Into the Shadows - Britain’s dirty war in Ireland


The recent BBC  documentary 'Panorama: Britain's Secret Terror Force' may have once again put a spotlight on the extent of British state sponsored terrorism in the North and the activities of its various shadowy forces; but the level of orchestration, impunity, collusion and cover up is yet to be truly uncovered.

The documentary revealing the activities of the Military Reaction Force (MRF) was aired just a day after Northern Irish Attorney General John Larkin called for an amnesty on atrocities committed during the Irish troubles. He may be right to break this taboo, but was he lobbied by British soldiers and their friends who fear justice taking its course as this evidence comes to light?

The Military Reaction Force, Military Reconnaissance Force or Mobile Reconnaissance Force (MRF) was a covert intelligence-gathering and counter-insurgency terror unit of the British Army active in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during ‘the troubles’. The unit was formed during the summer of 1971 and operated until late 1972 or early 1973, in the midst of no- go areas set up across working class communities particularly in predominately ‘nationalist’ areas.  It was during a time when the Provisional IRA was at a peak in terms of influence and membership but was also an era of growing sectarian conflict, shootings and daily bombings.

The MRF has its origins in ideas and techniques developed by British Army Brigadier Sir Frank Kitson, who created "counter gangs" to defeat the Mau Mau in Kenya. He was the author of two books on counter-insurgency tactics: Gangs & Counter Gangs (1960) and Low Intensity Operations (1971). From 1970 to 1972, Kitson served in Northern Ireland as commander of the 39th Infantry Brigade. These manuals reveal the extent of Britain’s colonial mindset and its extensive operations to defeat insurgencies from Malaysia to adapted present day military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The MRF was based at Palace Barracks in the Belfast suburb of Hollywood and its first commander was Captain Arthur Watchus. In June 1972, he was succeeded by Captain James 'Hamish' McGregor. It was split into sections, which were each commanded by sergeants or sergeant-majors who had served in the Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Service (SBS), the Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment. The unit consisted of up to 40 men, and a few women, handpicked from throughout the British Army.

Many details about the unit's modus operandi have been revealed by former members while others have yet to be confirmed such as involvement in the New Lodge six massacres and the McGurk’s bombing which left fifteen innocent civilians dead and a further seventeen wounded. The book Killing For Britain (2009), written by former UVF member 'John Black', claims that the MRF organized the bombing and helped the bombers get in and out of the area.  Local people claimed security forces helped the bombers by removing the checkpoints an hour before the attack.  One of the bombers—Robert Campbell—said that their original target had been The Gem, a nearby pub that was allegedly linked to the Official IRA. It is claimed the MRF plan was to help the UVF the bar, and then blame the bombing on the Provisional IRA. In an attempt to start a feud between the two IRA factions, diverting them from their fight against the security forces and draining their support. Campbell said that The Gem had security outside and, after waiting for almost an hour, they decided to bomb the nearest 'Catholic pub' instead. Immediately after, the security forces claimed that a bomb had accidentally exploded while being handled by IRA members inside McGurk's.

In 2012–13, a former MRF member using the cover name, 'Simon Cursey' gave a number of interviews in his book MRF Shadow Troop, about his time in the undercover unit. While full of the sort of macho bravado and heroism you would expect from a spy story, the book in itself is a fascinating read in terms of profiling the composition, psychology and activities of this de facto death squad. In it he describes the unit as ‘a small undercover unit of three or nine man section, operating from a secret compound location near Belfast. There was only one officer and almost all the operational members of MRF held ranks ranging from lance corporal to WO2 (warrant officer, class 2). It was however, a ‘flat’, rather than hierarchal structure; and neither was it some ‘rogue’ unit as some liberal commentators  have claimed as it was  directly accountable to the GOCNI (General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland).’ For ‘Simon’ this was ‘an incredible simple chain of command, cutting out almost the entirety of the Army structure.’ (1) Indeed this structure of command to the upper echelons of the British establishment raises further questions concerning the level of orchestration and who ultimately sanctioned operations?

