Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna • John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland


The SAS, their early days in Ireland and the Wilson Plot
Seán Mac Mathúna
Seamus Ludlow Truth and Justice Campaign

Justice for Seamus Ludlow Campaign


The 1974 Dublin & Monaghan Bombings

Mystery of Aer Lingus Flight 712 

UDR soldiers acted as covert death squad

WebService (Conflict Archive on the INternet)

The remains of Rosemary Nelson's car: Did the RUC collude with Loyalists to kill her ?



The original version of this article was first published in Lobster 18, in 1989 (pp19-21), under the pseudonym of Alexander Platow. It was a review of a book called Ambush: the war between the SAS and the IRA by three Sunday Times journalists James Adams, Robin Morgan and Anthony Bambridge (Pan, London 1988). Since it appeared over ten years ago, the allegations of collusion between the British army, the RUC and the Loyalist paramilitary groups persist, notably after the murders of the only two lawyers to have been killed during the conflict - Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson. Moreover, since the signing of the Good Friday agreement, Loyalist paramilitary groups have since killed the majority of people in their attempt to undermine the Irish policies and peace settlement of Tony Blair's goverment in Britain. As both MI5 and the Loyalist paramilitries were involved in the undermining of the ceasefires in 1972 and 1975, many onlookers suspect that the recent violence in Ireland is a repeat of this - the aim being the same as what is was then in 1974 - the sabotaging of any peaceful resoluion of the Irish question.

In 1974 MI5 and the Loyalists succeded in bringing down the Power Sharing Executive, and they colluded - as we now know - together in the attack on Dublin and Monaghan in May 1974 - two days after the Ulster workers Strike was declared - which killed 33 civilians. Today, this act of state terrorism by Britain against the Irish Republic - largely ignored and uninvestigated by the media - remains the largest loss of life from any bombing in the last 26 years of conflict in Ireland. In April 1999 it was reported that the Garda Special Branch were looking at fresh claims by a former member of the RUC that British military intelligence and the UDR were involved in the bombing. Apparently, it was long thought in the South that the UVF - who claimed responsibility for the attacks - were incapable of carrying out such a co-ordinated strike. Within a week of the bombings in 1974, the Gardai had drawn up a list of suspects which included UVF members from Portadown as well as members of the British army and RUC Special Branch in the North. It is claimed that British intelligence agents supplied the explosives, and the home of an RUC officer was used to assemble the bombs.

The destruction by MI5 and the Loyalist paramiltries of the Power Sharing Executive and the 1975 ceasefire condemned Ireland to another 20 years of bloody conflict. The collusion by elements of the British security forces with the Loyalist paramilitries remains - as it was in the 1970's - the biggest threat to a peacefull settlement of the war in Ireland.

Following the Gibralter shootings, The Sunday Times "Insight" team lead the campaign to discredit eyewitness accounts of how the SAS killed the IRA unit. (1) Ambush is their account of the shootings and SAS operations in Northern Ireland, and claims to be the "first detailed account of the truth behind the headlines." In his review of the Gibralter section of the book, Paul Foot described the authors as devoted to "single-mindedly, and without for a moment being diverted, to publicising the view of the government and the SAS". (2) To understand Gibralter, and similar events at Omagh in August 1988, (when three members of the IRA were killed just before the Gibralter inquest) and at Loughall, in May 1987, when eight members of the IRA (and one civilian) were killed by the SAS, it is necessary to look at the role of the SAS, and the type of operations they have carried out in Northern Ireland.

