Deep into the winter of 1974, Peter McMullen, while not complaining about his job of helping IRA men who had gone to the south to rest, wanted to get back into an Active Service Unit.
He had no indication of it then, but he soon would receive three vital assignments, one of them to expand operations into Europe, one to kill a British Army general and the third to coordinate a bombing campaign that would reach from Liverpool to London and Wales.
It would prove to be the most frustrating year of his life. Once again, IRA inefficiency, internecine rivalries, neglect and pure stupidity would drive McMullen to desperate action.
"I mean you can take just so much of looking after other people, making sure they don't get themselves screwed up and arrested. So around mid-February the Army Council approves a plan for me and a top IRA leader. Me and him were to go to Germany. We were going to hit the British Army there because they were supplying reinforcements and replacements for the troops sent to Northern Ireland."
McMullen waited for his colleague on a cool, damp night in Dublin. The European campaign, which was to start with the British Army's forces on the Rhine, was just the sort of challenge he desperately needed. But once again he was frustrated. On the eve of their intended departure, his partner was arrested by Irish Republic Police (the Garda) as he crossed the border at Dundalk and charged with being a member of the IRA.
How did he select cell members? What did he look for when deciding to accept or reject a candidate?
"Their educational background, general demeanor, the way they dressed, whether they seemed nervous when being questioned. I'd check their backgrounds. If they were heavy drinkers or just couldn't hold a drink, I'd reject them. Also, if they looked scruffy or unruly. I wanted people who could blend in with the English, people who looked ordinary and would not be noticed."
The rejection rate, says McMullen, ran about 20 percent. About 25 percent of those selected were women. Prior experience with weapons and explosives was not necessary. The 40 cells, made up of about 150 people, were trained and retrained.
"My job was supposed to be coordinator. I was told that all the targets would be military and industrial. I was to check the targets, the explosives and the people to make sure the campaign went off as planned."
Once more McMullen felt good about being an officer in the Irish Republican Army. This was precisely the kind of plan he had been advocating for years without success. In the last week of February 1974, he took the ferry from Dublin to Liverpool.
McMullen went directly by taxi to a first-floor flat in Bootle, a dock section neighborhood of Liverpool. The apartment and a car, a blue Ford Escort, had been set up for him by a working partner he had never met until that night.
"He was nicknamed Joe the Brit but he was actually an English citizen of Irish blood who was born in Manchester."
He was expecting a courier named Marian, whom he had met several times before. Women couriers, bringing in weapons, money and instructions from Dublin, were virtually the only link between IRA cells in England and their headquarters in Ireland. Instructions from the courier were to be taken as direct orders from the IRA Army Council.
"Then this obnoxious woman from Dublin shows up. She was very brash. Right off the starts giving orders. She wants a bombing within two weeks and she tells me to do the first one. As far as I knew she was strictly a courier bringing in guns and money and besides I was not to do the actual bombings. My job was supposed to be coordinator."
Marian McMullen says, told him that orders had been changed in Dublin, that she was not coordinator of the campaign. McMullen, never one to take orders readily from someone he did not respect, immediately began arguing with Marian, whom he described as being about 20, "with oily skin and a generally unkempt appearance. I told her to wash her hair." Nonetheless, orders were orders, even if they were from a young woman.
She did mention, in addition to the bombings, that the plan to kill the general was not in operation and that he, McMullen, would be the assassin.
The general was Brigadier Frank Kitson, who had served in Kenya, Cyprus, Malaya and Oman and, most important of all, had been in charge of the British Army in Northern Ireland. Kitson literally wrote the book on counter-insurgency and antiguerrilla warfare.
Although the manuscript "Low Intensity Operations" had been circulated among the British Army General Staff, it had not yet been published. Kitson was jumped over several senior officers to test his theories against the IRA. The book was published after his assignment to Ulster. He was the man the IRA felt was most responsible for the miseries suffered by Catholics in the north, whether they were IRA membes or not.
"From the general information I had at that time I planned to shoot him in the heart with a Lee Enfield .300 rifle from a range of 100 to 300 yards, but I think I still could have killed him at up to 600 yards," said McMullen.
Earlier that year a man who apparently worked for Kitson at his home in the countryside outside London had met with several IRA leaders in Dublin. The man gave a general description of Kitson's movements and the woods and trails where he often walked alone on Sunday afternoons.
During the interview with The Globe, McMullen was asked, "What if a bodyguard was present?"
"No problem, I would have gone for the prime target killed him and then shot the bodyguard, who would not have known immediately where I was."
"What if Kitson's wife or children were present?"
