Nelson, Brian (1947–2003), loyalist paramilitary and undercover agent, was born 30 September 1947 in Belfast, one of six children of Adam Nelson, shipyard worker, and his wife Maisie. His parents lived on Crosby Street in the Shankill Road area of west Belfast. The family had catholic friends and Nelson’s mother was later active in the ‘Peace People’ movement (founded 1976).
Nelson was undistinguished at school (‘lazy’ according to teachers’ reports) and left aged fifteen to take up a joinery apprenticeship arranged by his father in an arrangement common among protestant skilled workers. He took little interest in work and caused a lasting breach with his father by leaving after fifteen months. He then joined the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) early in 1964. According to unnamed contemporaries interviewed by the journalist Greg Harkin, Nelson was a disobedient and rebellious recruit, who often made sectarian comments and was frequently punished for disciplinary offences.
In 1969 Nelson left the army and returned to Belfast, claiming later to some acquaintances that he was absent without leave. He worked as a driver and became active in the Ulster Protestant Volunteers (a group associated with Ian Paisley (qv)), using his military experience to drill and train recruits. Within eighteen months he gravitated to the newly formed Ulster Defence Association (UDA); unnamed loyalists interviewed by Harkin claim that he participated in murders and other crimes to boost his ego. Around this time he married; he and his wife Jean had three children.
On the night of 25 March 1973 Nelson and another loyalist kidnapped a partially sighted catholic, Gerald Higgins, and took him to a loyalist club where he was tortured. Nelson supervised the torture, holding lighted cigarettes to Higgins’s skin and forcing him to hold live electric wires with wetted hands. As Higgins was taken from the club by Nelson and two accomplices (who apparently intended to kill him and claim him as the first of three victims to be killed in revenge for the killing of three British soldiers by the IRA on 23 March), he struggled, attracted the attention of an army patrol and the loyalists were arrested.
That Nelson and his accomplices, having been charged with conspiracy to murder and numerous other offences, were allowed to plead guilty to intimidation, possession of a weapon with intent to harm, and actual bodily harm, led to some speculation that Nelson may already have been working for the security forces; this was officially denied, and it is plausible that the plea bargain reflected a desire to avoid a contested trial when the court system was clogged at the height of the ‘Troubles’. Nelson was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment and spent four years in the UDA compound at Long Kesh. He was released in late 1977. Returning to the UDA he became an ‘intelligence officer’, using his work as a carpet fitter to gather information in nationalist areas. Ingram and Harkin claim that he was recruited by the security forces in 1979 and thereafter worked as an agent for the Force Research Unit (FRU), military intelligence, with the code number 6137.
In 1981 and 1982 Nelson lived in Germany to report on the Irish community, returning to Belfast late in 1982, following a dispute between the RUC special branch and military intelligence over the latter’s entitlement to run agents within loyalism. Between 1983 and 1985 he was in charge of loyalist intelligence‐gathering and targeting in the greater Belfast area. It has been claimed that information derived from him by the security forces prevented a number of planned UDA murders, including the killing of Gerry Adams when the Sinn Féin leader and some of his associates were wounded in a loyalist attack (March 1984). It was later claimed that Nelson was responsible for the murder in November 1984 of the Sinn Féin activist Patrick Brady, allegedly passing on information about Brady directly to loyalist gunmen.
In June 1985 Nelson visited South Africa to take part in negotiations surrounding the shipment of arms to loyalists in return for cash and for information on anti‐aircraft missiles manufactured in Belfast. Despite claims that the British security services connived in this, and Ingram and Harkin’s assertion that Nelson was centrally involved with the full knowledge of his handlers, the UVF, who were the main movers in the deal, claim Nelson and the UDA generally were only peripheral to the arrangements. (The claim that information from Nelson inspired the 1988 seizure of the UDA’s share of the South African weapons has never been confirmed.) In October 1985 Nelson left Northern Ireland for Regensburg in Bavaria, where he worked as a floor layer.
