New light shed on Stormont’s ‘X’ Files

Published in Issue 4 (Winter 1996), News, Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Volume 4

In October the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland released 3,000 files of the old Stormont Ministry of Home Affairs dealing with the period 1921-1962 and previously embargoed on grounds of sensitivity. The files include the highly sensitive ‘S’ (Secret Series) files covering such subjects as the 1920s Troubles, internment (case files for individual internees are now available for the 1920s), the Argenta prison ship and north/south relations in the state’s formative years. The record office has abandoned its previous policy of closing files for lengthy periods in favour of a ten-year closure for sensitive files, a development which will be welcomed by historians.

The McMahon murders

The files reveal horrifying details of one of the most heinous outrages of the Belfast troubles of 1920-22. The assassination of the Catholic McMahon family at their north Belfast home captured international attention in 1922. The clinically executed crime was described by Churchill as ‘worse than cannibalism’. Michael Collins and Bishop MacRory of Down and Connor laid the blame at the door of the police authorities. The circumstances of the crime, committed under cover of a curfew, together with the evidence of eyewitnesses gave rise to a strong belief in the nationalist community that the assassins had been members of the much-feared ‘Specials’. According to DI William Lynn, the police on duty that night reported nothing unusual. In a reference to the murder of two special constables in the city earlier that day, the District Inspector noted: ‘The belief of the civil population is that this crime was a reprisal for the murders of police elsewhere in the city’.

Collins’ mole

The files reveal that Michael Collins had a ‘mole’ at the highest levels of the RUC in 1922. This confirms persistent references in Dublin sources to a spy in the office of the military adviser to Sir James Craig’s government, Major General Arthur Solly-Flood and the discovery of sensitive RUC files among official Irish government archives some years ago. Until now the identity of the spy has remained a mystery. He was A..J.P. (Pat) Stapleton, a native of Forest Street, Springfield Road, Belfast, and a Catholic who had served in the Royal Irish Rifles during World War One. After demobilisation, Stapleton became a clerk in the registry in Victoria Barracks before transferring to the office of the northern military adviser. Stapleton disappeared from his employment on 19 August 1922 and failed to return from leave. What alarmed the Northern Ireland authorities was the simultaneous disappearance of top secret files to which he had access.
On 28 August 1922 an official at the Ministry of Home Affairs, R.D. Megaw broke the news to Prime Minister Sir James Craig:

I think it only right to let you know that a somewhat serious incident has occurred in the office of the military adviser. One of the registry clerks has disappeared, taking with him fourteen files. Fortunately, they are not all of importance. The man, who is RC [Roman Catholic] , had been a registry clerk in Victoria barracks and came to the Waring Street office with good recommendations.

An inquiry was immediately instigated by the government and a military officer, Corporal Nesbitt, one of his colleagues, described Stapleton as a Sinn Féin supporter. Stapleton had told another colleague that he ‘would like to get into the intelligence branch’. A search of his lodgings at Botanic Avenue revealed nothing but his landlady reported that he had told her that he was ‘going to Portrush for the weekend’. Colonel H.B. Dyson of the military adviser’s office reported to Samuel Watt of the Ministry of Home Affairs on 5 September 1922:

As Stapleton had been sent to us with good credentials I did not consider any action necessary. Stapleton, with the other clerks, had enrolled as an ‘A’ Special on 1 August when presumably all necessary investigation regarding antecedents and character had been carried out.

The results of the enquiry did not satisfy Craig who complained of ‘great uneasiness’ about the affair. The missing files covered such matters as the defence of Belfast prison, the ‘Beleek-Pettigo Neutral Zone’ and the Special Constabulary. By October 1922 the inspector-general of the RUC informed the Minister of Home Affairs, Dawson Bates, that ‘the police has no further information’.

‘Partisan police chief’

On 11 July 1922 RUC District Inspector John W. Nixon wrote to an official at the Ministry of Home Affairs to complain at his failure to obtain promotion in the new police force. His main complaint was that of seven new County Inspectors, four were from the Free State:

I was vain enough to flatter myself that the Home Secretary [Sir Dawson Bates] would have considered my claims amongst other local men before bringing in men from southern Ireland. I tried to do my best to defeat the conspiracy against Ulster but I was vain enough to hope that I had gained the confidence of many loyal people in Belfast and Fermanagh.

Nixon claimed that due to the representations of Rector of Ardoyne Monastery, Fr Sabastian, the Special Constabulary were excluded from the Ardoyne and Bone areas during the sectarian violence of 1920-22. Only the Leopold Street police were employed there:

Many of these were in sympathy with the IRA and the result of the order was that, from that day on, the IRA got out of hand and committed various murders. They were aware of the existence of the order and they knew that they could rely on many men in Leopold Street barracks and I was to a certain extent powerless…. It is a common saying here that loyalty to Britain does not pay and I hope the same will not be said about Ulster, but it is very hurtful to be rejected by those whom you consider to be your friends. Personally, I attach little importance to promotion itself, except that I feel as if the Sinn Féiners and their friends were laughing at me for getting left after all my exertions against them. In short, I can hardly conceive how the Home Secretary could bring DI Regan from southern Ireland and promote him over our men.

Nixon’s protest was supported by a series of letters to Craig from the Ulster Unionist Association and Orange Lodges. In a letter to the prime minister on 7 October 1922, the secretary of the Ulster Unionist Association urged the appointment of Nixon to a commanding position in the RUC ‘as we have no confidence in the present command’. The letter alleged ‘a leakage of valuable information to the IRA’ and described in detail the activities of Pat Stapleton in the Military Advisor’s Office:

A new Criminal Intelligence Department was established but when all the plans were complete, they were stolen and taken to Eoin O’Duffy of lead and boycott fame. The man who stole them was a confidential registrar at the head police office and turned out to be Pat Stapleton of Falls Road, Belfast.

The matter of Nixon’s career was raised by Minister of Home Affairs, Bates with Craig on 23 October 1922. Bates informed the prime minister that, of the current RUC command forty-six were Protestant and twelve were Catholic. Bates defended the appointment of two southern Irish Catholic officers to the new force, adding:

Mr Nixon was not suitable for a higher command’ and if promoted through political influence, a gross injustice would be done to more senior officers. In my opinion, Mr Nixon is entirely responsible for the agitation which has sprung up. Originally, Mr Nixon was a capable DI, but latterly he has mixed up in politics and, undoubtedly, has shown a strong party feeling which is unbecoming a police officer. In his district he has also allowed the feeling to develop that there is only one law—that for the Protestants and, in consequence, the Protestant hooligan element is allowed to interpret in its own fashion the laws of the country.

In September 1923, after the murder of a Catholic publican in the Oldpark Road area, Nixon’s district, Craig wrote to the Ministry of Home Affairs: ‘I feel strongly that if Nixon is to be removed it should be done at once’. He was finally dismissed from the force in February 1924 following a political speech to the Sir Robert Peel Orange Lodge in Belfast. He was later to pursue a career as the Independent Unionist MP for Woodvale at Stormont.

Éamon Phoenix is Senior Lecturer in History at Stranmillis College, Belfast.

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