Alistair Kerr is a guest writer for FrogenYozurt.Com with a special interest in history. For more information see his section on this website.
British Captain Robert Nairac - Copyright Unknown
Two of the last photographs known to have been taken of Captain Robert Nairac GC before his abduction and murder in May 1977 may offer clues to what he was doing and how he came to meet his death.
The first photo is the well-known image of Robert Nairac talking to young people in the Ardoyne district of Belfast, which appeared in the Irish and foreign Press shortly after his death. It was not supplied from UK Government sources, but in all probability by the IRA, who presumably took the photo. The general assumption has been that it must have been taken during Nairac’s first deployment in Northern Ireland with the Grenadier Guards from July to October 1973, for part of which time he served in the Ardoyne. There is however reason to think that it was really taken in 1977; three months or less before Nairac’s abduction and murder. This is stated in a caption in the Irish Times, which reportedly received the photo and background from the IRA.
The photograph is not quite what it seems. Nairac seems to be smiling but is not really. The two youths seen face-on to the camera look shifty; I get the impression that this is a posed shot: that the youths had been asked to speak to Nairac and detain him for a few minutes while he was on patrol, so that an IRA cameraman could get a good shot of him: Nairac was being “set up”. He may have suspected this, as he is glancing cautiously round to his left, i.e. towards the camera. The youth on Nairac’s right seems to be looking directly at the camera. Could this be a signal: “Now’s your chance: you won’t get a better shot than this,” or “This is your man”? And if so, how did the two young men know who Nairac was? Were they boys whom he had taught to box three or four years earlier?
Then there is the matter of Nairac’s headgear. Nairac was an officer in the Grenadier Guards and in no other regiment. The Brigade of Guards wear a pale brown sand-coloured beret with combat kit. Although the photo is not in colour, Nairac is clearly not wearing that. The commonest beret, worn by many corps and some infantry regiments, is black or very dark blue. But it is not that, either. What it has to be is maroon or dark green, to neither of which Nairac was formally entitled. The fact that Nairac is not wearing the sand-coloured Guards beret rules out the possibility that this photo was taken in his first deployment in Belfast as a platoon commander in late 1973. He would have worn the Guards beret on that occasion. It follows that the photo has to have been taken by the IRA in early 1977. Maroon indicates the Parachute Regiment and others affiliated to them. The insignia on the beret are not distinct but do not appear to be the Para Regiment wings. Green indicates the Royal Marines, a Rifle Regiment or one or two old county regiments. This seems more likely.
Robert Laurence Nairac - Photo by Bassano Dec 1975. Copyright: the National Portrait Gallery, London
Nairac had returned to Northern Ireland in an undercover role in 1976. For most of the time, until May 1977, when he was abducted and murdered, he operated in civilian dress, further disguised by long hair and facial hair. However he was back in uniform in early 1977, in Belfast. Clearly, even though he was back in uniform, Nairac was still undercover. He was passing himself off as a member of another, non-Guards, regiment; presumably because that Regiment was serving in Belfast at that time; he was going on patrol with it; and he wanted to blend in. It is known that Nairac possessed, and occasionally wore, the headgear of other regiments: he was twice seen in an SAS beret, to the indignation of genuine SAS soldiers, who knew that he had neither passed selection, nor been badged. (There are still persistent rumours that Nairac was “really” SAS; he was not). Major Clive Fairweather of the SAS writes that Nairac apparently had permission from “very high up” to adopt these disguises to help with his work. This could explain why the IRA wanted to confirm that it really was him, by getting some youths in the Ardoyne, who had previously known him, to speak to and identify him.
What appears to have happened is that Nairac, while working undercover in plain clothes, was summoned back from South Armagh to Belfast in early 1977 to take part in a mysterious military operation, about which no details have ever become public. This was the follow-up to “some previous problem, about which he had knowledge,” according to a former colleague, “SAS Colonel G”. This seems reasonable: Nairac had made himself an expert on Catholic Belfast, and, back in 1973, he had volunteered to take part of a “hearts and minds” initiative, teaching boxing in youth clubs in deprived areas like the Ardoyne. Nairac was very successful at this; we know from other sources (e.g. Luke Jennings’ Blood Knots) that he was a natural teacher and mentor. However the 1977 mission cannot have been a straightforward advisory mission. If it had been, there would have been no need to change his appearance. For this he had to get back into uniform, shave off his facial hair and have a haircut. In the photo his hair is short and neat. And he is out on patrol.
