Paul Foot

So excited was Captain Fred Holroyd by his new posting to the city of Armagh in Northern Ireland as a fully-trained officer in military intelligence that he took great care to maintain his ‘cover’. He grew a rough beard before travelling across the Irish Sea, and dressed up in suitably scruffy clothes for the journey. He slunk into his ferry cabin without arousing anyone’s suspicion and locked the door. His first test as an active intelligence officer had been passed. No one had rumbled him or questioned him. He lay back on his bunk in relief. Suddenly the tannoy blared out a message: ‘Will Captain Fred Holroyd please report to the Purser’s Office as he has been chosen to be the military families’ officer for the journey.’

‘So much for undercover work!’ he reflected ruefully. Nor was his faith in his intelligence masters enhanced when the ferry pulled into Belfast. There was no one to meet him! In the dock and in the car park he was harassed by a slovenly tramp. When the tramp barred his way, Holroyd rushed into the Departure Lounge, borrowed a pistol from a fellow officer in the Royal Corps of Transport, and made it clear to the tramp that unless he got out of the way he was in grave danger of having his head blown off. The tramp withdrew, only to appear again at Lisburn barracks, where he identified himself as an intelligence major who had driven all the way from Armagh to Belfast to meet the new recruit. The major, Holroyd reflects in this book, ‘seemed to have no idea of what he was doing or why he was doing it’.

These inauspicious early encounters with British Intelligence did not succeed in dimming Fred Holroyd’s apparently inexhaustible enthusiasm. He even managed to ignore the way he was treated by the senior Army officers in charge of him. He was nicknamed ‘the tradesman’ – a reference to his working-class upbringing. His brigadier, he discloses, ‘unfailingly referred to the Irish, even the RUC, as Bogwogs’. The Brigadier kept a model in his office of a leprechaun sitting on a rock ‘with a small plaque bearing the inscription: “First Bogwog stone thrown at me in the Derry riots” ’.

Holroyd’s main problem in his first few months in Northern Ireland, where he went in 1973, was to sort out who his bosses were. It seemed that every senior officer in the Army, the Police and the Special Branch wanted him to report to them and no one else. Fred tried to work out his own rules on this, until, to his intense relief, he was recruited to work directly to Craig Smellie, the Northern Ireland head of MI6. For a short time, Holroyd was in his element. He worked almost exclusively from Portadown with his friend and mentor, a warrant officer called Bunny Dearsley. The two men ‘ran’ a number of locally-based agents, most of them female, who gave them information about the IRA. Much of the information seems to have been accurate. Without torturing or killing anyone, Holroyd claims, he and Dearsley gave MI6 a lot of useful material which led to some (rather marginal) weakening of the IRA in that area.

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