Secret British unit operated in 26 Counties
BY LAURA FRIEL
Despite repeated denials by the British government, the Force Research Unit, the covert British Army unit at the centre of the collusion controversy, routinely engaged in illegal surveillance and espionage in the 26 Counties, it has emerged.
Under the command of Colonel Gordon Kerr, FRU operatives spied on Irish citizens and bugged homes and public buildings, using both listening and tracking devices. Houses and pubs frequented by republicans were specifically targeted but sometimes the FRU's net of intrigue was cast wider.
Sources within the FRU have said that they carried out at least six border incursions during each tour of duty. Between 1987 and 1991, it is estimated that more than a hundred illegal crossings occurred. British military sources have confirmed that cross border operations by the FRU took place in Louth, Cavan, Monaghan, Leitrim and Donegal.
A spokesperson for the Taoiseach's office said it had long been suspected that this kind of activity was underway. Bertie Ahern is to confront Tony Blair personally and demand an explanation. ``It is intolerable that a foreign country's agents entered Ireland (sic) for espionage and surveillance purposes,'' said the spokesperson.
The information emerged as the British Military establishment appeared to be attempting to distance themselves from the activities of the FRU by branding their commanding officer as a ``maverick'' with a warped sense of duty who saw himself ``above the law''.
The identity and career details of the FRU commander at the centre of the current collusion inquiry recently emerged in the media after tensions between former FRU members escalated into the intimidation of a key witness cooperating with the Steven's team.
Last week, a former FRU member, Philip Campbell Smith, was arrested and charged with intimidation of another former FRU member, whom he suspected of being the whistle blower known as `Martin Ingram'.
According to Neil Mackay, a journalist writing in the Scottish Sunday Herald, Gordon Kerr can be best understood as ``the archetypical spy, a spook's spook and a master of dirty tricks and dirty wars''. The details of Kerr's career within the British Army are patchy. In 1971 Kerr arrived at Glencorse training depot for the British Army.
Kerr, now a second lieutenant in the Gordon Highlanders, spends some time in Cyprus before being posted to Armagh in 1972. Here, first as an Intelligence officer and later as the regiment's officer commanding the Intelligence section, Kerr's career in covert operations appears to have begun.
In June 1973 Kerr left the Six Counties and by 1974 he had been promoted to Captain. In October 1975, Kerr was posted to the British Army's Intelligence Training Centre where he worked with the SAS-trained 14th Intelligence, a forerunner of the FRU.
Transferring from the Gordon Highlanders, Kerr joined the British Army's Intelligence Corps before being posted back to the Six Counties, where he worked in the British Army's HQ in Lisburn.
Then, according to Mackay, Kerr vanishes, only to re-emerge in 1980 at the British Army's Staff College. As a Cold War spy in 1983 Kerr, now a Major, was posted to Berlin where his covert activities as commander of Three Intelligence and Security threatened to undermine the relationship between other British Intelligence units and their Soviet counterparts.
After Berlin, Kerr spent a brief time as a senior instructor with the British army's Special Intelligence wing in Ashford, Kent. It was a team trained in covert entry techniques from Ashford which where later implicated in a fire which destroyed vital evidence held in an office used by the Steven's team.
In Ashford, Kerr was involved in resettling informers whose cover had been blown while working undercover in the north of Ireland. In 1987, now ranking as a Colonel, Kerr became the OC of the FRU, a role in which he stayed until 1991.
During his command, the FRU where involved in some of the most controversial killings, using loyalist gunmen, in the last thirty years of conflict. Kerr, currently the British military attache to Beijing, China, is presently being sought for questioning by the Stevens team investigating allegations of collusion in the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane in 1989.
But to think of Kerr as a maverick is to miss the point. The tactics used by the FRU were outside the law but it's unlikely that they were ever outside the chain of command. It is clear that Kerr and his co conspirators enjoyed sanction from the very top, both within the British military establishment and beyond within the British, then Tory government.
As MacKay points out, ``After leaving the FRU, which still operates today, Kerr returned to Berlin.. and was then promoted to brigadier, hardly evidence that military top brass and the government were displeased with his undercover operations in Ulster.''
According to FRU sources, Kerr has connections going to the heart of the British establishment and his position in Beijing makes him effectively joint number two in Britain's entire military intelligence operation.