Andy McNab: A target for terrorists
AS he publishes his latest novel, ex-soldier Andy McNab returns to the province for a number of top-secret engagements and tells our reporter why he believes that Bloody Sunday troops should not be prosecuted.
He gave up the cloak and dagger SAS life 20 years ago to become a best-selling writer but Andy McNab, who makes no apologies for what he did during what he calls the war in Northern Ireland, still goes undercover on the cover of every book he writes.
For while he may be one of the British Army's most highly decorated and famous soldiers -- and certainly now ranks as one of their wealthiest veterans -- McNab still shrouds himself in secrecy and won't reveal his real name or show his face to the cameras.
Yes, his identity can be found by searching the internet but so far the 53-year-old millionaire who was abandoned as a baby in a Harrods bag on the steps of a London hospital has resisted the temptation to drop the pseudonym under which he has written over 30 books about his own military career and about the exploits of a fictional ex-SAS soldier.
McNab has been back in Northern Ireland this week to promote Silencer, the latest novel in his Nick Stone thriller series, but you won't find him doing book signings on the High Streets in the province where the SAS are sometimes viewed with a lingering mix of suspicion, distrust and hatred.
His publicists say McNab is still a target for republicans here, though he concedes the risk isn't a huge one anymore.
But it all adds grist to the mill of the myths and mystery of the former Royal Green Jacket soldier who first came out of the shadows with Bravo Two Zero, a book about life, death and incarceration on an SAS mission he commanded in Iraq during the first Gulf War.
Reports have said his visit here is his first since his military days, but he explodes that notion. "I've been over quite a few times, mostly to attend functions organised by regiments with whom I still have close links," he says.
McNab's initial sorties into Northern Ireland were on a number of regular battalion tours in the Seventies with the Royal Green Jackets in South Armagh and he was awarded a military medal after a firefight which left IRA man Peader McElvenna dead near Keady in 1979.
Several years later he joined the SAS. He says: "I was back and forward as part of reinforcements but when I joined 14th Intelligence Group I spent two years undercover in Derry.
"I really enjoyed that. People always describe what we did as missions but when you're doing them you just call them jobs."
The 'jobs' were mainly centred on thwarting republican murder attacks on police and soldiers. McNab says: "For me, there wasn't anything righteous or evangelical about it -- fighting against evil or for the country. I had been a squaddie myself doing the foot patrols so there was an element of satisfaction in stopping any attempts to kill them.
"It was a constant battle, every single day. We would get intelligence that an attack was being planned. But we rarely knew exactly where and when.
"So we had to get out in the city and look for faces we knew and get up close to them to see if they were behaving strangely or if they were nervous."
Bizarrely McNab says that a number of 'players' -- he doesn't call them terrorists or the enemy -- were prone to developing skin conditions like acne when their nerves got the better of them.
McNab says his own upbringing in an English housing estate helped him operate in areas of Derry like Shantallow, Creggan and the Bogside.
"It's not as if they were alien environments," he recalls. "A housing estate is a housing estate, after all. I wasn't worried. But you only have to f**k up once and that's it."
McNab, who in 1995 worked as a technical consultant on the hit film Heat, compares undercover soldiers in IRA strongholds like Derry to actors on a stage or in a movie.
"It's almost like getting into character. In your head you are bluffing yourself that you have a reason to be there. Unconsciously it oozes out that you are comfortable being where you are.
"Obviously in a place like the Bogside I was someone people didn't know but I could have been there to visit a brother-in-law, for example. Locals might have been wary of me but that didn't necessarily mean I was a Special Forces soldier."
It's long been argued of course that undercover troops are either brave or barmy. But McNab says: "I never really think that they're particularly courageous. Some people look at it like a game because if you worry about what you're doing, you'll be exposed within minutes."
McNab still considers he was fighting a war here. "People call it the Troubles. But when you see a bomb going off and the devastation it causes and you see soldiers, policemen and civilians getting blown up, there's no other way to describe it but a war."
In his books McNab has written of operations which ended in bloodshed. The most contentious was one which resulted in the deaths of two IRA men, Antoine Mac Giolla Bhrighde and Ciaran Fleming, and an SAS colleague of McNab's near Kesh in December 1984.
What isn't in dispute is that the IRA were hoping to lure the security forces into a bomb ambush but republicans claim that Mac Giolla Bhrighde, a brother of former Victims Commissioner Patricia McBride, was unarmed when he was shot after refusing to answer questions from the SAS soldiers. Fleming drowned after trying to escape.
But there was undoubtedly an exchange of gunfire and one of McNab's colleagues, Al Slater, was killed.
"The number of SAS soldiers who died was thankfully kept to a minimum," says McNab. "But to lose Al was devastating because there were only a small number of us in the Troop.
