True Spies Episode 34: The Irishman
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
This is True Spies Episode 34: The Irishman.
SEAN HARTNETT: [We] used to say that the British won the intelligence war. They mightn't have won the actual war, but they won the intelligence war. There wasn't a single member of the Provisional movement, the Continuity IRA, the Real IRA or any Loyalists that they didn't know about.
NARRATOR: Ever get the feeling you’re being watched? That prickle on the back of your neck?
SEAN HARTNETT: They had cameras that could read a license plate from 1.8 km (1.1 miles) away and day or night, it didn't matter.
NARRATOR: Relax. You’re probably imagining things. Aren’t you?
SEAN HARTNETT: But this is 2020 now, and I dread to think what the technology, what the surveillance capabilities are of units like the Det, MI5, MI6.
NARRATOR: Today, the business of spying is for the most part pretty hands-off. But you already know that. You’ve seen it on the news. You’ve read those troubling exposés about compromised cell phones, hacked emails, and long-range satellite imaging. In movies, you’ve seen characters like Jason Bourne live dangerous lives on the run, constantly monitored by the all-seeing eye of video surveillance. You’ve listened to True Spies and chances are you shrug it off. Nothing to hide, nothing to fear after all. And if you really wanted to, you’d know how to disappear. Right? This week’s True Spy knows better.
SEAN HARTNETT: I always said that the military is always two decades ahead of everybody else.
NARRATOR: He was part of an organization responsible for establishing total surveillance in one of the British Army’s most controversial battlegrounds. He had eyes everywhere and he didn’t officially exist.
SEAN HARTNETT: My name is Sean Hartnett. I worked as a surveillance and specialist covert and overt surveillance technician with Joint Communications Unit Northern Ireland, probably better known as the Det or 14 INT. Amongst those who worked there, it was just known as JCU-NI. And I worked there from 2001 till into 2004.
NARRATOR: Between the late 1960s and the turn of the millennium Northern Ireland was a battleground. Irish Republican paramilitaries who wanted to break away from the UK waged a bloody campaign of guerrilla warfare against the British Army and their loyalist supporters, as well as civilian targets. This conflict was known as ‘The Troubles’. For more information, listen to Episode 31 of True Spies Blood on the Waterside. During those three decades, technology advanced at a phenomenal pace. Think about it this way: The Troubles began in the year of the moon landings. They ended the year Google was founded. That was also the year that Sean Hartnett began his training as a radio technician for the Royal Corps of Signals, a regiment of the British Army that specializes in electronic warfare.
SEAN HARTNETT: So I started training in September 1998. It was just on the cusp of the Good Friday Agreement. And I suppose at that time there was that sense of elation as well you know that, finally, it was going to be over.
NARRATOR: In 1998, the mood had been optimistic. The Provisional IRA, the largest and most deadly Republican paramilitary group, had agreed to a lasting ceasefire. New channels of communication were opened between the North and the Republic of Ireland. Politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea celebrated a rare victory for diplomacy.
SEAN HARTNETT: Little did they know that conflict would continue because you'd have splinter groups. I don't think they fully appreciated that at the time, certainly not within mainstream politics. I know within the intelligence community, which I later learned, they were fully prepared. They knew that there was going to be splinter groups on both sides, Loyalist and Republican.
NARRATOR: Sean Hartnett deployed to Northern Ireland in 2001 a few years after that uneasy peace had been established in the region. If the accent hadn’t already given it away, Sean’s a native of Cork, in the Republic of Ireland. He’s also a Catholic so why join the British Army? Well, it’s not as uncommon as you might think.
SEAN HARTNETT: We had a strong history of military service within the UK military, the British military. My father had served in the RAF. My grandfather had served in the British Army. I had several cousins serving in the British forces.
NARRATOR: But Sean’s family history was… let’s say, complex.
SEAN HARTNETT: On the other side of that, I had family who were, who had been members of the Provisional IRA.
NARRATOR: We know which side Sean chose. But that’s not to say that it was a cut-and-dried decision. As a young man studying science at the University of Cork, he came close to choosing a very different path.
SEAN HARTNETT: So I got this notion in my late teens that I would sign up, that I would kind of get involved with the Provisional movement. So there was a Sinn Féin office not far from a pub we used to drink in, Nancy Spains in Cork City. So I did a bit of snooping around and I got the name of a senior Sinn Féin figure living not far from Cork City in a little town called Cobh.
NARRATOR: Sinn Féin was the political arm of the Republican movement. Sean was considering joining the IRA, a designated terrorist organization with strong links to the party. If anyone could help Sean along this path, it was them.
SEAN HARTNETT: And I'd arranged to meet them one Sunday morning.
NARRATOR: But the night before the meeting was supposed to take place, Sean had a life-changing epiphany.
SEAN HARTNETT: All of a sudden the penny dropped. I'm 19, 20 years old, and I got this notion into my head to join - probably at the time - the most notorious terrorist organization in the world, and I bottled it, and I didn't go. Now, had I gone, my life would have taken a very, very different path.
