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The Military Reaction Force, Military Reconnaissance Force or Mobile Reconnaissance Force (MRF)[1] was a covert intelligence-gathering and counter-insurgency unit of the British Army active in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during The Troubles. The unit was formed during the summer of 1971[1] and operated until late 1972 or early 1973. MRF teams operated in plain-clothes and civilian vehicles, equipped with pistols and sub-machine guns. They were allegedly tasked with tracking down and arresting, or killing, suspected members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The MRF also ran double agents within the paramilitary groups and ran a number of front companies to gather intelligence.[2] In October 1972, the Provisional IRA uncovered and attacked two of the MRF's front companies.

The MRF was involved in a number of attacks on Catholic civilians and has been accused of colluding with loyalist paramilitaries. It was succeeded by the SRU (or 14 Intelligence Company) and, later, by the FRU.

Modus operandi[]

The MRF and its modus operandi appear to have been based on ideas and techniques developed by British Army Brigadier Sir Frank Kitson, who had created "counter gangs" to defeat the Mau Mau in Kenya. He was the author of two books on counter-insurgency tactics: Gangs & Counter Gangs (1960) and Low Intensity Operations (1971). From 1970 to 1972, Kitson served in Northern Ireland as commander of the 39th Infantry Brigade. It is been claimed that he was responsible for establishing the MRF.[1]

In March 1994, the UK's Junior Defence Minister Jeremy Hanley issued the following description of the MRF in reply to a parliamentary written question: "The MRF was a small military unit which, during the period 1971 to 1973, was responsible for carrying out surveillance tasks in Northern Ireland in those circumstances where soldiers in uniform and with Army vehicles would be too easily recognized".[3]

The MRF was based at Palace Barracks in the Belfast suburb of Holywood. It was split into sections, which were each commanded by sergeants or sergeant-majors who had served in the Special Air Service (SAS), Special Boat Service (SBS), the Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment.[4] According to military sources, the MRF would have up to nine soldiers deployed at any one time, with nine more on standby and the others resting.[4]

In 2012–13, many details about the unit's modus operandi were revealed by former MRF member 'Simon Cursey'. He published a book—MRF Shadow Troop—about his time in the unit. According to Cursey, the MRF consisted of about 30 men and a few women.[5] They dressed like civilians and were given fake identities and unmarked cars equipped with two-way radios.[5] In these cars they patrolled the streets, tracking down and arresting or killing suspected IRA members.[5] Cursey claims they had a list of targets they were ordered to "shoot on sight",[5] the aim being to "beat them at their own game"[5] and to "terrorise" the republican movement.[4] He said his unit shot at least 20 people and knowingly broke the British Army's 'Rules of Engagement' by shooting unarmed people without warning: "We opened fire at any small group in hard areas [...] armed or not – it didn't matter. We targeted specific groups that were always up to no good. These types were sympathisers and supporters, assisting the IRA movement. As far as we were concerned they were guilty by association and party to terrorist activities, leaving themselves wide open to the ultimate punishment from us".[4] Cursey mentions two occasions where MRF members visited pubs and "eliminated" IRA members.[4] In July 1978, a statement from another former MRF member had been published. He also said that the MRF "operated in plain clothes, in civilian vehicles, in teams of from two to four members" and were armed with Browning pistols and Sterling sub-machine guns. However, he said they were also trained to use weapons favoured by the IRA. The MRF member confirmed the unit's involvement in a number of shootings in 1972, and opined that the unit's role was one of "repression through fear, terror and violence".[6] The IRA argued that the MRF deliberately attacked civilians for two main reasons: firstly, to draw the IRA into a sectarian war with loyalists and divert it from its campaign, and secondly, to show the Catholic community that the IRA could not protect them.[7]

According to Cursey, the MRF also arrested and interrogated people for information. They used shock treatment on prisoners to force them to give information. This involved immediately breaking one of the suspects' arms and threating to break their other arm.[5] Cursey says that they then "dropped them off at the roadside for the uniformed forces to pick up later".[4] The MRF is also known to have used double agents referred to as 'Freds'. These were members of republican or loyalist paramilitaries who were 'recruited' by British Military Intelligence. The Freds were ferried through Belfast in armoured cars, and through the gunslit would point-out paramilitary individuals of note. Through this method the MRF compiled extensive photographs and dossiers of Belfast militants of both factions.[8]

