How Britain's master spy left Ulster double agents to die
But it seems this was a rule Brigadier Gordon Kerr was not inclined to obey. Kerr, an Aberdonian who began his military career as an officer in the Gordon Highlanders, is today one of the most powerful men in British military intelligence. But according to soldiers who served under him, Kerr is also a man who sacrificed the lives of British agents working inside the IRA.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kerr was commanding officer of the Force Research Unit (FRU) – a top-secret arm of the British army's Intelligence Corps, which ran some of the most highly-placed agents in the IRA and loyalist paramilitary groups.
Investigations by the Sunday Herald have already uncovered how Kerr and the FRU used some agents as “proxy assassins” for the British state. Military handlers would pass to agents inside loyalist paramilitary organisations documents – such as photographs and address details – on Sinn Fein activists, republican sympathisers, IRA men and sometimes just innocent Catholics. The agents would then give these details to loyalist gunmen who would use them to plan assassinations. At least 14 people died as a result including the Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane, who represented a number of people accused of IRA crimes.
For more than a decade, Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, has investigated alleged collusion between Kerr's FRU and loyalist paramilitaries. On Thursday, Stevens confirmed his team was preparing to send papers on Kerr – now the British military attaché in Beijing – to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). Kerr has been questioned by Stevens, and 20 other files on other members of the security forces are also to be sent to the DPP before the end of March. Stevens's inquiries are still ongoing.
With Kerr facing possible criminal charges for collusion, former FRU officers who once served under him have made new revelations about their commanding officer – a man once referred to as the “archetypal spy”. These intelligence officers say Kerr allowed FRU agents – informers within the IRA who were loyal to Britain – to die.
The story that follows shows a staggering disregard for human life. It concerns the deaths of four people: Margaret Perry, a civilian Catholic; her lover Gregory Burns, who worked inside the IRA for the British, and his friends Aidan Starrs and Johnny Dignam – also agents and informers for the FRU. The Sunday Herald has spoken to three former FRU officers who say these four would still be alive today if it wasn't for Kerr.
It begins with the recruitment of Gregory Burns, a 34-year-old Catholic from Lurgan, by the FRU. Burns, who was identified for recruitment when he applied to join the army, happily agreed to work for the FRU as an agent gathering information on IRA activities in Co Armagh. Two of his friends, Aidan Starrs and Johnny Dignam, were recruited along with him.
Burns quickly gained the trust of those in the upper echelons of the republican movement. He became an assistant to Owen Carron, a former republican MP, who in 1981 worked as the election agent for Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker. Burns's links to the Provos ran deep. His brother Sean had been killed by a special RUC team, along with two other members of an IRA active service unit, in 1982.
In the late 1980s, Burns's contact with the IRA was at an all time high. Burns, Starrs and Dignam were now well-placed inside the Provos, securing their positions as key FRU informers. But there was a problem: Burns was something of a “ladies' man”. Though he had a long-term relationship, he had also secretly begun an affair with a 26-year-old called Margaret Perry, whose family had republican connections. “Burns didn't keep his mouth shut and she found out he was working for British intelligence,” one FRU officer said. “He tried to convince her he was a double-agent the IRA had planted within the army – but she didn't buy it.”
Just prior to Kerr stepping down as head of the FRU in late 1990, one FRU officers recalls: “Burns contacted us and told us the game was up. He said he'd been compromised and he, Starrs and Dignam wanted out.” The three expected the FRU to set up a resettlement package – a new home, a new identity, a new job and a sizeable pay-off. “Burns's handlers went to Kerr and said they needed to get the three of them out quickly,” one of the FRU officers added. “Resettling agents is part of the deal. Who on earth would agree to work as an agent for the Brits inside the IRA if they knew that if they were rumbled we'd abandon them and let them die?
“But Kerr wasn't having any of it. He said it was all Burns's own fault and he should get out of the mess himself. He said he should silence Perry. The reason Kerr didn't want to resettle them was that it costs a hell of a lot of money and manpower. MI5 have to get involved, the local special branch in the location the person is resettled need to watch them and he must have just seen it as too much hassle.