NARRATOR: During his career, Sean made several decisions that he’d come to regret. This wasn’t one of them.
SEAN HARTNETT: I either would have ended up in a grave, or behind bars, one or the other.
NARRATOR: After leaving university, he entered a period of aimlessness that will be familiar to most recent graduates. He needed to shake things up, get out there, see the world. The British Army could do that for him.
SEAN HARTNETT: So the Irish Defense Forces or the Irish army at that time, you're pretty much going to be doing cash escorts - because the IRA were robbing everything that moved - and/or border duty. Whereas I knew with the British Army I'd be guaranteed travel. I'd be all over the world.
NARRATOR: The vetting process was long and deeply tedious. As you can imagine, given the political situation, the army paid close attention to new recruits joining from Ireland, especially Catholics. Because of his family history, Sean had to be slightly economical with the truth.
SEAN HARTNETT: They wanted to know everyone I had met, every family member. Now considering on both sides of my family my father had about 13 - actually 14 - siblings and then all their kids and then on my mom's side and then all theirs. And I was thinking, when I start to fill in all this paperwork: ‘Hang on a minute, if I put in some of the names that are related to me, I'm not going to get in here.’ So I left out quite a few of my relatives on that list.
NARRATOR: Nothing was going to stop him getting out of Cork.
SEAN HARTNETT: But I kept going and persevered and eventually they signed me up. My first unit was [the] 14 Signal Regiment, in Brawdy in Wales. So they were an electronic warfare unit. And there I specialized in jamming and direction-finding technology. My first deployment was to Sierra Leone during the Civil War there.
NARRATOR: After cutting his teeth as a radio technician in Sierra Leone, Sean served a tour in Oman.
SEAN HARTNETT: And when I came back from Oman, I was due to be posted. So you're kind of rotated every two to three years to a different unit. I wasn't really sure where I wanted to go at that stage. So a couple of my mates from the 14 Signal Regiment had gone to this place called JCU-NI.
NARRATOR: Jac-oo-ni. That’s J-C-U-N-I.
SEAN HARTNETT: Joint Communications Unit, Northern Ireland. That could mean anything. Right. And that's why it was called that.
NARRATOR: Nobody really talked about JCU-NI. Very few people in the regular army were aware of its true purpose.
SEAN HARTNETT: The only things I knew were that you didn't have to wear a uniform there. You got extra pay and you got one week off in every month. So that, for me, sold it you know.
NARRATOR: But Sean was about to discover that joining the unit wouldn’t be as simple as all that.
SEAN HARTNETT: So I remember going down to the... our kind of line manager, would have been known as a foreman of signals. So I remember going down to the FOS and saying: ‘Listen, I want to go to JCU-NI.’ And his reaction was: ‘You haven't a fucking hope.’ He said: ‘Your background, you're not going there. We're not going to put it in.’
NARRATOR: Sean would be the first to admit that he’s got a stubborn streak. And that streak didn’t care what one officer thought about his background or his chances of success. He’d set his course - and he was going to get to where he wanted to go.
SEAN HARTNETT: So I went over his head and I went to the OC Squadron, the officer commanding the squadron. And I had served with him in a very small group in Sierra Leone, so I knew him really well.
SEAN HARTNETT: And he said: ‘Listen, they're not going to take you, you know, your background. You're not going to get there.’ I said: ‘Well, put me through. Put me forward. If they reject me, fine.’ So he said: ‘Okay, I'll put you forward.’
NARRATOR: Sean’s transfer request was passed up to the Manning and Records office, which matches personnel to roles within the army.
SEAN HARTNETT: And they simply see a gap in a unit for a radio technician and they see somebody coming up to be moved who's a radio technician, and they put one and the other together. So you fit into that slot. No problem. They don't look at backgrounds. They don't look at, you know, political orientation. They don't do any of that. They simply match people up with vacancies. So there was a vacancy at JCU-NI for a radio technician and I was a radio technician ready to move. Go. Off you go. So that's how I ended up going there.
NARRATOR: His training began at JCU-NI’s headquarters in Lisburn, Northern Ireland. The HQ was known, affectionately, as ‘The Arse’.
SEAN HARTNETT: Lisburn was known as ‘the Arse’ because nobody wanted to serve there.
NARRATOR: Sean was already a decorated, veteran technician but the facilities on show at JCU-NI were on another level entirely.
SEAN HARTNETT: Now, JCU-NI's radio network wasn't like the rest of the communications network for British forces in Northern Ireland.
NARRATOR: The unit’s radio network used specialist equipment called ‘high powers’ - signal boosters, essentially. For JCU-NI, there was no such thing as a dead spot.
SEAN HARTNETT: So it takes even the faintest signal and converts it. So you might have a signal of less than a watt, and that would pump it out at 80 watts.
NARRATOR: This cast-iron comms system was complemented by an unprecedented level of video surveillance.
