Current Affairs Politics

Playing Fantasy Troubles

Three Volunteers of an Active Service Unit of the Irish Republican Army, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1970s

A lot of articles, books, documentaries and news pieces have been produced over the last two decades exploring the origins of the Peace Process in the North of Ireland, and none more so than in the murky world of Britain’s Dirty War. It has become de rigueur in certain British nationalist circles (and amongst their sympathisers) to claim that it was “the Brits wot won it!” thanks to the alleged penetration of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) by various branches of the British intelligence services. It was not boots on the ground that brought about the peace, or even the “hit squads” of the infamous Special Air Service (SAS), but rather “human intelligence” – and in particular informers and double-agents.

The successful penetration of PIRA at all levels by British spies and agents, from top to bottom, helped the British to turn the organisation around, point it in the direction they wanted it to go, convinced it there was nothing further to be gained by continuing the armed struggle, and set it off on the path of peace (a few bumps and hiccups along the way not withstanding). Or so the story goes. Some even go so far as to claim that the British succeeded in a complex, decades-long strategy of bringing Irish Republicans into the governance of the north-eastern part of Ireland on behalf of the British – a masterstroke indeed.

If true.

This particular narrative has gained legs in recent years with the dramatic unmasking of several senior British agents at high levels within the Republican Movement, in both the military and political wings. Not simply the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army but Sinn Féin itself was compromised, it would seem. So the cries went up: the Brits knew everything! The Brits ran everything! The whole last decade of the war, the whole peace process itself was nothing more than a sham.

All of which is complete and utter nonsense.

In fact it is a James Bond fantasy come to life for people who simply cannot understand the complex history of a three decades Long War. Or even Ireland’s history in general. Worse, it is a propaganda myth with a purpose – to sow fear, doubt and confusion in the ranks of an old enemy (or any new ones who may contemplate replacing what came before).

A Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army on active service in the British Occupied North of Ireland, armed with an American-supplied M16 assault rifle, early 1980s

Yes, of course, the British Forces in several guises, the RUC Special Branch (SB), British Military Intelligence (BMI), the Security Service (SS or MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) and other shadowy groups, managed to place a high number of agents within PIRA, or rather in most cases “turned” PIRA Volunteers to become spies and informers. These men (and women) did what they did for a wide variety of reasons: idealism, financial inducement, intimidation, blackmail, exploited psychological or medical problems, petty jealousies or personal rivalries. The list goes on and on. Patriots and traitors, heroes and cowards, the full gamut of human character is to be found in amongst these individuals.

But what will not be found are the answers as to why the conflict slowly ground to a halt. Nor, in any accepted sense of the word, is a “defeat” of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army to be found here either. There was none. There was a peace settlement, with all the compromises on all sides that such a political, diplomatic and military exercise entails. A fact that the British themselves acknowledge, as reported in the Sunday Herald in June 2004:

“MI5 has caused outrage after one of its spies stated publicly that the IRA “fought a just cause” and won a “successful campaign” during the 30-year Troubles in Northern Ireland.

The Sunday Herald is unable to name the MI5 officer following a threat of legal action from the government. However, the spy’s comments have provoked fury from the victims of IRA violence and Ulster politicians.

The controversy centres on a briefing given by the MI5 officer, a former Royal Navy commander, at a maritime security conference on Orkney. Details have been given to the Sunday Herald by Mark Hirst, the former head of communications at Orkney Islands Council, who attended the seminar.

Hirst says the MI5 officer said the IRA was “the biggest threat to British national security”. But the officer then said “in our opinion they [the IRA] have fought a just cause”.

“The conclusion of MI5, according to this officer,” said Hirst, “was based on the fact there had been legitimate grievances among, and discrimination against, the nationalist community and this had sustained the IRA through the length of the campaign.”

The MI5 officer then added: “Has it been a successful campaign? The answer is yes.”

Hirst said: “He referred to the fact Sinn Fein had two ministers in power. What better success can you wish for, he said, than to have your people in positions of power in government.”

Hirst said the comments were “not off-the-cuff as they were supported by an official MI5 PowerPoint presentation, complete with the official crest”.

“Presumably this was sanctioned at some level,” he added.

The DoT confirmed that the briefing took place, adding: “This was part of a programme to ensure that security staff at UK ports were up to date with the terrorism threat they are countering. We are not prepared to comment further.”

…Kevin Fulton, a former double-agent who infiltrated the IRA, said he was not surprised by the MI5 officer’s comment.

Martin Ingram, a former intelligence officer in the army’s spying arm, the Force Research Unit, said: “I think what this officer is saying is an honest appraisal. The nationalist community was unjustly treated and that led to the resurgence of the IRA, although I disagree with the IRA’s methodology.