Formed to perform acts of sabotage and assassination behind enemy lines during during World War 2, the SAS evolved into a counter-insurgency regiment after the war. The 1969 Army Training manual stated that their tasks included:

"the ambush and harassment of insurgents, the infiltration of sabotage, assassination and demolition parties into insurgent-held areas, border surveillance, . . . liaison with, and organisation of friendly guerrilla forces operating against the common enemy". (3)

Examples were found during the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya during the mid-fifties, when SAS officers commanded some of the infamous "pseudo gangs" that terrorised the civilian population; (4) in Borneo, where they used cross-border operations to attack and destroy guerrilla bases; (5) and in Aden in 1967, where they dressed as Arabs and would use an Army officer to lure Arab gunmen into a trap and kill them. (6) To defeat the insurgents counter-terror must be deployed back at them - described by Ken Livingstone as "subverting the subverters". (7) Little indication of this is found in Ambush. But in Fred Holroyd, we have a witness, and evidence that these tactics were used in Northern Ireland during the period of the Wilson government in the 1970's. Here are the origins of the so-called "shoot-to-kill" policy that John Stalker (and others) investigated, whose inquiry was effectively sabotaged by the RUC.

Covert operations began in Northern Ireland following the failure of internment to suppress the IRA. Psychological warfare, including the use of black propaganda, an integral part of counter-insurgency operations, emerged in 1971 with the creation of Information Policy. In early 1972 the Military Reconnaissance Force (MRF) was created. Military chiefs wanted a unit to combine "intelligence gathering" with "aggressive patrolling" within the Republican areas. (8) The SAS had been sent to Northern Ireland in 1969 (9), and by 1972, with the MRF, they were taking part in some of the first covert operations against the IRA. In Ambush, however, the authors claim that when Harold Wilson dispatched SAS soldiers to South Armagh in 1976, they "had never been deployed against terrorists at home". To explain covert operations which occurred before 1976 the authors produce an undercover unit "14th Intelligence", whose existence, they claim, "has remained secret until revealed to the authors during their research"

14th Int. was allegedly formed in 1972 when the Army established its own "secret intelligence gathering unit known as NITAT (Northern Ireland Training Team) . . . this evolved into a more specialised covert unit given the cover name of 14th Int." The authors don't mention that it's common for the SAS to be deployed as "training teams" in politically sensitive situations. Under this disguise SAS units have been sent to Oman, Zimbabwe, Brunei and Kuwait. (10) The MRF and "14th Int." appear to be one and the same unit. Not mentioned in Ambush, the MRF was also formed in 1972, and has been described as the best example of a pseudo-gang in Northern Ireland. Trained by the SAS, it was organised on a cell basis, and contained a "sizeable contingent" from the SAS. (11) A number of former and serving members of the IRA also took part in MRF operations. (12) According to Ambush, the alleged 14th Intelligence was trained by the SAS and used "SAS methods".

During the 1972 ceasefire the MRF shot civilians from unmarked cars using IRA weapons. In November 1972 the Army admitted that the MRF had done this one three occasions. (13) One of these incidents happened on 22nd June 1972 - the day the IRA announced its intention to introduce a ceasefire. (14) The shootings appear to have been done to discredit the IRA and, like the later Miami Showband murders, provoke sectarian killings.

SAS involvement was also alleged in two car-bombs that exploded in Dublin on 1st December 1972, killing two civilians. This happened just before a vote in the Irish Parliament on a repressive amendment to anti-terrorist legislation. The law was passed and the IRA was blamed for the explosions. They denied responsibility and pointed the finger at British Intelligence. The Irish Justice Minister later denied that a report had been compiled implicating the SAS. (15) In the same month, David Seaman claimed at a press conference in Dublin that he was a member of an SAS unit that was detailed to cause explosions to discredit the IRA. He was soon found shot in the head, his assassins were never found. (16)

During the mid 1970"s another cover name for the SAS was "Four Field Survey Troop, Royal Engineers", introduced in 1973 and abandoned in 1975. Fred Holroyd says this was an SAS unit under cover at the Royal Engineers' base at Castledillon, Armagh. Like the authors of Ambush, the Royal Engineers were told that it was a NITAT (Northern Ireland Training and Tactics Team). Holroyd, who worked with them, says its personnel were "former, serving or recently trained" SAS soldiers, who were commanded by infantry officers attached to the SAS. (17) One of these was Captain Robert Nairac, described in Ambush as "seconded to 14th Intelligence".