Still in early 1977, Nairac went back to Armagh after the conclusion of this mission in Belfast, whatever that was. He resumed his previous undercover activities in civilian dress. It would have been a while before his hair grew long again and his facial hair grew back. As he went about his business; talking to people, singing in pubs, his contacts would have noticed the changes in his appearance from scruffy to neat and short haired, and then back to scruffy again; to say nothing of his absence from Armagh for several weeks. That would have set them wondering. No doubt he had a plausible explanation for the transformation – e.g. an important job interview or a temporary job that had required him to smarten up his appearance – but some doubts would have remained. Moreover, according to people who knew him well and knew what to look for, it was possible to spot that he was Ampleforth, Sandhurst and the Guards, even when he was scruffily dressed, long-haired and unshaven. There were small giveaway signs: the voice (when he was not affecting an Irish accent), the walk, the muscles, the upright army officer’s stance… His nose, broken in a boxing match, would have been hard to disguise. He seems never to have considered having surgery to correct it.
Robert Nairac Undercover - Copyright by Press Eye Ltd., Belfast
A later photograph of a very scruffy Nairac, said to have been taken while he was drinking at a party in the private SAS bar at Bessbrook Mill shortly before his disappearance, shows him with his hair long and moustache re-grown. The contrast with the photo of two to three months earlier is striking. I have slight doubts about this photo: we know that Nairac had a thick, vigorous head of curly hair which was often unruly, but could it really have re-grown that quickly? Perhaps: but if not, could there be some mistake about the date of this photo?
Whichever senior British officer was responsible for the decision to recall Nairac to Belfast in a uniformed role, he had put Nairac and his intelligence work in South Armagh gravely at risk. (Nairac should have spoken up to say this, but he never would have). Northern Ireland is a small, gossipy place: only six counties and a total population of less than two million. He should not have gone back to Armagh after that degree of exposure in Belfast. He had had quite a high profile in Belfast in 1973 and was probably still known under his real name by some people there. Some of his former students at the boxing clubs would still have been around. But did this seemingly foolish action by someone very senior actually cause Nairac’s death in 1977? It made his identification easier and his eventual elimination more likely, but was it the catalyst of his murder? I do not think that it was.
Most accounts, including John Parker’s (Secret Hero), state that the people who tortured and killed Nairac were a lynch-mob of low-level IRA sympathisers who no idea who he really was, and only discovered it after they had killed him, when it got into the media, although they did suspect that he was some kind of spy or informer connected with the British Army: even with the SAS, and/or the RUC. The exception was the drunken Liam Townson, a genuine but junior PIRA operative who was summoned to shoot him. Even he was unaware of his prisoner’s identity. When Nairac was killed, the murderers had not even discovered his real name; let alone any other information. The speed with which they were arrested, both in the Republic and in the North, suggests that the IRA, furious at having lost the chance to interrogate Nairac, had carted its own bungling sympathisers. I tend to believe this.
It is known that Nairac was high on the IRA’s wanted list but, had Nairac been caught as part of a deep-laid IRA operation, he would have been taken to a ‘safe house’ in the Republic and there, over days and even weeks, been tortured and interrogated until the IRA had got the information that they needed. He would still have been shot at the end. His only hope would have been if they had decided to use him as a hostage, to secure the release of one of their own senior “prisoners of war”. That possibility cannot be excluded.
