Upon learning of his demise, and as a result of a curious Edinburgh encounter some years earlier, I intended writing something up on Clive Fairweather who died in October 2012 after a short illness. Going on a hunt for my handwritten notes dissuaded me given that after a house move and a six year hiatus they could be anywhere and might take weeks to find. No exaggeration, given that it took almost three weeks for me to find a recording of an interview my wife and I once conducted for The Blanket with PSNI Chief Constable, Hugh Orde: something else that had fallen into the pit as a result of the move.
Eventually, earlier this year, a journalist friend to whom I had spoken about my conversation with Fairweather cajoled me into digging up the notes. I wasn’t going to make the effort for those alone so when a number of items elected for retrieval I began the search with no great sense of urgency. To my surprise, early into my rooting around in boxes, bags and Tupperware containers, I stumbled across the threadbare notepad that contained my barely legible handwriting.
Clive Fairweather had been a long serving senior SAS officer. He was no longer in the regiment by the time I met him in November 2006. He had by then moved onto campaigning for prison reform and it was through his work in that field that I encountered him at a conference in Edinburgh which was put in place to consider alternatives to imprisonment.
At our dinner table happily chatting to Rita O’Brien on one side, I fell into conversation with a former Scottish army officer on the other. He professed a keen interest in the Irish conflict although he had left the army in 1970. He expressed grave reservations about how the military was dealing with civil demonstrations and seemed fairly sympathetic to the nationalist position. During our conversation he beckoned another man over and introduced me to him, a fellow Scot. That was how I met Clive Fairweather. We shook hands and so began a night of political conversation carried along in the flow of alcohol. While the effects of the drink had worn off by the following morning the residue rather than the hangover from the conversation remained with me.
After the discussion I returned to my hotel room and jotted down notes as a memory aid in case I wanted to reflect on what he had said later. On the wrong boat back home – we caught the Rangers one - I spoke with my travelling companion Malachi O’Doherty about the conversation I had with Clive Fairweather and he found it interesting but I did say to him that I regarded the tete-a-tete as off the record, not one the former SAS man had with me for the purpose of publication. At least not while he was alive. Whatever Clive Fairweather thought – and he did have a reputation for speaking his mind - it was my understanding that it was a private conversation, the type of which would not make itself as readily available again if people had reason to believe the contents were going to be blurted out for the sake of a story.
Occasionally I would discuss his views with others in passing and off the record. Now that he is no longer of the world I feel free to openly reflect on our exchange and make them a matter of record in as far as my note assisted recollection is accurate.
Despite our vastly different backgrounds I immediately liked him. He was an imposing man who had very firm views on just about everything we discussed but who - not usual for someone of that self-assured disposition - was totally open to a different perspective or criticism. And his forthrightness at times jolted me. If I thought I was entering a joust with a ‘the regiment right or wrong’ defender I was to be upended. Whatever the narrative and myths about the efficiency and professionalism of the SAS, it was a balloon Clive Fairweather was quick to prick. Hot air was not what he seemed to do.
Robert Nairac, killed by the IRA in 1977, who Fairweather claimed was trained up by the SAS but not one of its operatives, was a ‘stupid cunt’. Herbert Westmacott, shot dead by an IRA unit as the Special Forces outfit moved into to ambush it, was ‘another stupid cunt’, forcefully barked out in a clipped military tone. Fairweather told me he had personally briefed Westmacott prior to the SAS operation in May 1980 which was to neutralise an IRA active Service Unit on Belfast’s Antrim Road. The SAS captain strayed from his brief and paid the price. Having to talk to his family was difficult for Fairweather but did not in his view lessen the culpability of Westmacott. He had a sense of regret at colleagues dying but Westmacott had been instructed by him on exactly what procedures to follow and had for some inexplicable reason decided to assault the wrong door and was riddled with rounds from the IRA’s M60 machine gun for his error.
If guys like this were nothing more than ‘stupid cunts’ how come they were such an efficient killing machine? He brusquely dismissed my scepticism with the response that the SAS was an efficient ‘shagging and boozing’ machine. He explained that one of his difficulties as SAS second in command when confronted with the 1980 siege at the Iranian Embassy in London was finding enough troopers sufficiently sober and immediately available to put a team together with adequate back up alternating capacity comprised of another two teams for round the clock readiness to make any assault possible. It was a problem that was compounded for him when the IRA operation floated across his radar. It is common knowledge that the SAS command felt overstretched and under resourced for the tasks at hand in both London and Belfast. That a penchant for booze exacerbated the problem was news to me. If his characterisation of SAS drunkenness was a mere rhetorical flourish issued for effect rather than accuracy, it was not in character with his bluster free demeanour. I am hardly the only person that Clive Fairweather shared that particular anecdote with.
Ours was an unstructured exchange in which the topic changed more rapidly than our drinks glasses. The conversation was shaped by my inquisitiveness, the circumstances of our meeting having allowed for no preparation. And the thought always comes later in these situations that we should have asked our particular interlocutor this or that or the other. C’est la vie.