The Gibralter section of this book has already been described as a "whitewash". (18) Here emerges another on Nairac. The book's lack of references, the absence of Holroyd, and the production of "14th Intelligence" certainly indicates this. Who are we to believe? The journalists who helped cover-up the Gibralter shootings or Holroyd, who from 1974 to 1976 worked with the SAS in South Armagh as a member of the Special Military Intelligence Unit? According to Ambush, "to this day, it is suggested that Nairac was an SAS man quietly assassinating IRA terrorists". It certainly has been alleged, by Fred Holroyd, that with two Loyalist gunmen Nairac shot a member of the IRA, John Francis Green, at a farmhouse in the Irish Republic on 10th January 1975 - the day after the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Merlyn Rees rejected ceasefire negotiations with the IRA. (19) The IRA cited this incident as bringing to a temporary halt the ceasefire on January 16th 1975.(20) The two Loyalists, members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), may also have taken part in the murder of the Miami Showband on 21st July 1975. The two murders have been linked by forensic evidence - ignored by Ambush - which proves the same two pistols were used in both murders. (21)

Despite the evidence implicating Nairac, the authors try to exonerate him. Dealing with him in a chapter titled "Mavericks", they describe him as an "enthusiastic and intelligent officer with an overly romantic view of combating terrorism. He enjoyed the idea of mingling with the locals playing the role of a dashing undercover warrior". Fred Holroyd almost gets mentioned when the authors say that Nairac's name "surfaced" in 1984, though they fail to inform the reader that this was actually when Holroyd first spoke to the media, via Duncan Campbell in the New Statesman. (22)

Ambush says Nairac "boasted" of killing Green and predictably describes Ken Livingston's claims about Nairac in his maiden speech to Parliament as "unsubstantiated". But if Nairac says he killed Green, why say otherwise? Holroyd says that the RUC will not return the colour Polaroid photograph of Green's dead body which Nairac took just after he killed him - and showed to him the next day as proof of the kill. Ambush however claims "it is true that Nairac had a picture of Green's dead body, but this was obtained from a contact in the RUC, who in turn obtained it from the Irish police." This cannot be true: the Gardai did then not use colour Polaroid cameras in their murder investigations at the time. (23) In fact, this section of Ambush is a rerun of the material first put out in The Independent against Holroyd in 1987, having been rejected at the time by The Sunday Times).

The authors also get their facts wrong over the Miami Showband murders: "Nairac boasted how he went over the border in the shooting of the Miami Showband". But the incident happened in South Armagh and not in the Irish Republic as is implied. And again, if Nairac boasted he was involved, why dispute it? The Miami Showband was a Catholic rock band committed to bringing peace between the two communities. Their bus was stopped by seven UVF men wearing the uniforms of the Ulster Defence Regiment. Fred Holroyd believes the uniforms were supplied by the RUC Special Branch. (24) They took the band off the bus and then attempted to plant a bomb on it. It exploded prematurely, killing two of the UVF men. The rest of the band, then lined up against the side of the road, were then shot. Merlyn Rees confirmed to Ken Livingstone that Nairac bad supplied the guns and the explosives to the UVF unit. (25) Nairac is also alleged to have booby-trapped the bomb. (26) Two members of the UDR were later jailed for the murders.

The peak period of the MI5 plot against Wilson's Labour government provides the best opportunity to investigate the origins of what Ambush calls "the shoot to kill legend" and SAS involvement in "dirty tricks" operations. As soon as Labour won the February 1974 election, MI5 began destabilising Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his policies in Northern Ireland. In May 1974, the Power-sharing Executive was brought down by the Ulster Workers' Council strike - with the help of MI5 and the Loyalist paramilitaries. Two days into the strike, Loyalist paramilitaries exploded car-bombs in Dublin and Monaghan, without warning, during the evening rush-hour, killing 33 civilians - 26 in Dublin and 7 in Monaghan. To date, these bombings led to the largest loss of life in the conflict over the last 26 years. At a press conference in Dublin in March 1989 (at which Fred Holroyd was invited to speak), Irish journalist Frank Doherty noted that the bombings happened during the high-point of efforts by MI5 to bring down the Power-sharing Executive. He also said that he had been told in 1974, by a former British soldier, Albert "Ginger" Baker (also a member of the MRF), that the bombings were "definitely an Intelligence job" Baker had a been a member of the Loyalist unit that had carried out the bombings, and Doherty claimed that it was a pseudo gang formed as a front by British Intelligence. (27) (In Ken Livingstone's recent book Livingstone's Labour, there is the transcript of an interview Livingstone conducted with Baker).

