When you’re young, life can seem so simple. I was in the middle of my six years with the SAS, and I thought I knew how to defeat the IRA — and so end the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Decapitation was the answer. Go for the head of the beast and cut it off. And for the IRA, that meant taking out its most high-profile spokesman, a Sinn Fein MP and former commander of the Belfast Brigade.
I wanted Gerry Adams dead.
Sinn Fein denies Adams set up IRA Loughgall ambush. The rumour about Adams (left) was passed on to the Department of Foreign Affairs by the highly respected Fr Denis Faul about three months after the Loughgall operation
This wasn’t a sudden urge. I was a former Parachute Regiment veteran with seven tours of Northern Ireland under my belt, and I’d given the matter some thought.
One night in the mess bar, drinking with a serving officer from MI5, I was loudly voicing my opinion. Looking back, I must have sounded naive and spectacularly ill-informed, but I truly believed the best way to stop the terrorists was to target the high command. Like I said, kill Gerry Adams.
The somewhat inebriated MI5 officer’s response was surprising: ‘No! He’s one of ours!’ I cannot confirm whether his claim was true, or whether it had its origins in the kind of drunken bravado that leads to all sorts of tall tales in the mess.
However, the look of shock on the officer’s face immediately after the words came out, and his refusal to continue the conversation, were certainly suggestive — as was the fact that he was unwilling ever to speak with me again outside a formal setting.
I’ve never forgotten that night in the mess. Looking back from today’s perspective, many of the most secret and dangerous operations undertaken by British forces in the province, and their outcomes, make more sense to me if the British security services truly did have an informer right at the top of the Republican movement.
Was Gerry Adams the ultimate mole? He had briefly been commander of the Provisional IRA’s most important unit, the Belfast Brigade, until he was interned in July 1973. But by the late Seventies, he and Martin McGuinness, a senior figure in Londonderry, believed that military victory against the British was no longer possible.
IRA men fire a volley of shots over the coffin of member Jim Lynagh in 1987. Lynagh was nicknamed ‘The Executioner’, and believed that well-armed, highly disciplined PIRA men could take the war to the British. He was shot dead during the failed ambush at Loughgall
Abandoning the idea of sweeping the ‘foreign oppressors’ out of Ireland by destroying Britain’s ability and will to rule, they formed a new strategy that placed much greater emphasis on the political wing of the movement.
Not everyone in the Republican movement backed this plan. Many were still committed to a wholly violent solution, the overthrow of British government in the province by force and unlimited bloodshed.
But those who opposed Adams and McGuinness often found themselves in the crosshairs of the British Army — so frequently, in fact, that the trend seems more than a coincidence.
Most dramatic of all these instances was the Loughgall ambush. Some background: in the rural areas of East Tyrone and Fermanagh during the mid-Eighties, there was open rebellion against the idea of a peaceful end to the Troubles. This resistance was led by two veteran terrorists, Jim Lynagh and Padraig McKearney.
One of 12 children, Lynagh joined the Provisional IRA (PIRA) in his teens. He was badly injured in 1973, when a bomb he was carrying exploded, and spent five years imprisoned in the Maze. On his release he immediately rejoined his local wing of the PIRA and rose rapidly through its ranks to become a leading figure.
Nicknamed ‘The Executioner’, Lynagh believed well-armed, highly disciplined PIRA men could take the war to the British, launching attacks on military installations near the border and denying the security forces control.
McKearney was born into a family with a long history of support for the Irish Republican cause. He had joined the PIRA in the early Seventies and was arrested on operations several times.
In September 1983, along with 37 other Republican prisoners, McKearney took part in a mass escape from the Maze Prison. Half of the escapees were recaptured but McKearney made it to safety.
After a series of attacks that shook the British Army, Lynagh and McKearney discussed the possibility of striking out from the PIRA and acquiring their own weaponry — a breakaway that, if successful, would have dealt a blow to Adams’s politics-first vision for the IRA.
As part of this scheme, the rebels planned an attack on the RUC station at Loughgall, County Armagh. Loughgall was a quiet village of some 350 inhabitants, most of whom were Protestants.
Who are the New IRA?
The New IRA is the biggest of the dissident republican groups operating in Northern Ireland.
It has been linked with four murders, including PC Ronan Kerr, who was killed by an under-car bomb in Omagh in 2011.
The group is also linked to the deaths of prison officers David Black, who was shot as he drove to work at Maghaberry Prison in 2012, and Adrian Ismay, who died in 2016 after a bomb exploded under his van outside his home in east Belfast.
The New IRA is believed to have been formed between 2011 and 2012 following the merger of a number of smaller groups, including the Real IRA - the group behind the 1998 Omagh bomb.
It is strongest in Derry, north and west Belfast, Strabane in Co Derry, Lurgan in Co Armagh, and pockets of Tyrone.
This year the group was responsible for a car bomb outside the courthouse in Bishop Street, Derry.
The explosives-laden car was left on the city centre street on a Saturday night in January, and scores of people, including a group of teenagers, had walked past before it detonated.
The New IRA also claimed a number of package bombs posted to targets in London and Glasgow in March.
The RUC station in the village was normally manned by six officers. On May 8, 1987, Lynagh, McKearney and their brigade set out to kill them all.
At least 14 terrorists were involved, with eight armed men prepared to carry out the assault on the station and six more in support roles.
