NEIL MACKAY’S BIG READ: Northern Ireland at 100 – the truth about the Troubles, the dirty war and who really won the bloody conflict
WAS it the secret war carried out by British agents inside the IRA which brought the Troubles to a close? Did British intelligence manipulate Sinn Fein into peace? Did either side really “win” the war in Ulster?
Northern Ireland turned 100 years old this week. It is a fitting time to reassess the Troubles. Like most conflicts, it’s only with the passage of time that the violence which shook the north of Ireland and the rest of Britain for 30 years can begin to be understood.
We know why the Troubles began – Northern Ireland was essentially a sectarian state, the Catholic population demanded civil rights, Ulster’s security forces brutally mishandled the situation, the IRA seized its opportunity and the British army was dragged into the conflict. But why did the war follow the course it did? Why did the violence come to an end? And what’s the legacy that the Troubles leave behind today?
In terms of the scope of history, peace arrived just a relatively short time ago – little more than a generation has passed since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. So historians are only now trying to make sense of how the Troubles unfolded and how the war was brought to a close.
One historian unravelling the big questions at the heart of the Troubles is Dr Aaron Edwards, senior lecturer in defence and international affairs at Sandhurst, the Royal Military Academy. For a man who teaches the British officers of tomorrow, his take on the the Irish troubles can be uncomfortable from a UK perspective.
Edwards says the British state treated the north of Ireland like a colony, imposing a military solution on Ulster lifted straight from the Empire’s handbook. Yet his analysis also poses hard truths for republicans. While the IRA believes the violence ended in stalemate, Edwards says it’s clear the paramilitary organisation was defeated.
One of the biggest question raised by Edwards’s new book – Agents of Influence: Britain’s Secret Intelligence War Against the IRA – is whether the end of the Troubles was down to agents, run by the army, RUC and MI5, outsmarting the IRA and manipulating Sinn Fein towards peace.
The agent war
FOR more than 20 years, I’ve investigated the intelligence war in Northern Ireland for The Herald.
In essence, the Dirty War – or the Agent War – worked like this: the British government was overwhelmed by the ferocity of Ulster’s ethnic conflict. In order to contain violence, the UK’s spying machine – British military intelligence, police Special Branch, and MI5 – realised they had to infiltrate agents into terror gangs, like the IRA and its loyalist counterpart the UVF, or turn existing terrorists into informers.
Where the intelligence war got dirty, though, was in the way these agents were run. In order to maintain an agent at the heart of an organisation like the IRA, they had to be allowed to act and operate as terrorists.
If a high-level mole wasn’t carrying out bombings and shootings they would not only fail to gather top-grade intelligence, but they would also crucially fall under suspicion of working for the British and more than likely be executed. Intelligence sources have claimed that agents were used to kill targets the British couldn’t get to, and sometimes even aided and abetted by their state handlers in assassinations.
Perhaps the most infamous agent was codenamed Stakeknife – the British Army’s highest-placed spy inside the IRA.
I named senior IRA figure Freddie Scappaticci as Stakeknife in The Herald in 2003. Stakeknife was run by the Force Research Unit (FRU), a wing of British military intelligence. With chilling irony, Stakeknife was central to the IRA’s Internal Security Unit – he so-called Nutting Squad – tasked with mole-hunting and executing traitors within IRA ranks.
The FRU also ran agents like Brian Nelson, a mole inside the loyalist UDA involved in the assassination of Belfast human rights lawyer Pat Finucane.
FRU officers interviewed by The Herald admitted the unit conspired in the murder of multiple civilians in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The FRU was run by a Scottish officer, Brigadier Gordon Kerr – one of the army’s most senior figures, who would eventually become British military attache to Beijing.
One FRU handler interviewed said that the actions of British military intelligence were a “utilitarian numbers game” – if an agent saved more lives than they took then that was seen as a success. Police investigations into the Dirty War have essentially gone nowhere. One inquiry, Operation Kenova, remains ongoing into the role of agent Stakeknife.
Manipulating the IRA
AARON Edwards says his latest book explores “how the secret state responded to the IRA and how it built the mechanisms by which it managed to push the IRA into negotiations”. One of the key figures Edwards spoke to was Willie Carlin, an agent who has appeared many times in the pages of The Herald through our investigations into the Dirty War. Carlin was a former British solider – a Catholic from Derry – who was instructed to infiltrate Sinn Fein on behalf of MI5.
He became close to IRA commander Martin McGuinness, who would later become the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland after the peace process kicked in. Carlin’s cover was eventually blown and he had to flee Ireland or risk execution.
