A former Special Branch officer has come forward to give the News Letter a first-hand account of how police agents are recruited and managed, to explain how the 2002 break-in at Castlereagh almost caused a “meltdown,” and why the lethal force of the SAS was not utilised more often.
Inspired by the ground-breaking release of book ‘Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat The IRA,’ this highly experienced former Special Branch agent handler is – like Secret Victory author Dr William Matchett – now sharing his specialist knowledge.
Wishing to be identified only as ‘Richard’, he is one of a number of officers whose personal security was compromised as a result of the Castlereagh security breach.
He has spoken publicly in an effort to increase awareness of legitimate, but often unorthodox, policing methods, and to strip away some of the necessary speculation he claims has been exploited to wage a propaganda war against law enforcement agencies.
Having been motivated to join Special Branch in the 1980s, a commitment to recruiting and managing agents quickly developed and he would go on to serve 20 years in both SB and SB detective training before taking voluntary severance late into his career.
“In terms of having a typical motivation for becoming an agent, I don’t think there is one,” he said.
There are points of no return, when sources wander off the range and do their own thing
“I dealt with people who were totally fed up with the conflict, the Troubles, simply because some of them had been in prison, they had been used and abused, their families maybe hadn’t been looked after as well as they should have been when they were in prison.”
Richard said some active terrorists became vulnerable to an approach if they committed non-terrorist crimes.
“Special Branch had no autonomy to make a criminal charge go away, but there is an opportunity there. The Branch command structure could make representations to a divisional commander who might ‘yes or ‘no’ the request.
“However,” Richard also said: “There are points of no return, when sources wander off the range and do their own thing, but they are wise enough to know, in most cases, not to because they are schooled and lectured about it often enough: if they are caught bang to rights then we can’t help them. You can’t promise a source anything – no one is ever immune from prosecution.”
Commenting on repeated claims that police agents had a licence to kill or to indulge wantonly in crime. Richard said: “For me that would be a step too far. Let’s say, for example, a source goes out to rob a post office and he has failed to alert his handlers to any kind of involvement in that process ... a struggle ensues and someone gets killed. Who owns the responsibility for that? What if that source is subsequently arrested and tells the investigators ‘I was there with the blessing of my handlers.’ The ramifications of handlers allowing sources to engage in criminality are profound. In my experience, it didn’t happen.
“I would never suggest that different handlers don’t have different risk appetites, but this isn’t about individuals – Special Branch, and its PSNI successor, Crime Operations, was based around a team effort with a source controller overseeing the behaviour of the source and the handlers, and the involvement of a senior authorising officer who bears a tremendous amount of pressure in that process.”
‘Morally repugnant’ coercion unacceptable
Using blackmail to recruit police agents “never works because it’s morally repugnant to most people,” according the former Special Branch detective.
“Most of the agents that you run are what I would call the ‘eyes and ears’ level – aware of everything that goes on in the community – but the real prize agents are incredibly difficult to recruit.”
He said meticulous planning goes in to approaching a potential agent, with the personal safety of that individual being carefully considered.
“A lot of this revolves around luck and judgment and opportunism, and taking the [chance] opportunity to get alongside somebody to deliver your message as and when the opportunity arises.
“But there is a great deal of thought goes into planning. Where do we put the approach in? Can we get in and out safely?
“If we put that approach in are we going to leave them inherently vulnerable? And also, what happens if he starts a row in the middle of the place, as has happened?
“And you don’t get a perfect picture from the moment of recruitment. Trust doesn’t exist at the outset of the relationship.
“They don’t know that if they’ve given the police an important piece of intelligence, only known to three or four people, that they won’t exploit it to the point where the finger of suspicion ends up with them being taken away and interrogated.
“It takes a tremendous amount of hard work to cement that relationship.”
Reluctance to use lethal force of SAS
Special forces troops were only rarely called upon for use in Belfast, and only as an absolute last resort, the former SB officer said.
He said that while the vast majority of police officers considered the SAS operation at Loughgall in 1987 – which claimed the lives of eight IRA terrorists and one innocent civilian – entirely justifiable, arrests were always more preferable.
“Loughgall is the exception and not the rule,” he said.
“In the city the lethal aspect of the SAS was not a primary consideration because the idea was to arrest these people, loyalist and republicans, in possession of firearms and explosives, and incarcerate them – that will grind down their will to carry on. I don’t care how dedicated they are, and there were some very dedicated people in the IRA, ultimately, when you are facing possible incarceration for 10, 15, possibly 20 years, and you have got family out there, it starts to create turmoil and then you start to ask yourself the question ‘where is my life going ... is this going to be it?’”
Richard added: “Towards the end of the primary conflict SB became aware of conversations where very senior republicans in Belfast said it was almost impossible to get a gun into the city.
“As well as that, young people in particular were no longer attracted to ‘the struggle’ and people were getting older having dedicated pretty much all of their adult life to the armed campaign. I remember a very senior republican figure saying “let’s get this f****r over before we’re all grandparents”.
• ‘Richard’ joined the RUC’s Special Branch in the 1980s and was assigned to work in Belfast.
His decision to join SB was motivated by a feeling of impotence in his role as a uniformed response officer, in which he had developed a feeling of powerlessness in terms if having a tangible impact on terrorism.
Like Secret Victory author Dr Matchett, Richard has taken the decision to speak about some of his experiences following “a long period of critical reflection and academic development,” culminating in postgraduate research qualifications in Human Rights Law and Social Science – and after completing his own PhD, which explored the difficulties of transiting from the police service in Northern Ireland into civilian life.