The Stalker Affair
Two stories unwind together: police murders in Northern Ireland; the ruin of a distinguished policeman’s career. A question posed by John Stalker’s fascinating but, in the end, baffling book is whether the two stories are connected by an official conspiracy.
In March 1984 John Stalker took up his duties as deputy chief constable of Greater Manchester, which is the largest English police force outside London. He was forty-four, a success in his work since the day he joined the police as a teen-ager in 1958, having at first hoped to be a journalist. The most important fact about Stalker is that throughout his career he had been a detective, a plainclothes man of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). The CID has its own ethos and camaraderie, less formal and hierarchical than the uniformed branch. Stalker was a “street cop” and avoided being behind a desk until he was forty, when he was promoted to assistant chief constable in Manchester.
The chief constable, James Anderton, was a very different kind of policeman, the converse of Stalker. Brought up the son of a miner, Anderton had yearned for a uniform in the way poor working-class boys used to do. He had a neat administrator’s mind and a fundamentalist Christian’s view of good and evil. He was a disciplinarian. He disliked the way the CID men went around in jeans and T-shirts, not shaving properly in the mornings.
Anderton and Stalker had come up together in the Manchester force. Stalker was the younger man by a few years. When he first met him Anderton was a twenty-four-year-old constable. By the age of forty-four he was chief constable, an astonishing achievement. The British police force has no officer class; all “coppers” start on the beat. Stalker watched how the ambitious miner’s son, on becoming inspector, “lost his homely Lancashire accent and dropped the name ‘Cyril’ from his signature.” But on becoming chief constable the young Jim Anderton reappeared. “The accent returned as quickly as it had left, and Wigan’s Rugby League results became important once again.” Stalker, the journalist manqué, gives exactly the flavor of the social world of the policemen, a world of class ambivalence but rigid hierarchy.
Stalker too had flown high. At thirty-eight he had reached the top of the detective’s profession. He took courses, six months at the Police Staff College and, later, a year at the Royal College of Defence Studies, which took him to Latin America and introduced him to the political and military aspects of policing. He was becoming an intellectual policeman. A detective with his background seemed ideally qualified for the task he was given in May 1984, only weeks after he had sat down behind his desk to be Anderton’s deputy. The task was to go to Belfast to inquire into the activities of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) with respect to the shooting of suspects in the province two years previously.
In that year six unarmed men had died from police bullets while another had been seriously wounded. The RUC was increasingly suspected of following a “shoot to kill” policy. Just before Stalker was appointed a Belfast police constable, charged with the murder of one of the six, had been acquitted. At his trial the officer had testified that he, and other officers, had been ordered to tell lies about what had happened for the purpose of protecting informants. Stalker’s assignment was to uncover the truth. He accepted it.
Should he have seen from the beginning that it was a near-impossible task? Who wanted to know the truth? Surely not the RUC. Stalker knew that as a senior officer from the mainland he would have no powers in Northern Ireland. He also knew that the chief constable of the RUC, Sir John Hermon, who had appointed him and was setting the terms of his inquiry, was doing so under duress. All chief constables try to look after their own forces but, in Hermon’s case, there was more than local patriotism involved. Hermon, not unreasonably, saw his force at war against terrorism. He had lost some two hundred of his men to IRA bullets. He took the security of his undercover forces to be an overriding consideration.
Stalker tells us that he had “thought long and hard” about the special problems of policing in Northern Ireland. Was it right, he had wondered, to regard members of the RUC Special Squad as policemen? Were they not, in truth, “soldiers in a police uniform? Was it not more sensible to think of them as being at war?” But he had little difficulty, he goes on, in concluding that Northern Ireland was “part of the United Kingdom, its laws are our laws, and what happens there should concern us all because it happens in our name.”
Stalker soon found that, although appointed by the chief of the RUC to get to the bottom of the 1982 incidents, he could not rely on the cooperation of the RUC in carrying out this task. “It became obvious that we could not trust anyone,” he writes, “and I quickly grasped the meaning of Sir John Hermon’s description of living in a jungle.” Stalker and his handpicked team were investigating three incidents:
On November 11, 1982, Eugene Toman, Sean Burns, and Gervaise McKerr were shot dead in Tullygally East Road, Lurgan, a Belfast suburb. The official story was that a police officer on foot, accompanied by a colleague, had tried to stop a Ford Escort car for a routine check by standing in its path and flashing his torch. The driver had accelerated past the officer, striking him. A patrol car, conveniently nearby, had given chase. The officers in the car believed themselves under fire and returned it. The three men in the Ford Escort died instantly from gunshot wounds. The truth, Stalker discovered, was that the men in the car had been named by an informer as implicated in the murder by land mine of three RUC officers at Kinnego, Lurgan, two weeks previously. They had been under surveillance for hours. They were gunned down with 108 rounds fired from Sterling submachine guns, Ruger rifles, and a handgun during a pursuit over more than a quarter of a mile. None of the men was armed.