Attacks on civilians[]

On 4 December 1971, loyalists belonging to the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) detonated a time bomb at the door of McGurk's public house in Belfast. The pub was frequented by members of the Irish Catholic and Irish nationalist community.[9] The explosion caused the building to collapse, killing fifteen Catholic civilians and wounding seventeen more. It was the deadliest attack in Belfast during the Troubles.[10] The book Killing For Britain (2009), written by former UVF member 'John Black', claims that the MRF organized the bombing and helped the bombers get in and out of the area.[11] Two days before the bombing, republican prisoners had escaped from nearby Crumlin Road Prison. Security was tightened and there were many checkpoints in the area at the time. However, locals claimed that the security forces helped the bombers by removing the checkpoints an hour before the attack.[12] One of the bombers—Robert Campbell—said that their original target had been The Gem, a nearby pub that was allegedly linked to the Official IRA. It is claimed the MRF plan was to help the UVF bomb The Gem, and then blame the bombing on the Provisional IRA. This would start a feud between the two IRA factions, diverting them from their fight against the security forces and draining their support. Campbell said that The Gem had security outside and, after waiting for almost an hour, they decided to bomb the nearest 'Catholic pub' instead. Immediately after, the security forces claimed that a bomb had accidentally exploded while being handled by IRA members inside McGurk's.[13]

In 1972, the MRF was involved in a number of drive-by shootings in Catholic and Irish nationalist areas of Belfast, some of which had been attributed to loyalists.[2]

On 15 April 1972, brothers Gerry and John Conway—both Catholic civilians—were walking along Whiterock Road to catch a bus.[6][14] As they passed St Thomas's School, a car stopped and three men leapt out and began shooting at them with pistols.[6][14] The brothers ran but both were shot and wounded.[14] Witnesses said one of the gunmen returned to the car and spoke into a handset radio. Shortly after, two armoured personnel carriers arrived and there was a conversation between the uniformed soldiers and the gunmen.[14] The three vehicles then left, and the brothers were taken by ambulance to the Royal Victoria Hospital.[14] The Army told journalists that an Army patrol had encountered two wanted men, that one fired at the patrol and that the patrol returned fire.[14] In a 1978 interview, a former MRF member claimed he had been one of the gunmen.[6] He confirmed that the brothers were unarmed, but claimed his patrol had mistaken the brothers for two IRA men whom the MRF were ordered to "shoot on sight".[6]

On 12 May 1972, the British government announced there would by no disciplinary action against the soldiers involved in Bloody Sunday. That night, an MRF unit in an unmarked car approached a checkpoint manned by members of the Catholic Ex-Servicemen's Association (CESA) in the Andersonstown area.[1] The CESA was an unarmed vigilante organization set up to protect Catholic areas.[15] The car stopped and then reversed. One of the MRF men opened-fire from the car with a sub-machine gun, killing Catholic civilian Patrick McVeigh and wounding four others.[1][14] All of the men were locals and McVeigh had stopped to chat to the CESA members as he walked home. The car continued on, turned, and then drove past the scene of the shooting.[14] The Army told journalists that gunmen in a passing car had fired indiscriminately at civilians and called it an "apparently motiveless crime".[14] The car had come from the direction of a Protestant area and had returned the same way. This, together with the Army statement, implied that loyalists were responsible.[14] An inquest into the attack was held in December 1972. It was admitted that the car's occupants were soldiers belonging to an undercover unit known as the MRF. The soldiers did not appear at the inquest but issued statements to it, claiming they had been shot at by six gunmen and were returning fire. However, eyewitnesses said none of the CESA members were armed and this was supported by forensic evidence.[14] The MRF members involved were never prosecuted.[1][14] Former MRF member 'Simon Cursey' claimed that the unit fired on the men because they included IRA members who were on their 'wanted' list.[5] An MRF member stated in 1978 that the Army's intention was to make it look like a loyalist attack, thus provoking sectarian conflict and "taking the heat off the Army".[6] On 22 June 1972, the Provisional IRA announced that it would begin a ceasefire in four days, as a replude to secret talks with the British Government.[16] That night, MRF members in an unmarked car shot and wounded three Catholic men standing by a car on Glen Road. A man in a nearby house was also wounded by the gunfire.[17] Shortly after, the MRF unit's car was stopped by the RUC and they were arrested. Inside was a Thompson sub-machine gun, "for years the IRA's favourite weapon".[1] One of the MRF members told an inquest that two of the men had been armed and one had fired at the MRF car. He claimed he was returning fire. A taxi driver in the area at the time said he heard a burst of gunfire and saw a car speed off. He said he did not see anyone with a weapon or any weapons on the ground, and did not hear any other shooting.[17] The MRF member was charged with attempted murder but acquitted on 26 June 1973.[1]

