Secret British army unit ‘bugged home of Martin McGuinness'
DEPUTY First Minister Martin McGuinness was placed under “heavy surveillance” by a secret British army intelligence unit around the time he served as Stormont education minister, a former member has claimed.
Cork-born ex-soldier Seán Hartnett said bugging devices may even have been placed in the former MP’s Derry home.
In an interview with the Irish News, Mr Hartnett - not his real name - claimed senior Sinn Fein members - including Mr McGuinness - were monitored by the Joint Communication Unit-Northern Ireland, which in the past has also been referred to as the Force Research Unit, 14th Intelligence Company and ‘the Det’.
He said he was posted to the north between 2001-04, which covered part of the period Mr McGuinness served as education minister before the collapse of the Stormont institutions in 2002.
Other targets included his brother Willie McGuinness.
While news of the surveillance operations are unlikely to come as a surprise to republicans, it is highly unusual for confirmation to come from former British army sources with first hand knowledge.
Mr Hartnett revealed that Foyle MLA and Policing Board member Raymond McCartney and his brother Andrew were also on his unit’s target list.
The activities of the JCU-NI are contained in an explosive new book which lifts the lid on some of their operations including a bungled attempt to place bugs in Mr McCartney’s home in 2003.
The operation was rumbled after operators from the unit left a detailed surveillance file, known as ‘the book’, on the politician’s kitchen table after gaining entry to his home when he was on holiday.
Mr Hartnett, who was a skilled communications technician, said last night that while he was not personally involved in operations against Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Féin man was being closely watched.
“Look that was our job, anybody of any significance within our area of responsibility which ran from Portrush and Portstewart down to the border, so that’s anybody in Derry, Strabane, all the way down,” he said.
“It’s obvious both the McCartney brothers were under surveillance, so was Martin and Willie McGuinness, they would have been under heavy surveillance.”
The Cork man said the Sinn Féin politician’s home may also have been bugged.
“Without a doubt, at some point, they may not be still there now,” he said.
“I would have thought McGuinness would have been sharp enough to have, and Sinn Fein as a whole, would be sharp enough to have a proper sweep of their offices and their homes.
“Now it doesn’t mean they will find what’s in there.
“But anybody who is anybody was under surveillance of some form or another.”
Despite being on the front line of the Britain’s covert war against republicans, the former soldier revealed in his book that he once tried to join the Provisional IRA shortly before signing up with the British army.
He said his family was deeply affected by the killing of eight IRA men at Loughgall in 1987 and he set up a meeting with a Sinn Féin official years later, which came to nothing when he decided not to attend.
“The thought of joining the Provos, I was very naïve really, I was a naïve 19-year-old,” he said.
“I think if I’d gone to that meeting, I think I would have joined up.
“I think I was looking for something, I didn’t really care what it was. I think adventure, whatever way it would have taken me, I would have lapped it up.”
He believes the decision by military chiefs to let him join a specialist unit of the British army was a “massive security breach”.
“When you look at it like that it was a serious security error on their part,” he said.
“You don’t look at it when you are in there, but after I left I though I could have got some information out of there.
“There were two technicians on each Det and we looked after everything, anything that had a cable on it we looked after it.
“So you had all these fibre feeds coming in from all camera feeds and everything and it was only a case of putting an extra feed in or out and put an IP address on it and you could send it to whoever you wanted.”
Based in Ballykelly, Co Derry, he claimed had he wanted he could have beamed information across the Foyle to Co Donegal.
“We had a 100-metre mast in the centre of our compound and we got a lot of feeds in through that,” he said.
“I often though about it, if I put another microwave dish up there and turn it across the Foyle they will receive that on the other end, the Provisional IRA have everything that’s coming into the Det, they are watching it.”
The former soldier said he still considers himself a republican and votes for Sinn Féin.
“Sinn Féin are probably the best option for a change in Irish politics, to change the way this country is run,” he said.
“I have always voted for Sinn Féin - even all the time I was serving in Northern Ireland I still viewed them in the same way, I still had the same respect for them."
