British Spies and Irish Rebels: British Intelligence and Ireland, 1916-1945, by Paul McMahon, Boydell Press, 516 pp, £60, ISBN: 978-1843833765
Paul McMahon’s book is an exemplary study of the strengths and limitations of British intelligence on Ireland from the 1916 Rising to the end of the Second World War. McMahon’s research demonstrates the immense value of security and intelligence material now available in British records. In the post-Cold War climate of the 1990s, all the British police and secret agencies with the exception of the foreign intelligence service, MI6 – and even they have commissioned an official history by Prof Keith Jeffery of Queen’s University Belfast, to be published in 2009 – began to release significant portions of their records. That this was done mainly to justify their continued existence by demonstrating their historical achievements, rather than in a spirit of disinterested openness, does not detract from the value of their actions.
Organs of state surveillance are often the best, sometimes the only, record-keepers of the radical movements, organisations and individuals on whom they keep watch. This is as true of British and Irish police and security agencies as of the Tsarist Okhrana, the American Federal Bureau of Investigation or, as another young scholar, Kate O’Malley, shows in her Ireland, India and Empire: Indo-Irish radical connections, 1919-1949 (Manchester, 2008), of IPI (Indian Political Intelligence), the London-based secret agency headed for most of its existence by graduates of Trinity College Dublin, which meticulously studied and catalogued the interactions of Indian separatists with other nationalist movements and ideologies across the world. In the British policy system, furthermore, intelligence agencies have long had a crucial role, not only as collectors of information but as covert promoters of British interests. Their records and actions consequently cast light on wider issues.
The missing dimension in all studies of British intelligence on Ireland, from the early twentieth century to the present day, remains London’s awareness and understanding not of Irish republicanism and after 1922 of the new Irish state, but of Ulster loyalism before and after partition. London had far more and better advance knowledge of the 1916 Rising than of the Larne gunrunning of March 1914, and even at its most negligent and dilatory under the fatalistic Liberal Augustine Birrell, Dublin Castle had a far clearer idea of the potential threat posed by advanced nationalism in 1914 than of the detailed schemes of the Ulster Volunteer Force and its political masters to usurp the authority of the Crown in Ulster and defy the will of parliament, if necessary by force of arms. That Ulster’s was a largely public conspiracy is immaterial: the point is that the British government failed to spy on Ulster.
It is, therefore, rather a pity that the starting point for McMahon’s study is 1916 rather than, say, 1912. I would like to know about what, if anything, the British government knew or sought to find out in 1913-14 from its fledging intelligence agencies – the newly formed agencies MI5 (counterespionage and security), and MI1c (later MI6, foreign intelligence), or from the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).
With the possible exception of the RIC, these bodies would probably have been psychologically incapable of spying on Ulster unionism. Like the military and naval intelligence directorates which had spawned them in 1909, they were staffed by professional officers of limited imagination fixated with the threat of foreign espionage. Once the Ulster crisis evaporated with the outbreak of the First World War, those who had conspired against the Crown flocked to serve it. In MI5, Irish affairs were handled by Frank Hall, previously military secretary to the Ulster Volunteer Force. The brilliant maverick naval intelligence chief Reginald “Blinker” Hall, whose department controlled the decoding of foreign cable and radio traffic, omitted to brief Dublin Castle on the plans for the Rising disclosed in decodes of German messages from Washington to Berlin. The result was that, whether by accident or design, those in Dublin Castle best placed to analyse and contextualise such material were left in the dark and naturally worked on the assumption that London had all the threads of the conspiracy in its hands. Hence the Castle’s otherwise incomprehensible delay in deciding to arrest key Irish Volunteer and Citizen Army leaders, action which would probably have nipped the rebellion in the bud.
Poor communication between agencies, manipulation of information and genuine misunderstanding of good intelligence continued after the Rising. In 1917 and 1918 Dublin Castle was bounced into repressive action against Sinn Féin by alarming material produced by Blinker Hall which seemed to indicate a further rebellion. In each case there was supporting fragmentary intelligence – agent reports of weapons shipments being prepared in a German port, and decodes of German diplomatic traffic between Washington and Berlin. McMahon observes that “contrary to Irish opinion, the ‘German Plot’ was not deliberately invented by British ministers; they sincerely believed that the threat was real”. But the key point is that the cabinet let itself be guided by the chronically alarmist and gullible Anglo-Irish grandee Walter Long, who dominated the Lloyd George coalition’s management of Irish affairs. Long had implicit faith in Blinker Hall, and supported him in a complicated intrigue to attempt to persuade the American government to pose as the discoverers of evidence of a revived German-Irish conspiracy – Hall had succeeded with a similar subterfuge in 1917 with the decoded Zimmerman telegram, which helped to swing American public opinion against Germany. The Americans refused absolutely to play such a role again, dealing a severe blow to the plot allegations. The cabinet, bemused by the public furore in Ireland, where the wave of arrests was interpreted simply as a blow against the anti-conscription movement, belatedly asked to see the details of the plot. In response Hall could produce, as the cabinet secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, sourly noted, only “evidence of the most flimsy and ancient description”. There was no plot, and the action taken merely strengthened the Irish separatist movement.
