Robert Nairac and the planning of an execution

Following on from last month’s column on the Miami Showband Massacre, Shane Daly shares more on involvement of the soldier with the ‘educated English accent’, Captain Robert Nairac.

“When it awarded him The George Cross, was Buckingham Palace aware that Captain Robert Nairac was named, in an official Ministry of Defence document, as having been ‘involved in the planning and execution of The Miami Showband murders’ or was the palace misled by the government?” – Stephen Travers

Robert Nairac in his Grenadier Guards uniform. Source:Wikipedia

Robert Nairac was known by several different aliases, depending on the company he kept: To the republican community and the IRA, he was known as Danny McErlaine or ‘Danny Boy’. To the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), a subset of the British Army, he was known as Charlie McDonald. Loyalists consisted of a large number of the UDR’s membership, which is an important point to note. To the Loyalists in Ardoyne, he was known as Charles Johnson. He is also known to have swapped between accents, again depending on who he was speaking with and whether he was on a phone call or speaking in person. After his death, three different berets were found underneath his bed in his Military quarters at Bessbrook: A fawn beret of the elite British Army force, the SAS; a feathered beret of the Argyll Highlanders, a regular regiment of the British Army stationed in Northern Ireland; as well as a black beret of the Provisional IRA. Between 1974 and his death in 1977, Nairac’s movements are shrouded in mystery. However, during that time period there have been allegations that not only was he part of some of the darkest atrocities of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, but that he led, managed and orchestrated many of them. One of the most notorious cases he is linked to, is the Miami Showband Massacre in 1975, which was covered in last month’s column. He is said to be the man at the scene who spoke with the ‘educated English accent’; the one who directed the killings of the band members on behalf of the British Army. New information has recently been uncovered that seems to corroborate these allegations.

Nairac was born in Mauritius, then a British Crown colony, to an English mother and a father of French Mauritian origin. His mother, Barbara (née Dykes) was Anglican and his father, Maurice, a Catholic, who worked as an eye surgeon. Nairac was the youngest of four children; he had two sisters and a brother. He had a devout Catholic upbringing, which is thought to be why he was able to camouflage himself so well as a spy into the republican areas of Northern Ireland. He attended Oxford university and studied medieval, as well as military history. He played rugby and was a trained boxer, receiving blues awards for his achievements in boxing whilst a student there.

Nairac’s first tour of duty in Northern Ireland was with No.1 Company, the Second Battalion of the Grenadier Guards. The Battalion was stationed in Belfast from July 5, 1973 to October 31, 1973. The Grenadiers were given responsibility first for the Protestant Shankill Road area and the predominantly Catholic Ardoyne area. This was a time of high tension and regular contact with paramilitaries. Ostensibly, the battalion’s main objectives were to search for weapons and to find paramilitaries. Nairac was frequently involved in such activity on the streets of Belfast and was a community relations activist at the Ardoyne sports club. The battalion’s tour was adjudged a success with 58 weapons, 9,000 rounds of ammunition and 693 lbs of explosives taken, and 104 men jailed. The battalion had no casualties and did not shoot anyone. After his tour ended, he stayed on as liaison officer for the replacement battalion, the First Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. On their first patrol, Nairac narrowly avoided the impact of the explosion of a car bomb on the Crumlin Road.

Rather than returning to his battalion, which was being transferred to Hong Kong, Nairac volunteered for military intelligence duties in Northern Ireland. Following the completion of several training courses, he returned to Northern Ireland in 1974, attached to Four Field Survey Troop Royal Engineers, one of the three subunits of a Special Duties unit known as 14 Intelligence Company (14 Int). Posted to South County Armagh, Four Field Survey Troop Royal Engineers was given the task of performing surveillance duties. Nairac was the liaison officer for the unit, the local British Army brigade and the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Nairac finished his tour with 14th Int in mid-1975 and returned to his regiment in London, having been promoted to Captain on September 4, 1975. Following a rise in violence culminating in the Kingsmill massacre, the British Army increased their presence in Northern Ireland and Nairac accepted a post as a liaison officer. On his fourth and final tour, Nairac was a liaison officer in Bessbrook Mill.

