R.W. Johnson writes about a national disgrace

  • Who Framed Colin Wallace? by Paul Foot
    Macmillan, 306 pp, £12.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 333 47008 7

Paul Foot has a shocking story to tell, the story of Colin Wallace. It is, quite literally, a story of gunpowder, treason and plot. The fact that Foot’s publishers have had to rush the book out in weeks in order to beat the deadline of the new Official Secrets Act, and have deliberately forsaken all advance publicity for fear of pre-emptive action against the book, says something rather disgraceful about the difficulty of getting a fair hearing in this country. And Wallace deserves, at the least, a fair hearing.

Colin Wallace, as a young Ulster Protestant, was infatuated with the symbols of the Union – the flag, the Crown, the Presbyterian Church, and the Army. He became a school cadet, a B Special, an Army marksman and parachutist, showing such outstanding energy and commitment that by the age of 29 he had become the youngest man in the British Army to attain the rank of lieutenant-colonel and routinely acted as assistant and guide to British ministers (and prime ministers) visiting Ulster. Recruited into Information Policy, an undercover psychological warfare unit working closely with MI6, Wallace was put in charge of black propaganda operations. These consisted in feeding a host of alarmist stories about the IRA to the British press – wading through them, one begins to wonder, glumly, how far one can trust anything the British press writes about Ireland.

In 1972 Harold Wilson met with IRA leaders in Dublin, and the next year the Northern Ireland Minister, Willie Whitelaw, made similar contacts. This utterly shocked opinion in every officers’ mess in Ulster – and in MI5, who took over intelligence operations there from MI6 in 1973. Exactly like the French Army before it in Algeria, these key circles within the British Army now decided that in order to prevent a sell-out of the imperial position in the overseas province by leftists (Guy Mollet/Harold Wilson) or weak-minded centrists (Pierre Pflimlin/Edward Heath), the military must ensure that the right sort of government came to power in the metropole. Operation Clockwork Orange was precisely this: an attempt to smear and undermine Labour leaders and Tory wets alike, the short-term aim being to prevent Labour being elected in February 1974 or re-elected in October 1974 and to depose the likes of Heath and Whitelaw from the Tory leadership. Anyone – including Ian Paisley – who helped maintain the minority Labour government in power was fair game. Thanks to Peter Wright’s revelations we are more or less familiar with what went on in this period, though it is important to say that Wallace was the first to make public admission of these campaigns, well before Wright.

Homosexual smears were directed against Edward Heath, Jeremy Thorpe, Norman St John Stevas and Humphrey Berkeley; bogus bank accounts (showing corrupt earnings) were contrived for Edward Short and Ian Paisley; Wilson was seen as the beneficiary of, and a possible participant in, the assassination of Hugh Gaitskell; lists were drawn up of such notorious Communists or Communist sympathisers as Brian Walden, David Owen, Robert Mellish, John Stonehouse, Roy Hattersley and Reg Prentice; and even a bogus pamphlet on ‘revolutionary strategy’ for the installation of socialism in Britain was contrived for off-the-record briefing of American journalists, the joint ‘authors’ being Tony Benn, Stan Orme and Denis Healey. One is tempted to say that even in the MI5 officers’ mess, the idea of Denis Healey collaborating with Messrs Benn and Orme on anything at all must surely have required the assistance of a few double whiskies. The unhappier truth is that the minds that made such things up were quite possibly stone-cold sober.

Colin Wallace excelled at these black propaganda operations and for several years enjoyed his work. Gradually, though, he became uneasy at the extent to which his job seemed to be mainly about smearing and undermining British politicians rather than combating terrorism in Ireland. Moreover, the Army was now making its own Northern Ireland policy in a breathtakingly independent way. When the Heath Government brought in a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland with the Sunningdale Agreement of December 1973, many within the Army seem to have seen this as the beginning of the end: before long a wet Tory or Labour government would sell out to the IRA completely. Accordingly, when the Ulster Workers’ Council decided to launch a general strike to bring down the power-sharing executive, not only did it receive sympathetic backing from the Army but there is even evidence that the strike was planned and encouraged by MI5 and its adjutants in Army Intelligence and Information Policy. To mask what was being prepared and to create an emotional following wind in Britain, it was decided to launch a publicity blitz about an IRA ‘Doomsday Plot’ – a plan for the evacuation of 100,000 Catholics to the South and a scorched earth policy in the North.