McMahon deals extensively with the intelligence problems which Britain encountered during the War of Independence. His overall conclusion is a balanced one, recognising – as few Irish writers seem capable of doing – that the systematic processing of information on suspects and detainees and the careful analysis of captured documents implemented in the second half of 1920 had a considerable impact on IRA operations. On the other hand, these “overt, indiscriminate intelligence methods … though yielding information, alienated the Irish population”. It might, however, equally be argued that the excesses of the Black and Tans had already occasioned the irredeemable loss of moderate Irish hearts and minds and that the development of a functional intelligence recording and collation system, combined with increased and more systematic military involvement in front line operations against the IRA, did make a decisive difference in the campaign. In the end, each side forced the other to the negotiating table. McMahon describes successful British efforts to secure intelligence from within the Irish delegation. He points to John Chartres, the assistant secretary of the Irish delegation. It is impossible to say whether this was an instance of betrayal or of “back channel” communication.
McMahon’s treatment of intelligence issues during the civil war makes particularly good use of Admiralty and military sources. Naval intelligence had never been at its best in producing sophisticated political analysis, but it knew a lot about coastal movements and security, and it could intercept and decode radio traffic. He also describes the considerable efforts of southern unionists to report on civil war conditions. Much of what they said was alarmist, but as a community they had good reason to be fearful until the flames died down in 1923. So too did the government of Northern Ireland, apprehensive of an invasion from the south. The great gap in London’s understanding of Northern Ireland was, however, not the extent and limits of the threat of a southern assault, but of conditions on the ground. Although the army was at times heavily engaged in Belfast, and although the Irish government made repeated representations about attacks on nationalist communities in that city, London took care not to know too much about the official and paramilitary forces orchestrating much of the killing.
Of the various UK agencies involved in some way in studying independent Ireland and Irish republicanism between 1921 and 1939, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) emerges best from McMahon’s study. Criticised by the London Special Branch and by MI5 for its introverted provincialism and inability to grasp the wider ramifications of machinations by external forces – international communism and, from the late 1930s, Germany – the RUC stuck largely to factual reportage on suspicious individuals and the inner workings of the northern IRA (on which it apparently obtained an excellent long term source in 1923). The IRA was always the RUC’s prime target, although McMahon shows that for some years it also collected some intelligence on the new Irish state. Its generally cautious assessments were frequently overshadowed by sensationalist scare stores. The RUC inspector general, Charles Wickham, who served until 1945, was always sceptical about the IRA’s practical capacity to make mischief in Northern Ireland and about reports of imminent revolution in the Free State. During the Second World War he both surprised and impressed MI5 with his sang froid and his calm appraisal of Irish affairs, consistently scotching rumours about the extent of German espionage, insisting that the Garda Síochána had a firm grip on the IRA and deploring the tendency of Stormont ministers to talk up supposed southern insecurity. The development of informal professional links between the RUC and the Garda is difficult to chart, but it is clear that the invasion scare of June 1940 was a turning point – that autumn, Wickham told MI5 that the Garda were “quite expert” on the republican movement and that there was no point in trying to second-guess them. Early in 1941 the director of naval intelligence, who during the first year of the war had led the futile hunt for evidence of German submarines sheltering in Irish waters, described Wickham as the most authoritative source on conditions in both Irish jurisdictions. He merits a full-length study.
One of the great strengths of McMahon’s book is its detailed discussion of intelligence on Ireland and on the IRA in the 1920s and 1930s. Making illuminating use particularly of MI5, Metropolitan Police Special Branch and RUC documents, it charts persistent British security concerns about aspects of the new Ireland. What were the intentions of the Cosgrave government towards the Border up to 1925? Did the growth of left-wing influence within the IRA in the late 1920s presage a domestic revolution? What was the relationship between de Valera’s new Fianna Fáil party and armed republicanism? All of these were legitimate questions to ask – London had much fragmentary evidence of the IRA’s efforts to deepen its external links, and of fitful Soviet interest in using it for espionage and possible sabotage in the United Kingdom, and officials read de Valera’s public denunciations of the Treaty with a combination of disdain and alarm.
