By Jack Holland
Though many thousands of troops have been involved in the 30 years of political conflict in Northern Ireland, probably only two instantly recognizable names have come from within British army ranks: Brigadier Frank Kitson and Capt. Robert Nairac.
Kitson became known through his advocacy in the early 1970s of "counter-gangs." Captain Nairac’s fame — or infamy, in nationalist circles — sprang up after his disappearance in 1977. Ever since, he has been associated with the Special Air Services, the undercover British army unit also known as the Troop. Which is ironic, his biogapher John Parker points out in "Death of A Hero: Captain Robert Nairac, GC, and the undercover war in Northern Ireland" (Metro Books 1999), because Nairac was never in the SAS. This is just one of the many anomalies and mysteries that surround the man who was snatched from The Three Steps Inn at Drumintee near the border on the night of May 14, never to be seen again.
The man who emerges from these pages, based on information derived from extensive interviews the author conducted with a couple of SAS officers, members of military intelligence, a few friends of Nairac, and his old teachers, is very different from what might be expected given that the subject lived his last years fighting on the invisible front line of the dirty war of counter-insurgency operations. It was a dirty war of intrigue and spying, of informers, deceit and dubious characters who moved between the security forces and paramilitary death squads. But most anomalous of all — if the facts presented here are to be believed — it was a world for which Captain Robert Nairac was in many ways spectacularly unsuited.
The manner of his death would indicate this anyway. After all, what as an undercover British soldier, with an upper-class accent, doing singing republican songs, masquerading as a Belfast Official IRA man, late at night in a South Armagh pub and without back up? Whatever it was it was somewhat reckless of him, to say the least. But this account of Nairac’s military activities in Northern Ireland clearly show that recklessness, indeed extreme carelessness, was his chief characteristic.
The author puts it down to a "romantic" strain in the young officer, who attended Ampleforth, an exclusive college for upper-class English Catholics, and then Oxford, falling in love with the derring-do image of such figures as Lawrence of Arabia. Nairac spent his holidays fishing in Ireland, and made friends with a well-known Anglo-Irish family called Morris, with one of whose scions he attended college. (George Redmond Fitzpatrick Morris, like his father, Michael, was a filmmaker. Ironically enough, among those films Morris helped make were two about the IRA — "The Crying Game" and "Michael Collins.") His trips to Ireland, says Parker, gave him a love of the country, its people and history. He particularly admired Collins, according to the book. "Nairac studied the legacy of Collins," writes Parker. "At the time, he had no thoughts about his own career. Far less did he realize that he would eventually choose a path that would take him almost immediately back to Ireland" and that "would eventually lead him to head-on confrontation with the inheritors of Collins’s dream."
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It was how that "head-on confrontation" with the IRA was conducted that has provoked more than 20 years of controversy. Nairac took part in four tours of duty in Northern Ireland, beginning in March 1973 with the Grenadier Guards. He then took an SAS training course, and eventually became a liaison officer between undercover army operatives and the Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch. This was before the SAS was sent as a unit to the North.
In the 1970s the various intelligence services were scrambling to get a grip on the situation. The Special Branch was suspicious of army intelligence, and the army distrustful of the police. The situation was not sorted out until the late 1970s, with the setting up of the Tasking Coordination Groups, which pooled information from all the intelligence branches then organized counter-insurgency operations in response to specific threats.
Allegations against Nairac only surfaced years after his disappearance and came from a former British intelligence officer, Fred Holroyd. Holroyd alleged that Nairac had bragged about taking part in the shooting near Castleblayney, Co. Monaghan, of a leading Provisional IRA man, John Green, in January 1975, claiming Nairac possessed a Polaroid photograph of the crime scene, which was evidence that he had been there.
Parker makes short shrift of these allegations, for which he points out there is less evidence than there was for the convictions of the Birmingham Six or the Guildford Four. Holroyd’s credibility has been called into question. Apart from the fact that his account contains several basic errors — for instance, he claims that Nairac was in the SAS when he never was — Holroyd had a gripe against the army, who removed him from his post because they claimed he suffered a mental breakdown.
Both the Irish Special Branch and the RUC had a suspect for the killing of Green — a UVF man who was also in the UDR and later was involved in the attack on the Miami showband.
Parker’s account places a lot of emphasis on the fact that at the time those killings occurred, the IRA was on cease-fire, negotiating secretly with the British. He sees the sinister hand of MI5 at work, alleging that it was opposed to the contacts and was trying to undermine them. Yet, in 1993, when the British representatives (some of them MI5) were holding more secret talks with the IRA, they told them that the 1974-75 cessation was deliberately engineered by the British in order to entrap the IRA.
When the SAS became fully engaged in the North in early 1976, Nairac worked with them — sometimes unhappily. They disliked the careless way he went about his operations, often taking off into the night without back-up and out of radio contact with headquarters. Some SAS men complained and wanted him removed. It would have been better for Nairac if in the long run they had succeeded. As one SAS officer interviewed by Parker summed it up:
"Robert Nairac was either incredibly brave or bloody stupid. Quite frankly, I chose the second option. He did a lot of silly things."
It eventually cost him his life.
"Death of A Hero: Captain Robert Nairac, GC, and the Undercover War in Northern Ireland," by John Parker, is distributed in the U.S. by Trafalgar Square Publishers, North Pomfret, VT 05053.