Saturday, August 22, 2015

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Shagging And Boozing Machine

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.

15 comments :

Simon said...

Fascinating stuff! I apologise for focusing on the part about the conflict not being worth it as there was so much of interest in the article and that was just an aside.

Alternative possible historical chronologies are difficult to accurately visualise.

If the end result would have been the same without any deaths then of course it wasn't worth it. Would society necessarily have been as good or better than today?

And of course for anybody to die is a terrible thing. So many good people died. Innocent people and the uninvolved from the unborn to the very old. Combatants who are respected by so many on each side. And the hapless criminal who otherwise might have escaped punishment never mind death.

However, after the Troubles quickly got out of control, all sides had a long term strategy but day to day decisions were made with the short term in mind. So it is difficult to judge people as making right or wrong decisions (apart from sectarianism which is innately wrong) on any side as that is were circumstances placed them. And it is difficult to have foresight when you live on the short-term.

The benefit of hindsight demonstrates it most likely was internecine and counterproductive. The question of the alternative history will never be answered. But we can learn and work for our goals without resorting to violence for no other reason than less good and decent people will die.

There are other reasons to pursue peace like the spooks pulling strings in the background of any conflict and making fools of the participants. People living full lives without being imprisoned. Good relations within society. Maybe a renewed peaceful effort at working for a United Ireland in a new era will reap more benefit? No need to disregard principles when a tactical path is necessarily closed off.

I doubt Republicanism necessarily has to be violent. Violence was a means to an end since 1798. Making the inherent principles popular rather than violence may be the answer.

AM said...

Simon,

I think comments like this should always be turned out in article format. They get wider readership and are of a quality that really merit a stand alone opinion piece. Seems a waste to see them in the comments section.

Peter said...

It is alarming how much "MI5" and "SAS" have entered the republican pysche, like mythical bete noire. There can be no doubt that this seriously affected morale and recruitment. There were few SAS in the North during the conflict though every undercover operation had republicans claiming SAS involvement. I still hear republicans saying that the 2 corporals murdered at the funeral were SAS. Tasking and Control Groups (TCG) ran undercover ops and were made up of soldiers mostly from 14 INT (The Det) and RUC E4 and SSU. There were SAS on secondment inside The Det and all TCG were in part trained by the SAS, but the amount of actually "badged" SAS would have been minimal.
I was rather hoping that you would have asked the Colonel about the Cappagh ambush in March 1990. Republicans again claim that they ambushed and killed two SAS men. I very much doubt that an SAS kill team would lose a firefight at close quarters and reckon it was a Det unit from TCG. But as the British still deny anything happened it would have been interesting to get more info on that one.
TCG's drinking exploits were legendary at that time, how they were able to function is a mystery. SAS drunkeness has been well known since the exploits of Paddy Mayne in WW2.

Henry JoY said...

Interesting vignette Anthony ... one of those revealing and unexpected socially lubricated encounters that goes on to glide surprisingly smoothly through uncharted waters.


Simon,
thought-provoking questions and commentary.
To whatever small degree that I aspire to or adhere to republican principles it is in their most basic tenets ... freedom, fraternity and equality.

The first and essential freedom for all sane people is the freedom to go about our daily lives without unnecessary risk of death or injury. If we claim that for ourselves and our nearest and dearest then we must take every reasonable step possible to grant freedom from violent threat to others too. Implicit in fulfilling our 'need' for freedom from physical injury will of necessity sometimes require curtailment of our 'wants', desires and aspirations.
There's no avoiding such existential trades. Those who deny such reciprocal laws are doomed to reap what they sow.

Its not just that the hallowed ideal of a united Ireland, at least as defined in the 1916 Proclamation, has for the most part gone sour ... its more as if, especially in the current context, its gone rancid. Not only has it gone rancid ... worse, it contains toxic and deadly pathogens.

Its way beyond time that those who adhere to '1916' figured that out. They have been handed down the wrong map. Intelligent people are not going to led by guides who are working from the wrong (outdated & inaccurate) map.

Do something radical lads; burn the old maps, I say, engage Unionists and Loyalists and begin again with a completely blank sheet.

DaithiD said...

Strange that you have kinder words for him than some of your former colleagues, but that aside, very honorable to sit on it until he died.

Simon said...

AM, sorry about that. Your article was very interesting and I was motivated to respond. I sort of knew it mightn't have been the best place to comment. I just started writing without being conscious that it might be out out of place.

Henry JoY, "To whatever small degree that I aspire to or adhere to republican principles it is in their most basic tenets ... freedom, fraternity and equality."

I think that has to be the starting point as those three tenets are the bottom line and also the foundation of Republicanism. Many people from different viewpoints share these principles as a bottom line and that is maybe where making it universal, popular and motivational can change things quicker than violence.

A large popular movement could work on these principles which are no-brainers as principles go.

The arguments in favour of economies of scale in a United Ireland are also no-brainers.

Obviously economies of scale would be stronger in a United Kingdom that encompasses both Britain and Ireland but the democratic deficit that would occur due to population differences between the two islands and vested interests would negate any benefit.

Britain would in the long term save money after the block grant is phased out perhaps also with Ireland getting support from Europe. Providing for stability would be in Europe's interest and in the long term the benefits of a single economic, social and infrastructural system would be of everyone's benefit.

