Headquarters Mobile Support Unit

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The Headquarters Mobile Support Unit (HMSU) was a special unit of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.


The Headquarters Mobile Support Unit (HMSU) was a uniformed elite unit established by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), intended to be the RUC equivalent of the Special Air Service (SAS). Members of the HMSU were enrolled into RUC Special Branch and were trained by the SAS to on how to confront Irish Republican Army (IRA) members and other opponents with "firepower, speed and aggression".[1]

The unit had its prototype in the Bessbrook Support Unit (BSU) set up in 1977 as part of the scaling-up of the RUC's numbers and capabilities under Chief Constable Kenneth Newman to "Ulsterise" as far as possible the maintenance of security. The intensively trained and highly armed BSU were intended to take over from the SAS the role of deployment along the South Armagh border to intercept IRA active service units. The BSU were in 1979 replaced with a Special Patrol Group (SPG), which was in turn replaced in 1981 by the Special Support Unit (SSU).[2] The SSU was subsequently renamed the Headquarters Mobile Support Unit (HMSU) as the initials SSU were considered too similar to SAS, suggesting a military-style unit.[3]

"Shoot to kill"[edit]

The SSU were infamously involved in the alleged "shoot-to-kill" incidents of November and December 1982, when six republican paramilitaries were shot dead in three separate incidents, all of whom turned out to be unarmed. These incidents, and evidence which came out in court of organised falsification of the details of the encounters, led to the setting up of the 1984–86 Stalker Inquiry.

In this period, according to evidence given in court at the time by RUC deputy chief constable Michael McAtamney, officers selected for the unit underwent an immensely tough two-week assessment of fitness, mental ability and endurance under pressure, followed by a four-week course including seven days devoted exclusively to weapons training; with the focus being to "eliminate the threat" posed to officers.[3]

In addition to standard RUC weaponry, the unit additionally used Uzi sub-machine guns; Remington pump-action shotguns and Browning semi-automatic shotguns; the Ruger Mini-14 light semi-automatic rifle; and 14-shot, 54 Smith & Wesson magnums, carried as personal sidearms.[3] According to one subsequent report, at the time of the 1982 shootings, the HMSU that had been active in the RUC southern region comprised two dozen men, working in field teams of six, travelling in pairs of specially armoured unmarked Ford Cortinas, the front passenger with a Sterling submachine gun, the rear passenger a Ruger rifle, and all three including the driver were armed with pistols.[4]

The unit was based at RUC Lisnasharrah, East Belfast, and worked closely with the RUC plain-clothes intelligence gathering unit E4A. Many were English and/or ex-soldiers. According to reports, as uncovered by the Stalker Inquiry, the units operated almost as a law unto themselves, taking orders only from a small group at Gough Barracks in Armagh that was in charge of tasking and co-ordination, who in turn answered only to Special Branch at RUC headquarters at Knock. Members generally refused to recognise the authority of senior officers not in the unit, a constable on one occasion telling a CID detective to leave the site and come back after he had had a meal.[3][4]

According to American writer J. Bowyer Bell there were two such units in all at the time, of 24 members each;[5] although a 1985 newspaper article claimed at least 12 such squads were active.[6] The same article explained their rationale: "The circumstances of the shootings have to be put into the context of Northern Ireland. In the same period two RUC officers who approached a car parked outside a County Down post office were shot dead by IRA men about to stage a robbery. Unionists were not slow to claim that if anyone was shooting to kill, it was the Republican paramilitaries."[6]


Following the 1982 shootings, the HMSU was reined in. Subsequently the RUC would play a supporting role in such operations, but the active role in intelligence-led covert ambushes was returned to the British Army, in particular the Special Air Service and similarly-trained units, under ultimate police operational control.[7]

Tasking of these operations was put into the hands of a joint committee that included the Intelligence Corps and MI5 as well as senior police officers, rather than the original exclusive tight control by a close-knit small group of RUC officers reporting to HQ-level Special Branch. Some measures were also taken to make the Special Branch less of a force within a force, with regional RUC assistant chief constables having to be informed of Special Branch operations in their areas, and a single senior assistant chief constable position created, with oversight responsibility for both CID and Special Branch.[8] The HMSU continued to take part in "rapid reaction" duties, including raids on suspected paramilitary properties, and spearheading riot control.

The HMSU continued in being throughout the 1980s and 1990s as an operational sub-department of Special Branch department E4.[9] In this time the unit traced and arrested several IRA members in Northern Ireland.[citation needed]

As the level of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland is not as high as in previous years the unit currently involves itself in high-risk police duties such as drug raids, armed response etc. whilst monitoring the Real IRA and other dissident republican groups, ready to respond to any paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. HMSU is now located within the PSNI's C4 Special Operations Branch.[10] They work and train closely with the Republic of Ireland's Garda Emergency Response Unit (ERU).[11]

Divisional Mobile Support Units (DMSUs), attached to each police division, have also existed. The DMSUs have now been renamed Tactical Support Groups (TSGs).[citation needed]


Glock 17


  1. ^ Abstracts on Organisations: H, CAIN website, University of Ulster
  2. ^ Graham Ellison, Jim Smyth (2000), The Crowned Harp: Policing Northern Ireland. London: Pluto Press. ISBN 978-0-7453-1393-1. p. 90
  3. ^ a b c d David Sapsted and Richard Ford, RUC set to cover its elite squad, The Times, 24 October 1986
  4. ^ a b David Leigh, Jonathan Foster and Paul Lashmar, Ulster death squad secrets exposed, The Observer, 12 October 1986; p.1
  5. ^ J. Bowyer Bell (1997), The secret army: the IRA, 3rd ed. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 978-1-56000-901-6 p. 532
  6. ^ a b Paul Johnson, Ulster's undercover squads trained to kill, The Guardian, 16 February 1985
  7. ^ Ellison and Smyth (2000), The Crowned Harp, p. 128.
  8. ^ David Hearst, Kelly faces obstinate questions on trail pioneered by Stalker, The Guardian, 18 February 1988.
    House of Commons debates, 17 February 1988, 3:30 pm via They Work For You
  9. ^ e.g. Report of the Billy Wright Inquiry, section 5.53, 14 September 2010, describing the structure of Special Branch as at December 1997
  10. ^ PSNI Policy for Special Operations Branch, Policy Directive 04/07, PSNI, January 2007[dead link]
  11. ^ "Garda Emergency Response Unit show terrorists what they’re facing in June". Irish Daily Star. 17 April 2013. Retrieved 3 May 2014.