The plan had been drawn up by the IRA as a contingency plan against the possibility of a massive Protestant attack on Catholic areas of Ulster: it would now be presented as if it were an offensive strategy in its own right. When he saw what was being cooked up, Colin Wallace objected. The idea of the plot was several years old and had already been used back in 1972: he couldn’t, he said, recycle such old stuff without losing credibility. But you don’t have to, he was told – we’ll get the Prime Minister to do it. And so they did: on 13 May 1974 Harold Wilson announced a ‘dramatic revelation’ to the House of Commons, a suitably purple version of the ‘Doomsday Plot’ fed to Wilson by the Army puppet-masters. Wilson even went so far as to warn the House that ‘there will be an attempt to misrepresent this information – which is a genuine find by the security authorities – but I can assure the House that these documents are genuine and not even put forward by the IRA themselves for any purpose except that which it had it in mind to pursue.’ Just 12 days later, under strong Army pressure, Wilson caved in to the UWC strike and threw the power-sharing executive to the wolves.

Such incidents served to increase Wallace’s concern that the Army was moving away from its alleged primary role of fighting terrorism. Worse, he became uneasy that the increasing number of assassinations and bomb outrages against Catholics might be taking place with Army encouragement, perhaps even with covert Army planning. So in October 1974 Wallace announced that he didn’t wish to work on Clockwork Orange any more, that he was resigning in order to go back to fighting terrorism.

A few weeks later Wallace also submitted a memo in which he set out at some length the dreadful scandal of the Kincora Boys’ Home in Belfast. Wallace had submitted his first report on Kincora more than two years before and had even put out a press statement in early 1973 which stated that William McGrath, head of the sinister Orange private army, TARA, was using ‘a non-existent evangelical mission as a front for his homosexual activities and also runs a home for children’ – whose address and phone number Wallace conveniently supplied. No newspaper in the UK was willing to follow this obvious lead or even to publish the story, despite the fact that McGrath’s associates constituted a virtual Who’s Who of Protestant Ulster. What was going on at Kincora was that the destitute boys were being systematically sodomised and abused by McGrath and his friends, who included Kincora’s official director and assistant director. This had been going on for many years, perhaps from as early as 1959, and repeated attempts by boys who had been raped to get the RUC interested in the matter had always failed. Nothing in Foot’s book is more heart-breaking than his recounting of how, over twenty years, a series of boys (and sometimes their families and social workers) tried desperately and unavailingly to put a stop to their dreadful pain, humiliation and buggery – and how the Police, the press and the authorities failed them over and over again. Quite clearly, neither the RUC nor Army Intelligence were at all keen for the Kincora story to be broken. This was so partly because McGrath and his friends were extremely well-connected within the Protestant Establishment. But the truth may have been worse than that. Intelligence services around the world often find it useful to maintain luxury brothels: not just for what they learn from pillow-talk but as multi-purpose centres of reward, blackmail and assignation. There was nothing luxurious about Kincora, but its rarity, in the Northern Irish context, as an unlimited source of boys who could be buggered without mercy or publicity seems likely to have made it an especially useful intelligence asset. So in his insistent attempts to open up the Kincora story Colin Wallace was rocking the boat just as much as he was by refusing to have anything to do with Clockwork Orange.

