Smear, frame, mislead: The British army in Ireland

Startling new evidence reveals how the British army, backed by MI5, covered up a vicious black propaganda campaign in Northern Ireland and blocked an independent inquiry fearing it would revive claims they colluded with Loyalist paramilitaries.

Loyalist paramilitaries parade in Belfast, 1972. (Photo: Alex Bowie / Getty)

  • “It is now clear from recent disclosures that the MoD deliberately and repeatedly misled parliament about my true role in N.Ireland”, former army information officer tells Declassified

The extent of the cover-up is disclosed in documents given to victims of abuse at Kincora, a boys’ home in East Belfast run by William McGrath, founder of Tara, a shadowy far-right group known to MI5 and MI6 officers for many years. McGrath was later jailed for abusing young boys. 

MI5 “consistently obstructed” police inquiries into sexual abuse at Kincora, an investigation found.

The abuse at Kincora and McGrath’s links with the security services were first revealed by Colin Wallace, an army information officer tasked with conducting psychological warfare – “Psyops” – designed to destabilise the British political establishment, and the Labour government in particular.

Wallace also blew the whistle on a psychological warfare operation run by the security and intelligence agencies, given the code name, Clockwork Orange. It included the planting of hoax bombs, fake CIA identity cards, and a smear campaign against leading British, mainly Labour, political figures. 

One forged document from the “American Congress for Irish Freedom” was purportedly sent to Merlyn Rees, then Northern Ireland secretary, thanking him for his “generous contribution on behalf of the British Labour Party for the Occupied Six Counties of Ireland”.

Much of the anti-Labour material was provided by the Information Research Department, a secret propaganda unit based in the Foreign Office.


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Smeared and framed

After exposing the dirty tricks campaign Wallace was himself smeared and framed for the manslaughter of a friend. He was even accused by an official of being an “active terrorist”. 

His conviction was subsequently overturned and an independent investigation by David Calcutt QC, president of Magdalene College, Cambridge, found that members of MI5 had interfered with disciplinary proceedings against Wallace to prevent incriminating material about its activities from being revealed.

Wallace was framed after he contested the way he was treated. The Ministry of Defence conducted an internal inquiry. But it had very restricted terms of reference and concealed the true extent of Wallace’s role and what he knew about the army and MI5’s undercover activities.

Files on Wallace’s wrongful convictions at the National Archives remain closed.

The defence secretary, privately described pressure for a new inquiry following Quinlan’s intervention as ‘an unwelcome development’

When Sir Michael Quinlan, the ministry’s top civil servant known for his concern about unethical activities, discovered that parliament – and the public – had been misled, ministers reluctantly agreed that a new inquiry should be held into the way Wallace was treated.

Tom King, the defence secretary, privately described pressure for a new inquiry following Quinlan’s intervention as “an unwelcome development”. He advised prime minister Margaret Thatcher that this new inquiry should be conducted by Calcutt but it should not “get drawn into Kincora. ‘Clockwork Orange’, alleged assassinations etc”, documents seen by Declassified show.

King’s concerns were expressed in a note to Thatcher, stamped “secret” and dated 12 December 1989. Any fresh inquiry, King said, must be strictly limited to how, but not why, the MoD terminated Wallace’s employment on “disciplinary” grounds and whether he should be paid compensation.

It would be “most unattractive” to publish Calcutt’s report, King told Thatcher, if it contained references to “psychological warfare”.


Another document reveals that earlier in 1989, senior officials, including Sir Robin Butler, the cabinet secretary and MI5 officers, warned against revealing how parliament had been misled because it would be used “to support allegations of collusion between the Security Forces and Loyalist Paramilitaries”.

Officials stressed the need to protect the government from any risk of legal action by “Mr Wallace or his supporters, possibly involving claims for the discovery of documents”.

The documents also show how MI5’s legal adviser, Bernard Sheldon, successfully prevented MI5’s knowledge of Kincora from being revealed by an inquiry into the police handling of the case. He pointed to the “political embarrassment… quite apart from the difficulties they might cause those engaged in secret work [i.e., MI5]”. 

Evidence that disinformation and psychological operations by the security services continued in Northern Ireland at least until the 1980s was revealed by Sir Desmond de Silva in a report on the murder of the Belfast solicitor, Patrick Finucane. Finucane, a human rights lawyer and defender of IRA prisoners, was assassinated in 1989.

De Silva noted that MI5 disseminated propaganda directed against the IRA “within the broader loyalist community” and included individuals who were not members of any terrorist organisation. 

Some “encompassed the dissemination of information referring to Patrick Finucane”. De Silva added: “It is a matter of significant concern to me that no political clearance was sought or obtained for [MI5’s] involvement in these initiatives”.


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‘Maverick elements’

Separately, hitherto classified documents reveal that Merlyn Rees, also the former Labour home secretary, privately expressed concern about what he called “maverick elements in both MI5 and MI6”. He added that “there was a great deal going on” that he was “simply not told about”. 

The reference to “maverick elements” is contained in a note recently released at the Irish National Archives of a conversation in 1987 between Rees and a senior diplomat at the Irish embassy in London. Rees is reported as saying that “there was a great deal going on that he was simply not told about” when he was a cabinet minister between 1974 and 1979.

“There were efforts to seriously discredit political figures in both Britain and Ireland”

There was no doubt, Rees said, “that there were efforts to seriously discredit political figures in both Britain and Ireland and in effect to establish a right-wing government in Britain which would hammer terrorism be it IRA or loyalist”.

He added that there were “efforts to discredit publicly and politically the reputations of Labour Party politicians and other British politicians and also other politicians in the Republic”.

Misleading parliament

Misleading information given to parliament about the activities of Colin Wallace remains uncorrected and parliament still has not been told about the extent of the dirty tricks the army and security services were up to in Northern Ireland.

Wallace is determined to pursue his case and to continue to apply pressure on the government to reveal the truth behind this long-running scandal. 

He told Declassified: “It is now clear from recent disclosures that the MoD deliberately and repeatedly misled parliament about my true role in N Ireland. That is utterly disgraceful and unacceptable bearing in mind that over 1,400 soldiers and around 320 police officers died while carrying out the will of parliament in Northern Ireland.”

Wallace added: “I am now almost 80 years of age and I feel that only parliament can ensure that the MoD’s deception, as outlined in this account, is now fully admitted and corrected for future record. In the meantime, I shall refer these disclosures to my legal advisers.”