Rick Gibson was an early officer in the Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), the Metropolitan Police’s specialist political undercover unit set up in 1968. We published his profile last year revealing how he infiltrated the Troops Out Movement and Big Flame in the mid-1970s, and how he was unmasked by his comrades back in the day. The Undercover Policing Inquiry confirmed his identity in August 2017.
At the November hearings of the Undercover Policing Inquiry, the Undercover Research Group was able to reveal that Gibson had been in relationships with at least two, and maybe as many as four women. This was important in demonstrating that, far from the Inquiry’s presumption of it being a later development, sexual targeting was standard practice from quite early on.
But rather than trying to get to the bottom of this as he suggested he would at the hearing, the Chair of the Inquiry refused to release Gibson’s real name without any of the deceived women requesting it. He said he wished to receive ‘plausible statements’ from the women mentioned.
Probably better be careful what you ask for, as we found a hell of a woman. She had the courage to come forward, and her statement is extremely powerful.
We first heard of the Gibson story in February when someone came forward at the event discussing the spying on the Grunwick Strike. One or two others contacted us separately over the next few months. The Inquiry releasing his cover name in August provided an official confirmation of what we already knew. By this time a small network of old friends of Gibson had been brought together supporting our investigation; their help in reaching out to comrades from back in the day proving invaluable.
Rick Gibson was deployed between 1974 and 1976 to infiltrate the Troops Out Movement, which campaigned against the British presence in Northern Ireland, and the revolutionary socialist group Big Flame. His time undercover was cut short after he was investigated by his comrades, his lack of political background giving rise to suspicions. References given for his history and family did not check out, and Big Flame activists discovered Gibson had stolen the identity of a dead child. After being confronted, the spycop disappeared.
We interviewed people who Gibson had befriended while undercover. Their memories were remarkably clear, and they had archives to back up their stories. Moreover, it felt special to find out that investigating suspicions in a thoughtful way has such a long history.
The profile of ‘Rick Gibson’ – including a section on his relationships – was ready to go up by the end of October. However, we first contacted the Inquiry to make sure they had informed the real family of the dead baby whose identity had been stolen. They should have, before releasing his covername in August.
The reports of the 1976 investigation were quite specific as to where that baby was born, and when – and we did not want to surprise an unwitting family. The Inquiry asked for our evidence and instead of just that, we sent them the entire draft-profile of Gibson, on November 8th. We did not hear back until after the hearings of 20-21 November, with the Inquiry stating that our details about the dead baby’s identity were not convincing enough to approach that family; so we decided to publish the profile, holding back the identifying details.
A large part of the November hearing was set to look at a batch of undercover officers who had served during the first years of the SDS, in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. It soon became a bit of a rushed routine, discussing the officers’ applications for anonymity with Gibson on the list of those whose real names would not be revealed.
However, in his opening speech, the Chair, John Mitting, had made it clear that he feels a moral obligation to disclose real names to any women deceived into relationships by undercover officers (draft transcripts p.6). Realising the significance of the information we were sitting on, we passed it on to Phillippa Kaufmann, QC – the counsel for all those who were spied upon. When she revealed that Gibson had been in at least two relationship, it was a jaw dropping moment. Clearly, the Chair and the Metropolitan Police’s legal teams were stunned by the revelation. Neither had done their homework, and the Inquiry had failed to read their mail.
Immediately, Mitting agreed that this ‘puts a very different complexion on matters.’ He was quick to realise the importance of the revelation, since Gibson’s deployment was so early in the life of the SDS’s activities. Referring to Gibson by his code-number, Mitting added:
‘HN297 is 1974 to 1976, that is probably in the period when practices started to be adopted routinely and things may have started to go wrong’. (Draft transcripts p.144-145)
Indeed, Gibson’s case reveals that the targeting of women by undercover officers was not something that just happened as an aberration. Rather, it seems to have been a tactic implemented as an integral part of operations, quite soon after the secret unit was set up in 1968.
That Gibson had been in relationships had been independently confirmed to us by various people. However, for the Inquiry that was not enough. Mitting asked us to produce statements from the women, as he would not accept second-hand sources as sufficient evidence to reveal the real name of Rick Gibson.
Many months into our investigation, it seemed next to impossible to trace the women who had been involved with Gibson almost 45 years ago.
At that moment in time, we knew of four women; the first is someone who has chosen not to come forward, while for the second we only had a goodbye letter from Gibson written after he was confronted. There were unconfirmed rumours about yet another relationship with someone who had died since.