It’s late in the evening in the ‘Three Steps’ pub in Dromintee, County Armagh. A stranger walks into the pub and gets talking to some locals at the bar. He says he is a member of the Provisional IRA in West Belfast. He gives his name as Danny McErlaine, says he is from Ardoyne, a strictly Republican area of Belfast and that he works as a car mechanic. He mingles with the locals, speaking in an impeccable Northern Ireland accent and, at one point, he gets up on stage to sing a known republican song ‘The Broad Black Brimmer’ to an amused crowd. However, something is off. His story isn’t matching up and he starts to draw attention to himself from genuine members of the IRA.

When the stranger leaves the pub at roughly 11:45pm, he is followed out into the carpark by several members of the IRA who suspect him to be a spy. They do not know at this point that the stranger is Robert Nairac, however their suspicions are proved right. He is a spy, collecting information for the British Government. After a short scuffle, Nairac is bundled into a car and taken to a field close to the border of the Republic of Ireland. He is then tortured and beaten to within an inch of his life by the IRA man but still does not give up his name. Terry McCormick, one of the IRA, impersonates a priest in order to try and get Nairac to reveal information. He never does. Nairac’s last words to McCormick are ‘Forgive me Father for I have sinned.’ –  he is then shot in the back of the head by Liam Townson and buried.

Over the coming days, with the ensuing media frenzy for the missing British Army Intelligence officer, the IRA men realise that they have killed Captain Robert Nairac.

Terry McCormick flees to the USA, remaining there for the rest of his life, never returning to Northern Ireland. Liam Townson is found by police. He names all the other men involved: Five men from the South Armagh area. Three of them – Gerard Fearon (21), Thomas Morgan (18), and Daniel O’Rourke (33) – are charged with Nairac’s murder. Michael McCoy (20), is charged with kidnapping and Owen Rocks (22), is accused of withholding information. Fearon and Morgan are convicted of Nairac’s murder. O’Rourke is acquitted but found guilty of manslaughter and jailed for ten years. McCoy is jailed for five years and Rocks for two. Morgan dies in a road accident in 1987, a year after his release. Liam Townson is convicted of Nairac’s murder, for shooting him in the back of the head, and serves the longest sentence. He serves 13 years in jail and is released in 1990, however he never reveals where the body of Nairac is buried. Nairac remains one of the infamous ‘Disappeared’ 19 people that vanished during the Troubles. Most notable of these vanished people are Nairac and Jean McConville. McConville’s body was found in 2003, however, Nairac’s body still remains missing. Fifteen of these bodies have been found; four remain missing.

Nairic is alleged to have been involved in many terrible events during the Troubles. He was accused of taking part in the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in May 1974, as well as the Miami Showband Massacre in 1975, in which new evidence has come to light that seems to prove his guilt. A long battle for justice for three members of a popular Irish music group, Miami Showband, who were murdered during The Troubles in Northern Ireland received a huge boost in January 2020 with official confirmation that an undercover British Army soldier was involved.

Heavily redacted Ministry of Defence papers released to the lawyer for the family of one of the victims confirmed the involvement of Captain Robert Nairac. The documents back up the claims of survivors and family members, over many years, that British security force personnel were directly involved in the murders, which sent shockwaves across the island of Ireland. The papers were released to solicitor Michael Flanigan, who represents the widow of one of the murdered musicians.

The redacted documents suggest that Nairac obtained equipment and uniforms for the killers and that he bore responsibility for the planning and execution of the attack carried out by members of the notorious Glenanne Gang. Finally, there is proof of Nairac’s involvement and some closure for the victims. Stephen Travers a survivor of the attack said he was hugely disappointed to be proved right with the revelation that a British Army captain had planned the attack, which saw three of his friends lose their lives, “This was a case of the British army being involved in the planning of an execution,” he said. The documents were released to the solicitor representing Varlie Andersen, widow of Fran O’Toole, who is taking legal action against the Ministry of Defence and the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), “When I first saw it, I must have read each line at least 10 times, desperately searching for some reason to be sceptical. But the stark reality of his name on the page before me was both dreadfully sad and at the same time tremendously exciting,” said Travers.

Captain Robert Nairac has posthumously been awarded the Victoria Cross for the work he did for the British Government.

Shane Daly

Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History.

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