As the MI5 campaign against Wilson intensified, so did the Army's "dirty tricks" operations in Ireland. In 1975, with Loyalist paramilitries and the SAS unit at Castledillon, MI5 helped undermine the ceasefire. Loyalist killings of civilians increased from 87 in 1974, to 96 in 1975, to a peak of 110 in 1976.(28) The truce with the IRA had been secretly negotiated by MI6 in the aftermath of the Birmingham pub bombings. Ambush has scant details of this, although it confirms that the Army were "furious" with the secret talks with the IRA, believing that they had the IRA "on the run". Colin Wallace confirmed in 1980 that MI5 officers in Northern Ireland not only objected to Wilson being Prime Minister, but to his Irish policies. (29)

Enmershed in these events was the intense conflict between MI5 and MI6 for control of the intelligence war in Ireland. MI5 wanted an escalation of the war against the IRA: MI6 were working for a political solution with Wilson's government. In 1975 MI5 took overall control of the Intelligence situation and began "to replace those . . . in key posts with others with total loyalty to them . . . it became clear that MI5 were trying to get SIS (MI6) removed from the province - this they had almost achieved by late 1976." (30) In 1974, says Wallace, MI5 were already trying to get the Special Military Intelligence Unit replaced by the SAS. However this was a "total disaster" as the SAS had little experience of Northern Ireland- type operations. According to Holroyd, who had been working with MI6, MI5 were "eager for a quick success and brought in a bunch of ruthless SAS blokes". (31) MI6 "lost control to MI5 and the SAS, who wanted a more aggressive policy linked with the Protestant extremist groups these groups sabotaged many of the operations which MI6 and the Army had carefully built up". (32)

The Miami Showband murders were the catalyst for the 1975 ceasefire to end in a sectarian bloodbath. According to Ambush after the killings:

"there was little doubt that the IRA would retaliate . . . and they did, by blowing up a Belfast bar killing five people. The conflict then degenerated into a series of increasingly violent attacks on the community."

But as Livingstone said in his maiden speech:

"If one wanted to find a way of ending the ceasefire . . . what better way to do that than to encourage random sectarian killings?" (33)

By the end of November 1975, fuelled by a feud between the (then) two factions of the IRA, over 40 civilians had been killed. (34) As the truce finished in October 1975, the bombing campaign in England was stepped up by the IRA unit captured at Balcombe Street on 6th December 1975. Although initially the IRA cell had been told that "the principal aim was not to kill" in the "bitterness after the end of the six months ceasefire in 1975, the orders from Dublin switched to killing. " (35) In a series of attacks the unit killed seven civilians.

During the term of the last Labour Government, the killing of civilians by Loyalist paramilitaries reached death-squad proportions. From 1974-1979 they killed 330 civilians, 293 during the years 1974-76 the vast majority of them Catholics. (36) They were not operating alone. In South Armagh, "one specific Special Branch officer handled loyalist terrorist affairs the covert SAS troop based at Castledillon were operating hand in glove with this officer. This was at a time when murders and political assassinations became rampant. " (37) Referring to "Four Field Survey Troop" Holroyd says: "Many individuals and organisations were claiming that both Catholic and Protestant were being murdered (but) the government were claiming that no SAS were in the province. SAS by any other name ?" (38)

The destabilisation climaxed in January 1976. On the 4th January the Protestant Action Force (PAF) killed five Catholics in South Armagh. The next day the IRA took ten Protestants off a bus at Whitecross, South Armagh, and killed them, claiming later that they had acted to stop the Loyalist murders. (39) Selective as ever, Ambush refers to only to the latter incident. But something else had been achieved. On January 7th 1976 Harold Wilson announced that an extra 150 SAS soldiers would be sent to Armagh. It was the end of the secret SAS campaign in Oman in October 1975 which released the extra SAS units for Armagh, who were flown in "only days before" Wilson's announcement. (40)