SEAN HARTNETT: There were hundreds of cameras all over Northern Ireland and they could read a license plate clearly on the screen at that time. Now, this was back in 2001, so 20 years ago, they had cameras that could read a license plate from 1.8 kilometers away, and day or night, it didn't matter.
NARRATOR: The technology was astounding but Sean still hadn’t been briefed on the specifics of JCU-NI’s mission. One morning, the terrifying implications of their presence in Northern Ireland were made all too clear.
SEAN HARTNETT: We were shown an incident that happened a few years previously, where two Royal Signalers had driven into an IRA funeral and had been murdered at that funeral: Howes and Wood.
NARRATOR: The deaths of Corporals Derek Wood and David Howes had changed the way that JCU-NI operated in Northern Ireland. It had made them less willing to accept risk. The men had driven through an IRA funeral procession. They had been identified as soldiers by the crowd, dragged from their vehicle, and killed. They had managed to fire off one warning shot.
SEAN HARTNETT: And that was the only shot that was ever fired before they were murdered at that funeral.
NARRATOR: Based on that information the training officer had some unsettling advice for his trainees.
SEAN HARTNETT: And his instructions to us were: ‘You don't fire into the air. You fire into the crowd.’ And he said his motto was: ‘It's better to be judged by 12 than carried by six.’ And that was when I kind of realized: ‘Hang on a minute. What? What am I after getting myself in for here?’
NARRATOR: To Sean, it sounded very much like the officer had just sanctioned a shoot first, ask questions later mentality. More than that, he had just unofficially authorized JCU-NI’s new intake to fire on civilians. Until now, nobody had revealed the exact nature of the Joint Communications Unit’s role in Northern Ireland. Now, the training officer laid [his] cards on the table: ‘JCU-NI is responsible for the covert surveillance and apprehension of terrorist suspects in support of police counter-terrorism operations. Note, I said in support of the police. We do not share our sources. We do not share our methods. We are not a police force. We are here to gather intelligence and where necessary act on that intelligence.’ This explained a lot. It explained the fact that JCU-NI had trained with weapons that weren’t available to the regular army, a powerful and expensive arsenal of submachine guns, assault rifles, and shotguns.
SEAN HARTNETT: Their budget was massive, I later learned. It was huge. I mean, the budget for JCU-NI was bigger than the entire budget for all the forces in the Balkans at that time.
NARRATOR: Sean began to realize that he was now fighting a very different kind of war. His initial training was over, and now JCU-NI’s newest members were to be assigned to one of the nine subunits that made up the regiment. In army parlance, these are known as ‘Detachments’ - Dets, for short. Each detachment came with its own set of challenges. But one had more of a reputation than the others. So everybody in the Arse said: ‘You do not want to go to North Det, whoever is going to get the short straw and go to North Det, you don't want to be there.’ North Det is situated in Ballykelly, 15 miles from Derry. The city was where the riots that had sparked The Troubles had taken place in 1969. It remained a hotbed of Republican sentiment. Sean was called in to speak with his senior officer. It was bad news. ‘Right, sorry, you're going to north Det.’ And I remember saying to them: ‘Okay, I'll take it on the chin, but what is my job?’ And they said: ‘You'll find out when you get there.’
NARRATOR: Sean was driven to North Det by the technician that he would be replacing. Usually, a soldier’s posting lasts two years. The beleaguered incumbent at the Det had only lasted nine months.
SEAN HARTNETT: So I was about a two-hour drive from Lisburn, up to up to Ballykelly where North Det was based. And he said: ‘Look, it's hard work. It's never-ending.’ He said that week off they've told you you get every month? No. No chance, not going to happen. He said it's 24/7 here. It's technology that I've never worked with. And he said it's hard going. And so all the way up, I was thinking: ‘Oh, s***, what have I got myself in for here?’
NARRATOR: The car pulled into the barracks at Ballykelly.
SEAN HARTNETT: it had been an airfield in World War II and it was massive. And right down about two kilometers from the main gate, tucked down in this corner of the airfield away from everybody else - there was nothing near it - was this high-fenced compound. And we drove up to it and he punched in the code into the keypad and this roller shutter rolled up.
SEAN HARTNETT: As we drove through, I looked around and I thought: ‘Oh, f***. Now I know where I am.’
NARRATOR: As they entered the massive communications tower right in the middle. It's the highest… well it was. It's gone now. But it was the highest tower in Northern Ireland. It was 100 meters, over 300-foot tall. And it had every kind of... Now, I was a comms tech. I knew just by what was on the tower that this place was serious. Like, you don't have that much on a tower without something serious happening at this place.
SEAN HARTNETT: And there were two helicopter pads, two Gazelle surveillance helicopters there. Everything was covered. Every car was covered with dust covers, everything. And you could see people looking at you giving you the eyeball.
NARRATOR: That sense of unfamiliarity was compounded by Sean’s first look at his new colleagues.
