Ulster-born submariner on the run after ‘whistle-blowing’ about nuclear missiles

File photo dated 03/02/2002 showing the Royal Navy nuclear submarine HMS Vanguard, as it arrives at Devonport naval base in Plymouth for refit.Photo: PA.
File photo dated 03/02/2002 showing the Royal Navy nuclear submarine HMS Vanguard, as it arrives at Devonport naval base in Plymouth for refit.Photo: PA.

An appeal has been made for the safe return of an Ulster sailor, who claims to have fled the country after revealing alleged safety flaws in the UK’s nuclear weapons system.

Able Seaman William McNeilly published details about what he claimed is a string of shortcomings in how the UK’s submarine-based nuclear weapons are handled.

Undated MoD handout of the test firing of a Trident missile

Undated MoD handout of the test firing of a Trident missile

He branded the Trident system a “disaster waiting to happen” due to the issues he said he had identified, ranging from a lack of security to a “blazing inferno” close to the missile units.

He went on the run after posting his concerns online.

Using his Facebook account yesterday morning, Mr McNeilly announced to friends and family that he was safe and well, but not in the UK, and advised them: “Don’t feel bad about whatever happens to me.”

His brother Aaron pleaded for anyone with information about where he is to come forward. He said the last anyone had heard from him before yesterday was on Thursday when he was understood to be heading for the airport.

In the online exchange between the brothers, the on the run submariner was asked why he could not come home immediately.

“Please do!” wrote Aaron on Facebook. “We are so worried about you!”

The response came: “No one can know where I am yet bro.”

The Royal Navy said it is concerned for his welfare.

It said his claims about safety failings were “unsubstantiated”.

The story began when Mr McNeilly went absent without leave on April 11.

He subsequently published a document online called ‘The Secret Nuclear Threat’.

It was subtitled ‘Do you have any idea how close you are to a nuclear disaster every single minute?’

The document revealed his disillusionment with his superiors’ handling of nuclear weapons, writing: “I had envisioned a system with strict security and safety. I didn’t see how wrong I was until I arrived at HMS Neptune [based at Faslane].”

He described himself as being an engineering technician submariner, and attached pictures showing both his passport and his Royal Navy identity card.

A copy of it appeared online on May 12, although he said that he had e-mailed his concerns widely to news outlets on May 5.

However, the News Letter does not appear to have received contact from him.

Mr McNeilly said that he had raised his concerns through the chain of command on multiple occasions, and that his decision to publish the information had been “the most painful decision of my life”.

At one point, he claimed that putting his concerns into the public domain meant that the possibility of killing him was no longer an option.

But later he warned, “If I die, it wasn’t suicide” – adding that killing him could result in “a violent revolution”.

Until yesterday, his Facebook account contained little indication that anything unusual was afoot, and consisted largely of light-hearted messages to his online friends.

In one exchange from January, he said that working at the Royal Navy was “a great job”.

Then yesterday he posted an image of himself with no shirt on, claiming: “I can’t reveal my clothes.”

He said he had been left “alone in foreign land, spitting out blood, spending my life savings, knowing I may never see my family and friends again”.

He added he would be returning to the UK to hand himself in “soon”.

“I don’t know how many laws I’ve broken along the way,” he wrote.

“I doubt men live long enough to serve the sentence they’ll give me.”

Although he writes online under the name William Lewis (and his brother is named Aaron Lewis), the Royal Navy confirmed his surname is McNeilly.

His biographical details state he studied at Newtownabbey Community High School by Rathcoole estate, and then the Northern Regional College in Newtownabbey.

Efforts were made to reach him, his brother and any family and friends directly last night. However, they were unsuccessful.

The Ministry of Defence said that it is concerned for his whereabouts and is working with civilian police to locate him.

Among the list of failings Mr McNeilly claimed he witnessed were that ID cards were not properly checked when going to secure areas, and bags were not searched.

He wrote that a blaze had once broken out close to the missiles when a stack of toilet roll caught fire.

He claimed HMS Vanguard was in the “worst of the worst condition”, and had tried to sail a number of times but was returned to base.

The Royal Navy believes his list of issues contains a number of “unsubstantiated personal views”.

“The Royal Navy takes security and nuclear safety extremely seriously and we are fully investigating both the issue of the unauthorised release of this document and its contents,” it said.

“The naval service operates its submarine fleet under the most stringent safety regime and submarines do not go to sea unless they are completely safe to do so.”