It is forty three years since the now notorious Glenanne Gang murdered three members of the Miami Showband in July 1975. Two of the band survived -Stephen Travers and Des Lee. The Gang was made up of serving RUC and UDR personnel, plus members of the UVF. The leader on the night, the infamous Robin ‘the Jackal’ Jackson, was at the time in command of the UVF’s mid-Ulster Brigade. He was an ex-British-army soldier. Journalist David McKittrick attributes as many as 50 killings to Jackson, making him one of the most lethal, and most secretive, serial killers of the late 20th century you’ve probably never heard of. The gang is said to have been responsible for 120 murders, including those of the Reavey brothers and the O’Dowd family in January 1976. the next night the IRA murdered ten innocent Protestants at Kingsmill, another sectarian obscenity in Ulster’s murder triangle.
Jackson was linked to the Miami Showband killings by the now defunct historical enquiries team in its 2011 report on the 1975 massacre. Jackson’s finger prints were found on the homemade silencer of a Luger gun used in the attack. The report also stated that Jackson claimed he had been “tipped off’” while in custody in May 1976 by an RUC Detective Superintendent, and that he “… should clear as there was a wee job up the country that I would be done for and there was no way out of it for me”. But Jackson didn’t “clear” anywhere; instead he went on to kill many more. Despite widespread rumours about Jackson’s killing career at the time and his virtual impunity from punishment, he remained practically untouched by the forces of law until his death in 1998, apart from a seven-year conviction in January 1981, of which he served only two. That may mean he spent two weeks per killing, in jail.
John Weir a former member of the RUC and member of the gang, who was convicted for murder in 1980, called him probably the “best operator” during the troubles. In 1999 Weir made detailed allegations in an affidavit about security-force collusion, making disturbing suggestions about how Jackson and the Glenanne gang’s murderous rampage was not only known of, but also tolerated by, the security forces. Weir’s allegations were regarded by the 2006 Cassel’s report, an independent panel of international lawyers commissioned by the Pat Finucane Centreto look into collusion in the North, as credible. Others found him believable too, including the BBC’s ‘Spotlight’.
The fundamental question though is: were Jackson and the Glenanne gang not only tolerated but actively orchestrated by elements of the British intelligence and security apparatus (MI5, Military Intelligence, RUC Special Branch) as a proxy counter-terror gang?
For years it has been alleged that Jackson was a protected agent of the RUC’s Special Branch. The 2003 Barron report into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, quoting British army whistleblower Colin Wallace, said as much.
In his affidavit Weir implicated RUC Chief Inspector Harry Breen, who served as a sergeant in Newry and Banbridge in the 1970sas having direct knowledge of the Glenanne gang. More incredibly still, he claimed that Breen was supplying weapons to the gang through a far-right loyalist organisation called Down Orange Welfare. In a 2015 documentary on collusion BBC journalist Daragh McIntyre claimed that, while discussing the Glenanne gang, Jackson was “protected by one of the most senior police men in Northern Ireland”. Breen was later killed by the IRA in 1989. If he was referring to Breen, and given the geography, timing and Weir’s claims, it is very plausible that he was, it is an extraordinary allegation worth stating again – clearly. Was one of the most notorious sectarian killers in the troubles protected as a strategic asset by one of the most senior policemen in Northern Ireland ?
Whatever about the alleged protection, Jackson enjoyed practical immunity from prosecution all through his killing years during the 1970s and 1980s. Why that was the case has. But more importantly, the deeper question is who or what was protecting, or directing, or encouraging, the senior policeman ?
As early as 1974 Colin Wallace, quoted again in the Barron report, said that Jackson and other leading Mid-Ulster UVF members “…were working closely with SB (Special Branch) and Int. (Military Intelligence) at that time”. Journalist Paul Footand Yorkshire TV’s 1993 documentary ‘The Hidden Hand – The Forgotten Massacre’ both suggested convincingly that Jackson and his gang, with members of the Belfast UVF, perpetrated the Dublin Bombings a year before the Miami massacre from their Glenanne base. The final report into the bombings published in March 2004 signposted obliquely that, “The possibility that the involvement of such army or police officers was covered-up at a higher level cannot be ruled out; but it is unlikely that any such decision would ever have been committed to writing”.
As many have also pointed out, it is inconceivable that James Mitchell’s farm in Glenanne, South Armagh, the gang’s well known and notorious epicentre, would not have been under constant surveillance given what was common knowledge about the gang at the time in security and intelligence circles. Mitchell was an RUC reservist. John Weir claimed that the house was constantly watched by both RUC special branch and military intelligence: “basically everybody knew what was going on there…military intelligence was more often in the house than I was” yet to be seriously rebutted.
Unfortunately the Barron report was signicantly handicapped from the beginning in its search for the truth. The British government is said to have over 65,000 potentially relevant files about the bombings, of which only a handful were ever handed over to the Inquiry.
