Thatcher’s Spy: My Life as an MI5 Spy inside Sinn Fein, by Willie Carlin, Merrion Press, 280 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1785372858
The Accidental Spy, by Sean O’Driscoll, Mirror Books, 326 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-1912624287
The Intelligence War Against the IRA, by Thomas Leahy, Cambridge University Press, 350 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1108720403
“It was never a war of win or lose – that wasn’t the purpose,” a retired RUC Special Branch officer told me recently. “You don’t set out to eradicate terrorism in a military sense – it is about rendering it incapable of pursuing its violent ideology.” And the principal method for achieving this outcome? “The capacity of two or three well-placed agents to have a disproportionate effect well beyond their number ‑ you infected the organisation, triggering paralysis.”
This kind of view was common in the higher echelons of Britain’s intelligence community, who fought a long war on multiple fronts against their opponents in the Provisional IRA. Gaining access to the intentions and capabilities of the enemy and disrupting them has been the objective of intelligence practitioners since time immemorial. The ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu devotes an entire chapter to the use of spies in his Art of War. “Advance knowledge cannot be gained from ghosts and spirits, inferred from phenomena, or projected from the measures of Heaven,” Sun Tzu observed, “but must be gained from men for it is the knowledge of the enemy’s true situation.” Apart from describing different spies, including what he called “expendable spies” and “double agents” who are given the task of spreading deception, Sun Tzu recommended that spies be recruited and directed only by the most talented individuals. These “handlers”, he argued, must possess wisdom, benevolence and subtlety. As one of the world’s oldest professions, in which the trade is in the human capacity for deception and treachery, it is little surprise that spying, like war, remains more of an art than a science.
Over the course of several decades of the Troubles, the British security forces, in the form of the RUC, British army and Security Service, MI5, were charged by successive governments in London with gathering intelligence on their opponents in the IRA and loyalist paramilitary groups. As the former secretary of state for Northern Ireland Tom King put it in a document made public by Sir Desmond De Silva’s review into the 1989 murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane, “[i]ntelligence from agents and informers is the most important source of information we have about the policy, plans and psychology of the terrorist groups we are fighting”. King was Northern Ireland secretary in the mid- to late 1980s and subsequently moved onto the role of defence secretary. He knew better than anyone else why human intelligence (HUMINT) sources were so invaluable and, like those who held high office before and after him, frequently made decisions based on the single source insights provided by HUMINT. It is all too tempting to lose sight of the political role of intelligence, defined by senior British intelligence officer Michael Herman in his book Intelligence Power in War and Peace as the means by which secret information serves to “influence government action, however remotely”.
Despite the bureaucratic function of state intelligence, much of our understanding of its dark arts has been shaped and influenced by popular culture. James Bond and George Smiley are two of the most recognisable characters in English literature, with Ian Fleming’s character spawning a multi-billion-dollar film franchise. In Ireland too, books on secret agents have tended to come from former members of the Provisional IRA who betrayed their comrades at the behest of the British. From Sean O’Callaghan’s The Informer to Martin McGartland’s Fifty Dead Men Walking and Kevin Fulton’s Unsung Hero, these memoirs give the first-person perspectives of silent warriors operating deep behind enemy lines. Journalist Kevin Toolis explored the theme of the informer as “villain” and “cultural bogeyman” in his evocatively written Rebel Hearts. “Over the centuries informers have been used, with devastating effect, to disrupt and destroy republican rebellions, and despite the electronic hardware of the twentieth century,” he wrote, “the Crown’s most powerful weapon in the present-day Troubles remained the human informer.”
Thatcher’s Spy is the memoir of a former secret agent who was recruited by MI5 and inserted into the Republican movement in Derry at the height of the Troubles in 1974. He was charged with bringing back news from the paramilitary frontline in a part of Ireland that had suffered from years of discrimination by the local unionist regime. Born into a Catholic family in the Waterside area in 1949, Carlin followed in the footsteps of his father and uncle by breaking free of the deprivation and joining the British army. He served in the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars and was based in Germany and England prior to outbreak of the Troubles in 1969. Carlin did not see action with his unit in Operation Banner, the codename for the British army’s longest-running deployment in support of the RUC. The mission of his tank regiment was to confront a conventional enemy in the form of the Soviet Third Shock Army. As he prepared to leave the army in 1974, he was handpicked to return to Ireland to spy for MI5.