However, he added that he has concerns about “a few individuals who turned coat a long time ago, which I don’t have any objection to but don’t try and present a public perception that you were a die-hard republican when you weren’t”.
“If you had lost that fervour in a cause, it’s fine,” he said.
“A lot of people came out of prison and decided it wasn’t for them any more and there’s nothing wrong with that.
“But to carry it on knowing that you were providing information to the other side the whole time, that I find difficult.”
The former British soldier also said he believes suspected Real IRA informer Gareth O’Connor, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances in 2003, was working for the security forces.
The Armagh man vanished while travelling to Dundalk Garda station to sign on as part of bail conditions connected to charges of Real IRA membership.
His remains were found in a car in Newry canal in 2005.
He was in the Coalisland area on the night in February 2002 when four men were arrested in possession of a rocket launcher close to the town’s police station in a joint British army-PSNI operation.
Those arrested were later acquitted of all charges.
Mr Hartnett, who was involved in the sting, said he was familiar with Gareth O’Connor.
“He would have been on North Det’s radar,” he said.
“He would have been on North Det’s list at one point, how he disappeared off that list you can read into that yourself, but he did.
“So he no longer, for whatever reason, needed to be under surveillance.”
The former soldier said he believes people within his former unit may have information about his disappearance and death.
He added that he has no doubt the dead man was an informer.
“From my personal view, given what I know and from my experience within the unit, my own personal view is yes,” he said.
Hartnett said he felt “conflicted” by some of the tasks he was asked to take part in, especially a planned 'shoot-to-kill' operation against two members of the Real IRA in Omagh, Co Tyrone.
The ambush was called off after the two men, who were said to be planning to kill British soldiers using a cash machine in the town, were unable to start a motorbike at an outhouse that had been bugged.
“My concern was that we would end up in another Loughgall, make two more martyrs, it wouldn’t serve anything,” he said.
He said he also had concerns about giving the organisation “legitimacy”.
“It wasn’t necessary, we could have taken them easy enough without killing them,” he said.
“They could have been arrested in that hide, we could have surrounded the hide. They would have put their hands up, I guarantee they wouldn’t put up a fire fight.
“You would have probably had 16 guys outside, which is what we had on the ground that day.
“You know you are outgunned, these lads don’t want to die, they’d have put their hands up and got 10 or 15 years for having a weapon with intent.”
Mr Hartnett believes his old unit remains active in the north and may have been involved in an operation that led to significant arms finds outside Larne in Co Antrim earlier this year.
A serving British soldier from Larne is facing charges in connection with the finds after being arrested in England last month.
“That recent arms find, the Det would have had a hand in that, it’s got it written all over it because of the level of surveillance that would have to have been put on that," he said.
“It was too convenient for the PSNI to turn up and say ‘intelligence-led’. Intelligence led my arse.”
He said his reasons for writing the book included being a “a form of therapy at the start”.
He also said he hoped to help families like that of David Caldwell who was killed by the Real IRA in 2002.
The author clams the British army was tailing the gang that killed him with a bomb left in a lunch box at the building site where he worked.
“As I put it together I thought there is two main reasons, one, British intelligence could never tell these stories, they will never come out, they are never going to volunteer the likes of David Caldwell’s death, his daughter is never going to get closure.
“And the second reason is whether we like it or not the likes of JCU-NI played their part in the peace process, they may never be acknowledged for it.”
Mr Hartnett confirmed that in writing the book he has breached the British Officials Secrets Act.
“I can never again travel back to the UK,” he said.
He added that he has no concerns for his personal safety and, if the circumstances were right, would be willing to take part in enquiries, inquests or PSNI investigations.
“It would depend on circumstances, remember I have got to now take into consideration my own standing in that if I cross the border do I end up with a set of bracelets on,” he said.
“It would depend, I wouldn’t discount it, put it that way.”
Asked if he has any regrets about his time in the British army, the former soldier said “About some of the things we missed yes, but not about my army career, no.”