Lest we Forget – Security Forces Created Shankill UDA

Screenshot 2014-03-19 17.05.23First Published in the Sunday Tribune 2000

Security forces created Shankill UDA

(by Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune)

As the RUC carried out Peter Mandelson’s orders last Tuesday to arrest Johnny Adair and return him to jail the very air seemed to bristle with outrage and indignation at the damage to the peace process that this so-called paramilitary “mad dog” and his Shankill Road colleagues in ‘C’ Company, 2nd Battalion, Ulster Freedom Fighters could inflict.

Supporters of the peace process and angry newspaper columnists struggled to find language sufficiently eloquent and wrathful to describe their feelings about the muscled Loyalist leader.

Singled out as a great steroid-spawned monster while UVF killers and their pro-peace process political apologists mostly escaped censure, few seemed to doubt that returning Adair to the slammer was the only sane thing to do. It was left to Peter Mandelson, accomplished wordsmith as he is, to say just why.

“The people of Belfast”, he solemnly intoned at around the same time as Adair was settling back into his Maghaberry prison cell, “do not want to live under the heel of gangsters and thugs who use old style paramilitary methods for their own ends. It is time for all of us to confront the dark side of Northern Ireland society, the mafia culture created by decades of paramilitary conflict”.

Fine words and noble sentiments for most people but deep down there was something unsettling and disturbing about what Mandelson had said, disturbing at least to those who have been following the course of UDA history over the last decade or so.

Mandelson’s angry words begged a number of questions: What were these “old style” paramilitary methods, just who did create Johnny Adair’s “mafia culture” and what does the “dark side” of Northern Ireland society really look like?

To answer these questions, to put Mandelson’s attitude to the Shankill UDA into proper context, one must journey back in time over ten years to the late 1980’s when Johnny Adair was just an apprentice gunman in ‘C’ Company slowly hacking his way to the top. Johnny had a tough act to follow.

‘C’ Company was at that time the most active unit in the UDA. Active means it was killing a lot of people. Nothing peculiar in that, after all that’s what Loyalists do. But ‘C’ Company was unusual in that a high proportion of its targets were either IRA suspects, republicans or high profile people whom most Protestants would regard as republicans. They seemed to be a cut above the average Loyalist gunmen in that they were targetting the Provos more than the general Catholic community.

‘C’ Company killed Pat Finucane (some of those who pulled the trigger could be seen sporting with Adair on the Shankill last week and at Drumcree in July) and almost killed Belfast councillor Alex Maskey. They plotted to kill Gerry Adams and very nearly pulled it off.

They seemed to kill a lot of people who had accidentally stumbled on the track of British agents in the IRA. The real story of many an apparently sectarian killing in those days may really be of people dying because they saw or heard something they shouldn’t have. Either way the Provos were worried about ‘C’ Company. They seemed to have very good intelligence on the IRA and they did.

The reason ‘C’ Company knew so much about the IRA was because their intelligence chief, one Brian Nelson was an agent working for a special body of British Military intelligence called the Force Research Unit, better known as FRU, which specialised in running agents deep in the murky world of Loyalist and Republican paramiliarism.

Thanks to military documents unearthed by BBC journalist John Ware and revelations by former FRU members and ex-UDA personnel we now know that FRU was working ‘C’ Company like the accelerator pedal in a deadly armoured car.

FRU had recruited Nelson, a former British soldier, early on in his UDA career and slowly groomed him for the top intelligence spot. Once Nelson was in place FRU provided him with documents on people the intelligence community wished to have removed and Nelson passed them on to his UDA chiefs who, more often than not, sent gunmen from ‘C’ Company out to do the bloody deeds.

It was classic Kitsonite counter gang stuff and it didn’t stop at arranging murder. A blind eye was turned to racketeering, loan sharking and drug peddling. To do otherwise would have been to put obstacles in the way of ‘C’ Company’s killers. The drug trade in particular took root in the Shankill during this era.

Peter Mandelson might have asked, but didn’t, how many of those landrovers, four-wheelers and SUV’s that nowadays fly up and down the Shankill Road ferrying paramilitary “community workers” to bookies shops were purchased by the proceeds of a trade that British intelligence and the RUC Special Branch helped to nourish.

Having set ‘C’ Company on its new course the spooks then set about supplying the tools of the trade. Nelson helped to arrange a huge arms smuggling venture from South Africa in which British missile secrets were traded for guns, rockets and grenades. Although British intelligence knew all about the enterprise only a portion of the weaponry was intercepted.

Guns and grenades smuggled in at that time were used to kill scores of people and some of them were among the weapons that Adair and other ‘C’ Company personnel were brandishing on the Shankill last weekend in a display which so offended Peter Mandelson that it helped make his mind up to re-imprison Adair.

Another weapon on show last week, according to informed security sources, was a certain light machine gun toted by one heavy set UDA gunman. This weapon was in a hoard of guns stolen from Hollywood barracks in the late 1980’s.

The UDA was able to raid the heavily protected armoury because they had help from certain RUC officers, collusion that Nelson’s handlers must have been fully aware of but did nothing to interdict or pursue. Another weapon in the stolen haul was the Browning pistol used to gun down Pat Finucane. FRU set up ‘C’ Company as a killing machine and then helped to arm it.

This wasn’t however a case of an “out of control” FRU freelancing and breaking the rules. The evidence is that all the spooks were in on the act. The British security service, MI5 certainly knew all about Nelson’s activities. They were bound to since MI5 had a desk officer permanently stationed in FRU’s HQ who sat in on meetings and who received a copy of every report on Nelson that FRU wrote.

