HN21 is the cipher given to a former Special Demonstration Squad undercover officer deployed in the late 70s / early 80s against one group and who reported on others. Is in his 60s.
Originally his cover name was due to be revealed by the Undercover Policing Inquiry. However, the Inquiry Chair, John Mitting, changed his mind in May 2018 to indicated he was minded to grant full anonymity to HN21 on mental health grounds, making a ruling to that effect on 30 July 2018.
Though his name and targets are restricted, the Inquiry does confirm that he is interviewed as ‘Geoff’ in BBC Two documentary True Spies. In the series he explains he was at Grunwick, and active in SWP / ANL where he got close to Peter Hain. However, the Inquiry does not appear to have published these targets and the period of his deployment.
- For an explanation of the HN cipher system, see under N officers.
+++++ Last Updated 14 February 2021 +++++
As a SDS officer
HN21 joined the Metropolitan Police in 1960s and then Special Branch in 1970s; and was part of Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) in the 1970s and 1980s. The True Spies series lists him as a Metropolitan Police Special Branch officer 1974-2002.
Prior to going undercover, he spent time in the SDS back office preparing their legend and providing support to other undercovers. 'N21 was loosely monitored and mentored by one of the field officers. There was no official training.
While he was given no express promise of confidentiality, but said that was 'clearly implicit in everything we did', and said:
- I worked in a need to know vetted environment and I strongly believed that my real and cover identity would be protected. I would not have undertaken the role if I believed that my identity would be revealed, and I regret doing the role because the cost has been too high particularly in relation to the impact on my health. The whole set up was geared towards the identity being protected, and I spent time creating my identity. it being tested, and the focus was squarely on protecting that identity.
HN21 attended a Anti Nazi League / Rock Against Racism event held in 1978 at Victoria Park, Hackney where he was close to Peter Hain and helped look after money while arrangements were being made to have it collected - though says Peter Hain would not have known him as he was not part of any inner circle close to Hain, and would have just appeared as one of many volunteers.
He also stated that he had no sexual relationships in his SDS persona. While he was stopped and searched on a number of occasions he was never formally arrested; such encounters were always reported to his line managers.
HN21's health suffered towards end of deployment, and did not feel supported by SDS management at that time. According to the risk assessment: 'by the conclusion of their deployment, N21 was suffering from a number of health issues. Management were not informed of these. N21 describes a lack of support available to them in this regard.'
In the1990s, HN21 was part of mentoring programme for SDS officers for a period of 18 months to 2 years.
- It was a structured programme and allowed officers to have someone they could approach if they had concerns that was out of the management chain.
According to the Risk Assessment, HN21 was mentor to a number of SDS undercovers.
They appeared on True Spies as 'Geoff', reluctantly:
- I only agreed to undertake the documentary out of loyalty to Roger Pearce. When I received the letter from him, I did not want to do it, but discussed with my [redacted] and I considered that it was a way of recording what had been done.
They regret having taken part in the documentary.
According to the risk assessor, it is highly likely media will have an interest in HN21's deployment. The risk of physical harm and interference due to disclosure of cover name is 'negligible and minor' and generally classed the risk to HN21 from those they targeted as low.
Appearance in True Spies in 2002 and on BBC Radio 4 in 2011
HN21, under the alias 'Geoff', makes a number of appearances in episodes 1 and 2 of True Spies, the 2002 BBC Two documentary series on the Special Demonstration Squad.
- Commentary: For Special Branch officers to blend into the alternative society required a complete makeover job.
- Interviewer: What did you all look like?
- Geoff: Metropolitan Police Special Branch, 1974-2002
- Geoff: Big hair. That particular time long hair was in. One of the requirements was to grow your hair long, and also to have a beard. But my hair was very fine, so unfortunately it was decided that I’d have a perm.
- Interviewer: A perm?
- Geoff: A perm. Yes, a permanent wave. And so I ended up a bit Mark Bolan-y, it was easier to handle, and of course it was completely different.
