The Force Research Unit (FRU) was a covert military intelligence unit of the British Army's Intelligence Corps. It was established in 1982 during the Troubles to obtain intelligence from terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland by recruiting and running agents and informants.[1] From 1987 to 1991, it was commanded by Gordon Kerr.[2]

Force Research Unit
Country United Kingdom
Branch British Army
TypeMilitary intelligence unit
RoleAgent handling
Black operation
Clandestine human intelligence
Clandestine operation
Close-quarters combat
Covert operation
Direct action
Intelligence assessment
Military intelligence
Special operations
Special reconnaissance
Part ofIntelligence Corps
EngagementsOperation Banner (The Troubles)

It worked alongside existing intelligence agencies including the Special Branch of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and MI5.[1] In 1988, the All-Source Intelligence Cell was formed to improve the sharing of intelligence between the FRU, Special Branch and MI5.[1]

The FRU was renamed to the Joint Support Group (JSG) following the Stevens Inquiries into allegations of collusion between the security forces and Protestant paramilitary groups.[3][4] The FRU was found to have colluded with loyalist paramilitaries by the Stevens Inquiries.[2] This has been confirmed by some former members of the unit.[5]

Collusion with loyalist paramilitaries

A mural of the UDA/UFF

In the mid 1980s, the FRU recruited Brian Nelson as a double agent inside the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), and helped him to become the UDA's chief intelligence officer.[6] Until it was proscribed in 1992, the UDA was a legal Ulster loyalist paramilitary group that had been involved in hundreds of attacks on Catholic and nationalist civilians as well as against republican paramilitaries.

In 1988, weapons were shipped to loyalists from South Africa under Nelson's supervision.[6]

Through Nelson, the FRU helped the UDA to target people for assassination. In 2003, the BBC reported that FRU commanders aimed to make the UDA "more professional" by helping it to target and kill republican activists and prevent it from killing uninvolved Catholic civilians.[2] If someone was under threat, agents like Nelson were to inform the FRU who were then to alert the police.[2] Gordon Kerr, who ran the FRU from 1987 to 1991, claimed Nelson and the FRU saved over 200 lives in this way.[2][7] However, the Stevens Inquiries found evidence that only two lives were saved and said many loyalist attacks could have been prevented but were allowed to go ahead.[7] The Stevens team believes that Nelson was responsible for at least 30 murders and many other attacks, including most prominently solicitor Pat Finucane, and that many of the victims were uninvolved civilians.[7] Although Nelson was imprisoned in 1992, FRU intelligence continued to help the UDA and other loyalist groups.[8][9] From 1992 to 1994, loyalists were responsible for more deaths than republicans for the first time since the 1960s.[10]

Allegations exist that the FRU sought restriction orders, a de-confliction agreement to restrict patrolling or surveillance in an area over a specified period, in advance of a number of loyalist paramilitary attacks in order to facilitate easy access to and escape from their target[citation needed]. This de-confliction activity was carried out at a weekly Tasking and Co-ordination Group which included representatives of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, MI5 and the British Army. It is claimed the FRU asked for restriction orders to be placed on areas where they knew loyalist paramilitaries were going to attack.[11]

Alleged infiltration of republican paramilitary groups


FRU are also alleged to have handled agents within republican paramilitary groups. A number of agents are suspected to have been handled by the FRU including IRA units who planted bombs and assassinated. [citation needed] Attacks are said to have taken place involving FRU-controlled agents highly placed within the IRA.

It is suspected that the FRU sought to influence the IRA primarily through an agent codenamed "Stakeknife", thought to have been a member of the IRA's Internal Security Unit (a unit responsible for counter-intelligence, interrogation and court martial of informers within the IRA). There is a debate as to whether this agent was IRA member Freddie Scappaticci or another, as of yet unidentified, IRA member.[12] It is believed that "Stakeknife" was used by the FRU to influence the outcome of investigations conducted by the IRA's Internal Security Unit into the activities of IRA volunteers.

It is alleged that, in 1987, the UDA came into possession of details relating to the identity of the FRU-controlled IRA volunteer codenamed "Stakeknife" and that, unaware of this IRA volunteer's value to the FRU, they planned to assassinate him. Allegedly, after the FRU discovered "Stakeknife" was in danger from UDA assassination, they used Brian Nelson to persuade the UDA to assassinate Francisco Notarantonio instead, a Belfast pensioner who had been interned as an Irish republican in the 1940s.[13] The killing of Notarantonio was claimed by the UFF at the time.[14] Following the killing of Notarantonio, unaware of the involvement of the FRU, the IRA assassinated two UDA leaders in reprisal attacks. It has also been alleged that the FRU secretly passed details of the two UDA leaders to the IRA via "Stakeknife" in an effort to distract attention from him as a possible informer[citation needed].

FRU and the Stevens Inquiry


Former FRU operative Martin Ingram asserted that the arson attack which destroyed the offices of the Stevens Inquiry was carried out by the FRU to destroy evidence on operational activities collected by Stevens' team.[15]

See also



  1. ^ a b c "Volume 1 Chapter 3: Intelligence structures Report of the Patrick Finucane Review". Pat Finucane Review. Archived from the original on 16 December 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d e "Stevens Inquiry: Key people". BBC News. 17 April 2003. Retrieved 27 September 2013.
  3. ^ Rayment, Sean (4 February 2007). "Top secret army cell breaks terrorists". The Telegraph. Retrieved 1 July 2017.
  4. ^ Sharp, Aaron (9 March 2014). "Secret army unit credited with saving THOUSANDS of civilian lives facing chop". Mirror. Retrieved 1 July 2017.
  5. ^ Mackay, Neil (19 November 2000). "My unit conspired in the murder of civilians in Ireland". Sunday Herald. Archived from the original on 27 August 2001.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  6. ^ a b "Obituary: Brian Nelson". The Guardian. 17 April 2003. Retrieved 27 September 2013.
  7. ^ a b c "Scandal of Ulster’s secret war". The Guardian. 17 April 2003. Retrieved 27 September 2013.
  8. ^ “Deadly Intelligence: State Involvement in Loyalist Murder in Northern Ireland – Summary”. British Irish Rights Watch, February 1999.
  9. ^ Human Rights in Northern Ireland: Hearing before the Committee on International Relations of the United States House of Representatives, 24 June 1997. US Government Printing Office, 1997.
  10. ^ 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'…
  11. ^ Davies, Nicholas (2000). Ten-Thirty-Three. Mainstream. ISBN 1-84018-343-8.
  12. ^ Scappaticci denies the allegations and in May 2003 began legal action to force the then NI Secretary of State, Jane Kennedy, to deny he is/was a British Agent. At this point (May 2006) Scappaticci has launched no libel actions against media making the allegations. There is also suspicion in Irish republican circles that the real "Stakeknife" and/or other British agents have yet to be unmasked, this suspicion was compounded by the revelation that Denis Donaldson was a mole within Sinn Féin/the Republican movement, and by interviews given by the man calling himself "Kevin Fulton" in March 2006.
  13. ^ According to the article title 'My unit conspired in the murder of civilians in Ireland' - by Neil Mackay, the officer in the FRU who passed Notarantonio's details to Nelson was "Captain M" assumed to be Cpt. Margaret Walshaw.
  14. ^ Details on the Death of Notarantonio available on CAIN Sutton here.
  15. ^ Stakeknife: Britain's Secret Agents in Ireland, Martin Ingram, O'Brien Press, 2004