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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Licensed to kill

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)


It was only a few months before Trevor McIlwrath's nervous breakdown that Informant 1 bounced into the back the car and handed him a sports bag.

"Is this a bomb Mark?" the detective asked as he examined the contents – a family sized coffee jar filled with something that looked like putty and with a red light glowing inside.

"Yes" replied his agent, Mark Haddock, the commander of the Ulster Volunteer Force in Mount Vernon. McIlwrtath recognised the "putty"; it was Powergel explosives stolen from coal mines in Britain. "Is it armed?", McIlwrath asked. "I don't know" replied Mark Haddock.

It was at times like this that Haddock, described by the Northern Ireland policing Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan as a serial killer, proved his worth to the police and the intelligence services. This was contact intelligence only available from a participating terrorist.

The coffee jar device was the timing and power unit necessary to set off a far larger charge of home made explosives. This device was earmarked for an attack on Sinn Féin offices across the border in Monaghan.

It was February 1997 and since the previous October Haddock had been warning his handlers that attacks on Sinn Féin and the Irish republic had been given the "green light" by the UVF leadership. Such attacks had the potential to destabilise the IRA ceasefire, re-established after the Canary Wharf bombing in 1996. Instead of the joint approach with the Irish government and talks with Sinn Féin that British policy was pushing towards successful UVF strikes could have meant more bombs in London.

Accrording to Nuala O'Loan's report Haddock had already averted one bombing in Dublin's Parnell Square by claiming that the Gardai had increased patrols around the target area and must have been tipped off. He planned to blame his best friend for alerting the Irish authorities. The friend, a Catholic who had joined the UVF in an attempt to get revenge on a leading IRA man, was also a police agent with the code name Mechanic.

The moment he took charge of the bomb is still vivid in McIlwrath's memory. "I just couldn't believe it. What do you do when you are handed a bomb? Do I say, 'Get out and take that with you'? I couldn't do that. I had to take it in to Castlreagh [Special Branch and MI5 headquarters at the time] to be made safe. As I drove over it struck me that if it detonated people would see it as proof of collusion - an RUC officer and a UVF man blown up transporting a bomb."

In Castlreagh army explosives experts replaced most of the Powergel with a soap-based substance. The device was returned the device to Haddock, who was satisfied that it looked no different than before.

The plan was to let the attack go ahead, the bomb would be planted by Mechanic. Only the detonator would go off and, with any luck, the UVF hierarchy, many of whom were police or army agents in any case, would assume it had malfunctioned due to poor construction.

Arrests were out of the question. In court the forensic reports would show that the charge had been reduced to safe levels and the UVF would be alerted to what had happened. The Irish authorities couldn't be told either, this one was top secret – if someone didn't need to know they weren't told.

This cloak and dagger world, uncovered in Nuala O'Loan's report last week, was all a long way from what McIlwrath, a detective in CID officer with no official role in intelligence, had expected when he first encounterd Haddock in 1985. The sixteen year old had been charged with attempting to petrol bomb a bus and the detective hoped to put the hell-bent young loyalist back on the straight and narrow.

McIlwrath remembers Haddock as "a bright enthusiastic, young lad, not a bad kid really. He seemed to just need a bit of guidance. After the court case I kept contact and introduced him to a football team to try to broaden his interests. I got him onto an adult literacy course where there tried to give young people who had been caught up in the troubles new start in life."

Things seemed to be going well until 1991 when Haddock, who was working as a delivery driver for a Chinese restaurant, flagged down McIlwrath's patrol car and announced he had just joined the UVF.

"I told him he as a stupid eejit (fool). I told him that if he didn't leave he would end up killing people and wrecking his life. He replied he just couldn't leave. It was the area he lived in and everyone was in it." Instead of resigning from the terror group Haddock agreed to work for McIlwrath as an informant, passing on intelligence on planned UVF attacks as well as the details of people being targeted for murder and of local businesses who were paying protection money to the terrorists.

At this point Special Branch was called in to help handle Haddock and to provide the sort of reward money necessary for an agent in a major terrorist group. CID, the Criminal Investigation Department of which McIlwrath was a member, was concerned with solving crimes an bringing people before the courts, a short term tactical objective.

SB, on the other hand occupied a twilight world between normal policing and the intelligence agencies and were in for the long haul. Their rational was to stop crime occurring by penetrating terrorist groups with their agents, sabotaging their weaponry and bugging their converstations. It was, says Assistant Chief Constable Chris Albiston who is a former head of SB, "a long term strategic process" designed to build up coverage that would keep the state ahead of the plans of terrorist groups over the decades that their campaigns might last.

Haddock quickly produced results for both his masters. When the UVF used him as a driver on a murder mission he alerted the police who arrested him and three other UVF members. After a few months the charges against Haddock were dropped and the others were jailed for possession of weapons. Haddock's credibility within the UVF was boosted as a result of his arrest and resistance to interrogation. The lives of a Catholic family in Glengormley, just north of Belfast, were probably saved when Haddock alerted the police to a plot to kill them.

Special Branch paid him thousands of pounds in incentives for such successes but their main interest was to steer him through the ranks of the UVF to a position where he could tell them what was happening and protect key figures within the IRA from loyalist attacks. The UVF, for instance, refused to target the Ardoyne IRA leader who Mechanic wanted revenge on.

