British government officials 'knew about loyalist Glenanne Gang'
A member of the notorious loyalist killer group, the Glennan Gang, has told how he believes its leader personally killed more than 100 people and dismissed suggestions that a public inquiry would exposed the truth. In a rare interview from his home in South Africa, John Weir insists that a truth commission is the only way that victims will get closure. Connla Young reports.
A FORMER RUC officer and member of the notorious Glenanne gang has claimed the British government was aware of the group’s activities at the very highest level.
John Weir, who held the rank of sergeant, was speaking just weeks after a High Court judge ruled that the PSNI unlawfully frustrated any chance of an effective investigation into suspected state collusion with the sectarian killer gang.
Made up of members of the RUC, UDR and UVF, it operated across the Mid-Ulster area in the mid 1970s.
Based out of a farm owned by former RUC officer, James Mitchell in Glenanne in south Armagh, the gang is believed to have carried out around 120 murders, the majority of which were innocent Catholics.
Now one of its most prominent members, former sergeant John Weir, has said that the establishment of a truth commission and amnesty may be the only way some of the darkest secrets of the Troubles will ever be revealed.
Originally from Co Monaghan, he was a member of the RUC’s Special Patrol Group in Armagh when he became involved in the activities of the Glenanne Gang.
The former policeman gave evidence to the 2003 Barron Report - which examined the 1974 Dublin and Monaghan bombings that claimed the lives of 33 people and an unborn child.
He and another former colleague William ‘Billy’ McCaughey were convicted of taking part in the murder of father-of-seven William Strathearn (39) at his home in Ahoghill, Co Antrim, in April 1977.
The former Derry GAA player and shopkeeper had opened his front door at 2am after the gunmen said they needed aspirin for a sick child.
Convicted in 1980 he was released from prison in 1993 and later went to live in Nigeria.
Now living in South Africa, the former policeman last said that senior officials in Downing Street would have been aware of the group’s activities.
“Of course they would,” he said in an interview with the Irish News.
“How would they not be?
“Right, for example, the army commanders……do you mean to say that those men were not actually feeding information.
“Even they were feeding information direct to government.
“Obviously some of it was going through their senior officers but not all.
“Some of those men, they themselves were connected to parliament.
“And I know that and I also know that they know that even the very bottom of army intelligence, which I don’t think in a way were that capable a lot of them, but they knew all about Glenanne.”
After last month’s court ruling relatives of people killed by the gang demanded an independent inquiry be set up.
However, the 66-year-old believes that only a truth commission can provide answers to bereaved relatives.
He added that all families who lost relatives during the Troubles should benefit from similar court rulings.
“I would support independent enquiries into anything but I think independent enquiries, most of them have not produced anything,” he said.
“The first thing they have to do is do away with any threat of prosecution for those years,” he said.
“It is a waste of time anyhow because with the GFA (Good Friday Agreement) nobody is going to do any time anyhow.
“So why not just basically have an amnesty for those years - for absolutely everybody right across the divide.
“Before that would be brought in or in conjunction with that then a commission would set up where all sides, loyalists, republicans and of course security services, security forces, everybody is going to come out and tell the truth.”
Mr Weir believes any process to examine the past must go right to the top.
“I don’t think an independent inquiry gets anywhere, we have had the HET, we’ve got independent inquiries, have they ever come out above a certain level - it stops,” he said.
“You talk about Glenanne Gang, I know that’s a name, but where does it stop.
“It stops with the likes of us, it doesn’t go (up).
“Nobody talks about the MI5 boys and all the intelligence people.
“They were all visiting Glenanne, nobody talks about that.
“Glenanne (James Mitchell’s farm) was watched, every movement from there was watched and that’s when I was in that area, I know that, every car that went in and out of the place, they had the number of the cars.
“So what I’d say - why didn’t anybody make any effort to stop it?
“Everything stops at the people who were operating rather than see where it was really coming from and why it was allowed to go on.
