The SAS in Northern Ireland

Ed Maloney investigates the role of the SAS and of the British Army generally in Northern Ireland as a counter insurgency force

THE five high velocity bullets that slammed into the body of 16 year old John Boyle in a graveyard near Dunlay, Co. Antrim on July 11th did more than extinguish the life of a complete innocent. They helped expose a yawning credibility gap in Secretary of State Roy Mason's covert security policy.

The reverberations of the Dunloy bullets are all the more embarrassing for Mason since he, more than anyone else at Stormont Castle, is the architect of the security force's present undercover war against the Provisional I.R.A. Now even enthusiastic advocates of his "S.A.S.-type" activity are beginning to question the expediency of a policy which, although headline grabbing, is beginning to score , less in the way of security successes than propaganda points for the Provos.

Boyle's killing was utterly predictable.

If carte blanche is given to heavily armed soldiers hidden in tense, dangerous situations it is to be expected that at some time or other a John Boyle will walk into their cross-sights. The R.D.C. press statement I made it clear that he was uninvolved in any paramilitarily activity. Boyle had stumbled. onto an Armalite rifle and ammunition in a 1 graveyard near his father's hayfield and his father had informed the police of their I location. When he went to check whether they had been moved he fell victim to a four-man undercover squad lying in wait among the headstones. Two of the soldiers who fired on him were only eleven feet away and all the Army bullets hit him in the rear. The fatal round hit him in the back of the neck and blew the top of his head away.

The army claims that Boyle was shot after he was seen pointing the rifle at their men and after a Yellow Card warning. As a press statement it must rank as one of the most banal ever issued from Lisburn barracks, Apart from being a crazy suicidal action on Boyle's pan if true, how, if he really was aiming the Armalite at the soldiers, did all the bullets manage to hit him from behind? And uninvolved in paramilitary activity as he was, surelv he would have responded to the Yellow Card warning- if indeed one had been given.

The inconsistencies in the version were not missed bv anyone in the least of all the Provos. On june 16th the Provos had suffered their gravest single blow in some time when three members of their re-structured cell unit in Ardoyne were ambushed bv an undercover squad when en route to bomb a GPO telecommunications centre in Ballysillan, North Belfast. The claim then that the three had been shot down in (old blood without the chance of surrendering seemed to have been lent credibility bv the Dunlov incident. (In last month's interview by Vincent Browne in this magaazine the I. R.A. claimed that one of the victims, Paddy Mealy, had 63 bullets pumped into him.)

Mason's announcement that an R.U.C. inquiry into the incident would be launched has satisfied few except loyalists like Ian Paisley who called at the time for an investigation. Only the S.D.L.P, among the North's major parties has called for a halt to Mason's policy.

SAS operations have been going on in the North for many years now and the present flurry of activity represents on a greater reliance on them by Roy Mason. As earlv as 1972 the S.A,S. was active in Belfast under the guise of an organisation called the Military Reaction Force M.R.F.). The exact function of that group is unclear but it is thought that they were formed to enter Republican areas clandestinely to gather the sort of intellligence denied in those pre-Motorman davs to conventional Army patrols.
It is also known that they, like their present day counterparts, were not beyond assassinations. In May 1972 an attempt was made on the life of Gerry O'Hare, then a leading force in the Belfast Republican involvement in Anderstown's Finaghy Road. Machine gun bullets fired from a speeding car narrow missed O'Hare but killed a local man, Patrick McVeigh, and wounded four others. At least three other assassinations have been attributed to the MRF.

The MRF operated a policv of recruiting to their ranks local people whose geographical and social expertise they needed. Some of these locals moved into the regular S.A,S., others were identified bv the Proves and shot, and some have drifted into the rnercenarv circuit and are now fighting in Rhodesia and South Africa. It was nor until Miarch 1974 that Geotrrev Johnson-Smith, then a Conserrvative spokesman on defence matters and himself heavily implicated in the Littleejohn affair, admitted in Parliament the involvement of the S.A.S. in the M.R.F.

The first official deployment of the S.A.S. in the North was after the Besssbrook massacre on january 5th 1976 when, in retaliation for a spate of loyalist inspired murders, South Armagh Proves mowed down ten Protestant factorv workers.  Merlyn Rees, then Secretarv of State, moved in a squadron of the regiiment reckoned bv most observers to number between 70 and 160 men in order to appease outraged loyalist opinion, The latest British defence estimates, published in February this vear , show that the squadron is still stationed in the North.