"Then I would not have taken the shot."
"For moral reasons. Kitson was a soldier. I was a soldier. He was the enemy of me and my people, not his family."
"What if you suddenly came across Kitson at close range-- just a few feet away. Could you have shot him or used a knife?"
"No. It's the distance that dehumanizes. If it was a close combat situation, that's a different story. I could probably do it then. Killing another human being is not easy. Thinking about it is one thing. Doing it is an entirely different matter. From several hundred yards Kitson would have been no different than the cardboard targets I've shot in training."
McMullen and Marian took an overnight train down from Liverpool. The two had quarreled again. She objected to his carrying a gun and they did not speak to each other for hours. The train arrived in London at 6 a.m. They were to meet the man who had spoken about Kitson earlier that year in front of Westminister Abbey at 3 p.m.
The man never showed up. McMullen says no one has even heard from him since and the plan to kill Kitson was never brought up again.
McMullen was beginning to view aborted plans and meetings as regular, frustrating facts in the IRA which, in March 1974, seemed to him to be the rule rather than the exception.
Meanwhile, he had rented a Hillman Avenger from Avis near the Dorchester Hotel after Hertz told him no cards were available. McMullen and Marian then drove to Aldershot, where he had received his paratroopers training. The drive took just under an hour. Marian, he said, was very nervous because he drove inside the army compound "which is a series of bases within bases. Aldershot is just one bit army camp. There was very little security, I looked for places to plant bombs."
"Marian said she had to meet with another guy in Wales. So I dropped her off in London, telling her that I wanted an Armalite [semi-automatic rifles], two shorts [handguns], explosive, detonators and times. I had decided to blow Claro Barracks at Ripon."
McMullen was well acquainted with Ripon, an ancient market town just outside Liverpool. As a youngster, he often visited relatives stationed at the army post there. Twice he scouted the camp. Nothing had changed.
"I knew it like the back of my hand. I think I could have found my way around there blindfolder."
By now, said McMullen, he had come to expect to get about a third of whatever he requested in the way of supplies from the IRA. Marian, for example, supplied him with two handguns, one an old Webley .45 with no ammunition, "which made it totally useless since you can't buy handgun ammunition in England." She also turned down a request to rent a garage where a car loaded with explsives could be stored.
"Her and this other guy from Dublin show up in a blue Ford Cortina. They had come over with it on the ferry from Ireland and there was 200 pounds of gelignite packed inside the door panels. So, instead of unloading it in a garage, I had to drive way the hell out to a country lane, take the door panels off and pry the gelignite out."
McMullen then packed the explosives into several large suitcases and returned to his apartment, where he stored them under his bed. The next day he bought several cheap alarm clocks to be used as timers along with several nine-volt batteries to supply the electricity to set off the detonators, which in turn would set off the actual bombs. He described his partner "Joe the Brit" as "paranoid about the whole operation."
McMullen set the early hours of March 24, 1974, as the date for the bombing of the Ripon barracks, "but I get back to the flat that night and there's a party going on. Joe got drunk and started mouthing off about the British. I had to hit him to shut him up before he blew the operation. Then he started calling me a damn paratrooper, so I took him into the bedroom and stuck the barrel of a .38 up his nose and told him if he didn't shut up I was going to blow his head off. He flopped down on the bed and went to sleep, I had to put the bombing off for a day."
"Joe," says McMullen, complained the next day that someone had hit him but nothing more was said. The two men were busy making three bombs on the kitchen table-- "two 70-pounders and a 60-pounder."
There were no dates or parties that night. McMullen and his partner, with three valises loaded with the bombs, left their flat at 11 p.m. for a leisurely drive to Ripon. He did not want to risk being stopped for speeding. They arrived about 3:30 a.m. March 26, 1974, parked about 500 yards away from the army camp and clinbed over a perimeter fence with their valises. They walked casually across a stretch of open land toward the barracks area. At least twice "we hit the dirt and lay flat in the darkness as unarmed army foot patrols passed nearby."
McMullen and "Joe" placed one bomb at the back of the NAAF (Navy, Army and Air Forces Institute-- akin to a combination American PX, enlisted men's and officers' clubs). "Destroying that would deprive them of recreation and that always lowers morale."
Another bomb was placed in an empty barracks and the third was placed among trucks in the M.T. (motor transport section-- same as an American army motor pool.)
"It was now about 5 a.m. We set the timers for six and then just strolled out the main gate. People were always coming and going. Some in uniform, some not. One man rode by on a bicycle. It's always been my practice to do the obvious. Besides, we had nothing on us," said McMullen.