Carlin described his role as an agent like this to The Herald: “Essentially, I had to push Sinn Fein – and by extension the IRA – towards a political rather than military solution.”
In effect, that’s exactly what happened with the peace process in the 1990s.
Edwards says the purpose of the Agent War was “to bring the IRA to what some former intelligence officers would call a culminating point … to move the Republican movement in a political direction”.
He says Carlin’s story poses the question: “How far was Sinn Fein actually created by the British state?”
Edwards adds: “I think that there’s a strong, compelling argument in there that the politicisation of Sinn Fein, of the professional Republican movement, was deliberate.”
There’s been speculation for years that McGuinness was a spy for Britain. However, there is no evidence to back up such rumours. What does seem clear today, however, is that McGuinness was being manipulated to some extent towards a political solution by British intelligence.
Edwards says that when it comes to the views of former agents like Carlin – of British intelligence deliberately trying to move Republicanism in a political rather than military direction – “we have to take them seriously”.
He says it was important for British intelligence to get McGuinness elected for Sinn Fein “because he’s the IRA chief of staff allegedly, with total control over the military campaign … you’re essentially moving the pieces around the chess board”. This begins a process where the IRA’s army council becomes more supportive of a peace strategy. “You see very clearly a political project emerging,” says Edwards, “and that’s done at the expense of the military campaign.”
There were competing strategies, however. While MI5 may have been keen to slowly move Sinn Fein in a political direction, RUC special branch was concentrating on minimising daily violence on the streets. “I don’t believe there was a unified strategy,” says Edwards. “Different worldviews were clashing.”
SO who won the war in the end? “A lot of commentators say there was a military stalemate,” says Edwards, “that nobody won – that suits a lot of people. It suits the idea of an honourable compromise, a magnanimous compromise.”
Within some sections of Republicanism there’s a belief the IRA “took the magnanimous route. They decided they’d give [Northern Ireland] peace, that the best way forward to secure a United Ireland was though politics”. Edwards says: “We don’t really hear much from the British state … there’s not an awful lot of people [from the British side] running around saying ‘we won’.”
Edwards believes there’s a reason for the silence. In trying to establish the edgy peace that now exists in Northern Ireland, any sign of British triumphalism “would signal a humiliating defeat for the IRA”. That would not have been sound ground on which to try to bring an end to “an intractable ethnic conflict”.
“In order for the peace process to develop, there had to be this idea of an honourable compromise,” Edwards says. However, he points out that the IRA did not achieve its goals – Ireland is still not united – while Britain did secure its goals by “turning off the IRA’s violence”. Edwards adds: “I believe in a strategic sense it was definitely an IRA defeat, no doubt about it, but in terms of how it was sold for a peace process to be built, it was an honourable compromise.”
In terms of the peace process, the IRA could not have “sold it to their support base” on the grounds that they were beaten. “They’d fight to their last gasp,” Edwards adds.
WHAT the intelligence war set out to do was “sow paranoia within paramilitary groups” so that organisations like the IRA would “become paranoid that agents were everywhere”. It pretty much worked. Edwards says terror groups “were infiltrated from top to bottom”. Sources in both paramilitary organisations and British intelligence have told The Herald over the years that the deep penetration of organisations like the IRA clearly accounted for the rapid fall in terrorist fatalities as the Troubles wore on, and ground the paramilitary organisations down through arrests and foiling operations.
History may never know the full extent of how deeply British intelligence penetrated terror groups, however. The identities of British agents inside the IRA 100 years ago during the War of Independence remain undisclosed. That policy will remain in place for the Troubles. “I don’t think, in any material that will be released over the next 100 years, that we’re going to see any names,” Edwards adds.
Shortening the war
MANY have commented that in running its Dirty War, Britain itself behaved like a terrorist organisation. Ugly and brutal though the spying game was, there’s evidence that it did shorten the conflict. “I think that if we look at the many hundreds of years of conflict in Ireland, for [the Troubles] to be over and to be wound down [in less than three decades], I think that’s an incredible achievement in just a short space of time,” Edwards says.
Some commentators from the British side of the conflict believe the UK won a “moral victory” over the IRA. Many from the republican side say Britain disgraced itself through policies like the intelligence war and shoot to kill. Edwards says he takes cognisance of the “ticking time bomb” theory of security – that sometimes actions are taken by members of the security forces which are “prohibited” in order to prevent a terrorist attack.