Ambush says "exactly who thought of sending the SAS is not known Wilson, who knew very little about the Regiment, seized on the plan". By March 1976 the SAS had begun a series of covert operations aimed at disrupting the IRA command structure in South Armagh. On 12th March 1976 they abducted a member of the IRA, Sean McKenna, from his house in the Irish Republic. Ambush says he was lucky: "It would have been easier, and have a greater psychological effect to shoot him . . . but the SAS did not . . . terrorists considered armed and dangerous were shot . . . those known to be unarmed and compliant were arrested . . ." (McKenna was later jailed and died on hunger-strike.)

On 15th April the SAS shot another member of the IRA, Peter Cleary. He also lived in the Irish Republic, and one night crossed the border to see his fiancé. However, he was on the Army wanted list, and the SAS were watching her house. After he arrived they broke in and, according to Ambush, told her, "There won't be no wedding now". Cleary was taken outside where one eyewitness says he was stripped and beaten, then dragged unconscious to a nearby field, where, moments later, three shots were heard. Ambush repeats the SAS story that he had tried to escape and had died in the struggle.

On 1st May the body of Seamus Ludlow was found in a ditch in the Irish Republic. Local people on both sides of the border believed the SAS had intended to kill and IRA explosives expert but had shot the wrong person. (41) Careful only to deal with Ludlow's death, Ambush blames it on the IRA, describing him as an "informer for British intelligence"- something the IRA have never claimed. Three days after his death a heavily armed eight-man SAS unit was arrested in the Irish Republic, south of Armagh.

Ambush says that the first year of SAS operations in Armagh closed with "some notable successes . . . the attack on Clearly . . . and the abduction of McKenna, served as a clear warning to the IRA that a different kind of war was being fought . . . In simpler terms, an indication of this was given to The Times just before Wilson sent the SAS in: "They will be told to do what the

Army has failed to do - kill terrorists". (42) This attitude was acknowledged by an anonymous SAS officer who told The Guardian in late 1976: "We were all very enthusiastic about going and wasting a few of the IRA." (43)

After a protracted disinformation campaign against him, Harold Wilson resigned in March 1976. His departure brought new faces to the top military and political positions in Northern Ireland. Merlyn Rees was replaced by Roy Mason and in 1977 a new Army Commander was appointed, General Timothy Creasy.

They had met in Oman, Mason as Defence Secretary, and Creasy as Commander of the Sultan of Oman's mercenary army, staffed by SAS officers. After Wilson's resignation and the development of a new military strategy against the IRA - backed up by the process of "Ulsterisation", the Loyalist murders dropped of, from 110 in 1976 to 19 in 1977, 6 in 1978 and 12 in 1979.(44)

On December 12th 1977 Colin McNutt (a member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party) was shot. Ambush attributes his death to "14th Intelligence". On June 21st 1978 the SAS ambushed a van carrying a bomb and three members of the IRA in Belfast. The occupants of the van, and one civilian passer-by were killed in a barrage of over 200 rounds (one IRA member was hit by 63 bullets). In 1978 the deaths of six IRA members and four civilians, including a 16-year old, John Boyle, were attributed to the SAS.

Ambush deals with his death in some detail but fails to report the fudge's summing up at the trail of two SAS soldiers charged with his murder in 1979: "Probably they did act correctly, given that SAS men are - as is widely known - allowed to shoot to kill and ask questions later". (45) The SAS men were acquitted.

Ambush talks of a "fog of confusion" hanging over SAS operations in Ireland. With books like this it is hardly a surprise. The book "sets out to answer" the question of what the SAS have been doing there but contributes mostly disinformation. Ignoring completely the testimony of Fred Holroyd, the authors offer the hitherto unknown "14th Intelligence" as the explanation for the SAS unit at Castledillon in the mid-70's before the SAS were officially sent to Ireland. In fact, contacts of Wallace and Holroyd's in the MOD have confirmed that 14th Intelligence was created in the early 1980's.