Shortly before the attack, five of them arrived at a farm near Moy in County Armagh belonging to local man Peter Mackle. When Mackle’s wife and daughters pulled into the driveway in the family car, the PIRA men ordered them from the vehicle and informed the terrified civilians that they were taking the car, a mechanical digger used on the farm and a quantity of diesel oil.
Two members of the unit drove away in the stolen vehicle, while two remained at the farm to prevent the family reporting the theft. The fifth drove the digger to a nearby explosives cache to prepare for the attack.
Just before 7pm, the PIRA assault team assembled close to the police station. A 200lb bomb had been placed in the bucket of the digger, which was to be driven by Declan Arthurs, a high-ranking member of the brigade.
Two scout cars, each containing a pair of men, were deployed to warn the assault team by radio of any security forces approaching from the front or rear.
The firefight was to be initiated by Arthurs, using the digger to smash a hole through the perimeter fence of the RUC compound, before lighting a 40-second fuse attached to the 200lb bomb in the bucket.
What the approaching terrorists did not know was that the SAS were waiting for them.
Several weeks before the attack, someone who knew it was going to happen contacted MI5 directly to inform them of the impending operation. More than 20 SAS men responded with a classic ambush.
As Lynagh’s men jumped from their van and began to rake the RUC station with automatic fire, the SAS teams opened up on the attackers with everything they had.
Even the enormous explosion as the bomb detonated did nothing to lessen the intensity of the SAS fire. All the terrorists, including Lynagh and McKearney, were shot dead.
An enduring mystery is the identity of the PIRA source who betrayed the operation to MI5, but a recently declassified letter in the Irish state archives claims that, among Republicans, Gerry Adams himself was rumoured to have undermined the Loughgall attack.
However, a Sinn Fein spokesman described the claim as ‘utter nonsense’.
Father Denis Faul, a Catholic priest with close ties to the Republican movement, wrote to the Irish government in 1987 about ‘intriguing’ rumours in Republican circles that Adams had instigated the Loughgall ambush because Lynagh and McKearney had threatened to assassinate him — such was their hostility towards his political strategy.
Over the subsequent years, the SAS was supplied with a stream of high-level intelligence from MI5 that enabled them to further thwart the deadly efforts of the East Tyrone PIRA.
One of the most crushing blows, delivered thanks to specific intel from a very high-level MI5 informant within the terrorist movement, came after a string of tit-for-tat killings in so-called ‘bandit country’.
According to this source, three experienced PIRA killers were planning the assassination of an off-duty Ulster Defence Regiment soldier in Coagh, County Tyrone, at the centre of Northern Ireland.
One was Lawrence McNally, a veteran on the radar of the security services, whose brother Phelim had been shot dead at the start of the killings. He therefore had personal reasons for being involved in the latest revenge attack. The second man was 21-year-old Tony Doris, who had risen fast through the ranks of the PIRA, impressing the brigade leadership enough to be appointed a commander.
The assassination would be led by a third man, Pete Ryan, who was wanted in connection with a brazen and spectacularly violent raid on a border checkpoint, in which rockets, grenades and a flamethrower were used. Two British soldiers were killed and two more wounded in the attack.
As the intelligence about Ryan’s plans firmed up, the SAS were deployed to Coagh. The commander of the operation opted to use a decoy: a member of the team who bore a resemblance to the target would take the place of the intended victim.
On June 2, 1991, the evening before the attack, the PIRA unit hijacked a red Vauxhall Cavalier in the nearby village of Moneymore.
This hijacking was secretly observed by operators from 14 Intelligence Company who were following the men. Throughout the night they mounted a constant watch over Ryan and his gang, and at 7.30am the following day radioed in the information that they were on the move and heading out of the village.
The SAS ambush party was concealed inside a lorry, parked where Coagh’s narrow Main Street enters the village over a bridge across the Ballinderry River. The decoy, meanwhile, waited in his car nearby, pretending to be following the UDR target’s normal routine.
The PIRA assassination team drove across the bridge, on a route that would bring them within metres of the concealed SAS men.
The soldiers waited until Ryan and McNally wound down the windows on their hijacked car and lifted their weapons. With the decoy’s life in danger, the soldiers opened fire, pouring rounds into the approaching Cavalier.
Struck by some 200 bullets, the car careened out of control, smashed into a VW Golf parked nearby and burst into flames. All three of the terrorists inside were killed in the brief contact.
The PIRA’s propaganda arm later claimed that two of the men escaped the vehicle but were then executed in the street in cold blood and dragged back to the car, which was set on fire to conceal the evidence. Unsurprisingly, no eyewitnesses have ever come forward to support these claims.
One need only consider the narrowness of the road, the fact that the SAS team were firing automatic weapons from a prepared position at nearly point-blank range, and the weight of fire that was poured into the car to realise that the chances of anyone leaving the vehicle alive were zero.
Claims that gunshots were heard following the initial shooting were almost certainly referring to the sounds of ammunition in the car ‘cooking off’ in the flames.
The successful removal of the East Tyrone Brigade’s leading assassination squad ended the cycle of tit-for-tat violence that had blighted the area for more than three years. But the ambush would not have been possible without precise information from a covert source.
That information devastated the East Tyrone brigade, and it kept coming. It seems quite coincidental that so much of this intelligence just happened to be directed against figures in the PIRA who had the potential to threaten Gerry Adams’s path towards a negotiated settlement with Britain.
Adapted from Undercover War: Britain’s Special Forces And Their Battle Against The IRA, by Harry McCallion, published by John Blake, £8.99. © Harry McCallion 2020.