A key source for us was Richard Chessum, befriended by Gibson to get close to the Troops Out Movement; He had told us about two women sharing a flat at the time who had both been seeing Gibson. Between them, they had concluded that he had to have been a police officer based on his weird habits of never spending the entire night, and not revealing anything about his personal life. When, back in 1976, Richard brought them the news about the Big Flame investigation and his disappearance, this confirmed their suspicions.
Finding these women was now crucial. Once again, we reached out to the small network of comrades. Several people remembered the full name of one of the women, and after some searching we singled out a few candidates, deciding to approach the most likely one. Richard wrote a letter to her just before Christmas. And yes, it indeed turned out to be her; we met face to face in mid-January.
She came in not entirely understanding why we would be so interested in what for her was a tiny part of her history – from a very long time ago. Although it took quite some explaining (the exposures, the court cases, the Inquiry, its procedures, the delays), she soon realised that her story was now a critical piece of evidence.
She immediately agreed to draft a statement for the Inquiry, and when asked how she felt about having had an undercover officer in her life, the words flowed straight from her. The personal and the political captured in a most powerful way:
‘It felt very embarrassing and upsetting to discover that somebody you regarded your friend and associate had abused our hospitality and friendship.
I feel very used by him, and by the state, invading my privacy and my body. I do wonder how many other people he has deceived and hurt over time.
On discovering that my friends and I had been in the presence of an undercover officer this left me feeling fearful of further open and legal political activity.’
She also asks for the information the state is holding on her, to verify its accuracy, and states that the real name of Rick Gibson should be revealed.
‘In the public interest, I think we are entitled to know who he was and to what extent 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.’
Her statement has now been submitted to the Undercover Policing Inquiry. As she has been granted anonymity, we will from now on refer to her as ‘Mary’. (She does not wish to be contacted by either police or the press).
With her help, we hope to be able to find her flatmate.
A Special Branch spy
Coincidently, we also found confirmation for the relationship with the woman who died in the mid-1990s. A friend was reading a book by Michele Roberts, a partly fictionalised autobiography called Paper Houses. Remembering her time in a shared house in Talfourd Road in south London, Roberts describes the people she lived with, one of them a woman whose boyfriend turned out to be a spy:
‘I remember Dina, who lived with us for a while and who was a member of the small libertarian group Big Flame, making us breakfast to hearten us one chilly morning before a Troops out of Ireland demonstration: scrambled eggs thick with bran. Who needed body armour for protection against truncheon blows? We were fortified by character armour: breastplates of bran.
Dina’s lover, we discovered later, an amiable chap who ambled about after her like a devoted spaniel, was in fact a Special Branch spy, set on to her to infiltrate the revolutionary group and act as an informer. Less a pet than a bloodhound; a sniffer dog. Served him right that in order to spy effectively he had to endure Dina’s breakfast special. The Full Trotskyist.’
We asked the author and she has confirmed that ‘Dina’ was indeed a pseudonym for one of the women on our list.
La lutte continua
So there we are, three of the four women to date. And there is still a fifth possibility, as we don’t know who the goodbye letter mentioned earlier was addressed to. We will continue reaching out to those affected by Rick Gibson, but if anyone has photos of him, or a copy of that original investigation file we are very interested.
The Inquiry still has Rick Gibson on the agenda for the hearing on the 5th of February. Mitting is minded to decide against revealing his real name. However, that was before Mary’s statement was submitted, so the decision might be postponed.
We have said this before and we will keep repeating it. With all of the police investigations, hundreds of officers swallowing up millions of pounds and the Inquiry following suit, it was still the Undercover Research Group operating on a shoe-string budget who delivered vital information.
We took the time to focus on Gibson and build up the trust needed to get people to talk to us, to support people like Mary to have their voices heard. Gibson is not alone though. No doubt, when we would look at other spycops from the early days, similar stories would emerge.
The Inquiry is not even looking.
We will continue to support people to come forward and find people who are crucial to the Inquiry. Because we believe that if we don’t keep pushing and campaigning nothing will happen. In fact none of this should have to be necessary though. The people targeted and spied upon (the non-state core participants) need to be far more centred in the Inquiry process than they currently are. We will not get the truth, and the Inquiry will not be able to do its job, until they release the names and open the files.
- Rob Evans, Woman reveals police spy tricked her into relationship in 1970s, The Guardian, 31 January 2018.
- Earlier blogpost: ‘Rick Gibson’ – spycops sexually targeted women from the start, 28 November 2017