Carlin’s story is straight out of a John Le Carré novel. It is littered with mysterious liaisons with agent runners along the windswept beaches of Northern Ireland’s north coast, of his mission to get close to IRA leader Martin McGuinness, and of his extraordinary exfiltration aboard prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s RAF jet in 1985. Carlin’s secret information found its way into intelligence reports that were circulated among the upper echelons of the British government. Indeed, some of these documents have since been declassified thanks to my own efforts under the Freedom of Information Act (2000). For the first time we can now see what “intelligence product” British officials were receiving from their agents in the field. One weekly intelligence assessment marked “Secret ‑ UK Eyes Alpha”, and dated October 15th, 1976 gives an overview of the strategy and tactics of each terrorist group, offering fascinating insights into the thinking of the leaders. “One report suggests that the PIRA are now helping to finance the BOGSIDE Community Association in order to curry favour,” it reads. “The LONDONDERRY PIRA are reported to be about to start a campaign aimed at gaining maximum publicity for every incident of alleged Army misbehaviour. They feel it may be necessary to stage manage some form of confrontation in the hope of inducing an overreaction by the Army, which the PIRA could claim as indiscriminate brutality.” Secret information obtained by Carlin and others within paramilitary groups not only enabled intelligence officers to “stress-test” their own analysis of the IRA but also provided insights into the political ambitions of Sinn Féin. Carlin’s story as an “agent of influence” inside the Republican movement helps us understand the process by which Britain’s spymasters sought to capitalise on the IRA’s decision to move to embrace the ballot box. By the time Carlin’s cover had been blown – he was betrayed by his former MI5 handler Michael Bettaney ‑ he had managed to pass on significant intelligence about the Provisionals’ “policy, plans and psychology”.
Carlin perfected his own intelligence tradecraft by adopting what Soviet double agent Kim Philby called a “cover personality”. As another secret agent inside the Provisional IRA once impressed upon me, infiltrating a terrorist group was not a “short-term informant job”. You could not “pretend to be one of them; you had to be one of them”. It was the former chief of the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield, who confided in his friend Tony Cavendish that he preferred to “turn” members of the opposition, rather than to “infiltrate rogues”. In this approach, Oldfield differed from his colleagues, whom he advised that infiltration would only store up trouble for the future. Nonetheless, the use of agents remained the principal method of intelligence collection throughout the Troubles.
In The Accidental Spy, we find the counter-intelligence practitioners of the FBI enthusiastically embracing the infiltration of agents into Provisional IRA splinter groups by the mid-1990s. In 1994, FBI agent Ed Buckley paid a visit to David Rupert, a bored American trucker who had been visiting Ireland and keeping company with several “players” from the Provisional IRA and Continuity IRA. Despite being an outsider with no familial ties to Ireland, Rupert soon won the acceptance and friendship of republican paramilitaries on both sides of the Irish border. At 6ft 7in in height with an imposing gait and weighing in at 300 lbs, Rupert, one might say, stood out. Rupert first visited Ireland in 1992, when he met the veteran Bundoran republican Joe O’Neill. O’Neill ran the Ocean Bar where Rupert spent much of his trips drinking and listening to old IRA tales of derring-do. The Bundoran IRA had close connections on both sides of the border and O’Neill was their public face on the local town council. He had been a long-time Provisional but later walked out of their ardfheis in 1986 to join Republican Sinn Féin (RSF). By the time Rupert was introduced to him, O’Neill was RSF’s national treasurer and the key link to supporters and sympathisers in Irish America.
It was on a trip to Ireland in 1994 that O’Neill took Rupert to a windswept rural pub in Co Sligo. Rupert’s American accent and republican sympathies soon attracted locals with connections to the Continuity IRA. By 1997 he had become a key fundraiser for the dissidents and soon found himself privy to the secrets shared by those militant republicans who carried on the fight as the Provisionals embraced the peace process. It was Rupert’s transition to the Real IRA, however, that would see him placed in the maelstrom of activity surrounding the group’s bombing of Omagh, in which twenty-nine people and two unborn babies were killed on August 15th, 1998. It was one of the conflict’s worst terrorist atrocities. O’Driscoll’s retelling of Rupert’s account of the fall-out after the attack and the intra-republican wrangling that followed is packed full of detail. He paints a vivid picture of the group’s isolation from mainstream republicanism and the extraordinary violence that peppered dinner table conversations with leading members.
