I spent an interesting couple of days recently at the National Archives in Kew, West London, where researchers from Justice for the Forgotten and the Pat Finucane Centre were looking over files from 1974-75 released under the 30-year rule.
Among the interesting documents that turned up was a set of briefs produced for Prime Minister Harold Wilson ahead of a meeting with Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave. Copies turned up in a number of files. However, a briefing on plain-clothes army patrols had been excised from most of them.
you can imagine my interest when a file eventually turned up which carried this particular briefing intact.
As it turns out, the document concerned the SAS, who were officially not present in Northern Ireland at that time. It makes it clear that the public position was designed to deny a propaganda opportunity to the IRA, and the reality was more complicated:
"Men who have served with the SAS are serving in the SRU [Special Reconnaissance Unit] but no SAS units are serving in Northern Ireland. One officer and 30 soldiers serving with the SRU since early January are due to resume service with 22 SAS by 7 April."
"Their presence with the SRU went undetected until the ‘Robert Fisk’ article on 19 March."
The SAS was not officially ordered into Northern Ireland until 1976. Perhaps it is reports like this that made Fisk’s name a byword for inaccuracy?
No doubt, contemporary officials are still getting up to the same kind of gamesmanship, and reading Robert Fisk is probably still a good way of keeping up with them.
According to pages 86-88 of Paul Foot’s Who Framed Colin Wallace?, the presence of the SAS was leaked to Fisk by Wallace as part of the Clockwork Orange operation to destabilise the Wilson Government. Foot theorised that the idea was that ministers would deny SAS involvement, not knowing the regiment had been ordered in by their Conservative predecessors and face embarassment when the truth came out.