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Martin Dillon: Extract from new memoirs

In extracts from his memoir Crossing the Line - My Life on the Edge, Troubles writer Martin Dillon recalls one occasion when he came too close to the action and offers some reflections on the 'dirty war'

Martin Dillon has written a series of books about the Troubles
Martin Dillon

In extracts from his memoir Crossing the Line - My Life on the Edge, Troubles writer Martin Dillon recalls one occasion when he came too close to the action and offers some reflections on the 'dirty war'

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I was clutching a notebook and pen when the crack of an automatic rifle shattered the stillness of the street. Tracer bullets zipped through the air, and I hit the ground, my face flush with the pavement. I lay there as a gunman returned fire from a position so close to me I could hear him breathing as he squeezed the trigger of his Mark 1 carbine.

I crawled towards a doorway like a dog begging for food, only to be turned away by a burly man whose wife pushed him inside and slammed their door in my face. Ever so cautiously, my knees aching, I moved along the street to find all the doors shut. Slowly, I began retracing my steps to the gunman with the carbine. In the semi-darkness, I realised he was a young man in his twenties. Unseen hands dragged me to my feet and pulled me behind the security of an entry wall.

‘What the f**k do you think you’re doin’?’ said a man, jamming a pistol into my ribs.

He was stocky and much older than his buddy with the carbine.

He shoved the gun in his waistband and backed me against a wall. ‘We were about t’ shoot you, you silly b*****d. We almost took you for a Prod,’ he hissed. ‘Get t’ f**k outa here, if y’ know what’s good for you,’ he added, as he and his companion melted into the darkness of an entry.

I slowly edged my way from door to door, at one point running at breakneck speed to cross a street. There is always a moment in life when a sound conveys its own reality. I had just found shelter in a doorway, trying to get my eyes better accustomed to the darkness, when a sharp crack from a high-powered rifle shattered my concentration.

Minutes later, several men rushed past me carrying James Saunders, a young IRA officer, who had just been shot by a British army sniper. A 7.62 calibre bullet had entered his chest and exited his back leaving a torn, gaping hole from which his life’s blood was oozing onto the pavement.

I would learn later Saunders had fired at gunmen in a nearby loyalist area, unaware it was being protected by British soldiers. It was February 21 1971. I was in The Bone, a tiny Catholic enclave in the Oldpark area of north Belfast, a mere five-minute walk from my home in Chestnut Gardens. The violence from the Falls had followed me here, too.

On that evening, however, my editor had sent me to The Bone following reports of serious rioting. When I got there, darkness was closing in. The violence had begun after a Protestant mob from Louisa Street attacked Catholics on the Oldpark Road, the main thoroughfare that served both communities. When shooting replaced stone throwing, people in The Bone hurried indoors and shut their blinds or curtains, leaving the area bathed in an eerie darkness.

By the time the dying James Saunders was carried past me, I realised I had waited too long to get out of the area without risking life and limb. I cautiously began edging my way from door to door, hoping to reach the Oldpark Road.

I planned to sprint across it into Oldpark Avenue. From there, I would be able to make it to my home in Chestnut Gardens and phone a story to my news desk.

Suddenly, a strange man grabbed my arm. In a reassuring voice he told me to follow him, and I would be safe. He guided me along a street and into the cramped living room of a house. As my eyes adjusted to light streaming from a bare light bulb suspended from the ceiling, the man’s hand propelled me gently downwards into the deep folds of a chair.

‘Take it easy, son. Just make yerself at home. It looks like y’ might be here a while.’

He was wiry and wore a shirt unbuttoned to his waist as though he had just finished a hard day’s work.

‘You reporters are gluttons for punishment,’ he noted with a wry smile.

 

*****

In a dirty war, nothing is as it appears. Sometimes, I had difficulty separating the good guys from the bad when interviewing some of them for my books.

I continue to wonder if Scappaticci could provide me with convincing evidence that he saved many lives, and that his reign of terror was necessary to maintain his cover as an agent. That is unlikely to happen since his handlers placed him in the British version of the FBI’s witness protection programme, where I expect him to remain in hiding for the rest of his natural life. There is little likelihood any British government will let him spill the beans about his role in a very dirty war.

There is another aspect of the undercover war that interested me as an investigative writer. It was the history of extrajudicial murders that began in the early 1970s and continued throughout the Troubles. I am referring to murders committed by loyalist assassins who were agents of the state, and by members of secret British Military Intelligence outfits.