Grunwick strike (1976-1978, North London):
On 23 August 1976, a small number of workers who were predominantly female and South Asian began picketing the Grunwick Photo Processing Laboratories in North London. They were protesting poor working conditions and the management’s refusal to address their grievances. By the time the strike ended, some of the more radical wing of the British Trade Union movement has joined the struggle, including, significantly, the National Union of Mineworkers and its leader Arthur Scargill.  
- Commentary: To the Secret State, the sight of Arthur Scargill at Grunwick confirmed his growing status as subversive enemy number one.
- Geoff: I was present when Arthur [Scargill, President of the National Union of Miners] turned up with the miners to show solidarity with the workers. There he was neatly coiffured at the head of the brass band, it was like a scene out of a Ken Loach movie.
A number of Special Branch files related to the Grunwick dispute have been released. For more see: Jac St. John, Grunwick Dispute – Story, SpecialBranchFiles.uk, 4 March 2016.
Episode 2 of True Spies explicitly identifies Geoff as infiltrating the Socialist Workers Party and the Anti-Nazi League:
- Geoff: There were only a few of us chosen so therefore I wanted to do it... it seemed a good thing to do and obviously you were young at that age.. you know.. you were young at that time, it was exciting, I mean it’s an old fashioned word there was a bit of adventure involved and also it was a challenge.
- Commentary: Geoff had no difficulty in joining the SWP which was hungry for members. Under the umbrella of the Anti-Nazi League, a variety of left-wing groups thronged to a rally against Fascism in London’s Victoria Park.
- Geoff’s main mission was warn his uniformed colleagues of the likelihood of violent disorder. In the process, he spied on the SWP’s leaders and got close to their associates in the Anti Nazi League – like the young Peter Hain.
- PETER HAIN: Press Officer, Anti-Nazi League, 1977-80
- Archive (Peter Hain):
- "The significance of this is that we’ve brought together tens of thousands of people who’ve never been on this kind of anti-racialist event before but who have done so today, it’s the beginnings I think of our fightback against the racialist backlash in this country."
- Commentary: But what Peter Hain did not know was that Geoff, the Hairy, was watching right at his side.
- Geoff: I can remember sitting with Peter Hain on a large sack of cash, or money that was there, and we had to get Securicor to take it back to the Anti Nazi League headquarters because there was lots of money there.
- Commentary: It’s debatable who gained the most. The Secret State who’d got inside the Far Left or the Anti-Nazi League who benefited from the organisational skills of a Hairy.
- Interviewer: Did Peter Hain have any idea he wouldn’t have thought ‘I’m sitting next to an undercover police officer’?
- Geoff: You’d have to ask him that question, I don’t think he did.
Peter Taylor, the presenter of True Spies, also wrote an article to promote the series for The Guardian in which Geoff featured. Part of the article repeats what is related in the series, but there is some new information as well.
Geoff talks about the Met's police chief visiting a safe house were a couple of undercover officers were having their regular meeting:
- On one occasion, the Metropolitan police commissioner was taken to a secret location to meet the hairies. He clearly wasn't ready for what he saw. 'I've never seen a person more flabbergasted in my life,' says Geoff. 'You could see his jaw dropping lower and lower. I think he could see his knighthood disappearing out of the window.'
Geoff really stood for what he was doing, Taylor quotes him as saying 'They were nice people, but they were wrong'.
- There's no doubt that most hairies believed that the organisations they penetrated were genuinely subversive, however dismissive of the notion we may be today. 'They were interested in seizing power, and not by parliamentary means. They saw the police and army as tools of the state to be defeated and overthrown,' says Geoff.
'Best job I ever did'.
In 2002, Geoff still had good memories of his time undercover. This seems to be in contradiction with what he told the Inquiry about the stress he says his past has caused him in the past few years, as is detailed below.
- 'It was the best job I ever did in my police service,' says Geoff. 'It was salaried schizophrenia but I think we did prevent serious disorder on the streets of London and even stopped innocent people being killed. But I think our major role was to stop people from trying to short circuit parliamentary democracy and, yes, perhaps overthrowing the government. I'm very proud of what we did.'
