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.

Sean Harnett was involved in thwarting a murder attempt on loyalist leader Johnny Adair, above
Sean Harnett was involved in thwarting a murder attempt on loyalist leader Johnny Adair, above

Tip-off on attempted hit on Adair

In the summer of 2002, Seán Hartnett and other members of North Det were asked to assist their East Det counterparts in Belfast in an operation involving loyalist leader Johnny Adair.

East Det had acquired intelligence that an attempt was to be made, on the orders of other commanders in the UDA, on Adair’s life.

“The hit was to be carried out by two of the UDA’s most experienced hitmen.”

East Det knew they would travel on a motorbike and even knew when and where: As Adair walked to school with his daughter, aged 8.

“Word had come down that the risk to the little girl and her schoolmates was unacceptable and so East Det was instructed to intervene.”

But they didn’t know where the bike was coming from.

A “hard stop” — smashing into the motorbike and subduing the assassins — was ruled out as it would reveal prior knowledge of the attack, compromising their sources.

“We would put in a controlled crash and make it look like a normal everyday accident.”

A network of overt cameras and operator vehicles around the school were put in place as well as eyes on Adair’s front door.

The crash vehicle was being driven by an operator with two heavily-armed operators in the back if the UDA men decided to fight.

When the motorbike was spotted, the van picked up their route: “As the motorbike rounded the next corner he [driver] accelerated from behind and clipped the rear wheel.”

The bike spun and hit the ground and, as predicted, the men ran away.

Seán writes that the explanation for the operation — to protect the girl — didn’t wash.

“There was only one plausible explanation. Adair himself claimed he had been getting information from both British Intelligence and Special Branch on Republican targets for years, and we all knew that was a two-way street. It was suspected by all at East Det that Adair must surely have also been providing information on his own organisation to the security services.”

— Cormac O’Keeffe

The hunt for Charlie One

John Paul Hannan was a member of a Louth-Fermanagh Real IRA unit wanted for a bombing campaign in London and Birmingham in 2001.

Hannan was moving from safe house to safe house, mostly in the Republic, but was suspected of occasionally visiting relatives just across the border in Newtownbutler, Co Fermanagh.

He was Charlie One — the chief target of the operation.

At their briefing, Seán Hartnett and others were told they may have to stray over into the Republic to maintain surveillance.

“It wouldn’t be an accidental incursion, which often happened, but a pre-planned infringement of heavily armed undercover soldiers into the Republic,” Seán writes.

Seán ensured the main operator’s vehicle — a typical plumber’s van — was fitted with four working cameras and fitted the various “amnesia” vehicles (seemingly empty vehicles which looked like they had been just abandoned).

These vehicles actually had an operator in a narrow concealed compartment who used a camera looking out an opaque licence plate.

Seán also rigged thermal imaging cameras given the rural location of the house in case Hannan approached by night.

Over the next 48 hours, surveillance vehicles were swapped around.

Unexpectedly, Hannan arrived not by foot, but by car. By the time the units scrambled, he was inside the house.

The Det used a forced entry, battering rams entering the front and back doors simultaneously.

“It was all over in 30 seconds, without a shot being fired, a textbook operation from start to finish.”

The PSNI entered and The Det moved out.

When the news later broke, it said Hannan was arrested by the PSNI.

“I smiled to myself, knowing who had actually come knocking on his door that day,” writes Seán.

Hannan was convicted in a London court on bombing charges.

— Cormac O’Keeffe

The Det left wrongfooted, with a civilian killed

In July 2002, The Det was targeting a Derry/Strabane Real IRA cell, led by a former Provo — the ‘Charlie One’ of the operation.

They had intelligence that a white Vauxhall Cavalier was the transport vehicle for a bomb.

The first job was to get a tracking device on the vehicle.

The Provos moved the Cavalier a number of times in counter-surveillance, and eventually parked it in the Republic.

One day it was moved towards Derry and parked on a road, where it was joined by a second vehicle and parked boot to boot with men crowded all around it. The second car went north, with Charlie One on board, and the Cavalier went south-east towards Armagh.

They decided to follow the Cavalier. When that car eventually ended up in Louth, they directed all resources to find the other car.

Later they heard that a civilian worker and former UDR soldier David Caldwell picked up a lunchbox when he arrived for work at Caw Camp Territorial Army on Limavady Rd. The box contained a booby-trapped bomb which exploded, fatally wounding him. North Det uncovered that the lunchbox had been transferred from the Vauxhall into the second vehicle.

“North Det had been wrong-footed,” Sean Hartnett writes.

He said Mr Caldwell’s family have been looking for a full enquiry: “Until now, no one had any knowledge of North Det’s involvement. David Caldwell’s daughter, Gilligan McFaul, has been looking for answers ever since that day. I hope this provides some.”

— Cormac O’Keeffe

  • Charlie One is published by Merrion Press


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