At the end of 1986 Nelson returned to Northern Ireland, rejoined the west Belfast UDA and rose to become its chief intelligence officer. His handlers paid him a salary of £200 a week, bought him a house and a car (Nelson allegedly explaining that he had won a lottery in Germany) and set him up in a taxi firm. It was later suggested that his recall was prompted by concern that the loyalists might respond to the 1985 Anglo–Irish agreement by protests on the scale of the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike, and that during this period he provided British policy‐makers with unparalleled insight into loyalist paramilitary thinking. Where many loyalist paramilitaries were outgoing and drank heavily, Nelson was quiet and relatively abstemious, which together with his small and generally nondescript appearance (he was nicknamed ‘the secret squirrel’) contributed to his effectiveness as an agent.
Nelson was tutored in the UDA on how to streamline and reorganise intelligence material and he assisted in transferring it to computers, which assisted both the UDA and his handlers: the material was still used by loyalists after Nelson’s arrest in 1990. Although Nelson came under suspicion within the UDA (at one point he was kidnapped and tortured with an electric cattle prod by colleagues who suspected him of passing information to the IRA), he was kept on because of the amount and quality of the information he supplied. Thomas ‘Tucker’ Lyttle (qv) was a particular patron.
In this period Nelson and his handlers overstepped all constraints; his participation in murders was tolerated or even encouraged. In some instances Nelson was supplied with information that assisted him in targeting catholics or republicans; in others he prepared his own files on individuals. It also became known at a later stage that Nelson had informed his handlers of the training activities of the Ulster Defence Force (intended as an elite group within the UDA) but that no effort was made to disrupt these.
The 2003 Stevens report states that Nelson was implicated in fifteen murders, fourteen attempted murders and sixty‐two other conspiracies to murder. Alex Maskey (later a Sinn Féin lord mayor of Belfast) was repeatedly targeted by Nelson (whom a member of the Stevens Inquiry team described in 2003 as having acted as agent provocateur rather than agent in these attacks). Some victims had IRA connections, others died because of mistaken identity, and others were selected at random. Where Nelson’s handlers became aware of these plans in advance, the targets were not warned, and nothing was done to make him accountable afterwards.
Particular controversy surrounds the 12 February 1989 murder of the solicitor Pat Finucane (qv), who was widely regarded by the security forces as linked to the IRA, in which two other participants besides Nelson (Thomas Lyttle and an UDA quartermaster, William Stobie) were later revealed as security‐force informants. Controversy also surrounds the murder on 9 October 1987 of Francisco Notorantonio, an old age pensioner and an IRA member in the 1940s who had no current connection with that organization, allegedly set up as a target to distract his killers from an agent within the IRA. From 1989 Nelson also provided information to the UVF that was used in several attacks.
In 2001 one of Nelson’s handlers, speaking anonymously to the journalist Peter Taylor, claimed that Nelson was a patriot and a family man inspired by genuine revulsion against violence and that his subsequent trial and conviction represented a betrayal by the state, while in Ten thirty‐three (1999), Nicholas Davies cites unnamed FRU members as evidence for his portrayal of Nelson as a sectarian psychopath who persistently deceived his handlers who in turn were hampered by higher authority from calling Nelson to account.
It is generally agreed that Nelson was influenced by sectarian hatred, had sadistic and psychopathic tendencies, revelled (by his own admission) in his sense of power, and in later life delighted in taking such unnecessary risks as undertaking surveillance in person. The UDA leader Andy Tyrie, who suspected Nelson and ordered surveillance on him, later claimed in an interview with Ian S. Wood that, some time after Tyrie’s 1989 deposition as UDA supreme commander, Nelson approached him, told Tyrie he was well out of the UDA, and referred with contempt to Tyrie’s successors for not seeing what Nelson was doing. ‘Pitting your wits against those you seek to compromise acts like a drug’, Nelson wrote after his arrest. ‘The more you experience it, the more you want it, regardless of the moments of intense fear’ (Independent (London), 9 June 1992, quoted in Wood, Crimes of loyalty, 160).
