985-1986 and then moved to Ulster as FRU chief.
"He had no moral qualms about anything that we were up to,"the FRU source said.
"And he knew of every decision taken by his men.
"At the time I had no qualms either. We saw what was happening as a war and we were going to fight fire with fire. Kerr had one policy; in his own words it was: "You go in, and you go in heavy. Raise the temperature on the ground to boiling point and then reduce it fast. That means you hurt your enemy so hard that you reduce the risk of casualties on your side. Then you step back quickly. That means the enemy is constantly in a state of terror and panic. It's an old SAS tactic."
Kerr was the first FRU commander to sanction his men crossing the Irish border on illegal reconnaissance missions into the Republic to recce IRA arms caches.
"I can say with dead certainty that the FRU did conspire to murder certain individuals with loyalist terrorists through our work withUDA informers,"the source said.
"And Kerr knew about it."The Stevens Inquiry want to interview around 30 FRU operatives. Chief among these is Kerr. The Sunday Herald understands that at least three senior FRU officers will be arrested within the next three months and charged in connection with the Finucane murder.
One security source said:
"Kerr will be left to last as he is the biggest fish. Delaying speaking to him will make sure he sweats before he's interviewed. Whether or not those charged by the Stevens' team are ever prosecuted is a matter for debate. These people are so high-ranking that the establishment will have to cover-up for them. If they go down, the stink of what was happening will reach right to the top of government."
The FRU source said:
"Lie upon lie has been told and documents have been destroyed or not handed over. The police are spotting that the story they were given by the FRU in the early stages of the inquiry do not tally with what they now know. The police know there's been a cover-up and they know how it all worked.
"In defence of all of us in the FRU, there were no rules in place to tell us what we could and couldn't do when running agents in Ulster. It was uncharted territory. "If we were running the UDA's chief intelligence officer as an agent could we really be expected not to have had some 'collateral damage'?
"If every single operation Nelson had planned had fell on its arse, he would have been rumbled and executed by his own side. The bottom line is 'you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs'. It just happens to be unfortunate if you were one of the eggs. At least the targeting of the UDA was more refined while we were running Nelson. Random sectarian killings slowed and more IRA men were bumped off. In military terms it was a success. Of the 13 or 14 people who died through FRU collusion with loyalists, I'd say four or five were 'innocent Catholics'. The rest were Republicans. Apart from one case where an 'innocent' was deliberately targeted, the other ordinary punters died simply because of intelligence f***-ups."
The one "deliberate targeting" of an "innocent" by the FRU ended in the murder of Belfast pensioner, Francisco Notorantonio. His details were passed to Nelson by a female FRU officer, a close friend of Kerr's, known as Captain M Nelson had passed information about the planned assassination of an IRA man, code-named Steak Knife, to his military handlers. But Steak Knife was also a double agent providing the army with its best intelligence on Provo activities. He had to be protected. Captain M came up with Notorantonio's name as a replacement victim for Steak Knife.
In a private meeting with the Finucane family, Tony Blair recently addressed the concerns of the solicitor's widow, that there was state-collusion in her husband's death, by saying there would be no protection by the state for anyone involved in Finucane's death.
"The end-game seems to be in sight,"the FRU source said.
"It seems to be a question of when rather than if the arrests start to happen.
"The police will probably ask the FRU top brass for an interview over coffee as the first stage of the interview. After the coffee, will come the cuffs and the interrogation."
© Neil Mackay, Sunday Herald, 19/11/00.
Force Research Unit