Heroes and villains populate the narrative of Thatcher’s Spy and The Accidental Spy. Reading both accounts, we come away with the impression that Carlin and Rupert fell in love with the image of themselves as spies straight out of an Ian Fleming or John Le Carré novel. For their handlers, however, they are merely conduits through which governments could get the inside track on their enemies. Intriguingly, in Rupert’s case, the growing internationalisation of the Irish conflict meant that his intelligence became central to the development of the Anglo-American special relationship. He was handled by the FBI in the US, but the intelligence was shared with their partners in Belfast, London and Dublin.
The intelligence strategies depicted in Thatcher’s Spy and The Accidental Spy appear to have gone unchanged since Sun Tzu’s time. Deep down it is about finding the lever that would prompt a man or woman to betray their friends and comrades. In Ireland, this betrayal was more insidious. In a conflict marked by its tribalism, it was about betraying the republican family, which has always been more than an imagined community. It is bound by blood as much as it was rooted in Irish soil. The big question is whether the IRA knew about the betrayals. The execution of around seventy members or close affiliates of the group suggests that they did, though the revelations surrounding “Stakeknife” point to a more profound network of agents inside the Provisionals than has ever been admitted. Accounts provided by veteran republicans like Brendan “The Dark” Hughes, Anthony McIntyre and Tommy Gorman suggest the IRA leadership sometimes overlooked betrayal, despite launching high-profile “tout hunts” in the 1970s and 1980s. These clampdowns on the leakage of secret information were, at least in the eyes of Hughes and some of his comrades, merely cosmetic. He believed Belfast was “rotten” with informers and agents by the early 1990s.
Thomas Leahy is sceptical of such dissenting voices. In his The Intelligence War Against the IRA, he instead places considerable stock in the Sinn Féin narrative that the IRA was not infiltrated “to any great extent” and cites excerpts from interviews with the likes of Danny Morrison and Séanna Walsh to reinforce his own argument. Leahy also suggests, somewhat controversially, that the IRA’s campaign persisted for so long because it was primarily designed to bring the British back to the negotiating table. He claims the strategic objective of the IRA’s “Brits out” mantra was only really about “motivating volunteers”, though he does not offer much evidence in support of this proposition, merely a reference to the work of one other scholar. Although his conclusions may not be shared by other analysts of the security dimension of the Troubles, they cannot be easily ignored. At its root, this heated debate is really a question of agency: Did the IRA choose to end its campaign for its own strategic reasons ‑ as articulated in its August 1994 ceasefire statement ‑ or was it forced to do so by the British state? There are certainly cases to be made for both positions, though it is, of course, perfectly permissible to conclude that it was a bit of both. Indeed, Leahy’s argument is much more convincing when he places the IRA’s decision-making in the context of a broader politicisation of its armed struggle in the 1990s. In Leahy’s own words, the republican leadership “only agreed to these ceasefires because the political limitations and opportunities at that time suggested that the republican movement could gain no more concessions from the IRA’s armed campaign”.
Leahy is keen to pour cold water on other analysis that sees the strategic utility of intelligence as having played a more decisive role in the British government response to IRA violence. While it is perfectly acceptable to make such bold claims, it would have assisted his cause to factor in more explicitly the question of the politicalisation of intelligence. During the Troubles, intelligence was collected, collated, validated, assessed and disseminated so as to inform government decision-making in London. The Cabinet Office was primarily responsible for implementing the government’s stated policy of defeating terrorism by coordinating the various departments of state. In this it worked hand in glove with the NIO, MoD and security and intelligence agencies in ensuring that the ends of government policy were closely aligned to the means. Surprisingly, The Intelligence War Against the IRA carries no interviews with former RUC Special Branch officers. This is curious given that the RUC’s intelligence unit ran the vast majority of front-line operational agents during the Troubles. As MI5 have themselves now publicly admitted, they had around fifty officers in Northern Ireland at any one time during the Troubles, most of whom provided technical and analytical support to the police. Only a handful of agent-runners did, however, cultivate sources who gave them greater coverage of the higher-level strategy of the IRA and Sinn Féin, as Thatcher’s Spy reveals. This is corroborated by British Intelligence disclosures to the Bloody Sunday inquiry and the de Silva review, which maintain the narrative that MI5 were primarily concerned with the strategic direction of paramilitary groups, while the RUC dealt with the operational and tactical running of sources inside IRA squads. In limited circumstances, the army also ran agents inside republican groups, though these were eventually brought under the direction of MI5’s director and controller of intelligence in the early 1990s.
