Death of a Hero: Captain Robert Nairac, GC and the Undercover War in Northern Ireland, by John Parker, Metro, $29.95.
A journalist and author of SBS: The Inside Story of the Special Boat Services, John Parker has written a highly informative and interesting book about British army covert operations in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. It is a tale about a period that will go down in history as among the darkest days of violence and terror in the six counties of Northern Ireland governed from London. Parker relies primarily on extensive eyewitness accounts of participants to tell his story, a practice that seems to work well. Some unnecessary repetition in providing the background to the troubles in Ulster constitutes this reviewer’s chief complaint.
One of the most worthwhile facets of the book is the author’s running description of London’s complex intelligence system in Northern Ireland. By Parker’s reckoning, the British army had about three hundred of its personnel in Ulster performing agent handling, clandestine surveillance, and other undercover-type activities in 1977, the year Captain Robert Nairac was captured and later executed by the Irish Republican Army. These intelligence personnel were gaining information for use by both Britain’s 14,500 troops in Northern Ireland and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Parker also describes the assignments of Britain’s MI-Five and MI-Six, the rough equivalent of America’s FBI and CIA, and he touches on the RUC’s own intelligence arm, likely the most effective of all these security services.
Another informative part of this book is Parker’s handling of Britain’s counterrevolutionary warfare doctrine. He sketches the legacy of colonial internal security and control methods, the initial period of trying to keep Northern Ireland’s streets safe in 1969-72, and the evolution of more sophisticated and effective methods by 1977.
Additionally, the author briefly describes technology that the British army used during these difficult years, including electronic surveillance equipment, night-vision gear, directional microphones, and the gallium arsenide laser with opto-electrical linkage, which could pick up conversations from voice vibrations on distant windowpanes.
The main thrust of this book, however, is its account of Nairac’s murder and the trials of the captain’s murderer and his accomplices. It is a fascinating, entertaining, and sad story.