Nelson’s activities as an agent came to an end after the murder of Loughlin Maginn (25 August 1989) was described by the security forces as purely sectarian. In response the UDA released security force montages in which Maginn was listed as a possible suspect and subsequently pasted further montages on to loyalist Belfast walls to support their claims that they possessed high‐quality intelligence and were not merely conducting indiscriminate attacks on catholics. This led to the appointment of John Stevens, at the time deputy chief constable of Cambridgeshire, to investigate security force collusion with loyalists. After Nelson’s fingerprints were found on seized UDA intelligence documents, the investigation moved towards him. On 10 January 1990, the day scheduled for his arrest, his handlers took him and his files to Liverpool, and the offices of the Stevens team, containing much data, were destroyed by arson. A week later Nelson returned to Northern Ireland, was arrested and immediately admitted being an agent of military intelligence. During his interrogation and the subsequent negotiations concerning his case, he produced a large volume of material describing his activities and experiences. Some of this material, often described as a prison journal, was later seen by journalists.
Nelson was initially charged with thirty‐five offences, including two murders; the murders and thirteen other charges were dropped and on 22 January 1992 he pleaded guilty to five charges of conspiracy to murder, one of possession of a submachine gun, and fourteen of possessing information likely to be useful to terrorists. A senior military intelligence officer, Brigadier Gordon Kerr, gave evidence in mitigation of Nelson’s sentence, claiming that he had saved 217 lives and calling him a courageous man whose mistakes were understandable; the 2003 Stevens report, however, stated that it had found evidence of only two cases where Nelson had saved lives. Nelson’s guilty plea, and a decision not to use him as a witness against UDA leaders for fear of what might emerge in cross‐examination, limited the exposure of his activities, though further information came into the public domain in Lyttle’s trial. The trials brought the first public revelation of the existence of the FRU, which subsequently changed its name. Nelson’s exposure was one of the factors that led to the removal of the old UDA leadership and their replacement by younger, more aggressive activists.
In April 1992 Stevens (whose initial report had downplayed the extent of collusion) issued a second report stating that Nelson was complicit in at least ten murders with the full knowledge of his handlers, and a steady trickle of information and speculation ensued through the work of journalists and others.
A heavy smoker, and ill with cancer, two weeks after suffering a heart attack Nelson died in Cardiff, Wales, on 11 April 2003 from a brain haemorrhage; the initial announcement that he had died in Canada was disproved in a television documentary in September 2003. Stevens, who had been called back to head a further inquiry after the 2001 murder of Stobie by the UDA and given broader access to official documents, released on 17 April 2003 a third report which stated that collusion had been much more widespread than he first believed, evidence had been withheld and adequate records not kept, and at least two of the murders in which Nelson was involved could have been prevented. No security force member was ever brought to trial over these revelations. The 2004 inquiry by the Canadian judge Peter Cory also found that there was prima facie evidence of collusion involving Nelson’s role in the Finucane murder.
Nelson’s activities continue to provoke immense controversy. They were widely cited by republicans as evidence that the British government’s claims to occupy the moral high ground were unsustainable and that loyalist paramilitaries were simply creations or puppets of the British state. It was also claimed in some quarters that Nelson and the FRU used the loyalists to push the republican leadership towards the peace process by spreading terror while preserving republicans thought to be politically minded (in his jail confessions Nelson claims his handlers told him Adams was spared because the Sinn Féin leader was moving towards greater political engagement). Black propaganda, cover‐ups, claim and counterclaim make it unlikely that the full truth about Nelson’s activities will ever be known, but it is certain that he was a bigot and a murderer whose career raises many questions about the ethical limits of counter‐terrorism.