Exclusive: ‘I.R.A. bombers’ captured by Ben Wallace were innocent

UK defence secretary faces call to hand back his bravery award after it emerges terror suspects he captured were not prosecuted.

6 June 2023

Ben Wallace wears his oak leaf badge awarded for gallantry in Northern Ireland on Remembrance Sunday in 2021 with Prince William. (Photo: Hollie Adams / Getty)

An “IRA unit” supposedly caught red-handed by Britain’s defence secretary during his army career was not prosecuted, casting doubt over his dramatic account of the incident.

Ben Wallace served as a Scots Guards officer in Belfast in 1992 and told The Sun he was decorated for capturing an IRA gang that had planted a bomb.

Ahead of Remembrance Sunday in 2020, he briefed Britain’s biggest tabloid how his patrol found a sweet jar “filled up with Semtex plastic explosives and ball bearings, with wires coming out of it…primed and ready to kill.”

Five or six men suspected of handling the bomb were captured by the patrol in a pursuit “which involved jumping over fences and things like that”, Wallace claimed in the article.

In an earlier radio interview with the BBC’s Nick Robinson, he said: “We caught an IRA active service unit who was about to throw a rather large bomb at the patrol. And we didn’t just catch the person moving it, we caught the bomb makers – the whole shebang.”

His commanding officer, Colonel Tim Spicer, wrote in a memoir: “Ben got the men and the bomb – and he had the wit to pick up lots of forensic evidence at the same time, so the terrorists went to prison for a good spell.”

Efforts to verify the soldiers’ version of events were stymied when the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) rejected freedom of information requests to see the official citation for Wallace’s Mention in Dispatches.

The MoD would only confirm the incident took place on 19 May 1992. Newspaper archives show four people – fewer than Wallace claimed – were questioned over semtex found in a sweet jar in west Belfast on that date.


Ben Wallace’s Northern Ireland army record censored


‘No relevant conviction’

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has now disclosed that of the four suspects captured by the Scots Guards patrol that day, none were convicted in relation to the incident.

The PSNI said in response to a freedom of information request by Declassified UK:

“Suspect 1
No prosecution directed by the Department of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
No relevant conviction.

“Suspect 2
No prosecution directed by the Department of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
No relevant conviction.

“Suspect 3
No charge
No relevant conviction in relation to the terrorist incident

“Suspect 4
Released with no charge
No relevant conviction”.

The police statement contradicts Spicer’s claim that the men received lengthy prison sentences.

It also suggests Wallace may have sensationalised his own account. 

At no point in the interview published by The Sun were readers informed the suspects were not prosecuted.

Wallace explicitly referred to the men as an IRA gang although their guilt was not proven.

In the UK, the principle of innocent until proven guilty is key to the criminal justice system.

“Presumably he now intends doing the decent thing and will return his award”

Reacting to the revelation, Alan Brecknell, a human rights worker at the Pat Finucane Centre commented: “Did it not occur to Ben Wallace that he was never called as a prosecution witness at a criminal trial? 

“He claims to have played such a leading ‘Boys Own’ role in the alleged capture of this bomb team and yet no one was ever convicted of a criminal offence connected to these arrests. 

“Presumably he now intends doing the decent thing and will return his award.”

‘Need for historical accuracy’

Media reports from 1992, which only ran to a few lines, said the arrests came during a follow up operation mounted after the bomb was found – not during a hot pursuit as Wallace relayed.

The lack of prosecutions explains why local lawyers and Republican prisoner groups were unable to recall Wallace’s dramatic capture of an entire IRA active service unit during a relatively quiet period of the Troubles.

Kevin Winters, a defence solicitor in Belfast who represented IRA suspects in the 1990s, said “this important case highlights the need for historical accuracy.”

He added: “Records need to be put straight on so many sensitive issues. If that doesn’t happen then it can impact negatively on Conflict narratives.’’

Being Mentioned in Dispatches earns recipients an oak leaf badge they can attach to the ribbon of their operational service medal. 

Wallace has worn his in front of Prince William on Remembrance Sunday and when he guarded the Queen’s coffin in Westminster Hall.


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Competition for honours

Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan saw patrols routinely facing improvised explosive devices, the threshold for being Mentioned in Dispatches has risen and Wallace may not have won the award by today’s standards.

Competition for honours among soldiers can be fierce and veterans caught inflating their service history may be shunned.

Wallace declined to comment on whether he had given an accurate account of his patrol. 

An MoD spokesperson said: “The MoD can confirm the Secretary of State for Defence was awarded an MiD [Mention in Dispatches] for his operational service in Northern Ireland.”

“All citations for honours and awards are covered by exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act, subject to a Public Interest Test. All Information that can be released has been sent to Declassified UK in a previous FOI.”

An attempt was made to contact Tim Spicer via his publisher.

Another ‘bomb in a jar’

Bombs in glass jars were a frequent threat during Spicer and Wallace’s tour of Northern Ireland.

But some were not as real as troops made out.

A few months after Wallace found the sweet jar bomb, two other Scots Guards claimed to have seen a teenager with a coffee jar bomb and shot him fatally in the back.

The dead man was Peter McBride, who turned out to be unarmed.

His killers – Guardsmen Mark Wright and James Fisher – were convicted of murder but released from prison less than four years into their life sentences. 

They were then allowed to rejoin their regiment.

Wallace has not answered a media enquiry about whether he knew the two men personally, or had ever patrolled with them in Northern Ireland

He was “on duty two streets away” when the shooting took place, the Aberdeen Press and Journal has reported.


Smear, frame, mislead: The British army in Ireland


‘Gung ho’

When the pair were freed in 1998, Wallace called for their conviction to be quashed while he was running to be a member of the Scottish parliament.

His Liberal Democrat rival, ex-Major Mike Rumbles, accused Wallace of having a “‘gung ho’ attitude” and claimed McBride’s shooting “could very well be the result of poor training for these soldiers by their officers, of which Mr Wallace was one.”

Wallace responded: “In my view the two guardsmen are innocent of the crime they were convicted for and should be given a chance to remain in the Army if they so wish. No one gave orders for them to be gung ho.”

Speaking in his then capacity as a Scottish Tory spokesman, he reportedly said in the Daily Record: “They should never have been imprisoned in the first place. They should never have been branded as murderers and given the same treatment as terrorists for the unfortunate events in which they were involved.”

He added: “These men have lost six years of their young lives and while nothing can be done to compensate them for this, they should have their names cleared.” 

‘Act of terrorism’

Although their convictions have been repeatedly upheld, Wallace continued his crusade when he became a Conservative MP in 2005, telling the House of Commons the two soldiers had “genuinely believed [McBride] was about to carry out an act of terrorism”.

He further claimed that the soldiers had “made, in my view, an error, but the courts felt that they had committed murder”.

As defence secretary, he supports a new bill that would give an amnesty for veterans accused of Troubles-era offences.

It would also prevent bereaved families from accessing inquests or civil litigation, sparking condemnation from UN experts and Amnesty International.

Brecknell believes Wallace’s comments on the McBride murder showed “a bizarre understanding of the rule of law” and made him unfit to hold public office. 

He added: “Small wonder that he is a prime mover in the shameful Legacy legislation which will provide amnesty to his fellow veterans.”