On the morning of the 15th of December 1920, at the height of the Irish war of independence, four men – two wearing uniforms of the RIC, the UK’s paramilitary police force in the country – entered the Strokestown branch of the Northern Bank Company in Co. Roscommon and robbed it at gunpoint. A considerable sum of money was stolen from the vault and counters, the assailants locking the terrified staff into the building before making their escape. Within an hour the local RIC had arrested six men in the town, three of them found drinking in a nearby pub. The individuals in custody were discovered to be part of a group of fifteen police officers from a base in nearby County Longford giving evidence in a case that morning at the British-run Strokestown magistrate’s court. Newspapers were soon reporting that the men were members of the RIC Reserve Force, the infamous Black and Tans, former British soldiers recruited to bolster the UK’s faltering counter-insurgency operations in Ireland. Eventually, despite threats of murder and arson, the British authorities caved in to public pressure and four of the “Tans” were found guilty of armed robbery by a military court martial in February of 1921 and sentenced to five years penal servitude. Within months the men were back on the streets, though where their mercenary service to king and empire took them next is anyone’s guess.
The above events were of course just one of many hundreds of non-military crimes carried out by the British Occupation Forces in Ireland during the revolutionary period, from rape to murder. What made this one so unusual was the arrest and trial of the offenders. The vast majority of criminal actions by police constables and soldiers went unreported by the UK authorities. I was reminded of this, and the cyclical nature of Ireland’s British problem, when reading of these events from 1975, as reported by Ciarán Mac Airt:
“A secret but seemingly innocuous British Ministry of Defence (MOD) file discussing a civil litigation case in 1975, not only confesses that a serious crime was carried out as part of Special Force duties, but also records how casual cover-up permeated the British system.
On April 12th 1974, three British soldiers, William James Simpson, John Patrick Tymon, and James Patrick Brown appeared at Coleraine Court for the armed robbery of £95 from Patrick and Bernard McNicholl.
The British archive (Loose Minute A/79/Gen/4132) relates to this armed robbery and a further claim for compensation against the Ministry of Defence for assault and battery made on behalf of Mrs Mary McNicholl the following year. The McNicholl household was “one of the two households robbed by the men” and two of the soldiers, lance-corporal Simpson and ranger Tymon, were then serving six-year terms of imprisonment.
The document, entitled Northern Ireland Civil Litigation: Mary McNicholl v MOD was written to the Assistant Private Secretary of Secretary of State for Defence, Labour’s Roy Mason during the period.
Its distribution list includes heads of the various MOD departments running the British war machine in the north of Ireland at the time such as MO4 and Defence Secretariat 10 (DS10). The document is signed as-read by the Vice Chief of General Staff who is deputy to the professional head of the British Armed Forces and highest ranking uniformed adviser to the British Prime Minister. Copies had also been sent to the personal secretaries of the Minister of State and Under Secretary of State for Defence.
So it was written for the attention of the élite of the Ministry of Defence and begins:
“… you said that the Secretary of State would like to be kept informed of developments over the two soldiers who withdrew from the SAS to join the SRU in Northern Ireland and who were prosecuted in connection with two armed robberies.”
This is startling for a number of reasons, and not only because of their crime against a family.
Firstly, they are not ordinary British soldiers. Tymon and Simpson are members of the élite Special Air Service (SAS), and were then serving with the Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU) which operated under the cover name of Northern Ireland Training and Advisory Teams (Northern Ireland) – NITAT(NI).
A Defensive Brief prepared for a meeting of the British Prime Minister and Taoiseach on 5th April 1974 tells us, though, that the SRU was created when:
“In 1972 the operations of the MRF [Military Reaction Force] were brought under more centralised control and a higher standard of training.”
Contained in the same brief is a statement by British Headquarters Northern Ireland to the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs which stipulates:
“It has been alleged from time to time that murders and other major crimes committed in Northern Ireland have been the work of the SAS. Clearly the terrorist organisations have found it convenient to encourage this belief as a means of evading the responsibility which is properly theirs.
The facts are as follows.
No SAS unit has been or is stationed in Northern Ireland.”
The Defensive Brief expands:
“Men who have served with the SAS are serving in the SRU but no SAS units are operating in Northern Ireland. One officer and 30 soldiers serving with the SRU since early January are due to resume service with 22 SAS by 7 April.”
That Tymon and Simpson “withdrew” from the SAS shows how Britain had plausible deniability when its Special Forces operated in the north of Ireland.
What is most disquieting though is that these Special Force operatives were not off-duty.
The record on the civil litigation discussed:
“Where an injury has been caused by off-duty soldiers the MOD would deny liability and leave the plaintiffs to take action against the individual if they chose. Equally, in any criminal proceedings where the alleged offence was committed by an off-duty soldier, we would not take responsibility for his legal defence. You will remember that in this case, however, it was decided that Simpson, exceptionally, should be defended at public expense to reduce the risk of disclosure of the SAS/SRU connection and SRU operations. Tymon was assisted through the Legal Aid scheme, and did not need defence at our expense, and it was thought inadvisable in the circumstances to give no assistance to Simpson.”
The civil litigation though sought to make the MOD liable which it would be if their soldiers were acting under orders.
This file admits they were, and every single high-ranking person and department on it distribution list knew that too.
“… it is interesting that the Civil Bill is against the MOD rather than the individual ex-soldiers. The plaintiff’s solicitors might have done this because they think MOD will settle to avoid embarrassment since they presumably know the soldiers were (as reported at the trial) on “special duties”… but if we do settle we shall be very vulnerable…
On the other hand, Simpson and Tymon have never claimed that they were acting under orders nor have they volunteered any sensitive information so far. Both are of course aware of their responsibilities under the Official Secrets Act, and are also aware that disclosure of their Service background may well put their families at risk.”
So even though Tymon and Simpson were on “special duties” for the British Army which included robbery and alleged assault and battery of a family, it seems they kept quiet and took what the court threw at them after their arrest.”
We already knew that the Military Reaction Force (MRF) and its successors were acting as British death squads during the 1970s, carrying out gun and bomb attacks against the civilian population in Irish nationalist enclaves, as well as co-operating with the UK’s terrorist proxies in the extremist UDA-UFF and UVF. Now it seems that their “special duties” included armed robberies. However, to what purpose?
More on the MRF here.