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.
The following year, however, everything began to go wrong. Holroyd noticed that with the election of a minority Labour government, the tactics of his fellow intelligence officers deteriorated very quickly. His own position, which has been consistent throughout, is that the British security forces, and especially their intelligence arm, were right to take sides in Northern Ireland – for the Protestant majority against the Catholic minority. It was, he thought then and still thinks, specious nonsense to make any pretence at impartiality. The British troops were in Ireland to defend the Protestant state. That was their job and they could only do it properly if they admitted it openly. But there was another rule which Holroyd made for himself then, and still insists on: ‘If the forces of the State allow themselves to act with the same degree of brutal illegality as those they are commanded to defeat, then in a sense they are shown to be losing the battle.’ This simple rule became very important for Holroyd during 1974 and 1975 as he watched the control of civilian intelligence operations in Northern Ireland switch from MI6 to MI5. As a direct consequence of this, British intelligence agents and military ‘special agents’ adopted the tactics of Protestant terrorists. Holroyd backs up this allegation with real stories, which even against the awful background of Northern Ireland in the Seventies, make the flesh creep.
Columba McVeigh was 17 when he was recruited by British Intelligence as a ‘likely lad’ to join the IRA as an informer. His mental age was very much lower. Prompted by Intelligence, an Army snatch squad raided McVeigh’s house, where they ‘found’ the ammunition they had given him. McVeigh was allowed to ‘escape’ with instructions to contact the Provisional IRA through a local priest. The priest sent the boy packing, and he was forced to retrace his steps to Dungannon police station to ask his intelligence controller what he should do next. He was bundled out of the station, and ‘picked up’ by an Army patrol (again by arrangement) a week later. He was then locked up in the Maze prison, where the IRA immediately recognised him as an informer, and tortured him for the names of others. McVeigh knew none, so he gave the names of everyone he could think of in his area. At the top of the list was his milkman. Realising that their plan had gone wrong, British intelligence officers promptly arranged for McVeigh’s ‘trial’ for ‘stealing ammunition’, at the end of which he was released on a suspended sentence. Now plainly an informer for all to see, the wretched youth fled to Dublin where he disappeared without trace, almost certainly murdered by the Provisionals. Meanwhile, McVeigh’s ‘list’ of informers were studied carefully by the IRA. They set about murdering the suspect milkman but botched it, killing his replacement roundsman instead.
The McVeigh story shocked Holroyd, but at least there was no evidence in it of collaboration between the security forces and Protestant terrorism. That collaboration became clear soon afterwards in a series of cases which brought Holroyd into open revolt. An SAS officer called Robert Nairac gave Holroyd a Polaroid photograph of the dead body of an IRA leader called John Green. Nairac, later to be shot himself, told Holroyd he had taken the picture after personally shooting Green. Nairac said that he and two Protestant terrorists had crossed the border in order to shoot Green. Much more horrific (since the victims had nothing to do with the war) was the slaughter of members of the Miami Showband pop group in July 1975. A Protestant terrorist gang, dressed up as British soldiers in the UDR – at least two of them were serving soldiers in the UDR – stopped the group’s van in South Down, and tried to plant a bomb in it. The bomb went off, and the rest of the gang opened fire on the pop group, killing three of them. Holroyd was, and is, certain that there was British intelligence complicity in this atrocity. The same Star automatic pistol used in the killing of John Green had been used in the Miami Showband massacre. So had rifles stolen from the UDR headquarters at Portadown. The rifles were hidden in the grounds of an estate belonging to a wealthy Protestant. Holroyd and many other intelligence officers knew they were there. When a young Catholic, Patrick Duffy, was ritualistically murdered by a Protestant gang, Holroyd knew who had done it. He told the RUC and they appeared to agree. Eventually, to Holroyd’s astonishment, two quite different men were arrested and sent to prison. They are still inside, refusing to plead their innocence since they, too, know the real killers, and want to protect them. Holroyd deduces that the real killers were protected by the Police.
In the meantime MI6 was replaced by MI5 and Craig Smellie left Ireland. Holroyd was ordered to discontinue his intelligence-gathering south of the border. The order was promptly countermanded by an SAS officer working with Intelligence. This officer reinforced Holroyd’s worst fears about MI5 by telling him the story of an NCO in intelligence who had been ‘running’ ten different sources in the IRA. During the first few days of MI5’s taking over, all ten had been murdered, and the NCO, in utter despair, had blown his own brains out. Holroyd decided that his intelligence south of the border was far too important to abandon, and he made a further trip there.
The result, for Holroyd, was catastrophic. His marriage had been breaking up for several months. His wife left home, taking the children. Holroyd was summoned to appear in front of his colonel, whom he calls Colonel B. Colonel B told him his wife had made serious allegations against him (though she was later to deny that they had any bearing on his professional life) and ordered him into hospital. Before his feet could touch the ground, and under threat of being strapped to a stretcher and taken by force, he was in the Army’s mental hospital at Netley in England. Holroyd spend a month in Netley. He passed all the tests for mental normality. He received no medical treatment. Whenever he questioned his presence there, he was told it was ‘political’. He was, nevertheless, declared mentally and emotionally unfit to be in the Army, and was forced to resign.
Holroyd’s life in the 15 years since has been a long battle to clear his name and brand those responsible – the MI5 officers in Northern Ireland who disapproved of his opposition to using terrorist tactics to beat terrorism. Though he knew that he had been unjustly treated (and though he noticed that Special Branch and Army Intelligence had stuck to his trail ever since – even when he went to fight for the doomed white supremacists in Rhodesia), he did not fully understand the reasons for his persecution until 1983, when he visited another former loyal servant of the British Army in Northern Ireland, Colin Wallace. The conversations between the two men, in which Wallace claimed that he, too, had been chucked out of his post in Northern Ireland because he had irritated MI5, confirmed Holroyd in his campaign. He has continued it ever since, turning eventually (and belatedly) to the media, and finally to this book.
Several attempts have been made by important people to strike a deal with Fred Holroyd. He has been offered large sums of money and even a re-examination of his downgrading in the Army – but he wants a full inquiry and full reinstatement. Certainly the apologies for an inquiry which have been carried out by the RUC and by the Gardai have got him nowhere. Typical of the RUC approach was the undertaking given him when he handed over all his documents to them under the supervision of Essex Special Branch. The RUC promised to examine them in confidence and return them. They have broken both promises without a word of apology or explanation. None of the documents has been returned. One of them, a photograph of John Green, the dead terrorist (or rather another photograph pretending to be Holroyd’s), found its way into the hands of at least two well-known Northern Ireland journalists. Holroyd takes the view that official inquiries are ordered precisely in order to cover up his grisly story.
Fred Holroyd’s chief asset is his frankness. He is an old-fashioned working-class patriot, who was sublimely happy in the Army and whose only real ambition is ‘to get back in a trench with a couple of sandbags and a gun’. Intelligence authorities rely for their success on other people’s insecurity. Holroyd points out that he has ‘nothing to lose’. He lives, happily enough, in poverty. He is a brave man, out to prove he has been treated more like a Russian dissident than a loyal soldier. His book was submitted to several ‘straight’ publishers. None would touch it – they were all terrified of the new Official Secrets Act, of which the whole book is in clear breach. As a result, the book lacks the expertise of an experienced publisher. It should have been much longer. Again and again, the stories cry out for detail and expansion. Above all, Holroyd’s allegations need independent assessment. Checks should have been made on his story by a third party. For all that, this is an astonishing tale, and the tiny Medium Press in Hull deserve every congratulation for facing down the law and publishing it. They will not be prosecuted – the Government cannot afford any publicity for this little book. But it is indispensable to anyone who wants to understand what has been done in Northern Ireland, in our name, by the irresponsible, feuding and, in the worst cases, barmy security services.