Later in 2011, HN21 was interviewed again about his life undercover, again by Peter Taylor. For the BBC Radio 4 programme Living with Secrets, Taylor met people who keep or have kept the darkest state secrets, to hear how it feels to live a life in the shadows. He interviewed a family from Derry who put their lives on the line for peace; a Muslim who spies on Islamist extremists; the civil service mandarin charged with guarding Britain’s secrets; and the Special Branch officer who infiltrated subversive revolutionary groups.
The Special Branch undercover officer is presented as ‘Steve’ – and the interview was recorded in the summer of 2011 and broadcast on 30th August that year. (The date is of particular interest, as it was after Mark Kennedy had been exposed (in January 2011).
Talking about the pressures of his job for him and his family, 'Steve' says the strains were tremendous, using the same words ten years after True Spies:
- 'It’s salaried schizophrenia, living two lives – you have to remember which is which.' And asked whether he enjoyed being undercover, 'Steve' said (21:50): 'Yes, very much so! It was the best time in my service.'
There are more similarities between both interviews, such as the mentioning of his ‘big hair’. 'Steve' - like 'Geoff' in True Spies - recalls how easy it was to infiltrate the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) by making himself available for legwork, and how solidarity gave him access to the Anti- Nazi League and ‘Republican protest groups’. Which is the only time
One story is quite specific, recounting how in his undercover role he got out of a confrontation with a uniformed officer at a protest, by groping his opponent in the ‘private parts’ to get away.
Peter Taylor, in 2002, used it as an example of 'street cred to enhance a hairy's cover':
- At one demonstration Geoff, who had infiltrated the Socialist Workers Party, had an altercation with a police officer. "Seeing me with my long hair and beard, he grabbed me in a vice-like grip and started to pummel and drag me towards a police vehicle. So I grabbed hold of one particular part of his anatomy and squeezed it rather hard which made him leap up and release me. I legged it and everybody thought I was a hero of the working class."
In the 2011 BBC Radio 4, there is a long section detailing this event - again referring to street credibility (starting at 23:06 into the program):
- Taylor: Any punch-ups?
- 'Steve': Yes on several occasions. [...] There was one particular incident where we were engaged in picketing a particular area in London. At that particular time they were breaking the picketing laws and we all held on to the railings. The police turned up, and you think, what I will do is I’ll protest a little bit and then they’ll push me away. And then I will do a runner and shout, go over the road, and make a lot of noise and it will all look quite good. But on this particular occasion, one of my colleagues –
- Taylor: – one of your colleagues being police officer…
- 'Steve': Yeh yeh police officer, no, no it wasn’t someone from the left – probably decided he had had a bad breakfast and he started punching me, he put his hand around my head and started punching me, just kept punching me in the face. And I realized that I was faced with that dilemma, do I allow him to rearrange my face or get arrested, or do I do something?
- So I just grabbed hold of an intimate part of his autonomy, twisted it – slightly – which released the pressure, which and allowed me to run away. This was witnessed by people and was seem to be quite a good thing.
- Taylor: Good for your street cred.
- 'Steve': Very much so, very much so.
- Taylor: How did your police colleague react when you grabbed him at a sensitive…
- 'Steve': I should imagine it was no serious damage, but I probably made his eyes water just a little bit
New is the section where 'Steve' explains the Do’s and Don’ts of the trade he was in (at 24:33):
- 'Steve' said you always have to remember you are a police officer: 'Never get too involved, never personally involved, definitely don’t get romantically involved. You had to be very, very careful how far you went. It was getting that fine balance, between getting involved or… going native.'
Asked about his opinion on PC Mark Kennedy, who has had various relationships with activists in groups he had infiltrated, 'Steve' answered:' This is a different time, and a different age. As far as I’m concerned that is ...dreadful!'
- For more on Special Branch cooperating with True Spies, see Eveline Lubbers, BBC True Spies series: Police happy to disclose information when it suits them, SpecialBranchFiles.uk project, 24 March 2016.
In the Undercover Policing Inquiry
Following their SDS deployment, they undertook a number of sensitive roles in the Metropolitan Police, none of which give rise to physical harm or interference.
His Risk Assessment reveals that HN21 'has provided statements to Operation Herne regarding his/her deployment, as well as an investigation into blacklisting'.