There can be no other explanation for what then happened to Wallace. He was suddenly smeared in a number of press articles, transferred abruptly out of Northern Ireland, and as soon as he got to England, dismissed from the Army on trumped-up charges of having wrongly retained secret documents and given them to the press. What is truly remarkable is the speed and thoroughness with which Wallace was dealt with: one moment he was an indispensable man, the next he was sacked, disgraced, persecuted, and made into a non-person – the Ministry of Defence has, ever since, denied that Wallace had been in intelligence at all. Thereafter, steps were taken to prevent him from getting other employment and he was endlessly, miserably harassed. Foot is scrupulous, at every stage, in trying to see whether a case against Wallace might not be made to stand up; and he makes it clear that he and Wallace do not see eye to eye about politics, Ireland, the Army or just about anything else. But no fair-minded person can read this book and doubt Wallace’s story. The only question one is left asking is how naive Wallace was really being when he raised objections first to Clockwork Orange and then to Kincora. Surely he was both too senior and too intelligent not to have known that both matters were utter dynamite and that one could not simply ‘sign off’ on an operation like Clockwork Orange which involved key MI5 and Army operatives in acts of high treason? Was it not obvious that anyone who did try to sign off – and then threatened to blow open the Kincora scandal for good measure – would be seen as a dangerous man who knew much too much to be left alone?

Far worse was to follow for Wallace. He at last gained a post as information officer for Arun District Council in Sussex, for whom he worked with his customary zeal and success. In various small ways he continued to be the subject of official harassment and surveillance, but in April 1980 he finally consented to be an off-the-record source for a journalist seeking to probe the rumours of an MI5 plot against the Wilson Government. At almost the same time that these articles were published (four years before the Spycatcher disclosures), the Kincora scandal finally surfaced in the press. This had nothing to do with Wallace, but the powers-that-be, who had not wanted these skeletons out of the cupboard, were doubtless confirmed in their view that it was too dangerous to have Wallace wandering round free. Three months later Wallace was arrested, found guilty of the manslaughter of his friend Jonathan Lewis, and bundled off to jail – whence he only emerged in December 1986. As Foot persuasively argues, there were many oddities in the way the Sussex Police made their case against Wallace. In particular, they mysteriously ignored the evidence of a barmaid who came forward to volunteer testimony which had the effect not merely of exonerating Wallace but of pointing the finger of suspicion at another party entirely. The Police apparently decided they didn’t want to know about this testimony, never called the barmaid back, never bothered to question the pub’s staff or regulars in order to check her evidence, and never made any move to pursue the other party she indicated. At no stage was any direct evidence against Wallace produced and when his lawyer insisted that there was simply no case to answer, the jury was sent out for two days before it was decided that the trial could go on. Wallace, unfortunately, did not help his case by telling a lie under pressure, and then having to admit to the untruth. It is the only certain thing of which he was guilty.

The Wright and Massiter revelations meant that there was a media rush to interview Wallace when he came out of jail, though, typically enough, the BBC decided not to broadcast its interview. This was, however, only one example of a more general lack of journalistic guts over the Wallace story. Without doubt some journalists have been suckered by MI5 with false information about Wallace; others have gone in for the ‘on the one hand ... on the other’ sort of balance which dismisses Wallace as an unfortunate crank; while yet others have found it impossible to resist the peculiar journalistic temptation to be knowing and worldly-wise from a great height. (These last are always the ones, faced with the need for hard brain-work, to announce that they themselves prefer the theory of cock-up to that of conspiracy, an announcement normally accompanied by a happy smile of self-assurance suggesting that they have just invented this old cliché.) Suffice it to say that Foot does dreadful and detailed damage here to the reputations of a number of leading hacks and that they deserve all they get. It is, however, worth pointing out that Wallace’s account of the attempted destabilisation of Heath and Wilson was taken deadly seriously where it mattered most. Clive Ponting describes the atmosphere inside the Ministry of Defence after Wallace had been jailed: ‘There was never any suspicion that Wallace was making these stories up or that it was totally unfounded and very easy to rubbish. It was very much a matter that, OK the story was being contained at the moment because he was in jail, but that in a few years’ time he would be back out again and could be expected to start making the allegations again and then that would be a serious problem.’