On November 24, 1982, Michael Tighe (seventeen) was shot dead, and Martin McCauley (nineteen) seriously injured, in a barn on the outskirts of a suburban Belfast housing estate that was regarded as a nationalist stronghold. The official story was that several policemen on routine patrol had seen a man enter the barn carrying a rifle. Running toward it they had heard the sound of a weapon being cocked. A warning was shouted. Tighe and McCauley were discovered pointing weapons at the police officers who mowed them down with heavy fire. At McCauley’s trial in February 1985 the police altered their story. No one had been seen entering the barn with a rifle. Lies had been concocted, they admitted, to protect the identity of an informer. But they stuck to their version of what had happened when they reached the barn.
Stalker never established what exactly had taken place in this incident—known as the Hayshed Affair—for a reason that was to become important for the second part of his story. The ramshackle hayshed, it seems, was a favorite spot for sexual intercourse. Tighe, not long before the night in question, had rolled in the hay there with the Protestant daughter of an RUC man.1 But the hayshed was also used as a store for IRA explosives. For this reason it had been under surveillance. Explosives from the barn had killed the three RUC officers at Kinnego. On the night of November 24, when Tighe and McCauley had wandered, perhaps to see if any fun was going on there, the British Security Service, MI5, had the place bugged. Stalker again and again demanded the tape that would have established the facts of the incident. He never succeeded in obtaining it. But we know that Tighe and McCauley had been “armed” only with three antique rifles, two of them unusable, none of them loaded. Indeed they had no ammunition.
On December 12, 1982, Roddy Carroll and Seamus Grew were shot dead in Armagh City. The police story was that they had broken through a random police block, injuring an officer. The truth again was that the shootings had come at the end of a long surveillance. The two men were suspected to be associates of Dominic McGlinchey, at that time top of the most-wanted list of IRA terrorists. They had been pursued (illegally) across the border to the Irish Republic. As they recrossed it, they eluded an army-police roadblock. The undercover RUC officer, who had been following, panicked and gave hot pursuit. He picked up an armed constable, John Robinson. Together they caught up with the vehicle at a Catholic housing development on the outskirts of Armagh. Robinson emptied his revolver into Grew and Carroll, reloaded, and fired more shots at them.
Meticulous detective that he was, Stalker was shocked at the failure of the CID to investigate these incidents in a proper manner. Rules for the “preservation of evidence” were blatantly ignored in all three cases. At his trial for the murder of Grew, Robinson, who was acquitted, told how he was spirited from the scene, together with his gun, uniform, and car, before the CID had arrived. Later he was ordered to tell a false story to protect an official government source. Stalker could see a pattern emerging. All of the killings had the mark of pre-planned operations in which the suspected terrorists had been fingered by informers. He suspected the same informer to have been at work in two of the three cases. He was never allowed to discover his identity but, from records he did see, he knew that he was “very active, and in return was receiving large amounts of money indeed.” In the “Hayshed Affair” Stalker suspected the informer to have acted also as agent provocateur. What were three old, useless rifles doing there?
Stalker’s battle with Hermon for the Hayshed tape extended over eighteen months. We may surmise that the tape would have done no more than confirm the conclusions he reached in the other cases, namely that the police had conspired to protect their informants. The tape would have revealed exactly what happened in the barn. Hermon’s view (according to Stalker) was that officers engaged in dangerous undercover anti-terrorist operations should be exempt from external inquiries of the kind Stalker was conducting. Stalker was not prepared to subordinate the rule of law to that claim.
He was particularly upset by the killing of the seventeen-year-old boy, Tighe, who had no known political associations. He saw this as “the act of a Central American assassination squad—truly of a police force out of control.”
Michael Prince, God's Cop: The Biography of James Anderton (London: Century Hutchinson, 1988), p. 108f.↩
Michael Prince, God’s Cop: The Biography of James Anderton (London: Century Hutchinson, 1988), p. 108f.↩