Brian Nelson (Northern Irish loyalist)

Brian Nelson (30 September 1947[1] – 11 April 2003) was an Ulster loyalist paramilitary member during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. He was an intelligence chief of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), and also a clandestine agent for the British Army's Force Research Unit during the conflict.[2]

Brian Nelson
Brian Nelson Loyalist.jpg
Born30 September 1947
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Died11 April 2003(2003-04-11) (aged 55)
England[citation needed]
AllegianceForce Research Unit
Ulster Defence Association
UDA West Belfast Brigade
ConflictThe Troubles

Early lifeEdit

Nelson, a Protestant from the Shankill Road, Belfast, served with the British Army's Black Watch Regiment before joining the Ulster Defence Association in the early 1970s, where he became a low-level intelligence agent for the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).[2] In 1974 he was jailed for seven years for the kidnap and torture of an Irish man, Gerald Higgins, who died several weeks later from his injuries. Nelson served three years for the crime.[3][4] After his release, Nelson resigned from the UDA and left for a construction job in West Germany. In 1985, however, the British Government approached him on the basis of his previous military career and requested him to re-enlist with the UDA as a covert British Government agent to assist its security agencies to infiltrate the organization to impede its activities. Nelson agreed, and upon rejoining the UDA went on to become its senior intelligence officer, partly with the clandestine assistance from the British government. The British government's close relationship with Nelson was such, that on one occasion, it is reported to have received from him a suitcase filled with disorganized UDA intelligence that he was having trouble with using administratively, which the British Army's Intelligence Corps sifted through, streamlined in an effective systemic manner, and returned to him for use.[2]

Stevens InquiryEdit

In the early 1990s, following the murder of Loughlin Maginn, John Stevens was named to investigate allegations of collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Stevens was able to use advanced fingerprint technology, then unavailable to the RUC. The Inquiry team uncovered Nelson's fingerprints on some security force documents. The team began an investigation that, despite the obstructions encountered, would lead to Nelson's arrest.[5]

When the Stevens Inquiry Team arrested and interrogated Nelson, he claimed that he had been acting on behalf of the British government. Stevens spoke to John Deverell, head of MI5 in Belfast, who confirmed that Nelson had worked for Army Intelligence and not the RUC. Sharp disagreements developed between the two security branches as the extent of Nelson's illegal activities within the Force Research Unit (FRU) was uncovered.[6]

Over a period of two months, Nelson dictated a police statement covering 650 pages. He claimed that he had been tasked by his military handlers with transforming the UDA into a more effective force, particularly at killing. Using information that should have been confidential to his handlers, he produced dossiers or "Intelligence Packages" including backgrounds, addresses, photos and movements on proposed targets, which were passed on to UDA assassins.[6]

Blue card index systemEdit

Nelson had a blue card index system whereby he would pick out information on individuals from the mass of information reaching him. The selection of names for the index was Nelson's alone and Stevens concluded that Nelson was actually choosing the people who were going to be shot. Nelson passed on the names of only ten people to his FRU handlers, claiming he could not remember the others. Those ten were never targeted. Four others, including solicitor Pat Finucane, were all shot dead. In Stevens' words "the FRU had been inexcusably careless in failing to protect the four who lost their lives". Nelson handed out his blue cards, between twenty and fifty at a time, to members of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The FRU had no agents within the UVF and these targeted people were consequently unprotected. Many loyalists never bothered to destroy their blue cards, however, and the Stevens team was able to obtain fingerprint evidence.[6]

Brian Nelson represented as a silhouette holding a placard in a Belfast mural (February 2006).


At his trial in 1992,[2] the prosecution alleged that Nelson failed to alert his handlers to all the assassination plans of which he was aware.[7] Gordon Kerr ("Colonel J"), a senior officer, who was later investigated himself,[citation needed] testified on Nelson's behalf. Kerr claimed that Nelson had warned the Intelligence Corps of more than 200 murder plots by loyalist death squads, including one which targeted Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. Kerr claimed that Nelson's warnings allowed the British Army to prevent all murders but three.[2]

Nelson claimed that in 1989 he had warned his handlers of UDA plans to murder solicitor Pat Finucane, who had been successfully representing IRA suspects in court. According to Nelson, Finucane was given no warning and was fatally shot in front of his wife and children.[8] Eventually Nelson pleaded guilty to 20 charges, including five of conspiracy to murder and was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. A number of charges, including two counts of first degree murder, were dropped as part of his plea bargain.[2]

Further allegationsEdit

Following Nelson's conviction, the BBC Panorama programme "Dirty War", broadcast on 8 June 1992, made new claims about Nelson's involvement in further murders and conspiracies. One allegation was that, following a tip off from Nelson, the Intelligence Corps kept secret a plot to murder Paddy McGrory, a solicitor representing the families of the Gibraltar Three.[9]