Writing of the murky, devious and labyrinth world of counter-insurgency in the North, Wallace, in a letter dated August 1975, printed in the Irish Mail on Sunday, on 10 December, 2006, stated that, ”it would appearthat loyalist paramilitaries and Int/SB members have formed some sort of pseudo gangs in an attempt to get paramilitaries on both sides to kill each other, and at the same time, prevent any future political initiatives such as Sunningdale”.
Sunningdale was a tripartite proposal to establish an Assembly, an executive government with power-sharing by nationalists and unionists, and a council of Ireland made up of representatives from the Irish Republic. It was met by fury from Ulster loyalism and subsequently collapsed in 1974 as a result of the Ulster the Dublin and Monaghan bombings were on the 17 May, two days later. The bona fides and credibility of Wallace and other whistleblowers, Fred Holroyd for instance, has been challenged and questioned, and lied about for years. Yet as the late journalist Liam Clarke said in the Belfast Telegraph in 2014 Wallace’s credibility has tended to gain more and more as his central allegations have been put under further scrutiny.
So, why weren’t they targeted ?
Anyone familiar with General Frank Kitson and British counter-insurgency policies in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s would be aware of Wallace’s term pseudo-gangs. Kitson was the army’s principal strategist in Belfast in 1972 and was the instigator of the Military Reaction Force (MRF) – a clandestine murder gang within the British army which was the subject of a BBC ‘Panorama’ investigation in 2013. The investigation revealed that its members (off-duty soldiers and turned “insurgents” in unmarked cars) admitted to drive-by shootings and murder and attempted murders of innocent Catholic civilians in Belfast in the early 1970s. A former member told the BBC in 2013 that, “We were not there to act like an Army unit, we were there to act like a terror group”.
Kitson’s military doctrine argued at the time that the rule of law could and should be subverted to the aims and objectives of the military during counter-insurgencies “…the law should be used as just another weapon in the government’s arsenal”, a propaganda tool in other words. More chillingly, he went on to say it should be used as, “… cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public”. What he meant by “disposal” and “unwanted” can, of course, be interpreted in many ways.
But given what we now know about the dirty war in Northern Ireland it isn’t too far a stretch
to interpret Kitson’s clinical words as promoting state-sponsored terrorism as a necessary coun- ter-insurgent political and military strategy, in the ruthless pursuit of wider strategic and political aims.
The deliberate murder by state-licensed killing squads of non-combatant civilians evidently didn’t trouble Kitson too much. The Geneva Conventions were obviously seen as a nuisance to be ignored.
Kitson was fond of abstract metaphors. In his 1971 book, ‘Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peacekeeping’, in chapter 3, borrowing from Mao Tse Tung, he wrote candidly of “polluting the waters” when and if a fish cannot be attacked directly by rod. Kitson was advocating asymmetrical warfare by the state long before the term became popular after 9/11, knowing that conventional armies were ineffective in unconventional low-intensity conflicts against highly motivated guerrillas in “end of empire” violence.
How his blue print for polluting the waters-the host population and the host environment essentially Kitson was advocating the paramilitarisation of special units, “counter gangs” linked to the British army at the time to fight insurgency terrorism – auxiliary forces effect. In the North they had willing collaborators in extreme loyalism. This wasn’t new policy. Similar clandestine counter gangs were used in other colonial arenas: Q patrols in Palestine and Cyprus and turned former Mau Mau insurgents in Kenya in the 1950s. These counter gangs were always under the control of Special Forces officers.
The Barron report also had its suspicions about “covert security operations” centred on Mid Ulster in the 1970s: “It was further suggested that some elements of the security forces may have been using loyalist paramilitaries as a ‘friendly guerilla force’, advising them on potential targets and assisting them with weapons and planning”.
Much of the above has been in the public domain for years. Yet something very new, at least to the general public, came to light in released declassified state papers a few weeks ago. The papers revealed that Charlie Haughey was warned in 1987 by the UVF that MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, wanted the loyalist organisation to assassinate him. Predictably this extraordinary and seemingly implausible story, and its provenance, has resulted in some questioning. Nonetheless in a recent interview on newstalk, Stephen Travers, a survivor of the Miami Massacre noted that the UVF claimed, in a letter, to have been given faulty detonators on bombs by MI5, “… as in the case of the Miami Showband”. He said he was told by James O’Neill, the RUC scene of crimes officer on the night of the bombing, that there was a 15-minute delay on the detonator of the bomb that blew up prematurely while it was being surreptitiously placed in the Miami’s minibus by the gang. Stephen Travers lay in the eld that night for over forty minutes shot multiple times and drifting in and out of consciousness, surrounded by his murdered band mates and bushes burning from the flames of the bomb.
Were the Glenanne gang on this terrible night operating to a version of Kitson’s pseudo-gang modus operandi ? With a particularly hideous plan in mind to frame members of the band as terrorists, when the bomb blew up just over the border, a few miles away in Co Louth? This would then have provided the pretext for forcing the Fine Gael/Labour coalition to stringently check people crossing the border. The aim was to make the border more secure against IRA terrorism.