On the night of 27 September 1972, the MRF shot dead Catholic civilian Daniel Rooney and wounded his friend Brendan Brennan.[14][18] They were shot from a passing car while standing on a street corner at St James's Crescent, in the Falls district.[19] The Army told journalists that the two men fired at an undercover patrol and that the patrol returned fire.[19] It claimed the two men were IRA members.[19] The IRA, the men's families, and residents of the area denied this, and Rooney's name has never appeared on a republican roll of honour.[19] An inquest was held in December 1973. The court was told that forensic tests on the men's hands and clothing found no firearms residue.[19] The six soldiers involved repeated the Army's claim, but they did not appear at the inquest. Their statements were read by a police officer and they were referred to by initials.[19] In 2013, former MRF member 'Simon Cursey' again claimed that they were returning fire, but said that only one of the men was armed.[5] There are also allegations that the MRF was involved in a drive-by shooting in the Catholic New Lodge area on 3 February 1973. The car's occupants opened fire on a group of young people standing outside a pub on Antrim Road, killing IRA members James Sloan and James McCann and wounding others. The gunmen drove on and allegedly fired at another group of people outside a takeaway. In the hours that followed, a further four people—an IRA member and three civilians—were shot dead in the area by British snipers. The dead became known as the "New Lodge Six".[20][21][22]

Front companies[]

The MRF ran a number of front companies in Belfast during the early 1970s.[23] They included Four Square Laundry (a mobile laundry service operating in nationalist West Belfast) and Gemini Health Studios (a massage parlour on Antrim Road). The MRF also had an office at College Square. All were set up to gather intelligence on the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Irish nationalist movement.

A Four Square van visited houses in nationalist West Belfast twice a week to collect and deliver laundry.[24] One "employee" (a young man) drove the van while another (a young woman) collected and delivered the laundry. Both were from Northern Ireland.[24] Four Square initially gathered customers by offering "discount vouchers", which were numbered and colour-coded by street.[25] Clothes collected for washing were first forensically checked for traces of explosives, as well as blood or firearms residue. They were also compared to previous laundry loads from the same house—the sudden presence of different-sized clothes could indicate that the house was harbouring an IRA member.[26] Surveillance operatives and equipment were hidden in the back of the van or in a compartment in the roof. Further intelligence was gathered by staff observing and "chatting" to locals whilst collecting their laundry.[26]

However, in September 1972 the IRA found that two of its members—Seamus Wright and Kevin McKee—were working for the MRF as double agents.[27] Under interrogation, McKee told the IRA about the MRF's operations, including the laundry and the massage parlour.[28] The leaders of the Provisional IRA Belfast Brigade ordered that the companies immediately be put under surveillance. This surveillance confirmed that McKee's information was correct.[29] The IRA later took Wright and McKee to South Armagh, where they were "executed" as spies.[30] Their bodies have not been recovered and were cases considered by the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains.

October 1972 attacks[]

Following these revelations, the leaders of the IRA's Belfast Brigade planned an operation against the MRF, which was to take place on 2 October 1972. The 2nd Battalion would attack the Four Square Laundry van and the office at College Square, while the 3rd Battalion would raid the massage parlour.[31] At about 11:20AM[24] on 2 October, IRA volunteers ambushed the Four Square Laundry van in the nationalist Twinbrook area of West Belfast. Four volunteers were involved: one drove the car while three others did the shooting.[31] They shot dead the driver, an undercover British soldier of the Royal Engineers, and machine-gunned the roof compartment where undercover operatives were thought to be hiding.[31] The other Four Square employee—a female operative from the Women's Royal Army Corps (WRAC)—was collecting and delivering laundry from a nearby house at the time. The residents, who thought that loyalists were attacking the van, took her into the house and kept her safe.[31] The woman was later secretly invested at Buckingham Palace with an MBE.[27] About an hour later, the same IRA unit raided College Square but found nobody there.[31] Meanwhile, a unit of the 3rd Battalion made for the room above the massage parlour, which they believed was being using to gather intelligence. They claimed to have shot three undercover soldiers: two men and a woman.[31] According to some sources, the IRA claimed to have killed two surveillance officers allegedly hidden in the laundry van,[32] and two MRF members at the massage parlour.[26] However, the British military only confirmed the death of the van driver on that day.[33] Brendan Hughes said that the operation "was a great morale booster for the IRA and for the people that were involved".[31] The MRF, realizing its undercover operations were blown, disbanded the units and was itself disbanded shortly afterwards.[31] Nevertheless, the incident was believed to have prompted the establishment of a new undercover intelligence unit: the 14 Intelligence Company (also known as "The Det").[34]

