Above is Ed Moloney’s latest post on his blog, The Broken Elbow, focusing on recent comments in the press from former army intelligence officer Brian Gemmell in relation to alleged moves by MI5 in the 1970s to squash an investigation into reports of child sexual abuse taking place at the Kincora Boys Home in east Belfast.
The case of Kincora, Tara, and William McGrath has been covered at great length elsewhere, most comprehensively in Chris Moore’s excellent book The Kincora Scandal, so I will not go into too much detail here. It is worth following up Moloney’s post however to give some additional information and expand on certain points.
Tara was an oddball “doomsday” paramilitary outfit-cum-ginger group that evolved out of an obscure Orange Order talking shop known as the “Cell” (supposedly from the initials of its short-lived initial chairman, Anglican clergyman S.E. Long), and which blended such esoteric and incongruous elements as militant evangelical Protestantism, Gaelic mythology, and even elements of Irish nationalist iconography. Tara, which existed until at least the late 70s under the leadership of William McGrath, was never a proscribed organisation and does not appear to have taken part in any violent acts. Billy Mitchell, who was involved with the group for a period before going on to hold rank in the UVF described it, probably accurately, as “McGrath playing soldiers”. McGrath himself is widely believed to have been an asset for more than one element of the British intelligence services over the years.
Moloney writes that Tara was the group “from which the post-Gusty Spence UVF evolved”. A fuller and more apt summation would be that Tara was a host body which the post-Gusty Spence UVF took advantage of. After the 1966 arrest of Spence and a number of other Shankill men for the Malvern Street killings, and later explosives and arms offences, the UVF – now under the command of Chief of Staff Sam “Bo” McClelland – made the wise decision to lay low until a more opportune time. One of the UVF’s favourite tactics was the infiltration of other organisations, including rival paramilitary groups, for the purposes of intelligence-gathering and the obtaining of arms and personnel. This sort of entryism became a hallmark of the UVF. The UVF in Belfast, still centered around the Shankill, was largely cut off from its members in the country who either joined or returned to the B Specials and later the UDR. Those in the capital took to Tara. A Woodvale UVF man gave his version of events:
When Tara was started a number of our people were invited to go along. We asked [the UVF chief of staff] what we should do and were instructed that we should go, get involved, take rank and then report back.
Whether or not they “infiltrated” Tara in the strict sense of the word, as is usually contended, isn’t that important. The arrangement was advantageous for both parties at the time: McGrath was keen to have the UVF aboard as they gave him a certain paramilitary cachet he otherwise lacked and provided a sizable boost to his funds through their dues which, by all accounts, they were most diligent in paying. He also believed they could form the nucleus of his fabled “doomsday” army. The UVF gained some security by being part of a legal entity, which they could also exploit for their own ends, as indeed they later did. As one member put it to Steve Bruce:
They talked a good line, had a good spiel, like, but we wanted to know where the arms training was, where the guns was, and it wasn’t there. They weren’t doing anything.
What is certain is that the UVF retained a distinct structure and presence of its own and continued to recruit (albeit in small numbers) after Spence was jailed. It’s also worth pointing out that certain members of Tara also went on to become involved with the UDA. These events took place before McGrath became housemaster at Kincora.
In his article Moloney describes Roy Garland at the time of his meeting with Gemmell as being a “disciple” of McGrath. By the time the intelligence officer made contact with Garland and another whistleblowing figure, who Chris Moore calls “Sidney”, he actually had long since broken with McGrath and Tara. The break occurred in 1971 for a number of reasons. Firstly, his long-standing suspicions about McGrath’s sexuality had been confirmed by others. McGrath’s growing religious extremism, in particular his prejudice against certain strands of Protestantism which he held to be little better than Roman Catholicism in different clothes, increasingly perturbed him. The final straw for Garland came when he discovered that McGrath had abused his credit account and also embezzled over £1000 from him (he had to sue to recover the money). The rift between Garland and McGrath also played a role in the events which led to the UVF leaving the Tara fold. McGrath is believed to have approached the organisation and asked them to kill Garland, who by now was alerting people to McGrath’s true nature. What McGrath did not know is that Garland had already tipped off McClelland and the UVF as to his illegal sexual escapades (even homosexuality was illegal in Northern Ireland until 1982). The approach was refused point-blank, and the UVF irrevocably split with Tara soon after in the summer of 1971 when McClelland confronted McGrath about his sexuality and, in a memorable incident, burned the Tara ledger in which the names of UVF members were kept. The group withdrew, taking with it the limited number of guns possessed by Tara, along with a number of useful personnel. Thereafter the UVF was added to the list of Tara’s enemies, along with “Romanism, Republicanism, Reds, and Liberals”.