Despite the contentious nature of his arguments, one of the positive attributes of Leahy’s book is his synthesis of broader academic debates on how the Troubles ended. There are those, like Leahy, who assert that the armed conflict ended in “stalemate” between the British and Provisional IRA, and others who claim otherwise. Much of this debate has generated more heat than light as far as the darker recesses of the Troubles are concerned. Fortunately, while Leahy appears to relieve the embattled foxhole positions occupied by proponents of Sinn Féin’s peace strategy, he is mindful of the need to connect the dots to the broader intelligence studies literature. “Alongside the damage done to paramilitaries or insurgent groups by the work of actual informers, the paranoia and suspicion that revelations about an informer can create sow fear.” It would have been useful at this point to pay closer attention to how this impacted on IRA operations. My own interviews with former intelligence officers have unearthed a deliberate strategy of sowing the seeds of paranoia to curtail the tactical effectiveness of terrorism. Although it is impossible to say with any great certainty what results this strategy produced, we do need to triangulate the claims made by those who actually spearheaded intelligence operations during the Troubles with the available historical evidence.
As Leahy’s book is based exclusively on his 2015 doctoral thesis, it would appear that he has not taken full advantage of the available archival material, including the kind of declassified intelligence mentioned earlier in this review. There are, therefore, limitations in terms of other bold claims he makes. To give one example featured in The Intelligence War Against the IRA, one hundred days into his tenure as secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Brooke made off-the-cuff remarks to journalists that “[i]n terms of the late 20th Century terrorist, organised as well as the Provisional IRA have become, that it is difficult to envisage a military defeat of such a force because of the circumstances under which they operate though the Security Forces can exercise a policy of containment to enable, broadly speaking, normal life to go on within the province”. Brooke was quickly rebuked by DUP leader Ian Paisley and sought to qualify his remarks by insisting that the IRA could “not win”. In another statement after the IRA attack on the Derryard security forces base ‑ in which two soldiers were killed ‑ Brooke reassured MPs that the government’s intention remained “to defeat terrorism in all its forms by the concerting of military, social, economic and political policies”. Leahy asserts that Brooke’s misspeaking was actually part of a concerted attempt to “create a political compromise” with republicans. He concludes that Thatcher and Major “obviously supported the new political strategy since they allowed Brooke to make conciliatory statements and to reopen backchannel negotiations”.
A closer reading of the Brendan Duddy archive at NUI Galway suggests an alternative perspective. It shows MI6 officer Michael Oatley going out on a limb to run a more ambitious operation at arm’s length from MI5’s DCI at Stormont, John Deverell. When Deverell learned about the reopening of “The Channel”, he quickly moved to wrest control of the venture from Oatley, who was forced to retire, missing out on an opportunity to become chief of MI6. Although it is tempting to see this as an internal power struggle, it is important to recognise that intelligence agencies work at the behest of their political masters. As we now know from the extensive work of scholars like Eamonn O’Kane, Graham Spencer and Paul Dixon, the British had not yet, in O’Kane’s words, “decided to embrace inclusiveness and abandon exclusiveness”. It was not until after the arrival of New Labour in 1997 that the spirit of political compromise came to the fore in Britain’s security policy. As we have since learned from Lord Butler’s review of British intelligence operations in the run-up to the intervention in Iraq in 2003, political parties in power sometimes place severe limitations upon intelligence operations, to the detriment of clear-sighted assessments. In his influential book Why Intelligence Fails, Robert Jervis argues convincingly that “[p]olicymakers say they need and want good intelligence. They do need it, but often they do not like it.” As in Iraq, so in Northern Ireland.
In the light of the politicisation of intelligence, can we say anything concrete about the contribution spying made in helping to end the Troubles? Assessing the impact of secret intelligence amidst armed conflict is difficult due to the cloak (and dagger) of secrecy surrounding such activities. In the absence of official comment, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that accounts by individuals – keen to amplify their own exploits – tend to fill the gaps in our knowledge. Yet such first-person narratives often conflate the tactical role of intelligence-gathering with its exploitation for strategic – and, ultimately, political – advantage over opponents. While it would be wrong, on the one hand, to argue that single-source intelligence played a definitive role in ending the Troubles – it was merely one tool among many – it would be equally wrong, on the other, as Leahy intimates, to claim that it played no role at all. The truth must lie somewhere in between. Unpicking what intelligence was used, why and with what consequences is the work of historians. To a greater or lesser extent, the books under review add to historians’ understanding of the role of secret intelligence and offer some rare glimpses into a deeply controversial aspect of our recent history.
Aaron Edwards is the author of UVF: Behind the Mask (Merrion Press, 2017). His new book, Agents of Influence: Britain’s Secret Intelligence War against the IRA, will be published by Merrion Press in 2021.