SEAN HARTNETT: I was looking around and there were these, all these civilians [it] looked to me. Scruffy, you know? Long hair, like a couple of 'em looked as if they were living on the streets.
NARRATOR: He’d barely had a moment to adjust before he was introduced to his commanding officer. It could have gone better.
SEAN HARTNETT: Put my hand out, he put his hand out to shake mine. I said: 'Sir, you know, I'm really looking forward to working here at JCU-NI.’ And the first words out of his mouth are: ‘You've got to be f****** joking me’.
NARRATOR: The commanding officer was a religious man and rarely swore. But hearing an Irish accent - a Republic accent - within one of the most secure compounds in the country had provoked a strong reaction. It wouldn’t be the last time. Fortunately, his day-to-day interactions with the CO would be limited. The man who really ran the show at North Det was the Operations Officer - the Opso, in army jargon.
SEAN HARTNETT: The operations officer at that time was Colin, a guy from Manchester, scruffy as f***. Genuinely, if you met him, you'd think fairly close to living on the street, if not living on the street already. And he called me in and he says: ‘Right. I don't give a s*** about your background,’ he said. ‘But every technician they've sent me up so far has been s***. I'm only interested in how good you are at your job.’
NARRATOR: Already nervous, Sean was taken around to meet his new co-workers.
SEAN HARTNETT: Now, everybody that works on the Det has a nickname. So, you know, I was a tech, so I was Sean Tech. So if you were one of the intelligence officers, you were Chris Spook. If you were one of the communications guys, you were John Bleep.
NARRATOR: Finally, he was brought to meet the regiment’s most menacing agents: the Operators. Drawn from the regular army, as well as Special Forces units like the SAS, the Operators were the people who were closest to the action. They would be sent into the field to carry out work that couldn’t be handled remotely - installing bugs, apprehending suspects, and occasionally exercising a well-honed trigger finger. It had been an overwhelming induction into the Det but the surprises that Sean’s first day held were far from over. After dinner that night, he retired to the on-site bar for a much-needed drink.
SEAN HARTNETT: Because we weren't allowed to socialize with anyone else we had our own bar. And it was covered with, you know, paper and newspaper clippings and stuff - of successes that North Det had been responsible for. And I remember walking along and I was really curious. This was part of my heritage and I was reading them all. And then I came across the one for Loughgall.
NARRATOR: The Royal Ulster Constabulary police station at Loughgall was indeed part of Sean’s heritage in more ways than one. His cousin, an IRA fighter named Seamus Donnelly, had died there.
SEAN HARTNETT: Seamus Donnelly along with a full IRA active service unit had been killed in an ambush at Loughgall. And they had been hitting RUC stations throughout the province for about a year. Same modus operandi: digger bomb. So a bomb in the bucket of a digger. They'd drive it at the station. A bomb would explode and then they'd go in and they'd fire off and kill whoever was in there and they'd be pretty successful at it but they'd come under the watchful eye of North Det. And they had been tracked and an ambush had been set at Loughgall and they'd all been killed, every member of the active service unit.
NARRATOR: The color drained out of Sean’s face. He sat for a minute, staring at the newspaper clipping. Then, he felt a tap on his shoulder.
SEAN HARTNETT: And then up behind me came Colin Opso and he said: ‘Oh, yeah, you know, Sean, that was one of our better operations.’ He said: ‘The SAS lads might have taken the credit for the shooting,’ he said, ‘but it was a north Det job that got the surveillance.’ And honestly, he could have knocked me over with a feather.
NARRATOR: He hadn’t realized that North Det, the place he’d just agreed to spend at least two years of his life, had been responsible for the death of his cousin.
SEAN HARTNETT: Yeah, I have to say, there was a part of me saying: ‘This isn't right. I shouldn't be here, I shouldn't be here at all, that this isn't... this isn't what I kind of signed up for.’
NARRATOR: But there was no time to ponder this ethical dilemma. Sean had inherited a gargantuan workload from his predecessor at the Det.
SEAN HARTNETT: I was fitting out cars with surveillance and covert communications, rigging cameras, covert cameras, and getting the guys’ body kits ready. The work was relentless. It was exhausting, and it just never seemed to end, one operation after another.
NARRATOR: This work took place within the high fences of the Ballykelly compound, and all under the suspicious gaze of some of his less-accepting colleagues.
SEAN HARTNETT: I'd been at the Det, probably about four to six weeks and I still wasn't trusted.
NARRATOR: Fortunately, he was about to have an opportunity to prove his competence and his loyalties.
SEAN HARTNETT: And I remember being called over to the operations room. So I walked across the compound then, and Colin Opso says to me: ‘Right, what's the situation with the vehicles and communications?’ I said: ‘Well, the, you know, I'm still working on the cars. They're not all up to scratch’. And he says: ‘Right, what about Coalisland? What's comms like down there and surveillance? What assets do we have?’
