Thursday, December 07, 2017

Rick Gibson - a police spy in 1970s South East London Troops Out Movement

The latest undercover police spy in radical movements to be profiled by Undercover Research is 'Rick Gibson' (not his real name), who infiltrated Irish solidarity and other groups in South East London in the 1970s.

'Gibson' was actually unmasked at the time after activists discovered that he was using the identity of a dead child (a common tactic), and seems to have been pulled out by his superiors after being confronted with evidence. The case is now being looked at again in the context of the official Undercover Policing Enquiry.

A genuine activist from this time,  Richard Chessum (who lived in Burrage Road SE18 in this period), had helped set up a South East  London branch of the Troops Out Movement  in 1974, a campaign which called for British withdrawal from the north of Ireland. Chessum recalls:

'At the time I was a student politically active in Goldsmiths. I had in fact been a candidate for President of the Students Union. I had also been involved in a previous organisation campaigning on Northern Ireland, the Anti Internment League. In this latter capacity I had been one of the main organisers of a march to Woolwich Barracks protesting against internment without trial and had been the person negotiating the route with the police. I therefore had a high profile, which I think may have made me of interest'.

He was joined in the SE London branch of TOM, which held most of its meetings at Charlton House, by someone who called himself 'Rick Gibson'. By making himself useful and avoiding some of the sectarian infighting from rival left wing groups, Gibson became secretary of SE London TOM in 1975, going on to become London organiser then one of two national secretaries in 1976 - a position that would have given him  possession of the names and addresses of all members across the country. He also triend to join the revolutionary group Big Flame, but they were suspicious and it was their checks that led to him being exposed. 

1975 Troops Out poster

Like several other exposed spycops, 'Rick Gibson' was in relationships with women while undercover who would surely not have consented to them if they had known the position. According to Undercover Research, he was 'in four relationships that we know of. The first longer-term relationships were with two women Richard knew, and active in the Troops Out Movement South East London Branch. The women were friends sharing a flat, and active as students at Goldsmiths College. After Chessum found out that Gibson had disappeared, he visited them. Without having heard of the investigation, they told him they had figured out between them that Gibson had to be a policeman. They had no evidence, but had decided this was the only explanation for his behaviour - always leaving before the morning, never visiting at weekends - which suggested he was going home to a wife and family'.

Incidentally part of Gibson's cover story was that  he  said he had signed on as an evening student at Goldsmiths to learn Portuguese - at that time Goldsmiths had an extensive adult education programme.

Reflections of a later Troops Out Movement member:

We asked a former South London TOM activist for some thoughts about this:

'Hearing about this episode has made me reflect on my own time in the South London branch of the Troops Out Movement in the early 1990s, which met at a community centre by the Elephant and Castle (in Rodney Place if I recall correctly). Arguably it was a less dangerous time to be involved in Irish politics than in the 1970s, with the peace process unfolding towards the first IRA ceasefire in 1994. But there were still some terrible events occurring, like the murder of 6 people watching the World Cup in a pub in Loughinisland in June '94, carried out by the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force. The Troops Out Movement argued at the time that members of the police and secret services were colluding with loyalists in such attacks, something that has since been confirmed by official inquiries.

We had no doubt therefore that anything to do with Irish politics in London, as elsewhere, would be the focus of state surveillance. We simply assumed that there would be infiltrators in our midst, that went with the territory. I remember there was at least one guy who completely fitted what we now know to be the spycop profile - drove a van, very cagey about their address, no obvious previous political involvement  - who we used to joke about being a cop even then (but of course maybe he wasn't). We didn't spend too much time worrying about it, partly because organisations that obsessed about uncovering spies usually descended into recriminations and sometimes misplaced allegations, and partly because there wasn't actually anything much to hide - just a lot of usually quite dull meetings and the hard slog of leafleting and lobbying. Troops Out was close to Sinn Fein, and through our annual delegation to Belfast many of us had friends in the Irish republican community (one member of South London TOM, who I remember used to live on Kinglake Estate, is now a Sinn Fein councillor in Dublin). No doubt these connections were of interest, though knowing what we now know about the extent of infiltration of the republican movment too I am sure they didn't find much of interest from infiltrating TOM. I think there was just a massive security services industry that was all over anything that moved to do with the north of Ireland whether or not it was involved in anything illegal, which TOM definitely wasn't.  

I guess police spies exploit the positive human tendency to want to think the best of people and include people who seem a bit out of their depth. People need to be wary, but not to create a  cold, calculating, hostile political culture where everyone is constantly suspecting everyone else. When people are exposed, you can't help but get caught up in the human drama of these situations and wonder whether, amidst all the subterfuge, loyalties and sympathies were ever blurred; whether there were ever any moments that could pass for genuine friendship. I have friends who went to gigs and festivals away from pollitics with people now known to be undercover cops. Maybe the shared musical taste was real, maybe it was all a cover story - this kind of thing messes with your sense of memory and self. But we shouldn't lose sight of the real damage done by mixing up policing, politics and personal relationships - particularly where sexual relationships and even children are involved. The damage was mainly inflicted on the activists who were deliberately deceived, but it's clear that many of the police involved have also been left pretty screwed up in the long term. No doubt much more of this will be heard as the Undercover Policing unfolds, even if the early signs are that much will be still be swept under the carpet'.

Update, February 2018: 'Mary', one of the women Gibson was involved with metioned above, has given a statement to the Undercover Policing Inquiry:

'From September 1972 to July 1975 I was enrolled on a teacher training course in the Education Department at Goldsmith College. I was politically active in the student movement and a member of the Socialist Society. After I finished my course, I remained in my flat and active around student politics for another year.

The first time I met Rick Gibson was at Goldsmith College when he approached me while I was distributing political literature. He came up to me and showed an interest in our political campaign.

I rented a flat that I shared with another Goldsmith student who was also politically active. I was involved in various campaigns and student solidarity work. My flatmate was active in the Troops Out Movement. Rick Gibson befriended her as well, socialising and talking politics. Due to the fact that the flat had a landline, lots of organising was happening from our flat. I often hosted meetings of the International Marxist Group (IMG) branch in my flat. Various people with leading positions in the organisation would visit. Rick Gibson very quickly became a frequent visitor to the flat to see me and my  flatmate to coordinate TOM publicity and planning - as well as for socialising and conversation... 

At one point while he was still a regular visitor, Rick Gibson and I became sexually intimate for a short period of time...  I feel very used by him, and by the state, invading my privacy and my body. I do onder how many other people he has deceived and hurt over time... In  the public interest, I think we are entitled to know who he was and to what extend he was operating on instruction from senior figures in the police of the government of the time. Was he acting on his own initiative? If so, what steps will be taken to hold his senior police officers who sanctioned this activity? If senior civil servants of previous government ministers sanctioned this, or knew about these activities they also need to be held accountable'.

see previously:

Jim Sutton - undercover in East Dulwich

May Day 2001 - a police spy at the Elephant and Castle

Undercover - police spies in South London (including their sometime Camberwell HQ)

Undercover with the Millwall Bushwackers

A police informer in Lewisham during the 1926 General Strike

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