Morality of war
HOWEVER, he says he has avoided addressing questions of morality, citing ongoing police investigations. “I didn’t want anything interfering with the book,” he says. “I didn’t want a live police investigation and all sorts of issues cropping up that would stop the publication of my book because I think it’s important to get this information out as much as I can into the public domain, and for people to make up their own minds.” On claims, by some in British intelligence that what they did was for “the greater good”, Edwards says: “Who gives that individual the right? There’s no immunity from prosecution in practice.”
There’s a tendency when telling the story of the Troubles in the north and the Agent War to “get bogged down in the James Bond type of narrative, the John le Carré stuff”, Edwards says. The human dynamic in intelligence operations is often forgotten. In Ulster, Edwards points out, it often involved “betrayal of family, as well as friends –the most intimate kind”. Exploiting these intimate relationships allowed “the English to understand Ireland” and put the British state “in a position to bring the conflict to conclusion”.
EDWARDS is highly critical of what he sees as the UK’s “colonial response” to the Troubles. “There’s a history of former deployments. There’s a history of doctrine. There’s a history of doing things in other places that’s easy to reach for … So in Cyprus, for example, there were units formed in the 1950s in order to take on EOKA [the Greek Cypriot paramilitary organisation which fought to end British rule], there were units formed in the 1960s in Aden [to counter with the uprising against British rule], that the military then carried forward into Ireland.”
Senior British military figures like General Sir Frank Kitson, who fought against the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, and General Sir James Glover, who served in the Malayan Emergency, were central to the intelligence war in Ulster. Kitson effectively wrote the doctrine on the use of intelligence in low-intensity conflicts, and Glover was integral in setting up the FRU as deputy chief of defence staff in charge of intelligence. “The colonial aspect is definitely baggage that is carried around,” Edwards said, adding: “You can’t take a template or response that worked in one part of the world and apply it to another – it ends in disaster.” Exporting colonial military tactics to the streets of British cities was “not appropriate”, Edwards adds.
INITIALLY, Ulster’s Catholic community welcomed British troops, seeing the army as a protective shield against Protestant mobs. However, that quickly changed as soldiers became identified with brutal tactics and repression in nationalist minds. This clashed up against demands from Northern Ireland’s Catholic community for equality and civil rights.
“Visceral hatred bubbles up from years of being suppressed beneath the old unionist state, the old regime, where there’s legislation from the 1920s to the early 1970s that’s the envy of repressive regimes like South Africa,” Edwards says. The result was “an existential crisis for Protestants and unionists”, and an “ethno-national conflict”.
“Seeing the Empire though Irish eyes is really important,” he adds. Edwards says the colonial attitude to Ireland was gone by the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse – significantly a period when peace emerged as a possibility.
Who knew what?
MULTIPLE sources in British intelligence have told The Herald over the years that details of the Dirty War went all the way to the desks of prime ministers like Margaret Thatcher. Edwards says we’ll never know exactly who knew what, though, as the information released to the public record is “not even five per cent of what was flying across desks” of government leaders. Information on relatively straightforward matters – such as the rules of engagement during the infamous Gibraltar “Death on the Rock” operation – are not declassified.
AFTER recent chaotic violence in Ulster, linked partly to loyalist anger over Brexit redefining the north’s relationship to the UK, Edwards worries about the “potential for relapse into conflict”. He adds: “Unfortunately, we’re staring down the barrel right now of that.” In 2007, he says, as the peace process bedded in, “there was real optimism that we could let bygones be bygones – I think we’re 10 years behind that now.”
Mass distrust is also one rarely discussed hangover of the intelligence war. “The legacy of spying in a divided society … feeds mistrust,” says Edwards. Today, much of the political debate in Ulster focuses on the past, and issues like the Dirty War, collusion and figures such as Stakeknife.
Edwards doubts that a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission – in which named individuals step forward to tell of their role in violence – would work in Ulster. “It would be very tricky to do that because of the intimacy of the violence – to find out your neighbour participated in the death of a loved one.” It might lead to more instability, he fears. Edwards suggests an Historical Clarification Committee – styled along Latin American lines – which simply establishes the facts of the past, rather than naming names, might be the way forward.
Exported to Iraq
THE legacy of the intelligence war in Ulster continues overseas too. There is evidence that tactics were exported by the British army to Iraq and Afghanistan. Edwards says he knows that personnel who served in Northern Ireland are now working as “private security contractors” – what some would call “mercenaries” – in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. As fears continue to simmer of a possible return to paramilitary violence in Ulster, the British intelligence machine remains watchful. When it comes to terror groups in the north, Edwards says, “they’re still alive and well”.