NARRATOR: Coalisland is a former mining town about an hour’s drive from North Det. The name was familiar to Sean from his training at The Arse - it was a notorious communications dead spot. JCU-NI had received intelligence that members of the Real IRA, a Republican splinter group, were planning to attack police officers who were patrolling the area. Somehow, they’d managed to come into possession of an RPG - a Rocket Propelled Grenade. If they weren’t stopped, the loss of life could be devastating.
SEAN HARTNETT: So I said to him, I said: ‘Look Colin, this isn't an ideal place to be carrying out an operation. Communications are poor at best and at worst nonexistent.’ So I remember he turned around to me. He says: ‘Right, put a plan together and fix it.’ And that was it. ‘Fix it’.
NARRATOR: Colin Opso had made his position clear. This operation was happening. Sean wracked his brain. How could he just magic up a stable radio comms network? Then, the idea hit him. Bad comms were still comms - the signal was still there, wasn’t it? And weak signals can be amplified. If you’ve got the technology, that is. And if JCU-NI lacked anything, it wasn’t that. He made his way back to the garage, and retrieved a ‘high-power’ signal booster from storage.
SEAN HARTNETT: So I went away and I found one of the high powers, put into a vehicle and there is a specialist vehicle made completely out of fiberglass, so it wouldn't interfere with communications inside it. But it just looked like a painter and decorator’s van really. Prepped that. Got it ready to go.
NARRATOR: The modified van carrying the signal booster could be surreptitiously parked in the area of operations, ensuring total radio coverage during the mission. And there, Sean assumed, his involvement would end. He told Colin the good news.
SEAN HARTNETT: Walked over, said, ‘Right, you've got it. It's all set to go.’ And he says: ‘Right, get your gear together. You're going with them, you're forward mounting down to Coalisland.’
NARRATOR: The Det needed him in the area to make sure that any unpredictable technical issues could be swiftly resolved. Along with a team of operators driving modified civilian cars - think armor-plating, hidden cameras, and covert radios - Sean set out for Coalisland. As they approached the area, comms began to cut out, as expected. Fortunately, JCU-NI had radio protocols that kept their interactions short, sharp, and almost impossible to intercept.
SEAN HARTNETT: JCU-NI didn't use a normal navigation system. We had a thing called ‘the spots’. So every junction, every road, every roundabout had a color and a number. So, for instance, you'd be going from one junction to another - you'd be going from green 12 to green 11 - and then you'd move into a different area and that color would change. And the reason was, is that even if somebody - and our communications were heavily encrypted - but even if that encryption was broken you would have no idea unless you knew what those spots were, where the operators were moving from and to because it was a completely coded system.
NARRATOR: The undercover convoy arrived safely at the local RUC police station. Sean and his kit were ushered into a small hut at the base of a communications tower. It was an Irish February, and he could see his breath in the air.
SEAN HARTNETT: It was absolutely freezing and then I was thinking to myself, just: ‘There's an RUC station there, really nice and warm. Why can't I go in there?’ But I had been warned: ‘You do not let the RUC near your equipment and you do not go near them.’ There wasn't a lot of trust between the RUC and the Det. They didn't trust them at all because the RUC was prone to leaks, massively.
NARRATOR: Remember, it wasn’t just Republican fighters that JCU-NI was after. Loyalist, Protestant paramilitaries also fell under their remit and some of them had links to police officers. Newly installed in his frigid hut, Sean could begin the real surveillance work.
SEAN HARTNETT: You're following, as the surveillance operators are, on the ground and they're following a target. They'd be brought in for a briefing and they would be given the target. They'd head off on the ground. Meanwhile, back at the operations room, the operations officer's using the surveillance cameras to keep an eye on the target. And he's directing his Ops around the target so that they're not picked up. And, you know, you're pulling at threads here. Every time he meets somebody, you log the car registration of that other person. You look to see if they're going to be involved, if they're worth following. So it's a whole spider's web. You start with one piece and then you start fanning out from that central target.
NARRATOR: Contact tracing, basically. Soon enough, JCU-NI had identified four men who were involved in planning the rocket launcher attack.
SEAN HARTNETT: So they had these guys under surveillance for about, probably, three or four weeks. But the last week of it had been really intense. These guys - there were four of them - hadn't been on their own for a minute. I mean, the amount of surveillance they were under was incredible. Every single movement they made was recorded, videoed. They were tracked by the operators 24/7.
NARRATOR: They had also discovered the location of the rocket launcher itself, hidden away on the outskirts of a field. Sean had deployed operators to set up two cutting-edge cameras to watch the IRA weapons cache.
SEAN HARTNETT: And, you know, this was my first major op, and I was crapping myself. I was thinking: ‘If this goes wrong, if anything goes wrong…’ I remembered that the first camera coming online straight away, no problem, clicked on. I was thinking: ‘Yes, fantastic.’ And then the second one, no image.