HN21 was subject to two medical examinations by Dr. Busuttil, which concluded that in March 2017 HN21 had depression that was being exacerbated by the Inquiry, and would be worsened if the real / cover name was released. The follow up examination of April 2018 stated that HN21's mental health had deteriorated, and revolved around the issue of whether or not the cover and real name would be released.
In their personal statement, they wrote:
- The thought of my real and cover identity being revealed frightens me to death. I am concerned about my family's safety and am frightened about what might happen to them and feel helpless and unable to do anything about it. Given my [close family member's] health these concerns are much greater. I know that some of them are not rational but cannot help myself thinking and worrying about it to a degree where I become angry and am ruminating on bad things. I feel a real breach of trust by the State in even considering revealing my real and cover name and would not have done the job if I knew this would be the position.
In their impact statement, HN21 writes: 'I deeply regret the decision to be involved in True Spies particularly as it is now being used against me as a reason not to protect my identity'. However, his participation is not cited in any of Mitting's rulings, while the much more recent interview in 2011 not mentioned anywhere at all.
- 11 January 2018: directed that restriction order applications to be submitted by end of that month.
- 7 March 2018: Mitting minded to restrict real name, application over cover name is refused. According to Mitting, the risk to HN21 from groups they targeted is negligible. However, the former undercover suffers from depression, and the medical professional who examined him on behalf of the Inquiry, Dr. Busuttil, opined that HN21 is at high risk of recurrence if the real and cover names were published. Mitting however noted that deployment of HN21 is of 'some interest to the Inquiry' and needs a more thorough investigation than possible if explored simply under a cipher, stating:
- I am not, at present, convinced that measures cannot be take to avoid harmful impact on the health of HN21. I will afford an opportunity to HN21 to consider such measures in a closed session and/or submit that they would be ineffective. A closed note accompanies these reasons.
- 23 May 2018: Mitting changes his mind to and stated intention to restrict both real and cover names, writing:
- Since the publication of 'minded to' note 5 on 7 March 2018, HN21 has been examined again by Dr Busuttil, who as produced a further report dated 24 April 2018. In his opinion, which I accept, HN21's health has deteriorated since he was last seen by him in March 2017. He is suffering a mild to moderately severe depressive episode and another long term condition. He is receiving treatment, in the form of mild antidepressant medication which does improve his condition. In the opinion of Dr Busuttil, which again I accept, prolonged uncertainty about the outcome of his application for restriction orders has contributed to and maintained his depression. If his cover name were to be disclosed, Dr Busuttil's opinion is that his psychiatric symptoms are likely to worsen and render the treatment recommended, including an increased dose of antidepressant medication, less likely to succeed. Conversely, if his real and cover names are not disclosed, Dr Busuttil would expect his depression to respond to intervention.
- The evidence of HN21 about his deployment and service in the SOS and police service after it ended, are of significant interest to the Inquiry. Mr Sanders QC, for HN21, accepts that it will have to be given publicly even if it is given in writing. He also submits that if it is given in a cypher, so as to alleviate his concerns about disclosure of his identity, it is likely to be of better quality. This submission is founded on the opinion of Dr Busuttil. I accept that it has some force. There is, however, a significant and unavoidable risk that if worthwhile public evidence is to be given by HN21, it will lead to his identification in his cover name by those who knew him when deployed. This is a risk, which will almost certainly have to be run, to permit the Inquiry to get the truth. According to the risk assessor, there is a strong sterile corridor between the real and cover name. Objectively, therefore, the risk of interference in private and family life which might be caused by the intrusive attentions of others is small. The only reason for not publishing the cover name is that stated above. I am minded to make a restriction order in respect of it, but only on the basis that detailed public evidence is provided by HN21 under his cypher, notwithstanding the risk that this may lead to the identification of his cover name.
- There are no further closed reasons.
- 9 July 2018: provisional decision: restrict real and cover names with application documents released.
- Open application for restriction order (anonymity) re: HN21, 25 January 2018 - Metropolitan Police Service, real name only.
- Application for a restriction order (anonymity) in respect of HN21's real name and cover name, Metropolitan Police Service's 'Designated Legal Team', 31 January 2018.
