Salutary lessons in Army bigotry

When Caroline Meagher (left) joined the military police she thought she would be investigating serious crime. Instead she found herself involved in a witch hunt against lesbians that was to end in disaster when her own affair was uncovered, writes Barbara Machin

Barbara Machin
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:16

In 1981 Corporal Caroline Meagher, a talented young military policewoman joined the Army's elite, the Special Investigation Branch (SIB), as a plain clothes detective. The "Feds" are a legendary force with high standards dealing with all serious military crime.

Caroline embarked on her new work with zeal and commitment, seeing this as a fast- track route to the top in her already promising career. What she could not have foreseen was that her elevation and ambition would lead to accusations of shocking sexual impropriety and dishonesty.

Her story has come to highlight the fierce anti-gay policy embodied by the armed services in the belief that without such restrictive practices, discipline and morale would break down irretrievably and lead to security risks and blackmail.

Although the validity of such fears remains a subject of controversy, the extreme and often obsessive methods employed to hunt out gays have come under severe scrutiny. Britain is the only country in the EU still to maintain an anti-homosexual policy in it's armed forces, and was directed by the courts last year rigorously to re-examine its practices. The pressure is on. All this comes at a time when several cases are set to go before the European Court, and Caroline Meagher's own shocking experiences have been made into a television drama to be aired tonight.

I met Caroline 12 years after she had been discharged from the Army. It was only then that she started to unravel the past. She was talking to strangers, heaping painful detail on private humiliation. It wasn't comfortable, it didn't feel good, it was the first time in 12 years she had dared to tell anyone the details of her story. She once angrily informed the researcher and myself that it felt like she had swapped her Army interrogators for us. But her motive was always clear. This was her story, but it was also the story of hundreds of other forgotten women, a scandal which she felt compelled to exposed.

Caroline Meagher joined the women's army as a starry-eyed young recruit in 1978. Already used to service life (her father is ex-RAF), she survived the bullying and the drill-to-you-drop regime to receive the famous red beret, proudly passing out as a Lance Corporal in the RMP. Ambitious from the first, she had gained admittance to the Army's best and never looked back. She was popular and fearless, a woman expecting no favours in a man's world.

Caroline couldn't believe her luck when she began work with the SIB. Getting out of uniform and starting hands-on-investigations into murder, violence and thefts. Caroline felt she had finally arrived. But her euphoria turned to turmoil when she found herself being briefed about the evil influence of lesbians in the women's army and the need to hunt them down. Filled with horror stories of perversion, dangerous cliques and lesbian rape, Caroline had to accept that lesbian investigations would just be part of her routine detective work with the SIB.

Investigations were triggered by gossip, tip-offs and undercover surveillance. Caroline regularly spent time with a male colleague watching and visiting army pubs, and following groups of suspected lesbians. It was well known that gay women would make sure they had "smoke-screen" boyfriends and Caroline would find herself dispatched to chat them up.

She was also shocked to discover the existence of the Lesbian Index, a complex cross-referencing system, later transferred to computer, based largely on unsubstantiated accusations. She was urged to make regular contributions, however tenuous, on the basis that if a name came up enough times, that in itself was grounds for an investigation. When she remarked to her boss that these methods seemed disproportionately extreme, he talked of senior ranks "taking advantage" and asked her how she would like it, "if one of them came on to you?" Caroline artlessly replied that in her experience it happened all the time with men.

Real disquiet set in one winter's night when she found herself in a squad storming a women's accommodation block, turning out lockers and confiscating sacks of letters and address books. Caroline remembers how she still naively believed the SIB's extreme propaganda. "I expected to discover cliques of lesbians with torture instruments. But all we found were terrified women shaken from sleep to find us trashing their bed spaces." One traumatised private dared to scream "SIB, shit in bulk" to her face. Caroline had no reply and, depressed and demoralised, she returned to sift through mountains of confiscated material.

Her confusion deepened as a gentle friendship with a woman military police staff sergeant became more and more important and turned into love and her first real lesbian relationship. As her training in the interrogation of lesbian suspects continued, her agony increased. While Caroline struggled with the realisation that she might herself be gay she was being trained to pressurise lesbians into confessions which would lead to courts martial. Interrogations were routinely brutal. Even when a confession had been obtained, the woman was then pushed to give graphic detail of her every sexual act. When Caroline dared to question this she was assured that many women pretended to be lesbians as an excuse to get out of the Army. The SIB insisted on explicit detail so they could be sure the confession was genuine. The strain became intolerable and Caroline's love affair foundered.

Now she was forced to make a big decision. Caroline abandoned her prestigious work as a detective in the SIB and was posted to Germany, where she was promoted to sergeant and went gratefully back into uniform and military police duties. Caroline's love for the Army was such that, like many in her situation, she attempted to repress her sexuality and make herself go straight. Turning her back on the past she dated men and a relationship with a male sergeant nearly led to marriage. But she couldn't go through with it. It was only after a posting to Edinburgh in 1986 that she fell in love with a female civilian teacher and finally found herself with a chance of personal happiness.

All this was shattered when she was ordered to accompany an SIB officer to a remote posting to investigate an alleged abuse of power by a female officer. Suddenly Caroline found herself plunged back into the nightmare. Another witch hunt ensued, all the women's quarters were searched and cards, letters and holiday photographs were scrutinised. No case was found against the suspect officer but camp gossip led to interrogations of two terrified young NCOs who confessed and were court martialled. Caroline was appalled and anxious. Already unnerved by having found herself named in another investigation, a promotion posting to Ireland seemed to carry the biggest risk of all. Could she sustain her relationship with her lover left in Edinburgh without discovery? It was a risk they were going to have to take together. After all, who knew better than Caroline how careful they would have to be.

Northern Ireland was gruelling. Long hours and relentlessly dangerous work wore her down. Her only solace was from letters and the occasional visit from her lover. Infrequently she was able to escape to Edinburgh, the only place where they could share time together and be sure they were not being watched. Meanwhile a fierce SIB interrogation of one of the women in her platoon reminded her graphically of how close she always was to discovery. One night after a drunken mess party Caroline receive a phone call from a friend, a female senior officer, inviting her to join her for a drink in her room. Oppressed by the camp claustrophobia and the fear of constant surveillance, Caroline jumped in her car and drove off the base. Her departure was noted. The question of whether or not she accepted that invitation was to become part of her downfall.

Only a few days later two SIB officers walked into her office; Caroline enquired why they had come. "We've come for you, Caroline," was their reply. Her room was searched, the all too familiar techniques employed. She found herself marched to an interrogation room where days of endless questions about letters, photos and camp gossip ensued. She endured unremitting hours of salacious slurs and innuendo but she refused to confess.

The next interrogations were about a minor discrepancy the SIB had unearthed in her travelling expenses. All Derry postings were allowed subsidised travel back to the mainland to visit family or fiances and rules were routinely fudged to include boyfriends and girlfriends. Rather than lie about making visits to her family when she had in fact been travelling to Edinburgh, Caroline had filled in her forms giving her lover's name and address. She paid the price for her honesty: she was charged with obtaining property by deception.

Ironically, a month before her investigation had started Caroline had decided she couldn't endure the pressure that Army life put on her relationship any further and had handed in her resignation. That was to make no difference. The SIB wanted her out on their terms, and punished.

Caroline left behind 12 years of committed service, her life was shattered, her future bleak. Her real crime was to love another woman and to evade detection. She now has a criminal record. During the course of making the film Caroline applied for the transcripts of her interrogations and was shattered to find another charge on her crime report file: disgraceful conduct of an unnatural kind.

There will always be a body of opinion which believes that Caroline Meagher broke the rules and should face her punishment. Alternatively it doesn't take much imagination to see that her life had been made intolerable within a system of formalised bigotry.

Until two years ago gays in the forces could face a jail sentence. Now homosexuality has been decriminalised and although prison is no longer an issue, gays are still hunted down and thrown out. In the past 10 years more than 700 servicemen and women have been discharged on the grounds of their sexuality, but many hundreds more have left after witch hunts: either dismissed for minor offences, or because they could not tolerate a life where they were constantly under suspicion.

Caroline Meagher is a talented, committed woman who only ever wanted to carve out a commendable career within a world she loved. Caroline is the Army's loss. And their shame.

Barbara Machin wrote the screenplay for `The Investigator', which is broadcast tonight on Channel 4 at 9pm.

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