NARRATOR: While the first camera happily beamed its feed across the 40 miles to JCU-NI’s base at Ballykelly, the second camera was dead. Sean’s heart sank. Whatever the issue was, he knew that as lead technician on the operation, the blame would lie with him if this mission went awry.
SEAN HARTNETT: And I could just hear in my earpiece, Colin, back at the operations office saying... all he said was: ‘Sean, get it sorted.’
NARRATOR: Okay, so think it through. The cameras were working when you sent them into the field. The system’s online. You know that because the other camera is working perfectly. You checked and double-checked the power source. Standard practice. That leaves one option…
SEAN HARTNETT: I said: ‘Can you just check that the camera's switched on?’ And next minute you hear 'click' and the image appears.
NARRATOR: Turn it on and off again. Or just turn it on. It works for your grandma’s printer and it works for top-secret surveillance equipment too. Reassuring, in a way.
SEAN HARTNETT: And all I heard on the other end of the net from the operations room was: ‘Nice one, Sean.’ And the operation went ahead.
NARRATOR: The cameras, newly functional, picked up movement in the darkness of the field. Three of the four IRA men were moving toward the rocket launcher’s hiding place. They picked up the RPG. JCU-NI, and by extension the local police, had their evidence. The operators emerged from the shadows, descending on the three suspects. You’re nicked. The tension finally broke. The communications network came alive with chatter. Now that they had the all-clear from JCU-NI the Royal Ulster Constabulary moved in to officially arrest the three men who had handled the rocket launcher.
SEAN HARTNETT: There had been a fourth man waiting in the getaway car and he had been arrested too. That fourth man, Brendan O'Connor, was later involved in another operation.
NARRATOR: We’ll hear more about Brendan O’Connor a little later. But let’s live in the moment. The operation had gone off without a hitch. The operators melted away, and soon Sean was driving back to North Det with a smile on his face. They could wring their hands about his accent, but after this they wouldn’t be able to question his competence. Unbeknownst to him, the operation hadn’t gone quite as well as he’d thought. Most of the time, the secretive nature of the Det worked in their favor but there were downsides, too. They usually emerged in the courtroom.
SEAN HARTNETT: So they were acquitted because of notes that one of the RUC officers had made in his book, a book of evidence, and it related to the operators from the Det. And the judge wanted to know who these men were. And when it was refused, he threw the case out of court, even though they were caught red-handed carrying an RPG toward an RUC patrol, they were acquitted because of the mention of these clandestine operatives in the notes of an RUC officer who had been on the case.
NARRATOR: All this would emerge in the weeks and months to come. But for now, Sean was riding high on his success. So was the rest of North Det.
SEAN HARTNETT: I remember being in the bar and Colin coming up to me and saying: ‘Listen, you'll do.’ You know, that's the only thing he said to me. There was no ‘well done’ or anything like that. He just said: ‘You'll do.’
NARRATOR: Finally, Sean felt at home. Over the next few years, he’d become part of the furniture at the Ballykelly compound.
SEAN HARTNETT: So, yeah, I was very comfortable there. And I knew my job and I knew my job well.
NARRATOR: And as Sean bedded into the day-to-day routine of the Det, he found those early doubts about the ethics of the British Army’s presence in Northern Ireland fading too.
SEAN HARTNETT: You know, this kind of inner conflict that was there disappeared after a while because I saw the Republican movement for really what it was, and it was a moneymaker. We were on surveillance jobs where I watched loyalist and Republican paramilitaries meeting up together in a pub and dividing up the drugs territories. You know, this is the real truth behind these so-called ‘Republican, Loyalist’ movements. It's not about a united Ireland. It's not about them remaining part of the UK. It's about money. It's money and power. That's all it is. And I learned that very, very quickly so that divided loyalty was gone now.
NARRATOR: But even with this new clarity of purpose, there were still moments where JCU-NI’s secrecy was a cause for frustration.
SEAN HARTNETT: We were never given the full picture. You know, I remember on several occasions, and one target in particular, that he was caught bang to rights several times in a weapons’ hide. The guys were ready to kick in the doors, ready to pull him - so literally with fingers on triggers - ready to go.
NARRATOR: Then, the order would come from on high: ‘Stand down.’
SEAN HARTNETT: The same guy several times. So you put two and two together and you learn this guy's on the take.
NARRATOR: Soldiers like Sean would never officially be told the names of suspects that were acting as informants for British intelligence. Just as JCU-NI refused to share its resources with the police, organizations like MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, preferred to keep their top assets in-house. Some information is too precious to share. And their reluctance to collaborate with North Det wasn’t totally misplaced. Sometimes, they messed up. Badly.
SEAN HARTNETT: Now north Det was known for being the wildest of Dets, like their attitude was, you know: ‘Train hard. Fight hard. Play hard.’ And they lived up to every one of those aspects. We didn't really play ball with headquarters. We did our own thing a lot of the time. And I remember on one occasion, like looking back now, it's hugely embarrassing, but we had an operation in place. A very senior Sinn Féin member was going on holiday for the weekend and we had been watching his house for a long time.
