Sean Hartnett has penned a book that will rankle British intelligence. He talks to Cormac O’Keeffe
FOR a Corkman, coming from a republican family, Sean Hartnett took the road less travelled.
From being on the verge of joining the IRA, he enlisted in the British army and ended up working in a top-secret surveillance unit in Northern Ireland.
There, he was involved in numerous covert operations, including the successful arrest of Real IRA bomber John Paul Hannan and the thwarting of a murder attempt on loyalist leader Johnny Adair.
Now, in Charlie One, Sean has penned a fascinating insight into his work in a book that is likely to raise hackles within British intelligence.
Back in April 1995, a bored student of science in University College Cork, Sean had an appointment arranged to meet someone in the Sinn Féin offices on Barrack St to ask about joining the IRA.
“I think I was searching at the time,” he told the Irish Examiner. “I hated college and I was looking for adventure. I came from a republican family and the idea of being a freedom fighter — the romantic side of it — appealed to me.”
But, at the last second, he got cold feet. “It was a close run thing. I just bottled it and a year later I was applying to join the British Army — the complete opposite.”
In some ways, it wasn’t an unprecedented step. Though coming from a republican family, his father had served in the RAF and his mother had worked as a secretary in the defence ministry when they lived in England before returning to Cork.
His plan was to get a trade in the British army, which he could take with him if he left. He signed up as a Royal Signals technician, essentially communications, and served abroad.
On return, he heard about a communications unit in Northern Ireland that didn’t have ranks, had no uniform, and attracted extra pay.
He got the position and arrived at the Joint Communications Unit — Northern Ireland (JCU-NI) headquarters in Thiepval Barracks, Lisburn, Co Antrim.
When he introduced himself, in his strong Cork accent, to the commanding officer, he got this response: “You must be fucking kidding me.”
He said he wasn’t trusted in what was a “black ops unit” being run through a dummy unit, officially known as JCU-NI.
The section was broken up into nine subunits called special communications troops or SCTs. The real purpose of the unit, his instructor told him, was “covert surveillance and apprehension of terrorist suspects”.
Also known as The Det, it conducted operations with controversial special forces units the SAS and SBS, which had troopers attached to each of the nine SCTs.
Sean was a technician and his role involved rigging, fixing and operating the massive array of surveillance equipment, particularly radios, listening devices, and cameras. “The amount of surveillance in Northern Ireland was mind-blowing,” he said.
JCU-NI had a “vast network” of cameras across the North, using heavily encrypted fibre-optic cables, and a sophisticated radio network system.
He said they had a camera on one side of the River Foyle that had a camera pointing at Derry, which could read licence plates, day or night, some 1.8km away. “If they wanted you under surveillance you were covered. Our budget was unlimited.”
He said they had a unit that could build cameras into what looked like rocks, trees, and gate posts.
Most of the book covers Sean’s time in the most insular and remote of the units — North Det, located in Shackleton Barracks, Ballykelly, outside Derry.
The kit Sean had to work with sounds like something out of a James Bond movie.
Vehicles were fitted out with covert microphones in sun visors and operators wore almost invisible covert earpieces.
The vehicles were fitted with ‘perk plates’ — plastic explosive reactive plates — attached to the underside of the vehicle to repel unwanted people around the vehicle.
They also had armoured doors and seats, covert alarm systems, and licence plates with hidden cameras.
Operators were also given a wristwatch, which could be used as a tracker, if they were hijacked.
Surveillance vans were made to look like decorator’s vans, with tins and sheets, but made entirely of fiberglass to boost signals and could hide cameras.
The book reveals that each unit also had teams for ‘covert methods of entry’, or as Sean writes, “burglary to you and me”.
For all the successes of surveillance, Sean told the Irish Examiner it can only achieve so much.
“You hear a lot nowadays, particularly after the French and Belgium attacks, ‘He was on a list but not under surveillance’.
“To keep one person under surveillance you are talking about 40 and 60 people, between the eyes on the ground and those supporting them.”
“It’s very naive for people to say, ‘He was on a list, why wasn’t he being followed?’ because you can’t do it for all of them. It’s impossible.”
He said the Provisional IRA were viewed very differently by the unit, compared to dissidents.
“They saw the IRA as having some legitimacy. They had a structure, they were very well disciplined, they were good at counter- surveillance. There was no love there, but there was a grudging respect.
“The dissidents were criminals and filled a void with the peace process. They were living off small pockets of support and cared neither about the innocent lives they might destroy nor actually about the ‘cause’.”
Asked did he feel tarnished by the less savoury aspects of the work of British intelligence, including operations by the likes of the SAS or the Force Research Unit, Sean said: “I felt I was part of the process. When republicans and loyalists came to the table and disarmed, JCU was as much part of the peace process as anybody.
“Like it or not, British intelligence played their part, as ugly as some of it was, just like some of the actions carried out by the Provisionals and the loyalists was very ugly.”
Sean Hartnett, a pseudonym, worked for three years in JCU-NI, then left, after the work took a heavy toll.
He always had problems sleeping and leaned on alcohol to “knock himself out”. He suffered bouts of depression.
He went and got help and travelled back to his partner’s home country of South Africa.
He now works as a counter-surveillance and espionage consultant.
Sean’s choice at the diverging roads back in 1995 made all the difference.
Tip-off on attempted hit on Adair
The hunt for Charlie One
The Det left wrongfooted, with a civilian killed
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