Colonel Colin Spencer observed the scene in front of him as his assistant, Lieutenant Walter Grant, conducted a briefing on the upcoming operation in front of a group of roughly twenty SAS officers. Being a member of the SAS, or Special Air Service, a regiment within the British Army, implied a high level of skills in undercover operations, but these men had also been hand-selected by Spencer himself. This time, he swore, nothing would go wrong. He had taken all the necessary precautions.
“First, let me stress the importance of the task in front of you,” he heard Grant say. “This operation has the direct attention of the Prime Minister.”
He watched the soldiers straighten in their seats.
“The Prime Minister has approved this operation, and he did so after MI5 produced clear and indisputable evidence about a conspiracy to murder the First Minister of Northern Ireland.”
A collective murmur filled the room.
“I need not mention the implications if such an atrocity were to prevail, or if we fail to prevent it. Needless to mention, we will not fail.”
Here Lieutenant Grant paused for a few seconds while he walked back and forth in front of the soldiers.
“The leader of the conspiracy is a former member of the Provisional IRA, who, until recently, had never been identified. In recent years the subject opened communications with another Irish terrorist organization, the so-called Real IRA.”
Grant noticed that everybody recognized the name of the organization. It was part of their job to know every detail of every group that either split directly off the original Irish Republican Army or was a spin-off from other derivatives. In October 1997 former members of the Provisional IRA, dissatisfied with the direction of the Irish peace process, especially the position of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, formed the Real Irish Republican Army.
In fact, the RIRA explicitly seeks to disrupt the peace process in Northern Ireland. They rejected the Mitchell Principles, six ground rules accepted by the Irish and British governments and political parties in Northern Ireland. They also dismissed the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, comparing it to the 1921 Government of Ireland Act, which resulted in the partition of Ireland.
The RIRA’s primary goal is a united Ireland and in their view, the only means to achieve that goal is violence against British occupation of Northern Ireland, including the deadliest strike of the troubles, the Omagh bombing on August 15th, 1998, which killed twenty-nine people and injured 220 others in the blast.
Grant continued. “The subject has access to tremendous financial resources and his donations provided the so-called Real IRA with a substantial amount of weaponry, including Semtex and C-4 plastic explosives, SAM7 surface to air missiles, AK47’s, rocket launchers, heavy machine guns, sniper rifles, anti-tank weapons, and various electronic surveillance devices. In turn, MI5 noticed an increased number of terrorist activities. They intensified their surveillance on these terrorists and consequently discovered the identity of the subject.
“A psychological profile of the subject did not reveal any political reasons for the assassination, but rather an enormous personal hatred of the First Minister’s person.”
Grant walked toward a table at the wall where he poured himself a glass of water. He took a sip, cleared his throat, and continued.
“The subject is currently on Irish soil and remains under constant surveillance. An arrest of the subject is not advisable at this time. Also, MI5 has learned of another conspirator who apparently lives somewhere in the Northern provinces. His precise whereabouts are currently unknown, but we are confident the subject will lead us to him. You understand that we need to cut both heads off the beast, or else the remaining head will begin immediate actions to assassinate the First Minister.”
Colonel Spencer raised his eyebrows at this euphemism but did not interfere with Grant’s presentation. The men still listened with tension and didn’t dare asking any questions at that time.
“MI5 has managed to create a dispute between these two men by forging evidence that the Northern Ireland man was responsible for the death of the subject’s wife. The evidence was passed on to a known IRA mole in our London archives to whom we feed useless and false information regularly, just enough to create constant distractions. We know with certainty the subject has received the evidence, and he is on his way to seek revenge.”
He paused briefly, looking at the soldiers.
“This is the point where we will strike.”
That was also the point where Spencer lost interest in the presentation. After all, he was the mastermind behind the operation and he and his staff had worked on the details for months. He looked outside the window from where he could see parts of the beautiful park surrounding the new MI5 office location in Northern Ireland, the British Army Palace Barracks in Holywood, on the outskirts of East Belfast.
