Researcher Ciarán MacAirt has done sterling work in the past few years in dismantling the official story in relation to the 1971 McGurks Bar bombing in North Belfast, an attack which security forces claimed at the time was an IRA own goal.
Ciarán's latest research at Paper Trail reveals that the British Army's undercover Military Reaction Force was active in the area of the bombing:
Paper Trail can now prove that the MRF operated with the resident 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (2RRF) which attended the scene of the massacre in its immediate aftermath. The archives evidence, in fact, that the MRF was active in the area the day and night before the attack but is absent from 39 Brigade Operations Logs on the day of the bombing.
Therefore, the families have been correct all along to query where was the MRF when their loved ones were killed as they have questioned whether its operatives were involved either directly or through agents it ran within the UVF paramilitary bomb team. Successive investigations by the British state up to the present day have either failed to locate the MRF in North Belfast at this time or have hidden the information from the families.
The mention of agents in the UVF refers to the Army's practice of this time of running agents recruited from paramilitary organisations, known as 'turned terrorists' or 'Freds'. Rory Cormac's recent book on British covert action, Disrupt and Deny, argues that the Freds were run separately from the MRF, but were taken over by its successor organisation, the Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU) formed in late 1972.
When I put this conclusion to Margaret Urwin, author of a pamphlet on the MRF and SRU, she was sceptical, pointing out that it was a leak from 'Freds' that led to the IRA targeting the MRF in the Four Square Laundry incident, one of several controversial episodes that contributed to the MRF's replacement by the SRU.
Ciarán took a similar view, tweeting a document in which then MOD Minister Ian Gilmour referred directly to a 'turned terrorist' within the MRF.
I decided to go back to Cormac's source which he very kindly confirmed was a file in the National Archives. The relevant document is a minute of 17 November 1972, from the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Michael Carver to the Defence Secretary Lord Carrington, entitled Special Reconnaissance Squadron – Northern Ireland.
The opening paragraphs read as follows:
You are aware of the request made by HQ Northern Ireland for an organisation to command and control what have been called 'FRED' force and 'Mobile Reaction Forces' both of which have been employed for surveillance patrols, consisting of soldiers in plain clothes, in some cases also being used to effect arrests.
2. You will recall that, after the 4 Square Laundry incident, I issued orders, on your instructions, governing the employment of soldiers in plain clothes. It was recognised then that these two forms of plain clothes patrol needed to be brought under closer, ore coordinated and more centralised control; that the soldiers employed on them should be more specifically trained both for the task and for their personal security; and that their administration should be regularised.
On the face of it, this justifies Cormac's statement that 'Freds and MRF's were separate plain-clothes units lacking proper co-ordination', but there is still the question of how this can be reconciled with the other evidence.
My guess is as follows:
A. There were two distinct types of team conducting separate patrols, army plain-clothes soldiers and 'Freds.'
B. There was a single unit within each of the three army brigades in Northern Ireland responsible for both types of team.
One might posit that the army patrols at A. were Mobile Reaction Forces and the units at B were Military Reaction Forces, but this is probably to neat a conclusion. The picture of wheels within wheels and MRFs within MRFs may owe as much to the cowboy atmosphere of the time as to army security.
Perhaps the most interesting implication of Carver's statement is that FRED force was operating its own plainclothes patrols. This doesn't sound like a description of an informant in the back of an armoured car, and might even be taken to suggest that Freds were not just individual agents but operating in groups. Accounts such as Martin Dillon's The Dirty War have suggested that Freds did not associate freely with each other, although Dillon notes that one Fred, Seamus Wright was able to identify another, Kevin McKee, to the IRA, which secretly killed and buried both men.
The question of what form FRED force patrols took leads us back to the issues raised by Ciarán MacAirt . Was FRED Force part of the MRF activity in North Belfast around the time of the McGurk's Bar bombing?
Update 17/12/18: Margaret Urwin of Justice for the Forgotten suggests that simplest explanation for FRED force patrols is that individual Freds were being escorted by plainclothes soldiers in unmarked cars.