A British soldier has caused a scandal by revealing that the British Crown forces are continuing to deploy high-technology spying equipment to monitor the homes and activities of republicans north and south of the border.
The former lance corporal with the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment has said that 1,000 British military intelligence specialists were operating covertly in the North of Ireland in 2003 -- at a time when the British Army claimed it was dismantling its structures.
A former technical expert with an elite spying team, the soldier, who now uses the name ‘Peter Wood’, was stationed at Ballykinlar army base in County Down.
“While the green [regular] troops were being taken out of Northern Ireland the more specialist covert guys were being brought in,” he said.
“I was part of a team that placed and protected cameras. Often we didn’t know who the subject was or why we were watching them.
“We were just part of a jigsaw. It was all illegal but that wasn’t our concern - we had a job to do.
“All the information we gathered was relayed back to Ballykinlar, decoded and sent on to whoever required it.
The soldier turned whistle-blower, who has declined to use his real name because he has broken Britain’s Official Secrets Act, gave a detailed account of his part in the illegal military operations to journalists and the Relatives For Justice (RFJ) group.
The former soldier has already shown the Relatives for Justice Group some of the South Armagh homes spied on and is currently going through the same process in Louth. RFJ Director Mark Thompson described his decision to come forward as a “very brave step”.
Although based in South Armagh, the soldier also had in-depth knowledge of covert camera operations in West Belfast and otherr republican areas. He confirmed the north of Ireland is being “riddled” with British Army cameras aimed at the homes of republicans.
Images captured on these illegal spy cameras were used against republicans by various military agencies including 14th Intelligence - otherwise known as the Force Research Unit (FRU), which has worked closely with unionist death-squads to carry out political killings and assassinations.
“I was part of a unit known as the Covert Observation Platoon [COP]. We were trained to the same surveillance level as the SAS,” said the former British soldier.
“We were involved in planting hidden cameras in different locations to spy on targets. The work was often on behalf of the [PSNI] Special Branch...
“We were told during training that in south Armagh if a person wasn’t one of us they were one of them. You trusted no-one. Everyone was the enemy.”
The whistle-blower spoke of how a four-soldier unit would plant the cameras and often remain with the equipment for up to 10 days.
He also revealed that they were told to open fire on anyone they considered a threat to themselves or the operation.
Accompanied by journalists, Wood returned to the mountains and foothills of south Armagh, pointing out camera locations and homes of people he had once monitored, including those of well-known republicans in the Jonesborough and Drumintee areas.
He also gave details of cameras secretly placed to monitor farms suspected of smuggling or employing illegal immigrants.
Driving past the notorious Three Steps Inn, where Captain Robert Nairac disappeared 30 years ago, he said: “That’s the most watched bar in the world.”
“We would have covered that place from every angle.
“There isn’t a car moves in south Armagh that isn’t being watched.
“There are soldiers whose only job is taking note of VDNs (vehicle registration numbers) at certain places.”
Covert work would be much easier now that the area’s watchtowers had been dismantled and the ‘green troops’ are gone, Wood said.
“People are less aware and more off their guard - the army use Northern Ireland as a training ground. Squaddies would be trained here in undercover work for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said.
“If you think just because of the political process here that all the covert work has stopped you would be stupid.”
The former soldier also revealed the British army in south Armagh regularly crossed the border into the 26 Counties, placing listening devices and cameras to monitor potential suspects, in breach of international law.
He said they had virtually every part of Dundalk, County Louth, under scrutiny from illegal cameras placed around the town. The homes of known republicans were under constant surveillance with the information gathered being fed directly back to MI5, FRU and PSNI Special Branch.
Wood said that as part of a specialist army intelligence-gathering team he accompanied Special Branch officers out of Ballykinler army base in County Down to meet informants.
“There are ways that we were told to put pressure on people to give information,” Wood said.
“First my unit would have watched their home for around a month and done a pattern-of-life study.
“You would know if they had a gambling or drink problem, if they were having an affair or if they had debt problems.
“You get a recording of them talking about a senior IRA man, whatever you could use against them really.
“They can arrange for them to be offered cheap loans to get them further in debt.
“If it’s online gambling they are into they can even control it that they always lose.
“Pressure can be placed on banks to start foreclosing on loans or on a person’s mortgage, threatening to repossess.”
Wood said Special Branch would then wait until a person was “really desperate and then move in”.
“You wouldn’t believe what the government can do and what they can control,” he said.
“Very few people can take that kind of pressure.”
Speaking after the meeting, Mark Thompson said it was clear that British military intelligence activity in the North has not changed.
He said: “At a time of relative peace, victims will be concerned that the eyes and ears of loyalist paramilitaries, by that I mean the British Army and Special Branch, are still involved in intensive covert operations.”
Sinn Féin Louth TD Arthur Morgan said the revelations were “extremely worrying”.
“State sponsored spying of its own citizens is never acceptable, but even more so when it takes place outside of its own jurisdiction.
“We already have grave concerns regarding collusion between Loyalist paramilitaries, the PSNI and sections of the British Army.
“Only this week the EU Court of Human Rights vindicated local families who were victims of collusion and had family members murdered because of RUC and UDR activities in South Armagh.
“If these allegations prove to be true Sinn Féin will raise the matter at the highest level politically. There is no justification for such despicable and unjust acts against ordinary people.
“Securocrats have, for far too long, been a thorn in the side of this islands Peace Process. The British government must once and for all cease such illegal activity.”
There was no comment from Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern, who is also TD for Louth.