During the high time of the Irish troubles, the Palace Barracks were the site for in-depth interrogation of Republican detainees. There they were beaten and subjected to noise and sleep deprivation. One of the more popular detainees was Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, who was arrested and interrogated there in 1972.
Colonel Spencer was well aware of the barrack’s history. He was present during a great number of torture sessions, including those of Gerry Adams. Deep in his mind he hoped to make use of the special interrogation rooms again.
In his hands he held a paper folder with thick red letters, “Eyes Only,” on the cover. It contained the surveillance report, and it described in detail the subject’s arrival at Shannon Airport, the trip to Annascaul, the subject’s visit to his wife’s grave, and the scene at the church in Cahersiveen. The subject was now on his way to Northern Ireland.
Spencer’s particular interest in Finnean Whelan and Martin Sheehan was not only professional but also personal.
Intelligence reports had strongly suggested that Sheehan was directly involved in the uncovering of an MRF operation in the Four Squares Laundry in Belfast. The MRF, the Mobile Reconnaissance Force, was responsible for clandestine military surveillance in Northern Ireland until about 1972 when its operation was compromised.
The Four Square Laundry accommodated a simple, but highly sophisticated undercover operation. It acted as a conventional laundry, and it used large green vans for delivery and pickups. The delivery staff would chat with locals while two SAS soldiers, hidden inside the van, would photograph the houses, their occupants and vehicles of known Republicans. The MRF scientifically probed the laundry they collected for traces of blood, gunpowder, and explosives.
It took IRA intelligence months to uncover the operation. The report suggested that Sheehan was instrumental in the discovery of two IRA double agents that the MRF had turned. Their interrogation eventually revealed everything they knew about the undercover operation.
On October 2nd, 1972 at 11:15 a.m. volunteers of a special intelligence unit of the IRA ambushed one of the green Morris vans as it drove through Juniper Park, killing the two soldiers and the driver inside the van. The driver was Sapper Stuart, on loan to SAS from his parent regiment and a close friend of Spencer’s. His killing drove Spencer to join the 14 Intelligence Company, also known as “The Det,” established in 1973 in response to the termination of the MRF.
Despite painstaking efforts, British Intelligence never managed to seize Sheehan.
In addition to the Sheehan case, recent disclosures made Spencer aware of Whelan’s involvement with IRA intelligence. The reports mentioned the possibility that Whelan was present during the execution of Spencer’s top undercover man, Captain Robert Nairac. In 1977, the Provisional Irish Republican Army abducted Nairac and killed him. The report hinted that Whelan was present at the Three Steps Inn near Drumintee, the place where Nairac was abducted.
More soldiers have died in that part of the South Armagh region than any other part of Northern Ireland. Even today, in peacetime, the South Armagh region is a fertile recruiting ground for the Real IRA, and British soldiers never dare to patrol there on foot.
At the time of Nairac’s death, Spencer was on special assignment reporting directly to the Joint Intelligence Committee, which in turn was directly responsible to the cabinet and to Downing Street. Spencer’s main task was to coordinate SAS actions targeted to discredit the IRA in any possible way, not only to undermine the IRA’s support by its followers, but also to provide plenty of political ammunition to justify the rigid policies enforced on Northern Ireland. The British terrorist act allowed considerable liberties in arresting and holding any suspects in undisclosed facilities for an indefinite time, not necessarily an effective approach to promote a government’s popularity.
Nairac’s death was not only a blow to the success of his operation, but Nairac was also a fellow member of the 14 Company, and Spencer and Nairac first met while attending the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
There is still a cloud over the affairs that involved the life of Robert Nairac as evidenced in an article in the Esquire Magazine written by Eamann O’Neill titled “Shadow Man.” However, most of the details of his killing had been discovered only years later. According to those discoveries, Nairac, who was a devoted Catholic, uttered his last words, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” before he was shot in the head.
Spencer knew that his final confession carried a special message. It was not a simple plead for forgiveness, not for the sins of a simple, Catholic man, not even the sin of violating the Fifth Commandment.