At first there didn't seem to be a conflict between the two sets of priorities, but two years later things took a darker turn when the UVF claimed responsibility for the murder of Sharon McKenna, a Catholic taxi driver. She had been friendly with McIlwrath and Detective Sergeant Johnston Brown, his CID partner in a Stansky and Hutch relationship that was to put leading loyalists killers like Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair behind bars in the coming years. The two were constant foes of Special Branch urging that agents like Haddock and Ken Barrett, the man who killed Pat Finucane, be arrested and jailed. In their book long term intelligence empires could not be allowed to obstruct the jailing of murderers.

McIlwrath explained "Once the UVF claimed Sharon's murder. I knew Mount Vernon had carried it out because it was their area of operations. Why had Haddock not told me? That is what I wanted to know."

At subsequent meetings the agent, who was arrested and released in the aftermath of the killing, confessed to being the backup gunman in the killing and named his accomplices but denied pulling the trigger. He showed remorse, breaking down as he claimed, plausibly enough, that he could have given no prior warning because he had turned up for a UVF meeting and been taken on the murder mission without warning.

McIlwrath, who had known and liked McKenna, wanted to jail Haddock and the rest of the gang but Special Branch felt there was a bigger picture.

The murder gave Haddock credibility within the UVF and allowed him to rise through its ranks and, besides, other members of the gang, including the alleged triggerman, were also informants. It was argued that, whatever they might say in the back of a car, none of them would have confessed after caution in the way that was necessary to secure a conviction.

McIlwrath wanted to arrest the driver on the murder mission. "He was the weak link, there was every chance he would have named the others but Special Branch wouldn't agree" he said.

McIlwrath added "Mark Haddock should have been in jail instead of being protected, but Special Branch were now making sure he was being kept right. It makes me physically sick to think that I was sitting in my car paying this man tens of thousands of pounds to find out who was doing all the murders to find out that it is him who is doing them himself. I couldn't believe that people who were agents of the crown were committing murders, and a blind eye was being turned to it."

After McKenna's death Haddock's Special Branch retainer, paid from funds provided by MI5, went up from £100 to £160 a week and within months he was promoted within the UVF to command the Mount Vernon unit, having removed rivals by tipping off the police to their activity. Now he had the unit's lucrative drug dealing and protection rackets under his control. He could not only decide who would live and who would die but also who, among rival drugs dealers, would be arrested.

After this the killings became more frequent and Haddock began to take a sick pleasure in them. Mechanic, who had to be resettled in England after his cover was blown, reported to McIlwrath during a de-briefing near London that Haddock wanted to watch someone being beaten to death to see what it was like. Shortly afterwards John Harbinson, a man accused of beating a woman, was handcuffed and battered to death by Haddock's men. Haddock and another police agent had been seen messing around with the handcuffs used in a football club the night before.

No IRA figures, no enemies of the state, were killed by Haddock and his gang. However O'Loan believes between 10 and 15 Catholics and Protestants died for at the behest of Haddock before he was finally discontinued as a police agent in 2003.

The last to die was Tommy English, a UDA man killed in a feud but the murder which proved Haddock's nemises was the killing of Raymond McCord, a young UVF man who he blamed for the loss of £50,000 worth of cannabis. Haddock was in custody when he ordered McCord's murder in 1997 and the young man was duly beaten to death in a quarry by a group of men, two of whom were police agents.

A few weeks afterwards his father, a remarkably brave and determined man who is also called Raymond, called at McIlwrath's house with a simple question "who killed my son?"

"It was against all the rules but I told him. He knew that Mark Haddock had ordered it and he had been protected because he was a police informer" said McIlwrath.

McCord met a blank wall of denial from police and government. In a meeting with Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the RUC Chief Constable, in 1999 he claims to have been told that "there are no murderers working for the RUC". McCord senior wasn't put off, not even when he was himself beaten and hospitalised and not by the death threats which he continues to receive to this day.

In 2003 he took a complaint to O'Loan's office who agreed to investigate. At that point, he claims, a campaign of police harassement abruptly halted.

McIlwrath and his policing partner Johnston Brown assisted the Ombudsman's investigation but were themselves arrested as part of the investigation after a special branch officer accused McIlwarth of falsifying interview notes and Brown was accused of irregularities in the handling of weapons he had seized with the help of Mechanic.

The two detectives were also responsible for putting Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, the former UDA leader, in jail for sixteen years after they "befriended" him and recorded conversations in which he boasted of directing terrorism. They were also central figures in Sir John Stevens' inquiry into collusion between the security forces and loyalists which resulted in the jailing of Ken Barrett,

As a result of all this they are, even in retitement, still being targegted for rvenge attacks and Brown is planning to leave the country.

McIlwrath says now "this whole thing brought me to the verge of suicide. I am still under death threat; psychiatric staff have to give me home visits because it is too dangerous for other patients if I attend group sessions in Whiteabbey hospital as I used to. I am glad the truth has come out but if you ask me honestly I wish I had kept my mouth shut and had never gone near the Ombudsman. It will be hard to get other officers to come forward again."

Justin Felice, the former anti-terrorism Detective Chief Superintendant who directed O'Loan's investigation has some sympathy with the dilemmas of policemen acting as spymasters, but believes a line must be drawn at employing murderers.

He said "Agents are the most difficult thing in policing because you don't recruit angels. The Northern Ireland situation presented difficulties that no other UK police force faced that provides no justification for the way that Special Branch handled some of their informants. It was a systemic failure that we need to learn from. The investigation of terrorism would have been greatly enhanced by the ethical and proper handling of informants and their intelligence. What happened here carries lessons for the ongoing fight against international terrorism".

January 29, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on January 28, 2007.