We discussed the SAS handling of the IRA campaign. He explained that as the investigating officer in the wake of the Ballysillan killings of three IRA volunteers and a civilian from the unionist community in June 1978, one of his tasks was to examine the scene of the SAS ambush. The morning after the killings as ‘the sun was just starting to rise’ he began his inspection. He disclosed that he found powder burns in the neck area of one of the IRA dead. He thought the body was that of IRA Volunteer Jackie Mailie but was no longer certain. The soldiers responsible told him they had shot the unarmed volunteer while he was running from the scene in the course of trying to escape. Fairweather told me that he had dismissed their explanation as rubbish: ‘you gave him the coup de grace.’ He claimed deployment of the SAS was prohibited in Belfast for two years after that, although given the regiment’s supposed involvement in preventing a major IRA bombing operation moving out of East Belfast in 1979, it seems the ban did not last.
He estimated that in total the SAS killed around 30 people and that other fatalities were inflicted by forces trained by the regiment. This sometimes led to a belief in the omnipresence of the SAS at every killing ground, and an inflated view of its range and efficacy. Robert Nairac was a case in point: not a member of the SAS but a soldier in receipt of its specialised training. Of the latter’s demise, Fairweather’s understanding was that Nairac had actually managed to disarm one of his attackers, shooting him in the leg, but was subsequently overpowered. He added that Nairac was clubbed with a wooden post but not tortured for information. Fairweather seemed to understand the position in which the IRA found itself: “I’d have done it myself.”
He joined the British Army in the early 1960s and remained within its ranks for thirty four years, before being appointed Director of Prisons in Scotland. In that role he asserted prisoners’ rights and clashed with officialdom which sought to block the progressive reforms he advocated.
He served in Ballymurphy in 1970 and claimed to have known Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, then a local IRA commander, who he rated highly. He said Adams had no equal. At the time of the La Mon bombing eight years later it was his belief that Adams had ordered it and that his first instinct was to kill him. I asked was Adams therefore arrested to protect him from the wrath of forces like the SAS, my line of inquiry being that the British had other longer term plans for the then IRA chief of staff. “I have no idea about that.”
When I asked him about the deaths of two IRA volunteers in Derry during the 1981 hunger strike, he claimed ‘the IRA never stood a chance.’ I pressed him if he was referring specifically to the killings of Volunteers Pop Maguire and George McBrearty but he said he could no longer recall the names. An eerie feeling enveloped me during this part of the exchange. I had known the brother of George quite well in prison and along with Scotchy Kearney had called to see him in his Derry home on a prison leave. And I was now talking to the man who had a major role in SAS operations against the IRA.
Fairweather felt the war was a waste. Catholics had been discriminated against but given what they were prepared to accept at the end meant that the war was not worth a single death. A view I found easy to concur with.
I recall him speaking at some length about the circumstances surrounding the shooting of Bernadette McAliskey but as my notes on that failed to survive the long journey I can no longer present with any degree of accuracy what he had to say.
He viewed Loughall, where eight IRA volunteers were shot dead by British forces, as the IRA “handing it to the SAS on a plate”. I raised with him the more seedy press allegations that one of the volunteers on the job was an informer but who was killed nonetheless. He said he had never heard of it but added contemptuously that a “dirty little man” not on the operation had played a role.
On the Gibraltar killings, he said that while no longer serving with the regiment when it occurred he had not lost the ability to be privy to some of its internal discussion or barrack room chat. He stated that the intention was not necessarily to kill the three volunteers at the location where the shooting took place. Although he pointed out that it was unlikely that the volunteers would have survived the day: the fatal end result can never be ruled out when the SAS engage. He argued that Gibraltar showed the inefficiency of the regiment rather than its efficiency. A trooper, instead of acting calmly and continue with surveillance when Dan McCann turned around, panicked and opened fire. We debated the morality of the attack against people who while IRA members were clearly unarmed. I asked him if he considered this murder. Fairweather bluntly said ‘it was not murder but it was as close to murder as can be.’ His candour was sobering.
He also dismissed the notion that the SAS were not in the North from 1969, advising me to pay no heed to the Harold Wilson claims in 1976 that he had sent the SAS in for the first time after the Kingsmill massacre. I had never heeded it in any case but it was useful to have Wilson’s sleight of hand confirmed by such a well-placed source. Surprisingly he told me that one of the regiment’s first kills was a loyalist it believed to be Captain Black of the UDA/UFF, confronted on the stairs of his home by SAS soldiers. When I inquired of him if that was because of Black’s role in targeting Catholics, I got the by now familiar blunt response. “Nothing as sophisticated as that. They killed him because they could.”
I have no way of knowing how accurate his detail was. I know only too well how memory reconfigures events and shades perspectives. As the memoirist Karl Taro Greenfield, observed, ‘A falsehood can be deposited in the brain and reinforced almost as easily as a true-life experience,’ convincing us of the accuracy of the inaccurate. “Memory is fallible.” But Fairweather seemed as far removed from bull as he was from abstinence. Crisp, curt, charming and not in the slightest antagonistic, when I later contacted him to check if I had taken down his email address correctly, his response was terse, just one word: “correct.” The chilly Edinburgh night drawing to a close, we shook hands firmly and parted company. So ended my one and only face to face exchange with Colonel Clive Fairweather in which alcohol was no bar to a sober exchange.