The real responsibility for these atrocities lies close to the door of the cabinet and 'untouchable' senior soldiers of the day, whether past or present. General Sir Mike Jackson, former Chief of the General Staff of the British Army and former commander of the Parachute regiment has admitted he knew of the MRF and Brigadier Gordon Kerr, who ran the previously-uncovered Force Research Unit (FRU), Military advisers Colonel David Stirling and counter-insurgency dirty tricks 'guru' General Frank Kitson as well, are unlikely to have been far from the crime scene.

Egged on by Ministry of Defence advisers such as Kitson, the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland and the Defence secretary of the day must have signed off MRF's shooting of innocent unarmed civilians with a nod and a wink, on the understanding that nothing would be officially revealed until recently. Given that the MRF was officially confirmed in Parliament in March 1994 as well as the recent report highlighting the destroying of documents in former British colonies such as in Kenya only serves to highlight the length our ruling classes will go to conceal their crimes against humanity.(2)

While the MRF engaged in terror tactics against the mainly nationalist community in terms of random drive by shootings against innocent unarmed civilians in an attempt to inflame sectarian conflict; this unit and level of British state collusion was not isolated incident but fitted a broader pattern and agenda from the Cairo gang in the 1920s to the SAS to make sure its Britain’s strategic interests are secure at all costs.

As we now know from countless enquires and accounts such as Bloody Sunday, Ballymurphy massacre, and the loyalist collusion into assassination of Pat Finucane that Britain that far from being an impartial ‘peace-keeper’ between two ‘tribes’, the state was involved in an orchestrated campaign of state terrorism, torture and impunity without trial by its unofficial and official army of mercenaries. This is in stark contrast to the recent Smithwick report into allegations of Garda force collusion into IRA assassination of two RUC officers which served as a sop to reactionary unionism and useful distraction for widespread British state collusion.

This latest documentary is just the tip of the iceberg and comes after secret documents published by the Pat Finucane Centre in 2011 highlighting endemic and systematic collusion between the British army regiments and loyalist paramilitaries in the North and that up to 15% of the Ulster Defence Regiment total membership had loyalist paramilitary links with the tacit knowledge of British Army senior officers. (3) Last month the Pat Finucane Centre book 'Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland' was published. Drawing on previously unpublished reports from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)'s Historical Enquiries Team, author Anne Cadwallader retraced the steps of the so-called ‘Mid-Ulster’ loyalist gang, claiming it carried out more than 120 savage sectarian killings over five years from 1972. Its attacks ranged from individual shootings to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Most of the gang’s victims were Catholic civilians and Ms Cadwallader points out that large numbers of the killings directly or indirectly involved members of the now-defunct Royal Ulster Constabulary or the Ulster Defence Regiment.

This entire dark chapter in Northern Ireland in many ways validates the anarchist analysis that that state institutionalises misery, injustice and violence in its broadest sense and no amount token reforms of window dressing past or present can hide this ugly reality. The conflict that blighted so many lives, families and divided communities served as an important laboratory for counter insurgency repression and surveillance with its lessons being applied today by ‘counter-terrorism’ advisors from Britain to Israel. British police colleges are now training Britain's old colonial powers from Bahrain, to Kenya and Sri Lanka in the niceties of destroying organized opposition while working alongside covert US special force in supporting its proxy warlords and militias.

In the US, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which is directly accountable to the Whitehouse, continues to wage and re-define a global battle of aggression from Yemen, to Somalia, to Afghanistan and beyond against its perceived enemies from secret prisons and rendition, sponsoring death squads to indiscriminate drone attacks wiping out whole families; ‘Somehow, in front of our eyes, undeclared wars have been launched in countries across the globe; foreigners and citizens alike are assassinated by presidential decree; the war on terror transformed into a self-fulfilling prophecy,". "How does a war like this ever end, and what happens to us when we realise what was hidden in plain sight?" (4)

You will often hear people again and again saying of Ireland's 'troubles' that this occurred a long time ago and that we must move on. The reality is the British army still continues to occupy part of Ireland using all means at its disposal including the use of shadowy forces such as the Special Reconnaissance Regiment and MI5 under the command of the PSNI while the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 has still not solved the root causes of the conflict or sectarian division because it was not intended to do so.  We may shrug our shoulders and turn our backs on the past but it will always come back with a vengeance. The task is to build and fight for a free and equal society that will finally bury everything that is rotten with the present.


WORDS: Sean Matthews.


1)      Shadow Troop amazon kindle edition- 1253