Brian Rowan and the curious case of the 'dirty war'

Gathering intelligence – the story so far

Final session of the SDLP seminar on 'Policing and its oversight at times of threat', held Belfast, March 28 2009. Report continued from: 'Is this the start of our troubles?'

Brian Rowan is a former Security Editor for BBC Northern Ireland and a regular contributor to the Belfast Telegraph and is probably the most knowledgeable local journalist on policing and security issues, about which he has written several books.

Rowan starts by reflecting on the recent report by the Eames-Bradley Consultative Group on the Past and its central recommendation to establish a Legacy Commission, part of the role of which would be to provide a Northern Ireland 'truth and reconciliation'-style process. He disputes the point of such a process "if we don't know who's coming to the table". He is clearly unconvinced that key protagonists such as MI5 or the IRA are interested in coming to such a table and he fears that therefore a Legacy Commission would only be able to provide "a part-truth process, a half-truth process."

"There are secrets that will never be revealed," he expounds and then goes on to discuss some of the murkier aspects of Northern Ireland's 'dirty war'.

First there is the curious affair of the 'Castlereagh break-in'. This is the March 2002 break-in to the high -ecurity Belfast headquarters of the PSNI. Specifically it is a raid on Room 2.20, which holds the secrets of Special Branch: "the codenames of agents and the names of their handlers, an alphabetical index of Special Branch officers, their telephone numbers and a log of "addresses of interest" – the homes of many republicans and loyalists." Rowan believes the on-ceasefire IRA was responsible, although the full truth has never come out.

Then there is the case of Joseph Fenton who was killed in 1989 by the IRA for the alleged offence of being a Special Branch informer. So far, all so tragically predictable. But, says Rowan, the man who interrogated Fenton on behalf of the IRA was Freddie Scappaticci, the head of the IRA's internal security unit or 'nutting squad', who himself was later alleged to have been a long-time, high-level double-agent, codename 'Stakeknife', working for the RUC Special Branch and the Army's Force Research Unit. Rowan suggests that the fact that one agent working for the State was responsible for passing a death sentence on another agent (and many, many others besides) gives a glimpse of just how dirty the 'dirty war' really was.

Another curious case, suggests Rowan, is that of John White, a convicted killer and senior loyalist figure who was recruited as another CHIS (Covert Human Intelligence Source) by Special Branch. White, says Rowan, was responsible for pushing aside political figures such as Gary McMichael and Davy Adams – both widely seen as peace-makers within loyalism at the time of the 1994 ceasefires. White has been a close associate of the infamous Johnny Adair, a loyalist paramilitary alleged to have been responsible for numerous deaths and who was at the heart of repeated violent feuds within loyalism. Rowan seems to suggest that Special Branch was active in pulling the strings of this 'puppet' in pursuance of its own objectives.

Rowan goes on to relate the story of how, on the verge of publishing his most recent book, How the Peace Was Won, first the security services and then the UK's Treasury Solicitor, pressed him to provide the manuscript for review and for the removal of sensitive sections. He refused … and MI5 hasn't spoken to him since.

In particular, according to Rowan, they wanted to censor the chapter on 'Stormontgate'. This is another curious affair of alleged paramilitary and State espionage, which ten days later, led to the collapse of the first power-sharing Assembly government in 2002 and in 2006 to the murder of Denis Donaldson, who had been the Sinn Féin office administrator at Stormont at the time of the affair and also, apparently, a long-term informant for MI5 and Special Branch. In December 2005, the Public Prosecution Service had dropped the spy-ring charges against Donaldson and two other men on the grounds that it would not be in the "public interest" to proceed with the case.

Rowan reflects that the rationale often given by government for not revealing certain information as "not in the public interest" is actually because the public would be all too interested to know what was happening in their name: "claiming 'national security' is about hiding 'national insecurity'."

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