The two walked to their car and drove back to Liverpool. They heard about the bombing on the 8 a.m. news. The bombs had gone off exactly on time. One person was known to be injured. McMullen was elated. He had once again struck a blow at a military target, this time deep in the heartland of England's north Yorkshire country. His joy was shortlived.
Although he had been told that strikes on the mainland were to be strictly against military and industrial targets, a radical change had taken place. Bombs began going off in crowded pubs, killing and maiming civilians of varied ethnic backgrounds, "people who had nothing to do with the war. There were a lot of those and a colonel who two idiots shot to death in front of his wife. That was the sort of thing that really sickened me."
Moreover, McMullen explains, the IRA leadership was in total disarray. There were members of the Army Council who did not want to spend the money on a British mainland bombing campaign. They left the bombings up to local English groups of the IRA to do whatever they wanted. The IRA cells sent over from Ireland, he said, just weren't being supported. One group, he said, tried to rob food and wine from a Chinese restaurant in London in December 1975, and ended up taking hostages for six days in what became known as the "Balcome Street Siege."
"They were starving, for God's sake, and not a cent was being sent over to help them. A lot of things were happening very quickly now that really bothered me. One of the best men you could ever meet and a loyal Republican was getting no support from the IRA. He was not a well man. His wife was very ill and his two daughters were in prison in London. That's the kind of thing that was going on. Stupid, jealous things that harmed the movement."
Four days after bombing Claro Barracks, McMullen flew back to Dublin. He complained about the madness of the bombing campaign, the lack of support, the political infighting among the leadership and an absence of clear IRA objectives. He became even angrier when he ran into IRA men in Dublin, some on the run and others worn out from fighting in the north.
"Good people were running around Dublin in bare feet and tattered trousers asking for food and places to sleep. God, I was disgusted. The leadership was lining their pockets with money that should have gone to support these men. There's no doubt about it."
McMullen was making more noise than a lot of people in the IRA cared to hear, he says, so he was given an assignment in a remote corner of northwest Ireland where an Active Service Unit had not been very active.
"These were guys who were making five pounds a week eash as regular IRA soldiers and they weren't doing a damn thing, I asked for their weapons and they drag out three rusty rifles. They couldn't even keep weapons in working order."
McMullen told the unit's commander that the unit had orders from Dublin to do a bombing at a barracks in Northern Ireland. The plan, he says, was to kidnap a member of the Ulster Defense Association (UDA-- ONE of the Protestant paramilitary equivalents of the IRA), holds his wife as hostage and then have the man drive his car into a barracks. In the trunk would be two large metal milk containers packed with gelignite.
"So I tell the local commander to get me the milk containers. He comes back next day and says he can't find any. For God's sake, we're in dairy country and he can't find milk urns. You trip over the damn things up there. I had to steal them myself."
McMullen was becoming angrier by the hour. He had seen crass inefficiency in the IRA before but nothing like this. He told the commander to have his men and weapons assembled at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning.
"I'm waiting and waiting and no one shows up. So I find the unit commander and I want to know what the hell happened. 'Well,' he says, 'Sean couldn't make it because he had to go to mass and Seamus had to visit his mother and Kevin had to milk the cows,' I couldn't believe my ears. It sounded like one of those Irish jokes."
McMullen, the elite paratrooper, finally had had it with inefficiency and foul-ups. He returned to Dublin and handed in a letter of resignation to one of several men who served as liaisons to the IRA's Army Council. There was no immediate reaction, but resignations are not looked upon favorably by the IRA.
Several weeks later, while riding in a taxi with a well-known woman, an Irish singer, their cab suddenly was surrounded by Irish police in the center of Dublin.
McMullen believes he was set up for the arrest by someone in the IRA. He was charged with jumping bail on the 1972 gun possession charge in Dundalk, with being a member of the IRA and now, after they searched the flat he was sharing with several others and found several weapons, he faced new gun possession charges.
Another man who shared the apartment also was charged with gun possession, but he appealed his sentence. "What the hell," said McMullen. "I was already going to do three years on the old possession charge, so I thought an appeal would make it look like the guns belong to my roommate. He won the appeal and got off. I did two years and five months in Portlaoise Prison in Dublin."
McMullen was released in March 1977. Almost immediately he started on a second assignment in the United States, at first not for the IRA but for an American IRA sympathizer who, McMullen says, was robbed of $37,000 in New York by three IRA men he was hiding. The man asked McMullen's help in proving that the men stole the money. McMullen began a bizarre journey which eventually brought him back into the IRA, under duress, he claims.
NEXT: The last assignment.