“Burns was horrified and came back saying that if he wasn't pulled out of Northern Ireland, he'd have to kill the girl. Kerr was told about this and he spoke to Burns's handlers telling them to let Burns know the FRU could not be threatened.”
According to the soldiers who worked under him, Kerr had sealed the fate of Perry, Burns, Dignam and Starrs. “It was a disgraceful breach of promise,” one FRU officer said. “There is no doubt an informer who is in risk of their life is capable of murder – we all knew that. Who wouldn't kill to avoid being tortured and executed by the IRA? These people provided us vital information and we owed them. It's Kerr's fault.”
Murder was now inevitable. “Burns had previously broken his arm but it had never set properly,” the FRU officer explained. “He booked himself into hospital over the Irish border and arranged for Perry to visit him to talk about what she was going to do. Dignam and Starrs arranged to take her there. On the way, they pulled into a forest, beat her to death and buried her in a shallow grave.
“Burns was informed by his friends she was dead and checked himself out of hospital. He told the FRU the matter had been taken care of; that she was dead. From then on it was a Pontius Pilate job: people like Kerr washed their hands of any guilt to do with the needless death of this girl.”
Perry's body was found in June 1992, almost a year after she died. Republican sympathisers working in the Garda – the Irish police – tipped off the IRA that Burns and his friends were suspected of involvement and the IRA immediately suspected the three of them were British agents. Burns, Starrs and Dignam were picked up by the IRA's internal security unit – the so-called torture squad – and less than a week later their bodies were found on the south Armagh side of the Border.
All three had been stripped and shot twice through the head. Cigarettes had been stubbed out on Burns's thigh and there was a poker mark on Starrs's arm – showing they had been tortured. A letter from Dignam was given to his wife at his funeral. It read: “I have only a matter of hours to live. I only wish I could see you and the kids one last time, but as you know, this is not possible.” His wife was expecting their third child.
“If Kerr had done what he was supposed to do – protect the agents working for him – none of these people needed to die,” one FRU officer said. “Instead, the IRA were able to tape the confessions of these guys and get masses of information about how we operated. It was a nightmare scenario.
“In Kerr's eyes, Burns just wasn't important enough to resettle. So we ended up with four unnecessary deaths and the compromising of British army intelligence officers, which ultimately put soldiers' lives at risk. To Kerr, it was always a matter of the ends justifying the means. Northern Ireland would have been better off without him – and that's saying something.”
The FRU officers who revealed this information chose to blow the whistle on Kerr's callous disregard for the lives of his agents for a very deliberate reason. Haunted by the activities of the unit they once worked for, these men say they want the facts about Kerr's role in Northern Ireland in the public domain before Sir John Stevens concludes his inquiries.
The handlers fear the inquiry will be a whitewash and that Kerr will “get off the hook”. The Sunday Herald has been told by republican and military intelligence sources that a deal has already been brokered during secret negotiations between the IRA and the British government which will see:
l Provos who are on the run overseas allowed to return to Northern Ireland without facing prosecution;
l An amnesty for members of the security forces who broke the law while serving in Ulster.
FRU sources say this is a “get out of jail free card” for Kerr. As one of the FRU officers said: “No matter what happens, Britain has to realise that this man is a disgrace to this country and he cannot be allowed to continue to operate.”
How the Sunday Herald revealed the 'dirty war'
THE Sunday Herald has been investigating the activities of the Force Research Unit in Northern Ireland since November 2000. The coverage of the ‘dirty war' and collusion between paramilitaries and the British army has won this newspaper a number of prestigious awards for investigative journalism.
Our investigations include:
l In November 2000, we named Brigadier Gordon Kerr as the commanding officer of the FRU and revealed the full extent of his role in collusion between British military intelligence and loyalist paramilitaries in the murders of up to 14 Catholics.
l In August 2001, an FRU agent inside the IRA told how he had been made aware that the Omagh bomb, which killed 29 people, was being planned. He passed the information on to his handlers but the tip-off was never acted upon.
l In June 2002, an FRU agent in the IRA revealed that all details on FRU activities – including assassinations – were passed to Margaret Thatcher and the Tory Cabinet during her premiership. The same agent carried out bombings on behalf of the IRA to keep his cover in the Provos.
16 February 2003