John Stalker
John Stalker; drawing by David Levine

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. 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.”

After a great deal of bureaucratic infighting Stalker seemed to have won his battle for the tape. Hermon was ordered to surrender it to him. Three days before he was due to fly to Belfast to collect it, in May 1986, Stalker was removed from the case. His interim report, which strongly implicated two very senior RUC officers in conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, had been in Hermon’s hands for seven months, since September 18, 1985. No action was taken on it. Stalker was informed that allegations had been made against him that might result in disciplinary charges. He now, he was told, had to be concerned about his own situation.

The decision was Anderton’s. The charges, of which Stalker was not immediately informed, were to be investigated by a senior police officer from another force, Colin Sampson, chief constable of West Yorkshire. This was normal procedure; Stalker had carried out such an inquiry himself, and taken satisfaction in seeing a corrupt officer sentenced to six years. At the same time Sampson was assigned to complete Stalker’s Northern Ireland investigations. This piece of double casting had, to say the very least, dubious implications. Stalker was quick to conclude that the charges against him had been drummed up in order to silence him at the moment when his investigation into the RUC was moving toward the kill. He was preparing—as he later revealed—to interview “under caution” (i.e., as suspects)—some very senior RUC officers, including, probably, the chief constable of the RUC himself.


Stalker, or so he says, had no idea what it was he was being accused of. At his first, strained interview with Sampson (May 29) all he learned (he says) is that the allegations amounted “only to rumour, innuendo and gossip about [his] association with people in Manchester.” What associations, asked Stalker? Sampson would not say.

Stalker might have guessed. His account of these events is disingenuous. He must surely have known that the problem was his association with Kevin Taylor, a self-made Manchester businessman of some flamboyance. By May 1986 Stalker had known Taylor for about thirteen years. He describes him in the book as “a man with no criminal convictions whatsoever, nor has he ever in his life been accused of any wrongdoing.” That is (or was) accurate but, nevertheless, somewhat misleading. Stalker knew that Taylor kept some criminal company, if only at his poker table. He knew that he was under police investigation, for Taylor had told him so in September 1985. The following month this had been confirmed by senior CID officers under his own command.2

Stalker’s version of these matters needs to be compared with the account of his conversations at the time with a local newspaper editor, Michael Unger of the Manchester Evening News.3 For example, he told Unger on June 19 that Taylor used to call him about twice a week. In the book he tells us that they met “about six times a year.” He makes no mention of the calls. According to Unger, who is far from hostile to Stalker, Taylor had been “going round openly boasting that he has Stalker in his pocket and he will prove this by ringing Stalker up at police headquarters on his private line.”

On May 9 (nine days before Stalker was told he was under suspicion) Taylor’s house and offices had been raided by Manchester CID. Photographs of Taylor with Stalker and his wife were among the items removed, and the photographs led Anderton to suspend Stalker. The pictures had been taken at Taylor’s fiftieth birthday party in January 1982, at which, it turned out, some dubious characters had been present, including a few with criminal convictions. Stalker had spent a nine-day holiday on Taylor’s yacht off Florida the previous month.

Stalker insists that the police interest in Taylor, and in his connections with Stalker, correlated with the delivery of his interim report to Hermon in September 1985 and his proximity to the Hayshed tape in April–May 1986. However, according to Sampson’s report on Stalker (which was leaked to newspapers in July 1986) internal police inquiries into the deputy chief constable had begun, on Anderton’s orders, in July 1984, shortly after Stalker had embarked upon his own RUC investigation. A conversation on a golf course had alerted the head of Manchester CID to Stalker’s association with Taylor. Taylor had been under investigation since September 1985.

Why were Taylor’s house and office first raided just ten days before Stalker was to meet Hermon to collect the tape? Why did Anderton, “Uncle Jim” to Stalker’s children, not warn him in friendly fashion about his association with Taylor? That Stalker had any improper connections with Taylor was never shown. He had, for instance, paid his share of the Florida vacation, and no evidence was produced that he had done Taylor any favors. In the end, all that could be proved against Stalker was ten cases involving minor misuse of his official car for private business. He was reinstated. Why was he not reinstated to his RUC inquiry?

