Former Prime Minister Ted Heath ordered a cover-up of SAS involvement in training an undercover British Army unit that operated in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, a new book has claimed.
Professor Rory Cormac's work - serialised in today's Belfast Telegraph - reveals that Heath gave the go-ahead to form the Special Reconnaissance Unit (SRU) in 1973.
The unit was to replace the controversial Military Reaction Force (MRF), which was allegedly responsible for shooting two unarmed civilians in Belfast the previous year.
In 'Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces, and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy', Prof Cormac says it was believed that the SRU would "ensure a higher standard of training and move away from the trigger-happy excesses of 1972 towards a more disciplined defensive and surveillance unit".
But Mr Heath knew there would be uproar among nationalists if SAS personnel were openly involved with the new unit.
The book states: "Heath insisted that 'every attempt would be made to conceal SAS involvement' and so, whilst allowing SAS men to train the new recruits, he placed a three-year embargo before SAS troops could sign up to serve with them."
However, a lack of suitable personnel forced the embargo to be reduced to two years and the next Prime Minister, Labour's Harold Wilson, abolished it.
The book states: "Despite the changes, the Ministry of Defence stuck to the line, technically true, that 'no SAS unit' was serving in Northern Ireland."
As operations gradually became more about surveillance than offensive action, SRU morphed into the 14th Intelligence Company from late 1973.
"Despite taking the blame for many nationalists' deaths on the streets of Northern Ireland, SAS involvement in Northern Ireland was limited in the early 1970s," the book says.
"Instead, former members - alongside former members of the Special Boat service - operated in the Military Reaction Force and the Special Reconnaissance Unit, allowing Heath to truthfully deny SAS presence." The Government announced the deployment of the SAS in Northern Ireland in 1976 after the Kingsmill Massacre in which the IRA shot dead 10 Protestant workmen. On the deployment of special forces, the book says: "It was a reactionary political, rather than strategic, decision and sent the Government's public relations team into a spin: they now had to be as open as possible about SAS activity, but also needed to disguise its movements and involvement when necessary.
"Communications teams admitted that the SAS operated in plain clothes but dismissed any talk of assassination squads as nonsense.
"SAS activity was initially amateurish, poorly directed, and convinced many military leaders that they had been saddled with a 'gang of amateur cowboys'."
The book states that SAS activities increased dramatically around 1983 under Margaret Thatcher, with nearly 30 paramilitaries killed by the regiment over the next decade.
"As police surveillance units took on a greater role, the SAS were freed up for more dynamic operations, including ambushes and other attempts to disrupt terrorist activity," the book states.
It says that special force units effectively "had authority to aggressively pursue suspected terrorists and, guided by detailed intelligence, ultimately engage in targeted killings".
The book states: "Political restraints fluctuated throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but it does appear that undercover units, starting with the MRF, had authority to lure and then lethally engage terrorists.
"This would certainly have been in line with earlier covert action experiences."
Rory Cormac is an associate professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham. 'Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces, and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy', Oxford University Press, £20.