Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 April 2014

Tragedy in the skies may have saved lives on earth

The Chinook disaster was a blow to RUC intelligence - it could have been worse, says Alan Murray

The loss of so many intelligence experts in the Chinook crash was more than quadruple the previous total number of Special Branch officers murdered by the Provisional IRA.

Only around five Special Branch officers were ever tracked down and eliminated by the IRA in the entire war of attrition between the two adversaries.

While numerous IRA activists perished in Special Branch-led operations, or suffered the fate of long imprisonment as a result of Special Branch penetration of their ranks, republicans inflicted little material damage on the work of the department - or its personnel.

So the Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre in 1994 was the first major tremor to hit Special Branch since it was greatly expanded to respond to the resumed IRA campaign in 1970.

In its early days, rookie constables - even members of the RUC reserve - were absorbed into the Special Branch's expanding empire. By the time it had reached its strength of more than 800 in the 1980s, only fully-fledged officers could hope to be considered for selection for the specialist 'E' Department. Some, like former paratrooper Ian Phoenix, who died in the crash, were ex-soldiers who had joined the RUC in the years when it was expanding to cope with the upsurge of activities by the Provisional IRA and loyalist paramilitaries.

Assistant Chief Constable Brian Fitzsimmons, then head of 'E' Department and Special Branch, who died alongside Ian Phoenix, couldn't have been more different in his demeanour and attributes.

While Ian Phoenix was a gregarious individual who would warmly welcome you into his company, Brian Fitzsimmons was more cautious with his invitations. His demeanour indicated the role of the analyst.

While Phoenix ran top-level agents like Martin McGartland, Fitzsimmons was adept at poring over report after report to seek to detect any pattern to events that would help figure out the intended strategy of his opponents.

One former Special Branch officer who knew both men said: "I don't think Brian ever ran an agent in his entire career in the branch, while Ian was a hands-on operator who was out in the field with the men under his command."

In the immediate aftermath of the Chinook crash, the media was replete with over-the-top stories of how an entire elite of 25 anti-terrorist experts had been wiped out in one single tragedy and how devastating a blow that would be for the security services in their long fight against the IRA.

The reality was that the deputy head of Special Branch was the figure who had his finger in every pie. He was the man who was hands-on across every major operation, while Brian Fitzsimmons was the figurehead who attended the meetings with the Chief Constable, the Secretary of State and the head of MI5. More dramatic in operational terms was the loss of sensitive documents from the Special Branch's '220' agent-contact room at its headquarters in Castlereagh in 2002.

By the year of the Chinook crash, Special Branch had achieved its objective and the IRA was ready to declare a ceasefire and eventually decommission its armaments.

Undoubtedly, the human tragedy of the Chinook crash was immense for colleagues and families. But the reality was that Special Branch was so well-established by 1990 that systems operated virtually like clockwork.

Brian Fitzsimmons and Ian Phoenix were planning their retirement, as were others who perished - their knowledge and skills were leaving the RUC anyway before they stepped on to that fateful flight.

More devastating for the RUC would have been the loss of these senior intelligence officials to a successful abduction operation by the IRA. Then the intelligence-gathering methodology and roles of many of their largely anonymous colleagues could have been extracted from them - with potentially devastating consequences.

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