The problem was that attempts to address these questions were generally ill-informed and alarmist, based neither on conventional diplomacy – McMahon’s work underscores the folly for both states of Britain not having a diplomatic presence in Dublin until September 1939 – nor on systematic intelligence-gathering. Instead the field was left to rumour-mongers and amateurs. This might not have mattered had London possessed a means of filtering alarmist reports about Ireland, but it did not. McMahon makes an incontestable case that London’s profound lack of understanding of de Valera’s methods, agenda and electoral prospects was itself partly the result of a failure to produce a dispassionate examination of all evidence – most of it in the public domain. Instead, the most far-fetched yarns, usually the work of hyper-imaginative Irish loyalists or gullible British journalists, passed unchallenged from the clubs of Pall Mall into the corridors of Whitehall. In quiet times this might not have mattered much, because Ireland was so unimportant; but McMahon shows that at times of crisis in Anglo-Irish relations, particularly in 1932-3 and in 1939-40, wild stories and outlandish predictions were accepted at face value, even at cabinet level. They contributed to London’s ill-judged response to de Valera’s constitutional and financial challenges, a policy initially based on the premise that he could essentially be starved out of office and succeeded by Cosgrave’s Cumann na nGaedheal. That party discreditably and short-sightedly egged London on in this folly. The advent to power of de Valera did occasion the establishment by MI6 of a limited Irish intelligence network, but as this was based on the usual suspects of Irish loyalists and retired officers it channelled rather than displaced the streams of dire predictions to be expected from such circles. At the same time, however, we have to be careful: as Deirdre McMahon’s Republicans and Imperialists: Anglo-Irish relations in the 1930s (London, 1984) shows, many in Whitehall were disinclined to believe in an Irish apocalypse. Key figures, such as the powerful permanent secretary to the treasury Sir Warren Fisher, who had trenchantly put the case for pursuing an accommodation with Sinn Féin to the coalition leaders Lloyd George and Bonar Law in 1920, were strongly of the view that an understanding could eventually be reached with de Valera and that it was in Britain’s economic and strategic interests to secure one.
If the advent of the “Economic War” in 1932 can be ascribed in part to inadequate political intelligence on Ireland, it is ironic that the eventual achievement of the major Anglo-Irish settlement of 1938 also owed something to defective intelligence. The chiefs of staff committee provided a lukewarm strategic rationale for the government’s decision to relinquish Britain’s defence rights under the 1921 treaty. McMahon shows that the strategic debate took place in the absence of any serious analysis of one key assumption, that in wartime a grateful Ireland would voluntarily assist Britain. How this assumption became so entrenched in British minds is a mystery: the paranoia of 1932-3 had been succeeded by an almost equally misplaced Micawberism, which even a cursory study of de Valera’s public statements should have dispelled. There is no evidence that British intelligence was asked to ruminate on the likely Irish response if Britain did find herself at war. In fact the newly formed Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) only considered, and that cursorily, the subsidiary though real risk of Germany using Ireland as a base for mounting espionage operations against the United Kingdom.
In Britain itself, the outbreak of the IRA’s “S Plan” bombing campaign in January 1939 occasioned a whirlwind of police action directed by the Special Branch, the effectiveness of which indicates that London already knew a good deal about the IRA in Britain. This series of attacks, a masterpiece of republican bad timing, gave the British authorities the opportunity to root out the IRA and its support networks just months before, with the onset of war, these could have posed a real threat to British interests. However, the campaign also demonstrated the limits of Irish willingness to help: while Dublin would crack down on the IRA in its own jurisdiction, the Garda was unwilling to pass on information which might lead to the detention of people in Britain.
The Second World War saw both the worst and the best of British intelligence. The first year was characterised by the familiar problem of rampant alarmism. Amateur spies popped up everywhere to help the British war effort, rumours of U-boats, gauleiters and German agents abounded and the IRA was depicted as a disciplined, well-armed body poised to mount a coup against de Valera and/or to rise up in arms in concert with a German invasion. Most of this utter dross found its way to the top table: it was on the promptings of MI6, which warned that de Valera might soon be swept aside by pro-German forces, that Churchill made his equivocal offer of postwar Irish unity in return for participation in the defence of the British Isles. It was only through good Garda/RUC links, and the gradual development of liaison on Axis espionage between MI5 and the Irish army intelligence service G2, that London began to take a calmer look at Irish questions. Even then, MI6 continued to spy in Ireland, although as McMahon shows, most of their operations became known to G2.