In January 1993, Gerry Adams claimed the British government was fully aware of Nelson's involvement in Ulster Resistance's January 1988 importation of weapons[10] from South Africa[11] including 200 AK47 rifles; 90 Browning pistols; 500 fragmentation grenades and 12 RPG 7 rocket launchers. A different branch of the security forces was able to intercept a large part of the weapons before the Loyalists were able to use them.[12][13][14] The weapons which did get through, together with the reliance by loyalists on leaked, although often outdated, military and police intelligence files on potential targets, meant that by 1992 loyalists were killing more than the republicans, a situation not seen since 1975.[10]

Jimmy Smyth extradition caseEdit

Sir Patrick Mayhew, Northern Ireland Secretary, declared the Nelson affair was "dead and buried".[10] However, in May 1993, a San Francisco, California judge, in the extradition case of a Maze prisoner escapee, James Joseph "Jimmy" Smyth, who had used the alias "Jimmy Lynch", demanded disclosure in court of suppressed reports, including documents on Nelson, or risk having the case dismissed.[15] The papers were not produced, but Smyth was eventually extradited to Northern Ireland and to jail on 17 August 1996.[16]

Francisco NotarantonioEdit

Nelson was accused of setting up the killing of an Irish republican, Francisco Notarantonio, to divert the UDA from targeting "Stakeknife", Frederico Scappatici, a senior IRA member believed to be informing for the FRU. Loyalist Sam McCrory shot Notarantonio, aged 66, who had been interned in 1971[17] but had not been active for many years, dead at his home in Ballymurphy, West Belfast on 9 October 1987.[8]


Loyalist Billy "Twister" McQuiston revealed to journalist Peter Taylor that he and his comrades believed the Stevens Inquiry and the arrest of Brian Nelson did the UDA a favour, declaring "The Stevens inquiry got rid of all the old guard within the UDA and fresher men took over". In its aftermath, Loyalists began out-killing the IRA for the first time in decades.[18][19]


Nelson died, reportedly from a brain haemorrhage, on 11 April 2003, aged 55, after suffering a heart attack a fortnight before his death. Although news reports described Nelson as living in a secret location in England, it was not disclosed whether he had been granted witness protection as part of the supergrass policy.[20][21]


  1. ^ RUC report re Brian Nelson, 11 July 1990, accessed 12 December 2012 Archived 26 February 2020 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ a b c d e f The Independent obituary for Brian Nelson, 14 April 2003
  3. ^ John Stevens Not for the Faint-Hearted, Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 2005. ISBN 978-0-297-84842-4; p. 157
  4. ^ Collusion: British Military Intelligence and Brian Nelson Archived 19 November 2007 at the Wayback Machine, Sinn Féin website
  5. ^ Not for the Faint-Hearted, p. 156
  6. ^ a b c Not for the Faint-Hearted, pp. 161-64
  7. ^ The Guardian, Jail move "step to freedom", 28 December 1992
  8. ^ a b "Army faces legal case over killing", The Guardian, 17 August 1993
  9. ^ The Times, "Tory asks Major to protect agent", 9 June 1992
  10. ^ a b c Spy "rearmed loyalists", The Guardian, 8 January 1993
  11. ^ Ken Livingstone editorial, The Guardian, 8 March 1993
  12. ^ Sean Boyne, Gunrunners, The covert arms trail to Ireland, Dublin, O'Brien, 2006. pg.369
  13. ^ Irish Times 6 February 1988 "Arms find linked to three-way Loyalist purchase"
  14. ^ Irish Times 17 November 1988 "Ten questioned after part of huge arms shipment is found"
  15. ^ "US judge asks for secret British papers in IRA case", The Guardian, 5 May 1993
  16. ^ Report about the deportation of Jimmy Smyth from the United States back to Belfast
  17. ^ Crimes of loyalty: a history of the UDA; Ian S. Wood; Edinburgh University Press, 2006, p. 125
  18. ^ Loyalists by Peter Taylor 1995 ISBN 0 7475 4519 7 page 209-210
  19. ^ ^ Clayton, Pamela (1996). Enemies and Passing Friends: Settler ideologies in twentieth-century Ulster. Pluto Press. p. 156. "More recently, the resurgence in loyalist violence that led to their carrying out more killings than republicans from the beginning of 1992 until their ceasefire (a fact widely reported in Northern Ireland) was still described as following 'the IRA's well-tested tactic of trying to usurp the political process by violence'"
  20. ^ Paul Foot (17 April 2003). "Brian Nelson". Obituary. The Guardian. Retrieved 23 July 2011.
  21. ^ "Former British agent Brian Nelson dies" RTÉ News, 13 April 2003; retrieved 8 May 2012