The evidence suggests that what has become known as the shoot-to-kill policy - a euphemism for routine SAS counter-insurgency activities - which has claimed almost fifty lives since 1975, evolved out of the campaign of counter-terror that MI5 and the SAS used to destabilise the Wilson government's policies in Ireland.

Attempts to investigate this have proved fruitless. John Stalker's investigation led back to the allegations of Holroyd and he was quickly moved to one side. Holroyd notes that Stalker's downfall came after he and Colin Wallace had sent their file of allegations and evidence to Mrs Thatcher in 1984. After which "two events took place the was was the Government's robust attempt to stop Spycatcher the second was the attack on the integrity of John Stalker, both of whom were dealing in areas mentioned in the file (46).

It is clear now, that because elements within the security forces did not want a political deal with the IRA in the mid-seventies, and the military solution was only possible with a change at the top of the Labour leadership, MI5 and the SAS were prepared to use the same methods the IRA are condemned for - civilian deaths, assassinations, bombings and black propaganda - to bring this about. In the last twenty years before the current IRA ceasefire, the only two attempts to find a ceasefire have been undermined by these methods. From the mid-seventies to the killings in Armagh in 1982 (by the SAS-trained RUC E4A units), Loughall, Gibralter and Omagh, there is strong evidence that the SAS have operated a shoot-to-kill policy, and engaged in a variety of covets and illegal acts. Ambush was written to show otherwise but merely succeeds in re-emphasing the need for a book documenting the twenty years of British state and Loyalist dirty tricks, covert operations and assassinations.



 1. The Observer 15 January 1989

2. New Statesman and Society 13 January 1989

3. British Army Land Operations Manual, volume 3, counter-revolutionary operations. Cited in Bloch and Fitzgerald p42.

4. Bloch and Fitzgerald p89

5. Geraghty p42

6. Geraghty p102

7. Hansard 7 July 87 p42

8. Bloch and Fitzgerald p216

9. Geraghty p181

10. Bloch and Fitzgerald p46

11. Lobster 10 p3

12. Bloch and Fitzgerald p216

13. Bloch and Fitzgerald p216

14. Kelly p189

15. McArdle pp62- 63

16. Bloch and Fitzgerald p215

17. Fred Holroyd letter in Lobster 16 p8

18. Private Eye 6 January 1989

19. Reed p220

20. Coogan p506

21. Lobster 15 p9

22. New Statesman 4 May 1984

23. Lobster 15 p8

24. Lobster 15 p8

25. Troops Out May 1988

26. McArdle pp62-63

27. Republican News 9 March 1989

28. Information from Irish Information Partnership.

29. Irish Times 24 April 1980

30. Lobster 11 p25

31. The Guardian 24 February 1987

32. The Guardian 24 February 1987

33. Hansard 7 July 87 p27

34. Kelly pp239- 241

35. Coogan p485

36. Figures from Irish Information Partnership

37. Lobster 10 p60

38. Lobster 16 p8

39. Coogan p551

40. Geraghty p200

41. McArdle pp97-98

42. Cited in The Guardian 5 September 1988

43. Cited in The Guardian 5 September 1989

44. Figures from Irish Information Partnership

45. Kelly p275

46. The Guardian 16 December 1987


Amnesty International - Northern Ireland: Killings by the security forces and "supergrass" trials

Bloch, Jonathan, and Fitzgerald, Pat - British Intelligence and Covert Action (London 1982)

Coogan, Tim Pat -The IRA (London 1987)

Curtis, Liz- Ireland: The Propaganda War (London 1984)

Geraghty, Tony - Who Dares Wins (London 1980)

Holroyd, Fred War Without Honor (Medium, England, 1989)

Kelly, Kevin J. -The Longest War: Northern Ireland and the IRA (London. 1988)

McArdle, Patsy - The Secret War (Dublin, 1984)

Reed, David- Ireland: Key to the British Revolution (Larkin. 1984)

© 1989