NARRATOR: A high-ranking figure in the Republican movement had left his house unguarded. The perfect opportunity for JCU-NI to plant a listening device.
SEAN HARTNETT: Now on any operation, the lead operator has a thing called their book. And everything about that target's life is in that book - the position of the curtains, what time to get up, who calls to the house, how many times they go to the bathroom every day, when they walk the dog, how long it takes to come back, every person that goes to the house when they leave, what kind of an alarm they have, what lock is on the door.
NARRATOR: Armed with this intelligence bible, two operators had entered the Sinn Féin member’s house to insert the bug.
SEAN HARTNETT: Well, two, in fact, one in his kitchen and one somewhere else in the house, which I won't mention because it might still be there. And so, all went to plan. Perfect operation, guys inserted.
NARRATOR: ‘Perfect’ might have been overstating it. At the debrief, the lead operator was asked to produce the book so that it could be updated with new information from the listening device.
SEAN HARTNETT: Colin had turned around, said: ‘Right, guys, where's the book?’ And they looked at each other and went: ‘Well, you've got it. You know, you've got it.’ And then panic started.
NARRATOR: The operators had left the book in the house.
SEAN HARTNETT: It was an absolutely masterful piece of insertion, except for the fact that they left all the evidence on the kitchen table. So this Sinn Féin councilor arrived back from his holiday to find on his kitchen table a book describing every aspect of his life, his home, his family, where there were going to, the PIN number to bypass his alarm, what type of lock was on his door, the position of his curtains, what time they drew the curtains, what time they open the curtains. And he took it to the paper.
NARRATOR: This was a disaster for the Det. After all, this is a unit that prides itself on secrecy. Mistakes that threatened the secrecy were unforgivable.
SEAN HARTNETT: The two guys in question, the two operators in question, that next morning both were flown out of Northern Ireland, never to return. They were RTU'd - Return To Unit. Career's over, gone, finished.
NARRATOR: North Det had no time to dwell on their embarrassment. Another listening device planted by a more careful operator had delivered some chilling intel about a planned attack on an army barracks in Omagh, County Tyrone. Sean was familiar with the barracks. When he’d first joined the army, his interviews had been held there. He’d stayed in the Silver Birch Hotel, just across the road. This felt personal.
SEAN HARTNETT: Besides the Silver Birch was a service station, a petrol station, and there was an ATM machine there. Now, there was an ATM machine on the camp but squaddies are tight-arses, and the ATM machine on the camp charged £1.50 to withdraw money, whereas the one across at the service station was free.
NARRATOR: Every month, come payday, the young soldiers would make their way en masse to the free ATM. Routine is a standard part of army life, but as any spy will tell you, predictability can be a death sentence.
SEAN HARTNETT: And the IRA or the Real IRA had picked up on this. And the intelligence that we had from listening devices had told us that there was going to be a hit. The plan was there was going to be a motorbike with a pillion passenger pulled up outside the ATM and spray the machine with the guys, the squaddies at it, and kill as many soldiers as possible.
NARRATOR: A drive-by. Quick, messy, mobile. If the IRA were allowed to succeed this would be one of the deadliest attacks on British troops since the height of The Troubles. Mindful of the stakes, North Det relocated their entire operation to the Omagh Barracks. We had surveillance cameras outside, the operators all set up, ready to go. And it wasn't going to be an arrest.
NARRATOR: JCU-NI’s usual approach - apprehending the targets and handing them over to the Police - was not going to cut it here. The Det would take no prisoners.
SEAN HARTNETT: One of the terrorists that were going to be on the job had been responsible for the death of a female RUC officer a few years previously and, during the briefing, it had been made very clear that there would be no arrest. The RUC would stay outside the cordon and it would be a shoot-to-kill mission, so both would die and that was going to be the job.
NARRATOR: Special Forces operators were manning the watchtowers. Three more armed men disguised as civilians moved into position around the petrol station. From inside the compound, Sean watched the road. A camera, hidden inside the license plate of a parked car, transmitted a crystal-clear image of the scene. Meanwhile, a listening device had been planted inside the shed where the terrorist’s motorbike was being stored. As one, the Det waited.
SEAN HARTNETT: So we were listening. We were listening. Everything was ready to go.
NARRATOR: Suddenly, the comms network erupted. The IRA men had entered the shed. Hands flew up to earpieces. Fingers clenched around triggers.
SEAN HARTNETT: And all we could hear was: 'The f****** bike won't start. The f****** bike won't start.'
NARRATOR: The bike wouldn’t start. The men left the shed. They had missed their moment. Back to the drawing board. North Det had no choice but to stand down.
SEAN HARTNETT: And the only reason that those two gentlemen had lived that night, we thought, was that the bike wouldn't start.
NARRATOR: But as we’ve established, there are many reasons for the apparent failure of an operation. In Northern Ireland, things were rarely as they seemed.