What one makes of this tangle may depend on how many movies by Costa-Gavras one has seen. If we are looking for a “citizen above suspicion,” Anderton, “God’s cop,” as he was called, who believed that it was by the will of God that he was chief constable of Greater Manchester, seems typecast for the role. It makes a good story for the honest policeman to be called off the case—framed—just at the moment he is about to expose crimes in high places. This, certainly, was how it looked. It has remained the fashionable view of the “Stalker Affair” in Britain, encouraged by Stalker. The question is not whether Stalker’s association with Taylor was criminal, improper, or simply ill-advised. Stalker, from his book, sounds like a straight police officer, and that is the general view one hears from British police and Manchester journalists. CID men are accustomed to rub shoulders with crooks; it is part of their trade and Stalker knew the rules. He was hardly in a position to do favors for Taylor, even if he had wished, if only because their friendly relations were well known in Manchester.

Nevertheless, the circumstantial evidence laid before Anderton was of the kind a chief constable could not easily do nothing about. Anderton, in any case, was in a very peculiar state of mind by then. He was on the road from fundamental Methodism to Roman Catholicism and would later proclaim himself a “Prophet of God.” He had claimed to have spoken God’s words for him at a seminar on AIDS when describing homosexuals, prostitutes, and drug addicts as “swirling around in a cesspit of their own making.” But what would Stalker himself have done if confronted with a similar dossier on a very senior colleague? Would not the detective have followed the lead, wherever it might end, just as he did in Northern Ireland?

To be sure there were plenty who would have liked to get rid of Stalker. Hermon was one. The investigation had been forced on the RUC in the first place. But the director of public prosecutions in Northern Ireland, Sir Barry Shaw, had ordered Hermon to hand over the Hayshed tape; and the tape would only clinch the already convincing contents of Stalker’s interim report that was by then in the DPP’s hands. Stalker claims that it was by cabinet decision that he was removed when he was. Why should the government want Stalker called off at that stage? His sudden removal from the case turned out to be a great embarrassment. It fueled suspicion that an elaborate cover-up was going on. In any case, Sampson, known as a straight man, would have to continue Stalker’s inquiry.

These are intriguing matters but not the most important question raised by The Stalker Affair. Stalker had, effectively, blown the whistle on the RUC Special Squads when the whistle, unfairly, was blown on him. His verdict at the end of the book is that in Northern Ireland there was “a police inclination, if not a policy, to shoot suspects dead without warning rather than to arrest them.” That seems true beyond reasonable doubt, or at least was true in Belfast in 1982. It poses the question, which Stalker the detective only touches on, of whether the rule of law can be reconciled with the fight against terrorism in Northern Ireland. To describe the province of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom, reinforced by the will of the majority of its people, is to state the constitutional position but not to describe the reality of it. Northern Ireland is like no other part of the United Kingdom. Emergency laws are in force, trial by jury is suspended, murder is a daily occurrence, the police are permanently armed and have a paramilitary role. The security forces—army and police—are engaged in what their opponents regard as war. Some argue—Conor Cruise O’Brien is one—that we should abandon the pretense that we (by “we” he means the Republic of Ireland and Britain) are not at war with IRA terrorism. The enemies of civilized society cannot be fought effectively according to the rules of civilized societies.

Others, including most people with liberal opinions, cling to the rule of law in all circumstances. To do otherwise is to concede the moral high ground to the enemies of democracy. I lean to the second view, and certainly do not condone the summary execution of known or suspected terrorists. It seems to me that a democratic society must cling to values that it cannot always act upon and, conversely, in extremis, may sometimes have to act outside its rules. There must always be those like Stalker, the detective, ready to venture into cases that have been covered up, in order to establish the truth. But no one reading his book can conclude that the questions it raises are simple or easy to answer. Like a good detective story it ends in some moral ambiguity.

Stalker was reinstated on August 22, 1986, but Anderton thereafter froze his deputy out, refusing at times even to see him. Nor did Stalker forgive Anderton for failing to support him. Stalker resigned from the force in March 1987, after thirty years of service. He has written for British newspapers and says in his book, “I have come to regard myself as a writer-journalist who used to be a policeman.” On January 25, 1988, the attorney general told the House of Commons that the director of public prosecutions in Northern Ireland had advised him—on the basis of the Stalker-Sampson reports—that there was sufficient evidence for prosecuting officers of the RUC for perverting, or attempting or conspiring to pervert, the course of justice in relation to the 1982 shootings. However, the attorney announced, he had looked further into the matter with regard to “the public interest and, in particular, considerations of national security” and concluded that “it would not be proper to initiate any criminal proceedings.” Three days later an internal disciplinary inquiry into the conduct of the RUC officers was announced. Its findings are awaited. Meanwhile, on March 6 three IRA terrorists, who were not armed, were shot dead by British SAS men on the Rock of Gibralter.

This Issue

July 21, 1988