IN July 1974, the Provisional IRA issued a bulletin to its members warning that a fifth column of one or two Catholic assassins was working with the Ulster Freedom Fighters, a cover name normally used by the UDA in claiming assassinations. The IRA was right about there being a fifth columnist, but wrong about his loyalist associations. He was working with the UVF.
His name was Jimmy McKenna. The bulletin from the IRA's publicity wing, the Irish Republican Information Service, claimed the IRA was aware of the identity of a figure who was under the control of "a number of RUC and English Special Branch officers". It also claimed there was a plot to poison IRA members in Crumlin Road Prison.
In his memoirs, published in 1996, the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams acknowledges there were some Catholics who worked for loyalists against the IRA.
McKenna's activities stemmed from the early days of the violence in Belfast when the Provisional IRA unit in Ballymurphy in west Belfast was establishing control over the local community. From the outset, it pursued well-established methods of creating an environment to enable its growth and eventual domination of its local area. One of the challenges it faced was a small group of professional criminals, some of who almost certainly had sidelines as police touts. In late autumn of 1970, the Provisional IRA in Ballymurphy announced what it termed a purge of "anti-people" elements. Local criminals, teenage girls suspected of fraternising with British soldiers, minor drug abusers (there has never been any kind of serious problem in Belfast with addictive psychotropic drugs), thieves and anyone suspected of connection with or sympathy towards the Northern state apparatus were forced to leave the area or subjected to a variety of punishments.
As part of this purge, in November 1970 the Ballymurphy IRA had decided to kill two local criminals, Arthur McKenna and Alexander McVicker, for their "anti-people" activities. The two men ran a gambling den in a disused house between Ballymurphy and Beechmount in the upper Falls Road area. McKenna was described by people who frequented the pitch and toss school as a "gentleman gangster". He stood guard outside the gambling school, it is said, sometimes armed with a sub-machinegun. He ensured there were no serious rows and that anyone who won money was safe to leave without being robbed. Likewise, anyone who welshed on debts or incurred their anger faced the prospect of a very severe beating.
Gusty Spence knew McKenna from before the Troubles, when they would meet in bars in Belfast city centre: he described him as a "tough monk".
If it was to establish control over the street life of west Belfast, the IRA had to eradicate the likes of McKenna and McVicker. Duly, the two were ambushed and shot dead on the Ballymurphy Road on November 16th, 1970, apparently as they waited to extort money from a milk roundsman.
The Ballymurphy IRA could not have foreseen the repercussions their "anti-people" purge would have.
Arthur KcKenna's brother Jimmy, a former merchant seaman who had emigrated to Australia after the second World War, returned to Belfast but missed Arthur's funeral by a day. Like his brother Arthur, Jimmy was described as being "built like a bull" and, in his time, a street fighter of considerable repute. He vowed to avenge his brother's killing, setting out to find out who was behind it and to kill them.
This was not something he could easily achieve on his own. Five months after his brother's death, Jimmy McKenna was stopped by a foot patrol of paratroopers in Ballymurphy on April 4, 1971. The soldiers found a loaded Webley revolver. McKenna told the soldiers he was a member of a "special investigation branch of the army" and cautioned the soldiers as they removed his gun: "Watch it. It's loaded". He was charged with four offences in relation to the weapon: possession of a firearm with intent to endanger life, the most serious offence; possession under suspicious circumstances; possession in a public place; and, least seriously, possession without a licence.
At his trial in June 1971 he told the court he had followed some IRA men to a field behind Corrigan Park GAA grounds, at Ballymurphy, where he saw them leave something in undergrowth. After they left, he went to the undergrowth and found the gun in a holster and this, he said, was the weapon he had when he was stopped by the paratroopers.
McKenna told the court he had returned from Australia with the intention of finding out who had killed his brother. He had made inquiries in Catholic west Belfast but had made little progress. "Some of the people told me what really happened and I passed on the information to the police. Other people resented my investigations and there were constant threats on my life. Ballymurphy is a very dangerous area at this time."
He had decided to keep the gun for his own protection. He did not, he believed, have it for a criminal purpose.
His contact with the RUC was confirmed by Chief Superintendent Patrick McAndrew, who told the court McKenna had passed on information he had gathered to the police. McAndrew considered McKenna's life was in danger. On Friday, June 4th, 1971, McKenna was acquitted of the three serious firearms charges but found guilty of possession of the gun without a licence. He was sentenced to one year imprisonment which he served in protective custody, separated from the paramilitary prisoners.