SEAN HARTNETT: Sometimes a job comes full circle. So Brendan O'Connor, who had been the getaway driver in Coalisland for the RPG job, he was one of the men inside in the shed that night.
NARRATOR: Sean didn’t know it at the time, but the IRA’s assassination attempt was never going to go ahead. Brendan O’Connor had seen to that.
SEAN HARTNETT: He had set up the RPG job for the arrest and he had been tipped off that the Det was going to ambush him on that job outside the petrol station. That's why he hadn't started the bike. He knew he knew it was going to be an ambush.
NARRATOR: We don’t know exactly which intelligence agency Brendan had been informing for. But in doing so, he had saved lives.
SEAN HARTNETT: So, you know, not always, but sometimes things make sense at the end. The reason that we had that information on the RPG job in the first place was because of Brendan O'Connor. They had repaid him by keeping him alive on the second job, on the ambush job.
NARRATOR: Eventually, Brendan had paid the ultimate price.
SEAN HARTNETT: And we later found out that in about 2010, 2011, he was kidnapped by the Real IRA and murdered because he was an informant.
NARRATOR: Sean had enjoyed his time at the Det. But by 2004 the intense pressure of the job had begun to take its toll.
SEAN HARTNETT: I'd been at North Det now for almost three years. Constant operations. No time off. So I decided I wasn't going back to a green army unit. I couldn't go back to calling people ‘Sir’ and wearing a uniform. And, you know, it just wouldn't have been possible. I don't think I would have fitted in well. So I made the decision to leave and to leave the army entirely.
NARRATOR: It was a tough decision to make. North Det had been home to Sean. In fact, he’d rarely left it. JCU-NI had strict rules about mixing with people who weren’t in the regiment. The main one being: don’t. Once he was out, it was unlikely that he’d ever see any of his friends there again but there was still time for a last hurrah at the Det’s on-site pub.
SEAN HARTNETT: And so, there's a bit of a speech from the Opso, and I remember going up and saying: ‘You know, thanks very much and I've made some great friends here. And listen, if I ever decide to switch sides, I now got all your names and addresses and I'll be sure to hand them over.’ And, you know, it got a laugh, but they were all quite surprised that I didn't give them a leaving gift.
NARRATOR: Hmm, work leaving gifts. Always tricky, aren’t they? Not too expensive, not too cheap. Not too impersonal, not too familiar. Luckily, Sean had just the thing in mind.
SEAN HARTNETT: I remember we broke up about 3 am in the morning or something like that, and I was due to leave by 8 am the following morning. I was driving home, was driving across the border, but I got up earlier, got up about 5 am, 6 am, and I put my rigging gear on and I climbed the mast and up to the top of the mast and I took out a Tricolor, an Irish Tricolor and tied it to the top of the mast and got back down, got my car and I drove off.
NARRATOR: The Tricolor - that’s the flag of the Republic of Ireland, if you weren’t sure. Not usually what you’d expect to be flying above a top-secret British Army barracks.
SEAN HARTNETT: And I was about halfway from the border to Dublin and the phone went and all I heard on the other end was: ‘You f****** bastard.’ That was my leaving gift. And yeah, apparently the commanding officer of the camp had gone absolutely f****** ga-ga when he had seen it.
NARRATOR: Sean didn’t face any consequences for that particular stunt. But once he’d left the army, the pressures of his role there began to catch up with him.
SEAN HARTNETT: When I left JCU-NI and left the army, I thought I was okay. You know, I had done my three years at North and it was exciting and it was demanding but I thought I handled it pretty well. But a couple of years after it turns out I didn't handle it that well and I basically had become a functioning alcoholic. And I lost everything. I lost my partner, lost my home, you know, lost, you know, all through... dependency on drink and for a long time, I… I... wouldn't go and see a counselor because I didn't think I needed one. And, you know, it's... the army is a very macho environment, very male-dominated environment. So you don't show weakness. You don't say: ‘Listen, I'm not feeling great. I want to go and see and talk to someone.’ That's just not done. So what you have then is a pent-up time bomb that goes off at some point after all these guys leave the service. It's not during their service. I was fine while I was working away. You know, the pressure just seemed normal. But it's only when you come out and you're allowed to leave some of that steam off. It had a massive impact on my life. And looking back, I probably wouldn't have taken the job. But hindsight's a great thing.
NARRATOR: Nobody is invincible. If you’re struggling with your mental health, ask for help. In the United Kingdom, Mind, the mental health charity, offers a range of guidance. In the USA, contact Mental Health America. I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another encounter with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Sean Hartnett considered joining the IRA but instead enlisted in the British Army where he worked in one of Northern Ireland’s top-secret surveillance units. Hartnett (a pseudonym) was studying science at university in Cork, Ireland but he wanted an adventure. He got one. In one of Hartnett’s many covert operations, he helped in the arrest of Real IRA bomber John Paul Hannon and has written a book about his time in British intelligence.