RUC Special Branch knew about Nelson also. FRU’s intelligence on Nelson was shared at joint meetings of a body known as the Tasking and Co-ordinating Group (TCG) which planned intelligence and security operations throughout Northern Ireland.

At a higher level FRU’s reports would go the Northern Ireland committee of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in Downing Street and on occasions to the full JIC. It is reasonable therefore to suppose that various British politicians, up to the highest in the land, were aware at least in general terms of what Nelson was doing.

If this is not the “dark side” of Northern Ireland society then goodness knows what is. Peter Mandelson’s entreaty that we should all now confront this deadly gloom will be cheered by many, as was his castigation of our “mafia culture”, but it might have been more persuasive had he admitted that his spooky friends were as responsible as anyone else for shutting off the light and setting up the dope peddlers.

So where did Johnny Adair come from? The answer to that question can be found in the late autumn of 1989 when English policeman John Stevens, in Northern Ireland to investigate the leakage of security documents to Loyalists, “discovered” Brian Nelson’s existence, arrested, questioned and then charged him.

The shock to the UDA at the discovery of an agent at such a high level sent ripples throughout the organisation. Paranoia at the extent of penetration led to the fall of a whole generation of UDA leaders, especially in ‘C’ Company’s area of influence on the Shankill, and into the breach stepped Johnny Adair.

It is clear now that the British military were dismayed at the loss of Nelson and the rise of Adair. Their subsequent defence for employing the UDA’s intelligence chief was partly on the grounds that when he was in situ at least the UDA wasn’t killing ordinary Catholics but under Adair, who was not subject to British influence, the UDA had become uncontrollable and unpredictable.

Now ‘C’ Company didn’t care if they killed indiscriminately. ‘C’ Company’s gunmen wouldn’t have been human if from then on they didn’t suspect the motives of any of their colleagues who suggested targetting IRA members. Killing ordinary Catholics once more became their stock-in-trade.

Was it just a co-incidence then that after this the British were prepared to ban the UDA when for years they had strongly resisted Nationalist demands and pressures for such action? Did they feel obliged to proscribe the UDA since its sharpest edge, ‘C’ Company, was no longer under their control?

To get to the bottom of the story of Johnny Adair’s rise it is necessary to ask just one more question. How did John Stevens discover the existence of Brian Nelson? Of all the British agents active in the UDA and UVF – and the widespread belief is that both groups have been thoroughly penetrated by various intelligence agencies – how did Stevens manage to stumble across this one man and only this one man?

There is an answer to this question. It comes from security sources, now disillusioned by life in the “dark side” of Northern Ireland, and it goes like this.

Brian Nelson wasn’t the only British agent in the UDA. The RUC Special Branch also had someone on the inside. His name was Jim Craig and he was a corrupt racketeer and common criminal whose base, like that of ‘C’ Company, was on the Shankill Road. His lifestyle made him eminently vulnerable to blackmail and the RUC Special Branch had no difficulty recruiting him. His criminal activities were in turn tolerated by the authorities.

But Craig was also greedy and he developed a corrupt relationship with both the INLA and the Provisional IRA. In collaboration with republicans he engineered the deaths of Lennie Murphy, the leader of the Shankill Butchers and a rival for Craig’s criminal empire, and the former DUP politician, George Seawright amongst others. For his RUC Special Branch handlers it must have been difficult to discern just who Craig was really working for.

Craig’s fate was sealed when UDA leader John McMichael was killed by an IRA booby trap bomb in his car at Christmas 1987 just before he planned to assassinate the IRA’s intelligence chief in Belfast. His death set off a major internal investigation by UDA bosses and the finger was pointed at Craig. He was duly gunned down in an east Belfast pub some months later.

The evidence that clinched Craig’s assassination was a video tape of Craig meeting his Provisional IRA contact, a man who can now often be seen in Gerry Adams’ company up at Stormont. The tape was made by the RUC Special Branch’s surveillance unit E4A, two of whose members handed it over to the UDA. Once they saw it the UDA leadership sentenced Craig to death.

Inevitably the video and the information about its origins came into Nelson’s hands and he immediately passed on this embarrassing intelligence to his handlers in FRU. At this point, the sources say, begins the hostility between Brian Nelson and the RUC Special Branch.

“He (Nelson) had started to become a major embarrassment to the SB”, recalled the security source, “who were concerned at (his) access to information which was regularly highlighting RUC collusion by officers, many of whom had no official sanction”.

And that, according to this story, is why the RUC Special Branch “betrayed” Brian Nelson to John Stevens. He was a pawn in a deadly game of rivalry between FRU and the RUC. The longer he stayed in place the more incriminating evidence on the police he would gather. He had to go and his removal was pivotal to subsequent events. Once he was out of the way Johnny Adair was able to muscle his way to the top of the Shankill UDA and the scene was set for the events which created last week’s minor crisis in the peace process.

The circle was complete. The British subsidised ‘C’ Company but lost control when they were forced to sacrifice their agent in the cause of the “dark side’s” internal politics. By so doing they paved the way for “mad dog” Johnny to become a threat to the peace process. Without Brian Nelson there would have been no Johnny Adair.

Peter Mandelson and the security forces may decry Adair and all his activities but when all is said and done there can be little doubt, the British created him. If Johnny Adair is a monster he is their monster.

August 27, 2000