There also has to be some acknowledgement of people's sense of Britishness but I would stop short of the Commonwealth due to its colonial beginnings and link to hereditary entitlement.

Peace, liberty, equality and a powerful economy under a social democratic government. Individuals looked after with universal health and education free at point of delivery and a keen environmental and energy policy. I may be veering into idealism at the end but if we work on the premise that most people aspire to the basic tenets above then why not?

Cue Bono said...

Anthony,

A fascinating encounter. I've seen photographs of the SAS in uniform and driving landrovers with twin mounted machine guns here in 1969. The caption said they were there to prevent the importation of weapons. I'll come back later to this as "The War of the Three Kings" is on shortly (I'm a history beard), but was the conversation all one way? Did you get any sense at all that he was probing you for information?

Henry JoY said...

Simon

absolutely no argument there about economies of scale. However as its now mandated there will be no up-scaling without consent of a majority within the smaller state.

I don't know whether to characterise your afterthoughts about 'some acknowledgement of people's sense of Britishness' as touching or lamentable. They are though indicative of many northern CRNs inability to really grasp current realities. Its, as I mentioned elsewhere, like O'Connell and O'Bradaigh's Éire Nua, a consolation sop to Unionism if they'd only just capitulate. There's absolutely no evidence of that capitulation happening any-time soon. Unionists might reasonably argue that there's a parity between increased acceptance in the Northern state of Gaelicisation and any proposal to create mechanisms for retention of Britishness. The likes of such proposals won't fast-track the road to unification.

If there is a path to unification, and that's a big if, it will only come about if that's the wish of a northern majority. A majority will only do that if they see it as something that's in their self-interest and if they are re-assured that there's no unpleasant downside. All that will require another generation or two of trust building. Embracing those core tenets of freedom, fraternity and equality will be essential in facilitating the development of trust.

AM said...

Peter,

there are lots of things that I wished later I had brought up but as said in the piece c'est la vie. It was so unstructured.

DaithiD,

it is not that strange. I think it is probably a common enough feature. Familiarity breeding ...! The tendency to feel less aggrieved or let down by those who oppose us than by those who shaft us is hardly mine alone!!

Cue Bono,

it was driven by my inquisitiveness rather than his. I think he liked the idea of the exchange with someone from my background but he wasn't fishing. I would have sensed that right away and felt a sense of guardedness kicking in which didn't happen. He did not make me feel uneasy. When I interviewed the former head of Belfast Special Branch for The Blanket, Bill Lowry, over a decade ago, I wrote after it "He showed not the slightest inclination towards picking my brain for illicit nuggets". It was the same with Clive Fairweather.

That was my take on it

Simon said...

Henry JoY,"a consolation sop to Unionism if they'd only just capitulate."

I don't see it as that. If there was a United Ireland even with some transitional stages along the way a large proportion of the people on the island would still see themselves as British and that has to be recognised. No matter how a United Ireland comes about and when, you can't ignore the feeling of Britishness of a significant section of the population.

As you say this all may be moot but not necessarily so. Not any time soon I suppose but that doesn't mean it's a sop but a recognition of demographics if anything did change.

DaithiD said...

AM, understood. Fairweathers friend, not fairweather friends.

AM said...

DaithiD,

LOL

the type of experience we are much better for having than not. I have seen Shinners literally run out of the bar when we came in to register their resentment that we could possible disagree with them. They would rather throw a pint in your face (if you were daft enough) than buy you one. Look at them now. At the same time we could have a boozing session with Shinners and craic: argue the toss but not fall out on a personal level. You will find if you are at a conference with Shinners when they are out of sight of the thought police, they can be very considerate and compassionate. Two of the people I am pretty close to at the minute in personal terms are Shinners. Help you out at the drop of a hat. So things are never that cut and dried.

Niall said...

AM,
Enjoyed that. As you are aware I also have witnessed such frank and open discussions with ex British MOD personnel of which some of them served here. They were never reluctant to speak about their activities and would talk for hours about their days in the forces...unlike yourself though, I was and still am, an unknown entity to them but they never ever thought for one minute 'who is this guy' or even to be more candid, I don't think they cared who I was or was not!

Cue Bono said...

Anthony,

I think that is a very good indication that he was well out of the game by the time you came to be speaking to him. He certainly sounds like he would make for a good evening's conversation. I'll share a couple of anecdotes which I can't verify as they were picked up third or fourth hand in similar drunken circumstances.

One involves Loughall where one of the Provos apparently tried to run off up the road when the shooting started. Apparently at a gateway leading into a field he encountered another masked man toting an Armalite. He told him to "Run it's an ambush." To which the other replied, "Wrong answer mate." and shot him dead.

The other involves two Provos who were rammed off their motorbike when they were on their way to murder an off duty policeman or soldier. When the plain clothed soldiers (14 Int I think) approached them they found one was still alive. Apparently they took off his motorbike helmet and shot him in the head before putting the helmet back on again.

Both these stories may be bullshit, but they would certainly tie in with what Fairweather was talking about.

marty said...

As Simon said "fascinating stuff"Anthony,would have paid for the nights drink to be in that company, it tallies with most of the meetings that I have had with ex service personnel in my trips to Scotland,the main difference my drinking partners were usually just the foot soldiers,interesting man was mr Fairweather and someone who could have contributed to the healing process here simply through his honesty, really enjoyed that post a cara almost as much as you would have enjoyed that conversation