Robert Nairac: An undercover hero or a maverick fool?
Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the murder by the IRA of undercover soldier Captain Robert Nairac. A former UDR officer who worked with Nairac tells Stephen Gordon of his disturbing memories of the SAS-trained soldier and how his cavalier ways alarmed him...
Ex-UDR officer 'Dan' will never forget his first meeting with Grenadier Guardsman Robert Nairac.
It was during that meeting in 1975 that Nairac asked the Co Armagh-based soldier if he knew any UDR men who wanted to "take on the IRA at their own game".
Their first journey into south Armagh followed an order by his operations officer to take a new 'MILO' (Military Intelligence Liaison Officer) on a 'familiarisation' tour of the Battalion area.
"I first saw Bob Nairac when he arrived at my home near Portadown, parked his car in the drive, walked up to the front door and introduced himself as Captain Charlie McDonald. He said he was based at Castledillon.
"He wanted me to take him around the area, point out known 'players', that sort of thing. But he insisted on using his car, not mine!"
Nairac was driving what the military referred to as a 'Q' car - or covert vehicle - that had a military radio fitted behind the ordinary radio and a microphone beneath the seat so the operator did not have to use a handset.
Dan said that from the outset it was obvious Nairac was well trained in counter-surveillance techniques.
"He knew the ropes. He was clearly no ordinary 'MILO'. He was much sharper than any others I had met. He asked very different questions. I soon realised this guy was not the 'rookie' he wanted me to think he was.
Nairac was particularly interested in loyalist paramilitaries like Robin 'The Jackal' Jackson from Lurgan.
Two weeks after their initial meeting Nairac contacted Dan and asked him and a second UDR NCO to meet at Castledillon military base.
"Nairac was based in a separate unit there. It had its own quarters, separate signals equipment, weapons, the lot. It even had its own guards inside the compound - I knew then this was some kind of specialist covert unit.
"He took us into a bar at the base. I remember the bar front had been painted like a deck of cards."
Later that night Nairac took Dan and his UDR colleague out in his car and headed towards the Armagh/Monaghan border.
"He again asked if we knew of any UDR soldiers who would be interested in 'helping him out," said Dan.
"He was particularly interested in UDR men living in or close to south Armagh. He said they could play a vital role in targeting IRA suspects."
Dan said they had been driving for some time along narrow border roads when he spotted a road sign.
"The bloody thing was in Irish. We were inside the Republic and each of us carrying military weapons."
Nairac was unfazed.
"He knew every inch of those roads. Don't forget, most of them had been blocked off by the Army at that time, but he knew exactly where he was."
Eventually Nairac drove into Monaghan and stopped outside a house on the Dublin Road.
"He got out of the car, told us to wait and went inside. We were in a cold sweat. Two UDR soldiers in Monaghan were dead meat at that time."
Nairac was in the house for about 10 minutes before he returned to the car.
"He got back in and said: 'That's a useful contact and I have to keep him sweet'. He then drove us back through the Irish Customs to Castledillon'.
Later that night Dan and his colleague agreed they wanted nothing more to do with the maverick Nairac.
"I told my ops officer Nairac was a loony and I wanted nothing more to do with him. I only saw him again a couple of times after that - once at a joint Army/RUC meeting in Mahon Camp, Portadown, the second time when he drove through a UDR checkpoint near Silverbridge."
Dan was on duty in the operations room the night Nairac went missing.
"We knew from the radio traffic something major had happened. There was a lot of activity over at brigade in the early hours. When the helicopters went up at first light we knew someone had either been shot or was missing.
It was only when a picture of the missing Grenadier Guardsman was circulated that he realised exactly who he had been working alongside.
It had been shortly before 9.30pm on Saturday May 14, 1977 that Nairac left Bessbrook military base in a red Triumph Toledo car.
Armed with a 9mm Browning pistol, he headed for the Three Steps Inn in Dromintee, south Armagh.
His mission was to gather information on the IRA.
Posing as Danny McErlaine (or a similar surname), a north Belfast 'Stickie', Nairac attempted to blend in with the pub's customers. He sang republican ballads including 'The Broad Black Brimmer'.
But as he left the bar at closing time Nairac was attacked by a gang of men.
Punches were thrown before the undercover soldier was bundled into a car and driven over the border.
Despite widespread searches Nairac was nowhere to be seen.
The IRA later issued a statement saying they had murdered him. To this day Nairac's body has never been recovered.
Thirty years on ex-UDR man Dan returned to Castledillon.
Although all the military fortifications have long since gone, he instantly pinpointed the area where Nairac's unit had been located.
Some military markings were still visible on the old outbuildings.
As he walked around the back of the buildings Dan spotted the location of the bar where Nairac had taken him during his first visit to Castledillon.
Inside, although covered in dust, pigeon droppings and debris, was the base bar complete with its bench seating and the deck of cards motif.
- A former SAS colonel has urged the IRA to reveal the burial site of Robert Nairac, described by one of his captors as "the bravest man I ever met" .
The Grenadier Guardsman, who had been seconded to the SAS, was kidnapped after a bloody struggle in the car park of the Three Steps Inn in May 1977.
He was driven to a forest just across the border and although bloodstains, teeth and hair were later discovered, no trace of his body was ever found.
Nairac's former SAS superior Clive Fairweather believes it's time the IRA gave up its grisly secret.
"Times in Ireland have changed very much for the better. With all the dramatic political developments and power-sharing, surely someone can now give some indication of how his body was disposed of," he said.
"They owe it to many other families whose relatives' bodies have never been recovered after abduction by the IRA."
Rumours have persisted about how the IRA disposed of Nairac's battered body. One theory is that a 'clean-up' team removed the corpse to a peat bog because they wanted to keep hidden the hours of torture the SAS man endured before being shot.
He was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1978.
The citation states: "Robert Nairac was subjected to a succession of very exceptionally savage assaults in an attempt to extract information which would have put other lives and future operations at serious risk.
"These efforts to break his will failed entirely.
"Weakened as he was in strength - though not in spirit - by the brutality, he yet made repeated and spirited attempts to escape, but on each occasion was eventually overpowered by the weight of the numbers against him. "
In the cells after his Dublin trial, IRA commander Liam Towson, one of three men convicted of Nairac's murder, told Fairweather: "Nairac was the bravest man I ever met. He told us nothing".