The existence of some of those outfits has been scrubbed from classified files. Their targets included militant republicans, people loosely or wrongly linked to republican terror groups through bogus intelligence, members of Sinn Féin and innocent Catholics. I believe that, beginning in 1971, people in the higher echelons of the British government’s security apparatus knew loyalist assassins run by the state were slaughtering innocent Catholics.

The soldier Albert Walker Baker, a UDA assassin of the early 1970s whom I wrote about in The Dirty War, was an example of a terrorist agent permitted to torture and murder innocent Catholics while spying for MI5 and Special Branch on the UDA’s leadership. For over two decades, loyalist hit squads were provided with intelligence by Special Branch, MI5 and British Military Intelligence to target and kill republicans.

Not all their victims were members of the IRA. Some were Catholic solicitors. Murders were often dismissed as the work of crazed sectarian assassins when they were in fact part of a state-sponsored proxy war aimed mostly, but not exclusively, at the IRA. Loyalist leaders were also targeted.

This undercover war impacted innocent Catholics and Protestants. For counterterrorism bosses, it conveniently intersected with tribal bloodletting, leading to the mistaken attribution by the media of many state-sponsored murders to tribalism. It is an aspect of the Troubles that demands greater scrutiny by everyone concerned with civil liberties and justice.

****

As for the media, investigative journalism was in its fledgling phase. It neglected to examine patterns of violence, relying too much on official sources such as the RUC and British army press outlets. I grew highly sceptical of the dissemination of information from official sources from 1972 onwards, especially when it originated from British army HQ and its press operations.

Some of it was filtered through people with a keen interest in psychological operations and the distortion of news. If anything, I placed more reliance on the RUC press staff because I knew some of its personnel and regarded these individuals as honest professionals. My general instinct, however, was to personally undertake detailed background work on certain stories, particularly on the increasing numbers of political assassinations. I spoke to detectives, paramilitaries and their contacts, and to ordinary people in republican and loyalist districts. By researching in that fashion, I learned about ‘Romper Rooms’, which were essentially killing rooms used by murder gangs.

However, I feel it is important at this stage to clarify what I believe the police and military knew about sectarian murders at the time. Throughout the Troubles, British Military Intelligence and RUC Special Branch ran agents within loyalist paramilitary groups.

In fact, highly classified British Intelligence outfits recruited loyalist and republican terrorists to assassinate republicans.

That was true of the MRF – Military Reconnaissance Force – in the early 1970s that had loyalist and a few republican gunmen in its ranks. Therefore, there was little the intelligence community did not know about the workings of the paramilitaries, especially the UDA, UVF and similar loyalist groupings. Much of that insider British military knowledge remained classified and did not find its way to hardworking RUC uniformed staff and detectives from the Criminal Investigation Branch. They tirelessly investigated hundreds of unsolved murders without cooperation from other parts of the security apparatus.

I have been asked many times, in the context of collusion that existed between loyalist paramilitaries and British Intelligence and the RUC Special Branch, if RUC criminal investigators knew the identities of murderous gangs like the Shankill Butchers. The Butchers were a tight crew, and no evidence suggested they were ever recruited as informers by the security forces. I also came across nothing to confirm the UVF leadership betrayed the Butchers to Special Branch or to British Military Intelligence at any time during their vicious killing spree.

However, the Shankill Butchers’ leader, Lenny Murphy, was eventually set up for assassination by the UDA leader James Pratt Craig, who was not only a CID informant but had links to Special Branch and the British military. It has often been speculated that the policing authorities knew the identities of gangs like the Butchers and allowed them to kill at will because they were exterminating Catholics.

Such a theory is dangerous and has no basis in fact. Even so, British Military Intelligence and Special Branch hid critical information from CID and engaged in a dirty war in which they used loyalist gunmen to target republicans for assassination. In many instances, they targeted people who were not IRA members. In fact, the British Intelligence apparatus, including the British army, expended little effort or resources investigating loyalist gangs murdering ordinary Catholics. Instead, British Military Intelligence focused on monitoring loyalist paramilitaries for the purpose of recruiting agents from within them, and to ensure they did not pose a threat to the British army.

They used the agents they recruited in a proxy war in which they eliminated republicans and blamed the murders on loyalists. The major thrust of the British Intel system was directed at republican organisations, especially the Provisional IRA. It was a misguided policy, and in many respects led to a large number of extrajudicial killings.

* Crossing the Line - My Life on the Edge by Martin Dillon is published by Merrion Press.

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