See also[]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Taylor, Peter. Brits: The War Against the IRA. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001. pp.128-130
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ed Moloney (November 2003). A secret history of the IRA. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 119–. ISBN 978-0-393-32502-7. Retrieved 7 February 2011. 
  3. Moloney, Ed. Voices from the Grave: Two Men's War in Ireland. 2010. pp.118-119
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 "The 'murder and mayhem' squad: Shocking new revelations by former undercover soldier who carried out 'shoot first, ask questions later' attacks on IRA terrorists for the British Army". The Mail on Sunday, 23 December 2012. Retrieved 23 December 2012.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 "Exposed: The army black ops squad ordered to murder IRA's top 'players'". Daily Mail. 17 November 2013. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Murray, Raymond. The SAS in Ireland. Mercier Press, 1990. pp.44-45
  7. Dillon, The Dirty War, pp.55-56
  8. Dillon, Martin. The Dirty War. Random House, 1991.
  9. "Daughter recalls bar bomb horror". BBC News (3 December 2001). 3 December 2001. Retrieved 2008-05-06. 
  10. Taylor, Peter (1999). Loyalists. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 88. ISBN 0-7475-4519-7. 
  11. Police Ombudsman's report, p.16
  12. The bombing of McGurk's Bar, Belfast, on 4 December 1971. Report by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. February 2011. p.9
  13. "Collusion and Cover-Up". The McGurk's Bar Massacre.
  14. 14.00 14.01 14.02 14.03 14.04 14.05 14.06 14.07 14.08 14.09 14.10 14.11 14.12 Dillon, The Dirty War, pp.52–55
  15. Organizations: C. Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN)
  16. Chronology of the Conflict: June 1972. Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN)
  17. 17.0 17.1 Fields, Rona M. Northern Ireland: Society Under Siege. Transaction Publishers, 1977. pp.138-139
  18. "Britain’s secret force ‘used IRA tactics’ during the Troubles". 14 November 2013. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 19.4 19.5 McKittrick, David. Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children who Died as a Result of the Northern Ireland Troubles. Random House, 2001. p.269
  20. The New Lodge Six. Troops Out Movement. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
  21. "New Lodge Six inquiry". An Phoblacht. 21 November 2002. Retrieved 19 November 2013.
  22. Sutton's Index of Deaths from the Conflict in Ireland: 1973. Conflict Archive on the Internet (CAIN).
  23. Charters, David (April 2009). "The Development of British Counter-insurgency Intelligence". Retrieved 6 December 2011. 
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Dillon, The Dirty War, p.29
  25. Tom, Ricks (5 October 2008). "Tom Ricks's Inbox". Retrieved 4 December 2011. 
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Faligot, Roger (1983). Britain's military strategy in Ireland: the Kitson experiment. London: Zed Press. ISBN 0-86232-047-X. 
  27. 27.0 27.1 Geraghty, Tony (1998). The Irish War: the hidden conflict between the IRA and British Intelligence. Baltimore: JHU Press. p. 90. ISBN 0-8018-6456-9. 
  28. Dillon, Martin. The Trigger Men, Mainstream Publishing, 2003, p. 66
  29. Dillon, The Trigger Men, p. 67
  30. Guardian
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 31.3 31.4 31.5 31.6 31.7 Taylor, pp.135-136
  32. "Remembering the Past – The Four Square Laundry". 30 September 2004. Retrieved 4 December 2011. 
  33. Moloney, Ed (2010). Voices from the Grave: Two Men's War in Ireland. PublicAffairs. ISBN 1-58648-932-1. 
  34. Michael, Smith (1 August 2002). "Secret watchers who keep an eye on the terrorists". Retrieved 4 December 2011. 

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