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IT WAS, claimed the Republican propaganda, nothing short of a triumph, "a major breakthrough in the war with the SAS".An IRA unit had captured a top British intelligence officer, who had divulged crucial information before being executed.But the truth, claims author John Parker in his new book Death of a Hero: Captain Robert Nairac, GC, and the Undercover War in Northern Ireland, was rather more prosaic.The handsome young man in the donkey jacket and boots had told regulars his name was Danny McAlevey, from the Ardoyne. He was a "Sticky", he told them, a member of the Official IRA which had split from the Provisionals and renounced violence.In fact, he was the son of Sunderland Eye Infirmary opthalmic surgeon Maurice Nairac and wife Barbara, educated at the Roman Catholic Ampleforth College, in North Yorkshire, who had gained four Oxford blues for boxing before taking a commission with the Grenadier Guards and enrolling at Sandhurst in 1969.Yet the 29-year-old was no stranger to the pubs and bars of what was referred to only half-jokingly among the security forces as "cowboy country".Nairac was already on his fourth tour of undercover duty in the Province and well-acquainted with the dangers of the work.But there were worrying signs that his cover might not be secure. Reports that the Provos had been alerted to the presence of "a guy called Danny, probably a soldier", had already reached the ears of Nairacs superiors from their informants, claims Parker.Whatever the situation, the young man must have felt reasonably safe as his red Triumph Toledo saloon pulled into the car park of The Three Steps on May 14, 1977. He left his specially adapted service 9mm Browning pistol in the car.He used the secret radio concealed behind the normal one in the dashboard to check in with headquarters. It was to be his last contact.Saturday evening was live music night in the Steps and the bar was packed. Nairac pushed his way through the crowds and ordered a Guinness. Barman Malachy Locke remembers him chatting with two men at the bar.During the course of the evening, "Danny" became friendly with the group performing, the John Murphy Band from Crossmaglen, and joined them on stage to sing several numbers, including Republican standard The Broad Black Brimmer.By the end of the night, Nairac had attracted the attentions of several men in the bar and seemed to be becoming agitated.Believing their new friend was about to be set upon, one of the band members invited him to leave with them. Nairac declined. It was to prove a fatal mistake.What happened next is not entirely clear. It seems certain Nairac was set upon as he left the bar, but he may well have felt that with his prowess as a boxer, he would have little problem against one or two men.It seems, however, that others were waiting for him. Witnesses recall seeing a group of four or five men fighting in the car park.Nairac made it to his car and was able to grab his pistol, but was apparently overcome before he could use it. The Toledos windows were smashed where it stood in the car park, suggesting it had been the focus of a violent struggle.It may even have been Nairacs determination and fighting spirit that cost him his life.Interviewed by John Parker, SAS Major Clive Fairweather, a colleague of Nairacs in Ulster, speculates that his attackers may have had no real plan and it may only have been the prospect of a high-profile fight in the middle of the pubs car park which forced their hand.Whatever the truth, Captain Nairac was bundled into a waiting car and taken over the border into the Republic, where he was dragged out in a field and attacked by up to nine assailants.He fought back bravely, even snatching back his pistol and shooting one man in the leg before he was finally fully overpowered.Meanwhile, a local IRA commander, Liam Townson, had received a call about the prisoner.Stopping off on the way to pick up his pistol from its hiding place, he arrived to find the crowd baying for blood, enraged by the shooting of one of its members.Finally asserting his authority, he marched Nairac away from the lynch-mob and up the field. It almost cost him his life. Although seriously injured, Nairac grabbed Townsons gun and turned it on him - only for it to misfire.Recaptured and interrogated, "Danny" stuck to his story. He had acquired the Browning while working in Canada, where the guns were made. He was from the Catholic enclave of Ardoyne in Belfast - an area Robert Nairac knew well from his service on its streets.Despite hours of torture, his captors still knew nothing about him other than his cover story, but they were still convinced something was wrong.Their final trick was for one man to pretend to be a priest, come to take final confession and administer last rites. Despite his faith, Robert Nairac stuck to his story.By now, believes Parker, Liam Townson was way out of his depth. Execution had not been the original plan, but the IRA man had lost a great deal of face by almost letting a badly injured man overpower him. Robert Nairacs determined resistance may have sealed his fate.Horrifically, Townsons gun again proved faulty and he had to pull the trigger two or three times before it finally fired. Nairac was killed by a single shot to the head.Within 48 hours, the Republican propaganda machine was trumpeting the execution as a major blow against British intelligence.In fact, says Parker, it was nothing of the sort. Parker quotes security sources who speak of the fury of senior IRA intelligence figures at the loss of such a potentially rich source of information.He believes the speed with which Townson was identified and arrested is significant, that he was betrayed by his own side for his incompetence and to relieve pressure on the IRA, who would be in no doubt about the efforts that would be put in to tracing the killers.Townson was convicted of murder in Dublin and sentenced to life imprisonment. Released in 1990, he still lives close to Drumintree.Robert Nairac was posthumously awarded peacetimes highest military honour, the George Cross, two years after his death, but his family still do not have a body to bury.The peace process sparked hopes six months ago that his resting place might finally be revealed, but nothing has emerged.Rumours persist that there may be no body to find. Former IRA intelligence officer, turned supergrass, Eamon Collins, has claimed that the body was hidden in a meat processing plant close to the scene of the shooting, then destroyed in the plants machinery.Another rumour holds that Nairacs remains were buried in a peat bog, to conceal the extent of the torture he had endured.One thing alone is clear. IRA claims that Robert Nairac had betrayed his country were lies.In his first statement, Townson told detectives: "I shot the British captain. He never told us anything."He was a great soldier." Death of a Hero: Captain Robert Nairac, GC, and the Undercover War in Northern Ireland, by John Parker, priced at 17.99, is available from Metro Books on January 18. For booking a copy Freephone 0500 418419.