Meanwhile, there was still Kincora. The awkward question had to be faced as to why the boys of Kincora had gone on being raped and abused for twenty years, despite repeated complaints to the Police, and despite Wallace’s complaints to Army Intelligence. From all sides of the Irish political spectrum came accusations of a Police and Intelligence cover-up. To make matters worse, it emerged that McGrath had apparently worked for MI6 even before he became the arch-villain of Kincora – and was given to boasting of his links with and friends in MI5. The first official inquiry, by the McGonagle Committee, was promised that no limits would be placed on its investigation. As soon as it met, however, it was told that it could not examine any matter the Police were looking into or which was covered by criminal charges, in the past or in the future. Since just about everything to do with the scandal was covered by criminal charges, including the possibility of a cover-up, a majority of the Committee’s members resigned on the spot and the inquiry collapsed after less than a day – an occurrence unique in British history.

James Prior, then Minister for Northern Ireland, announced that the police investigation would continue. As for the question of whether there had been a cover-up after Colin Wallace and others had drawn attention to the Kincora scandal, this would be investigated by ... Sir George Terry, Chief Constable of Sussex, who had just had Wallace put away for manslaughter. Better still, the man appointed by Terry to take charge of the Kincora inquiry was Gordon Harrison, who had been in charge of Wallace’s prosecution. Unsurprisingly, no Terry Report was ever issued. Instead, Terry merely appeared at a press conference with Sir John Hermon, Chief Constable of the RUC (which Terry was supposed to have been investigating), where he announced: ‘I am satisfied that there is no substance to allegations that Army Intelligence had knowledge of homosexual abuse at Kincora.’ Given that Wallace had provided exactly that knowledge to Army Intelligence many years before, the polite word for Terry’s conclusion was incredible – though it is fair to add that other words were used by some. The Northern Ireland Alliance Party, moderate as ever, referred to Terry’s conclusions as ‘misleading and blatantly dishonest’.

James Prior now found himself besieged by demands for another Kincora inquiry, this time by a High Court judge, as befitted the gravity of the case. Prior paid fulsome tribute to Terry; accepted that there would have to be another inquiry (i.e. that Terry’s was unsatisfactory); but then set up a low-level affair under Judge Hughes, a retired circuit judge. Mr Prior did, however, specifically assure the House that it would be within Hughes’s terms of reference to investigate the allegation of a cover-up – that is, the question of why there had been no inquiry into Kincora before 1980. Judge Hughes quickly developed other ideas: on opening his inquiry he said that what it was about was ‘the administration of boys’ homes’ and that the inquiry would have nothing to do with ‘the allegations carried in the newspapers and on television that there was any cover-up of the Kincora affair, or that there was a vice ring in operation.’ Hughes refused to interview, not only those convicted of offences against the Kincora boys, but even Mr Roy Garland, who had complained to the security forces about Kincora as long ago as 1972 and had specifically pointed the finger at William McGrath as the evil genius of the affair. Mr Robert McCartney QC, representing the Kincora boys, could hardly contain himself: ‘Are my wits leaving me? A man who detonated an entire police inquiry and put the finger at a fairly early stage on the man subsequently convicted for some of the most brutal acts of sodomy is not a relevant or material witness?’