My emerging conclusion is that there were two plots to get him:
A) One was a sophisticated high-level plot, approved by the IRA’s high command, which was patiently assembling information on Nairac, including recent photographs. The IRA was probably using people to talk to him and draw him out. For them his return to Belfast and appearance there in uniform must have been a godsend, laying any lingering doubts that he was indeed an undercover soldier, and, as we have seen, they managed to get a good photo of him while he was there. Whether they connected him with “Danny from Ardoyne” who sang in pubs in County Armagh, I do not know, but suspect that they did. My other strong suspicion is that Nairac, who was well informed, was aware of this operation and was “playing along”; trying to find out as much information as possible before calling in the SAS to round up or eliminate the IRA operatives involved. More than once towards the end of his life he spoke to friends and colleagues about being on the edge of an important breakthrough. In the days before his murder he received a number of anonymous phone calls from an untraceable number. He was reportedly supposed to be meeting “someone” at the Three Steps pub the night that he was killed. The fact that he was at that stage of the contest could account for the feeling of immunity that Nairac seems to have had. He knew that the trap was not yet ready to spring; that he was ahead of the game; and he reckoned that for the moment he was safe, as far as this plot was concerned. Nevertheless, this was intensely stressful for him and this is confirmed by the available evidence: e.g. the messy state of his rooms when they were checked for evidence after he disappeared.
B) The second plot was a home-grown one, hatched in the Drumintee area by some not very bright local thugs, who had independently arrived at their own suspicions about “Danny from Ardoyne” and decided to earn approval by beating him up and/or killing him. By doing so, they ruined and derailed the IRA’s master-plan. No wonder the IRA were furious when they learned that the numskulls had killed “Danny” without even discovering his real name. They would never be able to interrogate Nairac now. If it had been their intention to use Nairac as a hostage to secure the release of some high-level IRA prisoner, they would have been even more livid. SAS Major Clive Fairweather records that a Special Branch agent had reported that the Cullyhanna IRA unit was going to “get the curly headed little SAS man called Danny.” This sounds like boastful pub gossip: the genuine IRA would hardly advertise their intentions so clearly. Nevertheless there was clearly danger lurking ahead. When Fairweather showed Nairac the report, he laughed. He reckoned that he was safe from an IRA swoop at that moment but he had not foreseen brutal independent action by a bunch of amateurs. An exceptionally strong man and good boxer, he also clearly considered that he could handle most kinds of low-level trouble. And in the event, although heavily outnumbered, he very nearly escaped.
The “two plots” scenario makes sense of a lot of the information at our disposal. It might also explain why his body has never been found. Local IRA sympathisers; not the people who beat up and killed him, but others alerted by them, seem to have disposed of Nairac’s body. At least one of these people is now dead. They might all be. The IRA senior command was not consulted and may genuinely not know; if so, they (and Sinn Fein) are unable to assist in the search.
Neither photo is particularly revealing. Fortunately the National Portrait Gallery in London holds a set of studio portraits of Nairac in Grenadier Guards No 1 Dress, taken by Bassano in December 1975; less than a year and a half before he disappeared. They may have been taken to commemorate either his captaincy or his General Service Medal. These give a better idea of the tough, highly intelligent, humorous and formidably charming man whose friends still miss him today. The Grenadier Guards keep an archive on Nairac to which researchers are never, or rarely, admitted. They also have a number of his relics, including his No 1 Dress tunic and his civilian bowler hat. Some of them can be seen in the Guards Museum. There is an engraved memorial window to Nairac, depicting a falcon, in the neighbouring Guards Chapel. Other memorials are to be seen at Sandhurst, Gloucester, Ampleforth and Sunderland. These are now almost the only remaining tangible reminders of the enigma that was Robert Nairac.
THE LONDONDERRY AIR
Testament of an Ulster Gunman
A Novel by Garrad Gawler
It all changed for Charles Cunningham, a Physics teacher at the local College of Technology in the County Derry town of Maddenstown, on a June afternoon in 1973 when a bomb exploded in his neighborhood. He answers an advertisement by the UDR, the Ulster Defence Regiment, but, in the time to come, he will experience the consequences of his decisions, and how his involvement complicates matters with family and friends, Protestants and Catholics alike, to an unexpected degree.
With “The Londonderry Air – Testament of an Ulster Gunman” Garrad Gawler describes in minute detail and with an astonishing level of authenticity not only the inner workings of the Ulster Defence Regiment, but also the activities of underground paramilitary groups of regular citizens who planned and carried out the assassination of suspected Republican terrorists in their neighborhood.
The Londonderry Air is available at Amazon.Com, Amazon Kindle (US), Amazon.co.uk, Amazon Kindle (UK), Barnes & Noble, smashwords.com, and any other good bookstore.
For more information on Garrad Gawler and to read an excerpt of “The Londonderry Air,” please see the author’s section on this website.