- N21 - Risk Assessment, Graham Walker, 12 June 2018.
- HN21: Gist of Medical Reports, Undercover Policing Inquiry relating to two medical examinations by Dr Busuttill (reports dated 27 March 2017 and 24 April 2018).
- Impact Statement of HN21, 31 January 2018.
- It was also directed that any objections to Mitting's intention to grant the restriction order to be made by 20 July 2018.
- 30 July 2018: final ruling that real and cover names cannot be published, with Mitting writing:
- Further, it is likely that at least some contemporaneous intelligence reports produced by him or founded on his reports exist and can be retrieved and published without undermining HN21's anonymity. Members of the group will not know who HN21 was but they will be afforded the opportunity to come forward and give evidence as to he accuracy of the reporting and the activities of the group. In this way, I hope to obtain evidence about justification from both the officer and those in the target group.
- Sir John Mitting, In the matter of section 19(3) of the Inquiries Act 2005. Applications for restriction orders in respect of the real and cover names of officers of the Special Operations Squad and Special Demonstration Squad - 'Minded To' Note 5, Undercover Policing Inquiry, 7 March 2018.
- 'Minded to' decisions relating to anonymity applications: Special Demonstration Squad Ruling on HN122, Undercover Policing Inquiry, 23 May 2018.
- Applications for restriction orders in respect of the real and cover names of officers of the Special Operations Squad and the Special Demonstrations Squad 'Minded to' note 9 and Ruling 8, Undercover Policing Inquiry, 23 May 2018.
- Sir John Mitting, Applications for restriction orders in respect of the real and cover names of officers of the Special Operations Squad and the Special Demonstration Squad Ruling 11 , Undercover Policing Inquiry, 30 July 2018.
- 'HN21', Impact Statement of HN21, Metropolitan Police Service, 31 January 2018, published 9 July 2018 via ucpi.org.uk.
- True Spies - Episode 1: Subverting the subversives, BBC Two, 27 October 2002; transcripts.
- Graham Walker, N21 - Risk Assessment, Metropolitan Police Service, 12 June 2018, published 9 July 2018 via ucpi.org.uk.
- Jac St John, Grunwick Dispute – Story, SpecialBranchFiles.uk, 4 March 2016 (accessed 30 July 2019).
- The Grunwick Dispute, Striking-Women.org, undated, (accessed 31 July 2019).
- True Spies - Episode 2: Something Better Change, BBC Two, 3 November 2002; transcripts.
- Peter Taylor, Inside job, The Guardian, 23 October 2002 (accessed October 2019)
- Peter Taylor, Living with Secrets, BBC4, 30 August 2011 (accessed February 2020). The section with Steve starts at 20.26 into the program.
- In Undercover, the true story of Britain’s Secret Police by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis, 2013, Chapter 2, there is yet another version of this story, probably based on Peter Taylor's 2002 article: 'SDS officers knew that at any moment they could be walking along the street with activists and randomly bump into someone who knew them as a police officer. According to SDS folklore, that is precisely what happened to one officer who went undercover in the Socialist Workers Party in the 1970s. He was on a demonstration when a uniformed colleague recognised him through his disheveled disguise. The SDS man’s reaction was instinctive and decisive: he attacked the police officer, grabbing his balls until he backed off. The spy then quickly slunk away.'
- HN21: Gist of Medical Reports, Undercover Policing Inquiry, 8 June 2018, published 9 July 2018 on ucpi.org.uk.
- Applications for restriction orders in respect of the real and cover names of officers of the Special Operations Squad and the Special Demonstrations Squad: Directions, Undercover Policing Inquiry, 11 January 2018.
- Publication of documents relating to anonymity applications: National Public Order Intelligence Unit & Special Demonstration Squad, Undercover Policing Inquiry, 9 July 2018.
- List of documents relating to SOS officers - published 09 July 2018, Undercover Policing Inquiry, 9 July 2018.
- Sir John Mitting, Applications for restriction orders in respect of real and cover names of officers of the Special Operations Squad and the Special Demonstration Squad and of the National Public Order Intelligence Unit - Directions, Undercover Policing Inquiry, 9 July 2018.