Much of the truth about the British army's `dirty war' in the North in the 1970s is likely to remain buried

When the British army became involved in what it termed the "low-intensity conflict" with the IRA in 1971, it quickly realised…

When the British army became involved in what it termed the "low-intensity conflict" with the IRA in 1971, it quickly realised that it was conducting a campaign against an enemy about which it knew little.

The RUC, which had the role of assembling intelligence on subversive groups, was in a state of collapse and its Special Branch arm was swept aside by the military decision to mount its own intelligence-gathering and "counter-terrorism" campaign.

For its counter-terrorism model in Northern Ireland, the British army used ideas formed in fighting national liberation movements such as the Mau Mau in Kenya and others in Aden and Malaysia since the second World War. These included setting up undercover intelligence-gathering operations; capturing and interrogating suspects - often using torture; recruiting agents; using locally recruited "pseudo" gangs that were also opposed to the enemy; and "psy-ops", short for psychological operations, disseminating propaganda or false information to confuse and undermine the enemy.

All these methods had been deployed by the French army in its bloody campaign against the Algerian nationalist movement in the decade before the Northern Ireland conflict erupted. While the British army drew on the experiences of the French, the IRA paid close attention to the methods used by the Algerians. Much of what happened in the streets of Algiers in the early 1960s was replicated by both sets of antagonists in Belfast in the 1970s.


One of the earliest victims of this war was Mr Seamus Wright (25), a roofer from Bombay Street in the lower Falls - one of the eight people about whom the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains has received information. He was arrested by the British army in February 1972 and taken to Palace Barracks, where he was interrogated and apparently gave the names of people he knew to be in the IRA. He was taken to England but returned home a month later after his wife was told where to meet him at a Birmingham flat.

The British army had attempted to get Mr Wright to work with its undercover intelligence operation in west Belfast and had, foolishly, divulged details of its operations to him. The IRA learned that Mr Wright had been taken to Palace Barracks and England, and abducted him two weeks after he returned. A short time later the IRA also trapped and almost certainly tortured another west Belfast man, Mr Kevin McKee, after it became suspicious that he was working for the British army. The information Mr McKee and Mr Wright gave led their IRA interrogators to an unusually efficient and popular laundry service in west Belfast and a brothel on the Antrim Road in north Belfast.

The Four Square Laundry had begun business a few months earlier and had quickly built a strong client base because of its competitive rates, efficient service and friendly staff. The staff were soldiers - three men and a woman. The cleaning was sub-contracted out to another laundry in south Belfast and the role of the soldiers was to infiltrate and gather information about suspects in west Belfast.

On October 2nd, 1972 an IRA unit caught up with the Four Square van in Dunmurry and riddled it with bullets, killing at least one soldier, Sapper Ted Stuart, a member of the Royal Irish Rangers and from Co Tyrone. The woman soldier was delivering clothes in a house when the attack took place and was sheltered there until the gunmen left, the occupants of the house not suspecting her true role.

On the same day other IRA gunmen walked into the Gemini Health Studio, a brothel operating from a house beside the Capitol Cinema on the Antrim Road, and opened fire on a man and woman inside. It has never emerged if either was killed. The army, whose reports to the media were riddled with lies and inaccuracies at the time, simply stated one man was injured in the shoulder. The IRA said it had killed three men in the laundry van and two in the brothel.

The brothel had been used as a means both to solicit information from clients and to attempt to blackmail others into working as agents. Four women, members of the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC), had worked in the house for several months. The British army had also imported prostitutes from the north of England to carry on the business of the "health studio". British newspapers subsequently ran stories about the brothel under such headings as "Dolly Bird Spies" and "On Her Majesty's Sexual Service", using terms such as "sexpionage".

These stories, to an extent, were fed out by the press office at the British army's headquarters in Co Antrim. This press office shared a corridor with another room with a plaque on its door describing it as the "Psy-ops" office. This was the centre of what eventually became known among journalists as the "Lisburn Lie Machine".

Among the information the IRA elicited from Mr Wright and Mr McKee before they were killed was that the military agency responsible for carrying out these operations was called the Military Reaction Force (MRF), based at Palace Barracks.

This group, which has also been called the Mobile Reaction Force (MRF), continued operating throughout the conflict and many of its activities have led to considerable controversy about assassinations and allegations of collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. There have been many revelations about the activities of the undercover operatives in Northern Ireland for nearly three decades and many of the disclosures substantiate the claims about the illegal and highly dangerous activities of the army's "intelligence" wing. Many of the worst British military excesses occurred in the early 1970s when there was a virtual collapse of the policing structure. By the late 1970s, when the RUC had been significantly strengthened and assumed the "primary" security role over the army, the eccentric military figures behind much of the MRF-type activities were removed.

In his memoirs, the Sinn Fein president, Mr Gerry Adams described the breaking of these undercover military operations as a major blow against the British and a major morale boost for the IRA.

Even with the hoped-for recovery of the bodies of Mr McKee and Mr Wright, much of the truth about the "dirty war" episodes in the North is likely to remain buried.