He then disappeared. Nothing was heard of McKenna again publicly until February 1976, when he was arrested by Australian police after he tried to kidnap his illegitimate daughter from a school in a Sydney suburb. It was reported in the Sydney newspapers that McKenna was sought by the RUC for his involvement in two murders in west Belfast in 1974. One was of John Crawford, a 52-year-old Andersonstown man shot dead at his upholstery workshop near Milltown Cemetery on the Falls Road on January 9th, 1974. The other victim was Vincent Charles Clarke (43) of Ballymurphy who was shot dead near his home on February 4, 1974. The Sydney police were reported as being puzzled by the apparent lack of interest in McKenna by the Ulster authorities". It also emerged that McKenna had made five return flights to the United Kingdom since his brother's death.
McKenna's name cropped up again, during the trial of Raymond Glover, a UVF man from Woodvale in north Belfast, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for having driven Crawford and Clarke's killers. Evidence at Glover's trial in February 1978 suggested that Clarke had spoken to Jimmy McKenna's brother, Arthur, moments before he was shot dead in 1971.
Local sources have also said that Crawford was actually one of the gunmen involved in killing McVicker and McKenna. Jimmy McKenna, UVF sources confirm, made contact with their Shankill Road UVF leadership through an intermediary, a man who had supplied guns to the organisation and who they had reason to trust but will not identify. As the UVF's and McKenna's interests in attacking the IRA dovetailed, they agreed to help him to avenge his brother's death. He moved into the Springmartin Flats and lived under the protection of the local UVF commander.
The UVF placed McKenna under the care of the young UVF members from west Belfast who had protected Gusty Spence when he was freed from prison in 1972. One of the Highfield unit recalls: "McKenna wanted to get information on the Provos - those who were involved in the killing of his brother." McKenna, he said, supplied the UVF with the names and addresses of several IRA men in west Belfast and actually took part in their assassinations.
McKenna's minders in the Highfield UVF came to regard him as their greatest asset in the fight against the IRA. He was the first source of good quality intelligence about the IRA in Belfast. They still regard his period with them as one of their most successful in their operations against the IRA. "He planned everything. He was an ex-soldier. He was an ould lad to me, probably about 40. I saw him jumping over the bonnet of a car to get this guy, that is how fit he was. He showed us things. He cut socks and put them over your arms (to protect clothing from gun discharge which could be traced and used as forensic evidence in court) then we would throw them away after jobs.
"We would go on recces and we were in disguises. If we had been doing that all along we would never have been caught. Remember, I'm talking about the early seventies in Whiterock (the road which runs alongside Ballymurphy). He told us about this guy who had a workshop. Our people were lying in fields for days watching this workshop. We wouldn't move." (This is almost certainly a reference to John Crawford, Whose upholstery works was in a clutch of light industrial buildings surrounded by vacant ground, and who appears to have been under surveillance as his movements were known to his killers.)
"There was one guy we were doing a recce on, in Whiterock. We were in disguise. This guy had a shotgun and fired it. It went over my shoulder. Jimmy put him down. There was none of them (the assassinations) claimed - admitted as IRA."
McKenna worked with the UVF from the middle of 1973 into 1974, it appears. "I could not say where he was getting his information or were they paying him. The UVF knows republicans were not claiming their dead. These people were republicans. Never, at any stage did anybody say to me: `Let's go out and kill a Catholic'." There was some concern over the shooting dead of a young man at a chip shop in the New Lodge area, but McKenna "swore blind he was a young IRA man".
OTHER loyalists, particularly - those with unremittingly sectarian outlooks, distrusted McKenna's presence on the Shankill. "McKenna used to drink in the Loyalist Club and Chuck... did not like this and he used to make snide remarks. I told him to f**k off. Jimmy grabbed his arm and pulled the arm out of the socket and pulled his gun on him. Then he stuck his arm back into the socket. He was in the navy, some special unit."
Eventually, even the UVF felt things had got "too hot" for McKenna. He was taken to Newtownards Airport, where the UVF had chartered a light aircraft to fly him out of Northern Ireland. They did not see him again.
McKenna is believed to have lived as a semi-vagrant in Australia until his death from a heart attack in 1986. His parting remarks to his young UVF minder were: "You are safe. Don't worry, I was working for the Special Branch. Good luck."