"We knew that there were devices being laid in the area and we had to find them. But in 14 Int if you are drawing down your weapons it means there's a problem. You are there to do other things."
He says the Provos' activities took up most of his time here. "The INLA would make a few bob and then go and p**s it up. The PIRA weren't quite so easy to deal with."
McNab says he was aware in Derry that Martin McGuinness, now Deputy First Minister, had been an important figure in the republican movement there but he wasn't on McNab's radar.
"We knew he was a high-profile republican but we were after the members of the active service units," adds McNab, who is on record as having been critical of the handshake last year between McGuinness and the Queen.
But he says the Sinn Fein leader's lofty Stormont position doesn't bother him. "That happens everywhere in the world. Every conflict ends with a political compromise."
Meanwhile, the events of Bloody Sunday in Derry took place long before McNab's time in the city but he says it would be wrong to prosecute soldiers who were involved in the killings.
"We are not talking about soldiers who'd been going round bayoneting people," he says. "These were men who were in a state of confusion in a fluid situation and they'd been given the right to open fire if they thought they were in danger.
"You can't question that decades afterwards.
McNab adds: "Every time there are questions about tactical decisions that were made on the ground anywhere in the world it puts security forces lives' at risk because you have commanders who think twice about making decisions because they don't know the consequences further down the line.
"If there are prosecutions, there will be legal implications for modern soldiers and there will be more hesitation. So we will have more 19-year-old soldiers getting zapped because they don't feel confident in what they are doing. It's nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of Bloody Sunday but how it affects soldiers now."
McNab also denies any knowledge of collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the SAS or any shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland.
"If there had been a policy like that, I would have known about it and realistically more IRA and INLA men would have been killed," he says. "Yet the arrests far outweighed the killings. But in circumstances where someone is facing you with a gun, you do shoot to kill them, not to wound them in the shoulder."
McNab draws on his own military experiences for his Nick Stone books and his work with a private security company also throws up new ideas all the time.
"We have people who are in places like Afghanistan and Syria and I glean really good stories and information from them."
The latest book deals with his hero's experiences of the global drug trade and people trafficking.
McNab says it takes him around six months to write a new book. "The plot and the characters come easily enough but the hard bit for me is the first couple of months getting the first draft done."
He dictates his ideas into a digital transcription computer app which puts his thoughts down on paper. "My first draft is normally around 70,000 words and then it gets a life of its own. I polish that up and expand on it until I have what the publishers want -- around 120,000 words."
McNab says he never ceases to be amazed at where his books end up. But the fanaticism of his followers does surprise him. "There's a Swiss-German website where they analyse every single word I write. They look for inner meanings and I think they know more about what I am trying to say than I do."
The veracity of McNab's accounts of his own military operations has been questioned from time to time but he's come under more fire from his Nick Stone fans for killing off characters who he reckoned had become boring. "I got rid of one girl for whom Stone had been caring and years and years later I still get complaints from all over the world."
One of McNab's biggest complaints is how the families of victims in warzones like Northern Ireland are forgotten. "And it also angers me that soldiers who have been injured in wars are overlooked.
"The military know that within three years of a conflict such as Bosnia, Sierra Leone, the Falklands or Northern Ireland nobody will be worried about the injured because life moves on and human beings move on.
"In three years' time even Afghanistan will be a distant memory and the only people who will be suffering will be the folk who have been hurt or have lost loved ones."
McNab works closely with the Help for Heroes charity the Disabled Police Officers Association and has committed himself to campaigning for more assistance for injured security force members.
But even he admits that is one battle he might not win ...
Silencer by Andy McNab, is published by Bantam Press, £18.99
Three died in doomed mission
Andy McNab shot to fame for his book Bravo Two Zero, a bestselling account of a doomed mission behind Iraqi lines during the first Gulf War, of which he was in command
The eight-man patrol was dropped into an area swarming with enemy troops, with ineffective communications
After being compromised by a goat-herder and following a vicious firefight, the patrol was forced to go on the run. Three were killed, four – including McNab – were captured and imprisoned, and one, Chris Ryan, managed to escape to neighbouring Syria
The book was made into a 1999 TV film starring Sean Bean as McNab
Given a hero's welcome
Andy McNab has been a guest in Northern Ireland of the Fields of Conflict group and has been giving talks about his life and work.
The organisation runs regular tours to battlefields covering key campaigns of the two world wars such as the Somme, Ypres and Normandy, and also visits South Africa to cover the Boer and Zulu wars.
Norman McNarry from Fields of Conflict said: "It has been a great honour to facilitate this visit to Northern Ireland by one of the British Army's true modern heroes.
"Andy has given freely of his time to assist the work of the Disabled Police Officers Association and we look forward to welcoming him back in the not-too-distant future."
For details on Fields of Conflict, visit www.fieldsofconflict.co.uk