The obvious and troubling question is, did MI5 tip off McGrath that Garland had been telling people about his sexual habits, or did he find out himself?
With regards Colin Wallace, Kincora formed the basis of his original allegations and in this matter I believe he is substantially correct, although it must be noted that he did not break his silence until after McGrath was arrested in 1980. Later on he made a point of claiming knowledge of and appearing to corroborate, always in carefully guarded and ambiguous language, various other intrigues as they appeared in the press (yet somehow never before) and became a sort of rentaquote on every form of spookery in Ulster. His habit of claiming intimate knowledge of certain alleged conspiracies many years after he first had an opportunity to do so (as in the Dublin/Monaghan bombings), especially after linking up with Fred Holroyd, is one of the reasons why he remains a dubious figure in my eyes. The claim in his file that McGrath was a “red-flagger”, for example, is nonsense. Indeed, Chris Moore in his Kincora book points out that rumours about McGrath were already widespread by the time Wallace began covertly briefing journalists, and that much of his information was either inaccurate or out of date. The idea that he was some sort of lone crusader out to take down William McGrath does not hold water.
Indeed, the one group which went out of its way to attack Tara and McGrath was the UVF. It did so in response to a concerted and sometimes deeply damaging smear campaign carried out against it by McGrath and Tara, likely at the behest of his intelligence handlers as much as due to his own falling-out with the group. Particularly wounding were the allegations that the UVF was under the influence of “reds” or had turned “communist”. When I was last in Belfast doing research I was struck by the numerous instances of anti-UVF propaganda emanating from Tara in period publications, including large ads and quotes in Northern Irish newspapers, and in turn anti-Tara articles and statements from the UVF. One that stuck in my mind was a front-page cartoon in Combat from mid-1974 depicting a Tara tea party-cum-gun lecture delivered by a very camp drill instructor (“now listen up, ladies…” or words to that effect), a none-too-subtle reference to McGrath’s sexuality which further demonstrates that such things were being spoken of within loyalism at the time.
Another sample from Combat of this era clearly demonstrates the enmity between the two groups:
Brigade pointed out that the vast majority of the anti-UVF propaganda was emanating from the DUP and TARA Brigade. It must be remembered that TARA is controlled by a prominent DUP Assemblyman who waged a bitter vendetta against the UVF for years. Brigade pointed out that the anti-UVF propaganda stems back to 1971 when hundreds of Volunteers deserted TARA to join the UVF after they had exposed the TARA Leaders for embezzling over £10,000 from TARA funds and plotting the assassination of a prominent Young Unionist. Regardless of whether we had a political wing or not, the black propagandists would still be operating against us.
Although I am fortunate never to have been put through the horror of childhood sexual abuse, I have had personal experience of physical assault by supposedly responsible adults and subsequent appeals to let the matter go quietly which, to my regret, I did. So the goings-on at Kincora do not surprise me, nor does the cover-up. Where I take more convincing is in relation to allegations of prostitution rings and the like. The logistics of keeping such a thing quiet, and the risks involved, are an order of magnitude greater than individual abuse. Those sorts of comings-and-goings would be difficult to conceal for one thing. The enormous fuck-up of the Orkney “child abuse” scandal – which, one family aside, was no such thing – has also stayed in my mind. Chris Moore, who made the scandal his work during the 1980s and 90s, also points out in his introduction to The Kincora Scandal that no allegations of pimping or prostitution were ever made by McGrath’s victims in any of their statements to the authorities, and believes such speculation is without foundation. Where there can be no doubt is that MI5 deliberately suppressed attempts to investigate the abuse at Kincora, and for that prosecutions must follow.
(the final two paragraphs of this article were edited to remove details which would have made it possible to identify certain institutions and individuals. I also felt it was unfair and somewhat inapt to draw parallels, however obliquely, between my own experiences growing up and the nightmare the victims of Kincora suffered. No conspiracy, just a rare instance of better judgement getting the hold of me)