Charlie One, Seán Hartnett

Charlie One. The True Story of an Irishman in the British Army and His Role in Covert Counter-Terrorism Operations in Northern Ireland, Seán Hartnett

Merrion Press (imprint of Irish Academic Press), Newbridge 2016
ISBN: 978-1-78537-085-4

200 pages
€ 14,99

Stopping terrorists in Northern Ireland

The period of civil unrest, paramilitary activity and guerrilla warfare in Northern Ireland from the late 1960’s to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, better known as The Troubles, still holds society in the north of the island in its grip today. Not surprisingly taking into account the depth of the conflict and the wounds it has caused on both sides of the dividing line, and its proximity in time. Where books on paramilitary activity from both a historical and a journalistic viewpoint are numerous, Hartnett’s book is a bit different. The author tells his personal story of his time serving with the British army in Northern Ireland during the first years of the 21st century in the struggle against terrorism.

Hartnett’s story is unusual in two ways, firstly he was born and raised in Cork in the Republic of Ireland and grew up in a family with sympathies for the Republican cause in the North. Secondly, his story forms a first-hand account of top secret counter-surveillance activities by British security forces in Northern Ireland and therefore provides a fascinating insight into the way of working of this highly secretive branch of the British security forces. Hartnett’s unit doesn’t even exist formally, its activities however are real enough. To add up to that, the author's account makes clear to any reader outside the Irish isle, that not all was well after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, to put it mildly. Of course the Provisional IRA (PIRA) winded down its terror campaign, and as the key adversary for the British security forces, that made a huge difference. It also brought with it however, discord inside its ranks, leading to the development of dissident Republican paramilitary groups such as the Real IRA (RIRA) and Continuity IRA (CIRA). In their nature not as well-disciplined as the PIRA but a real threat to society nonetheless.

Hartnett tells his readers how he, in his youthful ignorance, almost became a volunteer for the Provo’s but at the last moment decided to let his meeting with associates of the organisation pass. Perhaps it was his, maybe misplaced, desire for adventure that had given him the idea initially. Instead he chose to join the British army, not because of a stance towards politics in the North, but because he wanted to see something of the world. He got what he asked for and it was not before long that he was sent out on his first UN-peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone. After his return from Oman, a second mission, Hartnett wanted to serve in Northern Ireland. And not only that, he wanted to become part of the so-called Joint Communication Unit-Northern Ireland (JCU-NI) to play his part in the peacekeeping on his home island. Although it was not a popular posting due to the dangers it brought with it, as an Irishman from the Republic Hartnett found it difficult to secure his transfer. He succeeded nonetheless.

As a technician, Hartnett served three years with the covert counter-surveillance unit, preparing vehicles for covert surveillance operations and inserting and maintaining tools of communication in the broadest sense of the word. During his time with ‘the DET’, the ‘detachment’ or outpost of the JCU-NI as it was called by the troops, he experienced the thrill and exhausting tension working in covert operations hunting paramilitary targets, ‘Charlie One’ being the codename for target number one during operations of the force. In the years serving with this unit, Hartnett got to know the nature of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland to its core. It didn’t have anything to do with a ‘just cause’ whatsoever, in reality it was basically just criminality, coming primarily in the form of excessively violent behaviour, combined by drugs-related crime. Along the way he learned the true facts behind the Loughgall ambush of an IRA-active service unit and had to watch Loyalist murderer and drugs criminal Johnny ‘Mad Dog’ Adair walk free because of dubious reasons when the DET had their mark on him as ‘Charlie One’. Probably because Adair acted as a double agent, informing the British army about Loyalist paramilitary activities.

These and more fascinating inside stories can be found in Hartnett’s narrative. For anyone interested in the Troubles and its aftermath into the first years of the 2000’s, it is definitely a very rewarding read.

Wouter van Dijk