The SAS, was not long in making its presence felt, particularlv along the border. On March 12th Sean McKenna, a young Newry man, was kidnapped from Edentubber and handed over to the R.U.C. On April 15th, Peter Cleary from Crossmaglen was shot a few yards inside the Northern border by a group of mufti-clad British soldiers who claimed Cleary was killed "attempting to escape." On May 2nd the body of 49 year old Seamus Ludlow was discovered just inside the Republic. Three days later suspicions that the S.A.S. were responsible for all these incidents seemed to receive confimation when eight heavily armed S.A.S. men were arrested 700 yards inside the south. They claimed the RUC made a "mappreading error. "

With the promotion of Rees to the British Home Office, where he has had further dealings with the S.A.S. in developing counter terrorism tactics, and his replacement by Roy Mason, the use of the S.A.S. has been modified in two important directions. Following the failure pf the Paisley-Baird strike in May 1977 and Mason's subsequent promise to loyalists of tougher security measures, the unofficial restriction on S.A.S. activities in the border area was lifted. Since December 1977, seven months after Mason's pledge of more covert and S.A.S.-type activities. they, or Similar units have been in action in Derrv, Cookstown, Belfast, and, recently, Dunloy. There are now believed to be three covert squads in existence: one for Belfast and one each side of a line drawn westwards ,across the province from Belfast. Thev parallel the three zones of operation used bv the British Arrnv and, unlike the South Armagh SAS units who had a roving commission, their activities are more directly under the control of British Army H.Q. in Lisburn. The unit that killed John Boyle is thought to have its base in Derry City.

The other major change has been the increased use of non-S,A.S. personnel. The operative phrase in Mason's May 1977 speech was that of S.A,S.-type" activities and most observers have taken this to mean the training and deployment of regular soldiers who, while engaged in undercover operations remain attached to their regiments rather than being seconded to the S.A.S. One unconfirmed report speaks off such a unit attached to the LD.R.

It is important to differentiate between the two types of clandestine activity .While the S.A.S. with all its expertise in undercover' work does patrol areas like Belfast in one or two man squads-the Proves claim that they know several of them by sight was lent credence last December when they killed S.A.S. agent Paul Harman in Turf Lodge-it would not make military sense to expose themselves in well publicised and televised situations like Ballysillan. That type of operation is best left to others. After all, any sharppshooter can grow his hair or wear a beard. Captain Nairac displayed the folly of any other policy. But together, the S.A.S. gathering information and the S.A.S types acting On it - they represent the real thrust of Mason's policy.

Because he is an ex-miner from the solidlv working class town of Barnsley in Northern England, it has always been a curious aspect of Mason's character that he is so much of an Army man, an organisaation in which Britain's class divisions are writ small. He is even more enthusiastic about unorthodox armies. While he was at the Ministry of Defence between 1974 and 1976 he took a personal interest in the fortunes of S.A.S. regiments in Oman and other parts of the Arabian Gulf often visitting units on the ground. It was therefore not much of a surprise when he brought in Major-General Timothy Creasey to be the new G.O.C. and to help with the connstruction of his new security policy. Creasey commanded the Sultan of Oman's forces up to 1975 and is known to be keen on covert operations.

With the Boyle killing, however, their covert tactics have run into serious opposiition. The smile, some would say gloat, that lit up Roy Mason's face at the time of the Ballysillan triumph now looks a little limp. The S.D.L.P. are determined to have a run at him over what they see as a capitulaation to hard-liners in Lisburn barracks. They view his policy as achieving only an upping in the Ievel of ferocity and providding moral justification for the Provos' campaign. After the Dunloy incident a delegation of twelve S.D.L.P representaatives from the Derry area held a two hRur meeting with local police chiefs' to complain at what they term the "KilllDon't Question" policy and to press- for the prosecution of Boyle's killers. Michael Canavan, the party's security spokesman said, "If the state adopts a policy of immposing the death penalty without court proceedings condemnation from us. for similar Provo deeds rings hollow".

Since December 1977 SAS or S.A.S..type squads have been involved in five controversial incidents. Eight people have died at their hands. Of those casualties two deaths, John Boyle and William Hanna at Bal1ysillan, were of innocents. Two other guiltless people have been wounded. A passer-by in a car was shot by police at Ballysillan and another was wounded when I.R.A. volunteer Paui Duffy was killed in Cookstown in February. Theemanner of two of the other deaths, that of Colm McNutt of the I.R.S.P. in December 1977 and Provo Dennis Heaney in June of this year, created more sympathy and, indirectly, recruits for the Provos, than problems.

The R.U.C. are still investigating the Dunloy shooting and will soon deliver the papers to the Director of Public Prosecuutions. The obvious innocence of John Boyle and the implication that the British Army Yellow Card instructions were blatantly disregarded will make it difficult for the Northern Ireland Office to avoid bringing charges against the killers. In that event we shall all learn more about Mason's covert squads and his policy will, for the first time, be subject to open, public scrutiny. If oh the other hand, the much predicted Westminster election intervenes, he will be spared that ordeal. Either the whole thing will be forgotten in the change of government or, as is rumoured, he will move onto higher things. One way or another Mason's reign at Stormont Castle will be over and he will leave the North in much the same state of political instabilitv as he found it.