My conclusion on finishing this excellent study is that the most striking gap in British intelligence on Ireland, from the early twentieth century to the present day, is not on the republican movement or the Irish state, but on Ulster loyalism. Did London learn anything from the events of 1914 about the potential for unionist paramilitarism? Not a bit of it – the would-be Ulster rebels of 1914 became the loyalest of servants of the Crown, being rewarded in 1921 with almost complete, unchecked and unquestioned control of law and order and security in Northern Ireland. Myopia about loyalist violence persisted for decades: it was there in Whitehall’s response to signs of political and communal unrest in Northern Ireland from the mid-1960s. The residual Irish problem was always analysed in terms of the danger from republicanism, with loyalist extremism regarded simply as a product of the republican threat. Yet during the potentially incendiary year of 1966, the fiftieth anniversary both of the Rising and of the Battle of the Somme, about which the cabinet secretary, Sir Burke Trend, was so concerned that he oversaw London’s security planning, the only assassinations planned and carried out were the work not of republicans but of loyalists. But the commemorations passed off peacefully and the JIC congratulated all concerned on their farsighted security arrangements, which had prevented an IRA-inspired conflagration.
Paul McMahon demonstrates the rich seams of Irish-related material now available in a wide range of departmental and agency records in the British National Archives at Kew. Embarrassingly for Irish scholars of Anglo-Irish relations, London’s policy on the release of historic documents remains far more liberal and enlightened than Dublin’s. We can point to whole classes of Irish records dating back to the founding of the state which are still withheld. The consequence of this, as is already clear from the work of recent PhD students and other researchers who have begun to explore the early years of the Northern Ireland troubles, will be that the British official perspective will tend to come across most strongly in what is written because those are the records available. A generation of researchers may then be unfairly blamed for writing London-centred Irish history, perhaps even pilloried, like the distinguished Canadian historian Peter Hart, for inflicting supposedly pro-British and anti-republican history on an unsuspecting Irish public, whereas the real fault lies with Irish departments and agencies whose policy on the release of anything touching on subversion within the state or on the Northern Ireland crisis remains acutely conservative.
Two years ago the then minister for justice, equality and law reform established an “archives review group” to examine his department’s records and to advise on appropriate releases. Our interim report of September 2006, available at www.justice.ie/, set out the case for a policy of accelerated release of some categories of records and advanced the argument that the feelings of living individuals about the appearance of possibly discreditable material about long-dead forebears needed to be set against the broader interests of society in exploring our own history. The Department of Justice accepted our advice and put in place a meticulous process for vetting documents before release. Its main concern is, commendably, not security, but the privacy of individuals discussed in the records. Most surviving material up to the mid-1930s has been released, though the clearance exercise is time-consuming and a backlog remains. For example, an entire series of innocuous files dealing with the winding up of the posts of clerk of the petty sessions following the 1924 Courts Act is still closed. There is nothing sensitive in these, and the people directly involved and, in most cases, their children are long since dead. Apart from their individual piquancy – a retired official attempting to gain compensation for office furniture she had purchased and then handed on to the succeeding district court clerk, a former clerk who had been intimidated out of Ireland and so on – these records are probably of interest only to those few people interested in administrative transitions.
Also still closed is a large tranche of files on the Criminal Investigation Department in Oriel House in 1922-3, which seems to have been separated by chance from similar records already open in the National Archives. Among matters concealed within dusty folders is the case of two detectives who got into hot water after disappearing for hours when sent out to arrest a republican suspect. Concern about their welfare evaporated abruptly when one returned to Oriel House blind drunk, half-carried through the door by his obliging prisoner. The other officer had gone straight home to sleep it off. Almost ninety years after they happened, such cases, like that of the arrest of a republican propagandist disguised as a blind man and accompanied by his faithful dog “Trotski”, are surely no longer too sensitive for public eyes. Man, dog and a typewriter were taken to Oriel House, but Trotski absconded the next day. Perhaps he is still being sought.
Eunan O’Halpin is Professor of Contemporary Irish History at Trinity College Dublin. His most recent work is Spying on Ireland: British intelligence and Irish neutrality during the Second World War (Oxford, 2008)