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Loyalist killers on state payroll

Andrew Johnson

13th March 2006

It has been reported that the UDA killer Torrens Knight, jailed for his part in the gun attacks in Greysteel and Castlerock in 1993 which resulted in 12 deaths, was a paid agent of the British at the time he carried out the massacres. Not only was he working for British intelligence before his conviction, but he was apparently taken back onto the payroll after his early release under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, with a sustainer said to be as much as £50,000 per year. While Special Branch sources have gone out of their way to deny the claims – which, after all, is what they would say – this story shines a spotlight on the murky world of the British covert forces and their network of agents.

Simultaneously with the Knight story, well-sourced claims emerged that another UDA killer, Johnny Adair’s sidekick John White, had been an informer for many years – this time the cops didn’t bother to deny it. White, who served 14 years for stabbing to death Senator Paddy Wilson and Irene Andrews in 1973 and savagely mutilating their bodies, reinvented himself as a politician on his release, playing a prominent role in the UDA’s front party, the UDP, and making frequent media appearances where he would solemnly be asked for his analysis of the situation. Despite the UDA’s ongoing involvement in sectarian violence and gangsterism, White – who claimed with a straight face to have acquired his wealth in the arts and crafts trade – led a charmed life until the downfall of his mate Johnny, whereupon he had to flee into exile.

Not that any of this is new. One of the guns used in the Greysteel massacre was part of a cache imported from South Africa by British agent Brian Nelson. Two of the UVF’s most notorious killers, Robin Jackson and Billy Wright, were almost certainly informers. Former RUC detective Johnston Brown has written in his recent book ‘Into the Dark’ of how his investigations would frequently be closed down by Special Branch on the grounds that they needed to protect a source. The most infamous of these was the case of Pat Finucane, but there have been numerous instances which are still ongoing – North Belfast man Raymond McCord’s campaign for justice for his son, beaten to death by the UVF in 1997, has consistently been stymied by the state’s need to protect its operatives. In the case of Pat Finucane, not only did the British army provide intelligence and the RUC special branch clear a path, but it appears that every member of the death squad and the support team was a British agent!

There are obvious questions arising from this. The first is – if cutthroats like Torrens Knight and John White could be on the state payroll, some of the worst killers of the Troubles, who were they supposed to be protecting us against? And, if the state had knowledge of loyalist plans – and the death squads were and are so riddled with informers that little could have been secret – why weren’t they stopped? After all, an informer can be called in at any time and forced to turn Queen’s evidence. Yet the loyalist organisations ran amok for years and were evidently allowed to do so.

The answer surely lies in the nature of the northern statelet. The loyalists always said that they were auxiliaries to the forces of the state, a view echoed by Love Ulster honcho Willie Frazer who says that “if the security forces had been allowed to do their job, there would never have been any need for the loyalist paramilitaries”. Apparently, this view was shared by the state forces themselves. When we socialists used to argue that the loyalists were agents of the British state, we meant that in a general political sense. It turns out we were more literally correct than we thought.

These are not just isolated excesses, but have been integral to Britain’s counter-insurgency strategy since the early 1970s. In fact this situation still continues despite the fact that there is no insurgency, that the Provos have had their hands in the air for the past ten years. The difficulty with British support for the Loyalist groups is that it is not a question of long-ago history but of present reality.  Left to themselves the loyalists would quickly collapse into the neighbourhood gangs they were at the beginning of the troubles.  They have not been left to themselves.  The British are constantly intervening, trying to support a loyalist political formation, to build loyalists into community groups and state structures and shower them with cash.

For the past present and immediate future the North remains an irreformable Orange statelet.  British policy is to use the loyalist gangs to keep it that way.



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