Murder was his business, and the sin of murder would pale in comparison to the ultimate sin. Robert Nairac, by his own beliefs, was guilty of the sin of homosexuality.
Spencer had always thought of Nairac as a strange sort of hero, showing tremendous intelligence and strong nerves, but also possessed by a keen sense for drama. But the thought that Nairac may be gay had never crossed his mind.
Nairac had confided in Spencer one night during the summer of 1975. He was drunk, but also devastated by the recent forced breakup with Julian “Tony” Ball, an SAS man operating out of South Armagh. They had worked closely together for a short and intensely violent time. Spencer didn’t dare to ask whether Ball was gay as well – Nairac’s confession had been shocking enough for the moment.
He was disturbed but, nevertheless, fascinated by Nairac’s account, when he began telling stories of his first sexual escapades at Ampleforth College.
Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire, England, is still to this day the largest private Catholic mixed boarding school in the United Kingdom. Nairac attended the college in 1959 at age eleven. He was a handsome young boy and quickly aroused the attention of the monks who taught at the college. Once the monks had laid an eye on one of their pupils, there would be no escape. They would wake their victims soon after they had fallen asleep, which made the boys even more vulnerable for their perverted pleasures. The incidents ranged from embarrassing talks about sex with boys who had no experience or knowledge of the subject, to beatings and even rape.
After leaving Ampleforth, Nairac, for the rest of his life, was unable to have sexual relationships with women or even maintain a lasting relationship of any kind. His only stronghold was the military service with its stringent regulations.
Spencer himself was a military history buff and his declared hero was Thomas Edward Lawrence, famously known as Lawrence of Arabia. He saw a great number of parallels between the life of T. E. Lawrence and that of Robert Nairac. Both were war heroes and they had served their country with the utmost dedication. Both men were highly intelligent yet showed a pattern of erratic behavior and even a death wish. Some historians had suspected that Lawrence was gay, especially since Lawrence himself had written that, although he did not consider homosexuality morally wrong, it was, nevertheless, distasteful.
Both men had an affiliation for the flamboyant. Many photographs show Lawrence wearing the Arab garb while Nairac was known to head out on patrol in the streets of Belfast wearing a cowboy hat, trainers, and a pump-action shotgun.
Spencer was reminded of more drastic public displays by rock stars such as Elton John and Freddy Mercury, the late lead singer of the rock group Queen, who both had the luxury of coming out in an environment where homosexuality was increasingly accepted as a different form of lifestyle. Another interesting piece of information is that both, Elton John and Freddy Mercury, were born only a few years earlier than Nairac.
T.E. Lawrence and Robert Nairac, both being military men, never had the choice of disclosing their sexual preferences. It would have most certainly meant the immediate termination of their military careers.
What a cruel irony this is, he thought. Growing up in a world where homosexuality is at the very least despicable, at worst a sin against God, forced to deny feelings that society branded as wrong and sinful, feelings that do not exist. Imagine the confusion they had to endure.
T.E. Lawrence chastised himself and Nairac took chances that, with certainty, led to the ultimate punishment.
What a waste of military genius, Spencer thought.
He had learned to tolerate homosexuality. A “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy worked for him. He was merely interested in results.
In 2008, the MI5, after shunning gays and lesbians because of concerns of blackmail potential, reversed its policy. Nevertheless, Spencer was not convinced that such an approach would change the minds of older military ranks. He also saw no need for sharing his knowledge of Nairac’s secret. It would probably take another generation before the fact would be acceptable within the military community.
His primary interest at that time was the arrest of two IRA terrorists. It was ironic that, with his retirement due in less than a year, he would finally be able to resolve two of the most burning issues of his entire military career.
He was grateful for the man they had code-named the White Fox. The White Fox, whose financial situation was apparently in dire straits, had approached Spencer to sell him information on Sheehan and Whelan. Personally, he didn’t care for a man driven by the prospect of making money with the betrayal of his own people, but he was thrilled by the opportunity that was offered to him. Soon Colonel Spencer would be face-to-face with both men. That day he would see his revenge.