Wednesday, 20 November 2013 12:00

The long shadow of the Military Reaction Force

The long shadow of the Military Reaction Force Spinwatch

A shadowy covert action unit of the British Army, active in Belfast in the early 1970s, is expected to come under scrutiny from the BBC’s Panorama this Thursday.

In the early 1970s, the British Army ran a secret undercover unit. Its existence was deniable and its tactics were so controversial that the unit was disbanded after just 14 months. Now, for the first time in 40 years, some of the unit's former members break their silence and talk candidly to John Ware about how they took the war to the IRA, sometimes even imitating the IRA itself. The soldiers believe they saved many lives. But Panorama's new evidence reveals that some members of the unit operated outside the law, firing on and killing unarmed civilians. The Ministry of Defence says it has referred Panorama's allegations to the police.

The Military Reaction Force (MRF) was the subject of a report published in January this year by Spinwatch and the Pat Finucane Centre, funded by the Scurrah Wainwright Charity. The author of COUNTER-GANGS: A history of undercover military units in Northern Ireland 1971-1976 is Margaret Urwin, secretary of Justice for the Forgotten, an arm of the Pat Finucane Centre which works with victims of cross-border bombings in the 1970s.

While this week’s Panorama is not expected to focus on the MRF’s successor units, Urwin’s analysis shows that it was not so much disbanded as reorganised.

In late 1972, according to a Northern Ireland Office brief, its operations were brought under a more centralised control and a higher standard of training was introduced by establishing a Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU) of 130 all ranks under the direct command of HQNI. It was classic British modus operandi in the wake of bad publicity – to re-form and re-name. On 15th November, a top-level memo entitled ‘Special Operations for HQNI’ was sent from Major JB Howard to the to the General Officer Commanding (GOC) informing him that the Chief of the General Staff (CGS) accepted the need for an organisation to handle special troops despite the heavy overheads that would be involved in recruiting and maintaining such a high calibre of soldier. He specified that nobody who had served in the SAS for the previous three years would be allowed to join. Soldiers would volunteer for an unaccompanied tour of one year for special plain-clothes intelligence duties in Northern Ireland. The GOC undertook to report to CGS on the numbers required at a meeting on 17th November.
The Defence Secretary, Lord Carrington, sent a similar minute to the Prime Minister on 28th November in which he sought agreement for the use of volunteers with SAS training as the basis for reorganising ‘the old Military Reaction Forces’ into what became the Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU). He agreed that serving members of 22 SAS and any men who had served with them within the previous three years would be excluded and every attempt would be made to conceal SAS involvement.

Official documents show that the Special Reconnaissance Unit was still in existence in 1976, and under cover of names such as 14 Intelligence Company, its heritage can be traced to the modern Special Reconnaissance Regiment.

Urwin’s report is cited in Anne Cadwallader’s new book Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland, which documents the activities of the Glennane Gang, a group of loyalists, RUC officers and UDR soldiers which killed over 120 people in the mid 1970s.

Key extracts from Lethal Allies will be posted on the Spinwatch website in coming days.

Tom Griffin

Tom Griffin is a freelance journalist and researcher. He is a former editor of the Irish World newspaper, and is currently undertaking a Ph.D at the University of Bath. He was a contributor to Fight Back! OpenDemocracy's book on the 2010 student protests, and a co-author of the Spinwatch pamphlet The Cold War on British Muslims. His website is at: