Taken from Big Issue in the North, February 2011.
We should have seen him coming.
Mark Cassidy walked into the Colin Roach Centre in Hackney early in 1995. Within weeks he had thrown himself into virtually every area of the centre’s political life and quickly began writing for our internal bulletin and that quarterly magazine sold to the public. As the owner of a van he could also be relied upon to transport people and equipment to meetings and ensure they got home safely afterwards. Always polite and happy to help out he soon became well liked and respected.
But Cassidy wasn’t what he seemed. With recent revelations of undercover police officers infiltrating the environmental movement and sleeping with the enemy, Cassidy’s story only underlines the lesson that political activists who threaten the established order should guard against spies who want to maintain the status quo.
I was elected co-ordinator of the Colin Roach Centre. Named after a young black man shot dead inside Stoke Newington Police Station in 1983 this brought together the once council-funded Trade Union Support Unit and one of Britain’s best known community organisations at the time – Hackney Community Defence Association.
The latter had uncovered serious corruption, with Panorama and World in Action undercover investigations confirming that some officers at the police station were involved in drug dealing.
Many convictions were overturned as a result and people were released from prison and paid compensation. Some of this helped keep the centre open seven days a week to provide support to Hackney’s cosmopolitan community, including many refugees and asylum seekers. The centre was well used and popular amongst ordinary people but less so with the Association of Chief Police Officers, which tried to block the registration of our Defendants Information Services (DIS), which recorded police officers known to have complaints or convictions against them.
A year after the official opening in 1993 the centre was broken into. No serious damage was done and money and expensive equipment was left untouched. Computers though were smashed up and when the local police were phoned it took hours for them to arrive and only a matter of seconds to depart. If the intention was to put a spoke in DIS this failed as the service was for security reasons run from a different location.
London magazine Time Out was unable to gain comment from either the police or security services after a centre spokesperson suggested either might be behind the break-in.
Other activities were also bound to attract attention. The centre was affiliated to the radical anti-fascist group Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), which had organised large demonstrations through a British National Party stronghold in nearby Bethnal Green. Centre members were involved in physically clearing the BNP from its Sunday morning paper selling point at the top of Brick Lane, an almost exclusively Asian neighbourhood.
It was into this often chaotic world that Cassidy came. From my campaigning experience it was unusual for someone to simply walk in – most people start their involvement after meeting someone or attending an event. He claimed to have seen TV coverage of a demonstration by the families of people killed at the hands of the police, and radical lawyer Gareth Pierce speaking afterwards, and wanted to get involved. He had come down from his hometown of Birkenhead to continue working as a builder and didn’t know many people locally.
Within a year he had found himself a long-term partner Alison (not her real name) who was also active in the centre. He was elected to chair the Brian Higgins Defence Committee. Higgins was a radical building worker who had suggested that workers were not being properly defended by their union, UCATT. A union official responded by suing him for libel. Cassidy had earlier transported pickets to sites where people had been killed in efforts to stop production. Such actions had infuriated building employers as it cut profits.
Yet by now a few of us were starting to get suspicious. He had never shown any interest in the centre’s work with refugee or asylum seekers or helped run the advice for members of the public. But he had been very keen when it was suggested a delegation was organised to Republican West Belfast to see for ourselves the situation in Northern Ireland. He even volunteered to take his van, although it would inevitably ensure his registration was noted and added to a police computer. He disappeared on the second morning of the visit, arriving back to inform us that he, a Catholic, had taken a walk up the Shankhill Road, a Protestant stronghold.
More importantly no one had ever met any of his family and although he professed to be a supporter of Tranmere Rovers when I went to a couple of games with him he didn’t know any of their fans. It was all a bit odd, but unable and unwilling to challenge him directly I shared some of my concerns with those closest to me and began to ensure that his opportunities to gather information on people and organisations were reduced. A second visit to Belfast was cancelled.
By now though Cassidy was already becoming less active in the centre. He had drifted off to play a more active role in AFA and the associated working-class organisation Red Action. He still visited the centre and could be counted on to assist at active times but slowly dropped away. Then so did Alison, just before the centre closed in 1999.
Having moved soon after to Sunderland to help look after my dad with Alzheimer’s I thought little more of it until I was told that Cassidy had disappeared from home on 11 April 2000. After spending the next day in the offices of Red Action he was next heard of when he rang his Alison and told her he was in Germany. Attempts to trace the call had failed.
His disappearance came after an extended period when he had acted suspiciously, including at times sleeping on the settee in his clothes. Alison had also discovered a credit card in someone else’s name, which he claimed to have bought for £50 in order obtain petrol dishonestly.
Now seriously concerned, Alison then rung his workplace, only to be told that he had left around two or three years previously. Yet he had continued during this time to leave for work at 6.30pm, apparently earning sufficient to be able to go on long holidays to the Middle East and Vietnam. The couple had also visited a counsellor to discuss overcoming his reluctance to have children but had abandoned the visits without him mentioning anything about his family.
When she found out I had expressed reservations about Cassidy two years earlier, Alison contacted me in 2001 to reveal that he had left behind a number of items including a second passport in someone else’s name and a number of photographs. Now happily settled Alison doesn’t want to make them public.
Having been told that Cassidy’s father had been killed in a car accident in Birkenhead in 1975 she checked the deaths register, only to discover the tale was untrue.
Incidents such as when he had ducked down in a frog position with his hands in his ears after a car had backfired suddenly became much more sinister when she realised it was position security officers are trained to adopt if a bomb goes off.
Other centre members began to recall incidents that at the time just appeared a little odd. Taxi driver Jim Kelly recalled that Cassidy had displayed extensive knowledge of events in Ireland during the 1970s even though he wouldn’t have even been a teenager at the time and claimed to be new to political activity. Amanda, an activist, recalled a meeting where threats to attack the centre had been received from the BNP and he had told her he was there as a “shield”.
Since his disappearance over a decade ago nothing has been heard of Cassidy. No one has ever seen him, even at the Tranmere games I have occasionally watched! Attempts by the media to get Alison to go public have failed and I have no wish to involve the authorities by complaining to them.
I feel there’s little point. At the Trade Union Support Unit I worked with Midge a black activist who had left Philadelphia in 1986 after discovering her boyfriend was an FBI agent. So I was always aware such things happened and, as Bernard Porter’s history of the Metropolitan Special Branch, The Origins of the Vigilant State, makes pretty clear the placing of informants inside radical organisations began almost as soon as the organisation was born in 1881.
The trick for those environmental activists, and other in progressive politics, is not to go running to the very people who organise against them but to adopt some simple methods of checking that people really are who they say they are. Sadly that is something I, and others, failed to do with Mark Cassidy.