How we saved Johnny Adair
Sean Hartnett was deeply uncomfortable about his involvement in an operation to save the life of Johnny 'Mad Dog' Adair. Adair was one of the most notorious loyalist terrorists of the Troubles. In 2002, he was expelled from the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) after a violent feud.
Published 18/09/2016 | 02:30
In Autumn 2002 there was solid intelligence that an attempt was to be made on Johnny Adair's life.
The loyalist paramilitary ranks apparently leaked like a sieve, but on this occasion the information hadn't come from an informer but from a listening device in the home of one of the UDA's commanders.
After years of pandering to him, some of the UDA's leading figures had finally had enough and wanted him gone for good (Adair was a drug dealer at the centre of many loyalist feuds).
The hit was to be carried out by two of the UDA's most experienced hitmen. They would use one of their favourite assassination methods - a drive-by shooting. Two men on a motorbike would approach Adair, pull up beside him, and the passenger would spray him with bullets.
He was to be hit as he walked his eight-year-old daughter to school.
That presented a problem. Word came down that the risk to the little girl and her schoolmates was unacceptable and so the Det was instructed to intervene.
Even with the risk to a child, some people were still very uncomfortable with the idea of an operation to save Adair.
In the end, it was agreed to keep it as low-key as possible. We would put in a controlled crash and make it look like a normal everyday accident.
The operations officer surmised: "They are likely to scarper once they're off the bike, but if they decide to stand and make an issue of it, we'll have plenty of back-up."
Not knowing exactly which direction they were coming from posed a problem. With limited resources, the operations officer spread a wide net of operator vehicles around the school.
He was using the surveillance cameras located around Belfast to his full advantage and the Gazelle was flying high above Belfast city on the lookout for the motorcycle in the traffic. At the same time a covert camera had eyes on Adair's front door waiting for him to leave. The crash vehicle was a van driven by an operator from the Det.
"Standby! Standby! Charlie One is foxtrot towards the school," the operations officer announced, having picked up Adair leaving the house via the covert camera.
Everyone was on edge.
Then came the call. "Standby! Standby! Motorcycle approaching, two-up." The van driver picked up their route.
As the motorbike rounded the next corner he accelerated from behind and clipped the rear wheel. The bike spun out and hit the ground.
The two men's instinct to get up and run kicked in and off they went.
After the operation there was much discussion in the Det about why we had saved Adair. Everyone seemed to have opinions on him. All the rumours that had been circulating for years about him, about his sexuality, his drug dealing, his relationship with British Intelligence and Special Branch, were repeated.
The explanation for protecting him - not wanting to risk the young girl's life - was questioned. We all knew that British Intelligence didn't give a damn about collateral damage from their operations if they were deemed essential.
It was in most people's interests to see him gone yet we had just expended massive resources protecting him.
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 many in the Det that Adair must have also been providing information on his own organisation to the security services.
If it was the case, he wouldn't have been the first double agent in Northern Ireland's history.
This one, though, continued to bother me and bothers me to this day. I have to keep telling myself it was the young girl's life we were saving - not Adair's.