At this point this already extraordinary story becomes positively surreal. Wallace, asked to give evidence to the Hughes inquiry, agrees to do so only if he’s allowed to tell everything and is guaranteed immunity from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act for doing so. This is turned down by Mrs Thatcher personally. Wallace sends a whole file of notes to No 10 Downing St for onward transmission to Hughes, but most of the documents mysteriously get stolen by No 10 and are never supplied to Hughes. The Hughes Report is another complete whitewash: faced with a document from Wallace proving that he had raised the Kincora question back in 1974, Hughes avers that it might be a forgery and can thus be ignored. A file of documents on Kincora is then sent on to Teddy Taylor, the right-wing Tory MP who had shown great interest in the case. Taylor places this file in a locked cupboard in a locked office under a 24-hour-a-day police guard. It is nonetheless stolen, producing a furious complaint from David Owen MP that even the House of Commons is no longer safe from burglary. The furore among MPs seems to do the trick, for the file is then placed by unseen hands on Teddy Taylor’s desk – in Southend. It goes on and on like this. One is reminded, irresistibly, of Peter Wright’s description of MI5 ‘bugging and burgling’ its way round London.

Foot’s book is about nothing less than a British Watergate. In a healthy democracy his book would now be the focus of furious discussion and debate. Lord Stockton, the head of Macmillan’s, has put himself on the line in order to publish it, averring that even if the book’s publication means that he will never be invited to serve in a Conservative Administration, it would still be worth it. But the media response is just what one would expect: a virtual whiteout. None of the normal TV and radio chat-shows and book programmes want to know about this book and even radio programmes like Start the week, which did invite Foot to come and discuss his book, soon hastily disinvited him. The press has not been a lot better. The story is too big, too powerful, too troubling. Clearly, there is no hope of justice for Wallace without a change of government – and probably not all that much hope then.

And yet, despite the very British hushing-over of this affair, the story has seeped through to the heart of the political élite, become part of its thinking. Fifteen years ago, any politician who suggested that the intelligence services might be playing a sinister political role would have been written off as paranoid. This is less likely now. First, we had Harold Wilson confiding to Penrose and Courtiour his belief that he and his government had been undermined and smeared. Then we had effective confirmation of this from Peter Wright – and saw the lengths to which the Government was willing to go in order to prevent the story from gaining wider circulation. When the Colin Wallace story seeped out, Roy Jenkins, Merlyn Rees and Edward Heath took it seriously enough to constitute an unofficial committee of inquiry into the matter. On 29 May this year Peter Mandelson, the Labour Party’s communications director, raised the question of whether a BBC TV item about Labour MPs being targets of Soviet blackmail and espionage had been planted by MI5 – and Sir Geoffrey Howe took the matter so seriously that he went to the unusual length of specifically defending Labour MPs against such a charge. Two days later, Edward Heath was accusing Conservative Central Office of a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign against him and, when pressed on the point, said that this sort of thing had been going on ‘for the last fifteen years’. That is, since 1974 – which was when, Colin Wallace reports, Clockwork Orange was set in motion to destabilise Heath and later Wilson.

Thus we have the following fantastic situation. In 1974 the radical Right within MI5 decided that it would work to undermine both the liberal Tory leadership and the Wilson Government. By 1975 Heath had gone and been replaced by the most right-wing Tory leader this century. By 1976 Wilson, too, was gone and by 1979, with Thatcher’s election, the whole script had gone like a dream. The only problem is that reports of the Clockwork Orange campaign keep leaking out. Everything possible is done to deny them, to prevent them being published, to arrange for those who write about them to be written off as fantasists and paranoiacs – even, in the extreme case of Wallace, for them to be hounded, harassed, framed and jailed. It is now all but impossible to get radio or TV (BBC or ITV) interested in one of the bigger news stories of our time. But, quite clearly, at least two former prime ministers – one Labour, one Tory – do believe that Wallace is telling the truth, as do a former Chancellor of the Exchequer (Jenkins) and a former Home Secretary (Rees), while a former Foreign Secretary (Owen) is able to believe that even the House of Commons is no longer safe from burglary. (Watergate had its White House plumbers: we seem to have the Downing Street plumbers.) Senior Labour MPs and officials are convinced of the truth of Wallace’s story to the point where they believe that a threatening rise by Labour in the polls would lead MI5 – may have already led MI5 – to launch Clockwork Orange II. Such fears may be wild, but the time is past when they could be dismissed as incredible.