THE LITTLEJOHN AFFAIR
By Mike McCormack, NY State Historian
On March 12, 1974, two brothers broke out of Mountjoy Jail in Dublin. A jailbreak would have been little more than local news, but this one had international impact. It was a time when the Republican command in Northern Ireland was losing support due to slanted coverage distributed by the British-controlled press to world-wide media. Even people in the Republic were insulated from the truth and had lost much of their enthusiasm for the cause. Reports of IRA bombings, violence, and fund-raising bank robberies were everyday news. It mattered not that the IRA denied all knowledge of some of these incidents; their denial was rarely published.
Then, in August 1972, Kenneth Littlejohn and his younger brother, Keith, were jailed in Dublin for the largest bank robbery in Irish history netting £67,000. When faced with imprisonment, they claimed to be members of British Intelligence sent to Ireland to commit acts in the name of the IRA that would inspire repressive legislation and alienate public support. The British denied the allegations as preposterous, claiming that they never heard of either brother. Then, on March 12 1973, after an unsuccessful attempt by the British government to secure their release, the Littlejohn brothers escaped from Mountjoy by cutting through the bars with tools that no one knew how they had received. Keith was immediately recaptured but Kenneth remained at large. Since the escape was unsuccessful, Kenneth had to secure his brothers release by other means.
Kenneth was not only being sought by the Irish police since two days after his escape, his home in England was mysteriously burglarized. He decided that the only way to protect himself was to make his story public. Sadly, few would hear the story because of the slanted coverage emanating from that part of the world. For example, the day after the breakout, Protestant Senator William Fox was seized by armed men at a house he was visiting and shot to death at Clones. A Loyalist gang called the Ulster Freedom Fighters claimed responsibility, but the police publicly blamed the IRA. The IRA claimed that it had no part in the killing, but their disclaimer was ignored. Then, on 21 March, two British soldiers were killed and two wounded in separate incidents in Armagh by Ulster Constabulary. The soldiers were part of the Counterinsurgency unit of the Special Air Service on plainclothes duty against the IRA. The police saw the men in civilian clothes in a Republican area and assumed that they were IRA men. The incidents underscored the “shoot first” attitude of the police, but they were reported as merely a tragic accident.
Kenneth Littlejohn threatened to reveal the truth unless the Dublin government released his brother, but believing the British denial, they refused, so Kenneth called a press conference! When the story broke publicly, it was a sensation and despite attempts to hush it up, there were many red faces. Authorities were embarrassed as British Agent, Kenneth Littlejohn, revealed accounts of criminal activities performed for British Military Intelligence in the Republic of Ireland in an attempt to discredit the IRA. He and his brother had pulled Ireland’s biggest bank robbery in the name of the IRA to force the Dublin government into more repressive measures and the Dublin government played right into their hands. Littlejohn also revealed he had been assigned to assassinate IRA leader Sean MacStiofain, but failed and that he had permission to shoot British soldiers if they interfered with his mission. He revealed lengthy conversations with British officials as far back as 1972. Finally faced with undeniable evidence, British authorities shamefully admitted that Littlejohn was their agent. British MP Marcus Lipton called for an in-depth investigation of the affair but British Prime Minister Harold Wilson rejected the proposal. Local news accounts credit former British Security Advisor, Lord Wigg, as the key figure in the decision not to investigate.
Then, to compound matters, Kenneth Lennon was slain in England. Lennon had revealed to Britain’s National Council for Civil Liberties a similar tale of intrigue and deception by Scotland Yard in its fight against the IRA. He charged that the British Special Branch threatened him with prosecution on an earlier incident unless he went undercover and persuaded the IRA to commit crimes for the cause and then to reveal those crimes to Scotland Yard. His death, coming on the heels of the Littlejohn affair, further embarrassed the authorities who, nevertheless, released the story that it was an IRA execution, and called for tougher measures against Republicans.
Northern Ireland has come a long way since those terrible times and news is less controlled thanks to the internet, but the mentality that pursued that conspiracy just 45 years ago still exists among many Loyalists and revisionists who alter the facts for public consumption. That is why we must continue to pray that they do not prevail in the current situation involving power-sharing and Brexit! Don’t let history repeat itself !