“If they knew this was going on why did they allow it to continue?”
He said the truth behind many events that took place during the Troubles are already known.
“Everybody knows who did what and who’s behind what,” he said.
“But at this present time it all stops with….. a few rotten apples at the bottom of the barrel.
“But it goes much, much higher than that.
“If people have nothing to hide, let them bring the truth out.
“And when I’m talking about governments, I mean the Irish government as well as the British government.”
He believes authorities will resist the idea of a truth commission.
“They are not going to do that and that’s why everybody is avoiding it and that’s why nobody wants a truth commission and that’s why the truth always stops at a few dirty apples as they call them along the line no matter what the investigation is about.
“They never come out and tell the truth - and truth is MI5 and Special Branch run the civil war for x number of years.
“Surely everybody nowadays can see that.
“And they killed their own as well you know.
“It’s not as if it’s all a one sided thing - there’s a much killing done on both sides with the backing of the authorities.
“Both sides have suffered but its just one side, the unionist side, the loyalist side that is a bit reluctant to come out and make a big fuss about it because they feel they are closer to the security set up at the time.”
Weir also claimed that the majority of paramilitaries during the mid-1970s were working for state agencies.
“It’s a bit complex in that way,” he said.
“But I would say 80 percent high ranking loyalists worked for MI5 or for Special Branch or for somebody else.”
“And I would say 50 percent on the republican side were doing it.”
He said searches were often “stopped by Special Branch”.
“Army commanders, nobody (was) happy at the time, they thought their hands were tied,” he said.
He also said that loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces shared close ties.
“It was all very, very plain at the time and you had loyalists, on the loyalist side UDA, UVF, they were ether in the UDR or their brothers were in the RUC or UDR so they were all very, very closely knit so it was understandable they were all working together,” he said.
“It was all worked to bring about what you have now, a type of peace where you have got the two extremes sort of in power.
The former sergeant said that high ranking RUC officers knew of his involvement with the Glenanne gang and repeated previous claims that senior officers including Chief Superintendent Harry Breen were aware of the collusion.
Mr Breen was shot dead along with his colleague Superintendent Bob Buchanan outside the village of Jonesborough, Co Armagh, as they made their way back from a meeting with Gardai in Dundalk.
In 2013 the Smithwick Report found that there was collusion between the IRA and Gardai in the killing of the two officers.
Weir also said that a former head of Special Branch, Assistant Chief Constable Brian Fitzsimmons, who was based in Newry at the time, was also aware of the activities of the Glenanne Gang.
Mr Fitzsimmons was killed with 28 other people when the military Chinook he was travelling in crashed in at the Mull of Kintyre in June 1994.
Weir said that while serving in Newtownhamilton in Co Armagh he was approached by people who were aware of his activities and suggested targets to him.
He claims he was even asked to join the British army at the time.
“To be quite honest I thought I was untouchable,” he said.
“I thought that if anyone bothered with me or what I was doing that it would just destroy everybody so actually I didn’t think anybody could touch me.”
Weir said that during his time in the Glenanne Gang he was also tipped off by RUC colleagues about police surveillance that had been placed on him
He said regrets about the past don’t dominate his life.
“Often people will say they have regrets, just saying you have or you haven’t regrets, it’s much bigger than just saying that off the cuff because everybody who ended up in the situation and for many reasons has regrets.
“Regrets that you went through all this but on the other hand I do understand it.
“It’s not as if I’m running about in a state of depression every day, ‘I shouldn’t have done this, I shouldn’t have done that’- because that is not the case.”
He also poured cold water on jail house conversions experienced by many who took part in the conflict.
“You see at that time I seen all these people, even some of them now, they turn religious and they come out and condemn themselves but I don’t really put a whole lot of weight on that because you see at that time what people did they were not forced into it, they were not actually forced into it, that’s on all sides,” he said.