“What this man has said will be detrimental to his career, but there are those in senior positions in MI5 who would probably agree with him.”

Did the Irish Republican Amy wage a successful campaign? Yes, undoubtedly. Did they have to compromise on their ultimate war aims? Without a doubt. Did Britain’s counter-insurgency campaign contribute to that compromise? Of course.

However the gross exaggeration of the numbers of British spies in IRA ranks simply detracts from the credibility of what the British did do. Claims that by 1994 the British had managed to turn 1 in every 4 Volunteers into a “friendly” or willing agent, or that 1 in every 2 senior officers was a spy, is beyond laughable. This is not just hype. It is patent madness and flies against all reason or logic. The claims do not match the facts. The compromising of the IRA’s leadership, particularly the Internal Security Unit (ISU) and elements of the Northern Command (the IRA’s counter-intelligence and fighting arms), was undoubtedly key to the last years of Britain’s counter-insurgency campaign. But it was not, despite all the hysteria, the most crucial key.

An Active Service Unit (ASU) of the Irish Republican Army launches an anti-aircraft attack with a HMG (Heavy Machine Gun) in the British Occupied North of Ireland, late 1980s

If we remove IRA prisoners-of-war (POWs), those living overseas (“on the runs”), and a few others, the IRA’s nominal strength in 1994 was somewhere around 450-500 Volunteers. Of this number some 250-300 were on Active Service; that is they were regularly engaged in military operations, the majority in or around the North of Ireland (by military operations I mean attacks on the British Occupation Forces or other targets, acquiring, maintaining or transporting weapons, explosives or other equipment and vehicles, active intelligence gathering and reconnaissance, etc.). Taking the upper number of 500 the conspiracy theorists would allege that at this time around 200 of these Volunteers were agents of the British (or Irish) state. This is clearly nonsense. It flies against all reason and what journalists and commentators on the ground, as well as many others, know to have been observable facts. It is simply impossible that in 1994 out of 500 IRA Volunteers around 200 were informers or “touts”.

A far more reasonable and probably accurate estimate would place the number of “double-agents” in IRA ranks in 1994 at around 20-30. Even that itself is a remarkable figure, especially as some were positioned in a number of key areas within the military organisation. The penetration of the IRA’s intelligence, or more accurately, counter-intelligence network was a coup of epic proportions and the British rightly did whatever they needed to do to protect it. But “human intelligence” was not the only weapon in the British arsenal, important though such sources were. The majority of tactical intelligence gathered by the British Forces, the sort of intelligence that saw weapons and explosives captured, ambushes and attacks thwarted, IRA Volunteers and Active Service Units counter-ambushed, arrested or assassinated, whole regions of the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland closed down for days or weeks on end, was derived from the new modes of electronic and computer-coordinated intelligence, surveillance and bugging that were made possible by the advances in technology that began to make their presence felt in the late 1980s and ‘90s.

British listening devices placed in phones, homes, cars, shops, pubs, regular meeting points, the use of long range, long term covert cameras (with real-time satellite and landline feeds), tracking devices placed on or into vehicles and other equipment (including guns and explosives), the widespread use of CCTV in urban areas accessible to the then RUC and the British Army, routine and co-ordinated communication interceptions and monitoring, indexing of suspected or known IRA Volunteers and continuous observation of their movements, homes, cars, work places (and of their families, friends and work colleagues), all these techniques were what powered the cutting edge of the British war machine in Ireland. The central collation and study of data, thousands of individual facts and figures, over a period of months or years, and the redistribution of that data to those who needed to know it is what weighed heavy in favour of the British in the closing years of the conflict.

It was the Irish Republican Army’s initial difficulties in keeping pace in the technology war, its inability to find genuinely effective means or tactics to thwart a virtual 24/7 police state (not to mention the related advances in forensic sciences), that began to tell in the early 1990s. Undoubtedly, given time, a way would have been found (as Palestinian guerrilla groups have proved in the Occupied Territories and Lebanon. Or Iraqi and Taliban insurgents have shown in their respective theatres of conflict). In fact the early signs of a developing counter-struggle were already there in the mid-1990s as Republicans became more adept with counter-surveillance and detection techniques, and the use of mobile communication devices and computer technology. But such (temporary and ongoing) solutions came just as the overtures for peace began to take real substance and the electronic war became one of several key facts that persuaded the Irish Republican Army to explore “victory through negotiations”.

Not the double-agents and “touts”, mythical or otherwise.

Units of the Derry Brigade of the Irish Republican Army parade through Derry City, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1970s

However some in the British press, the British military and intelligence fetishists, as well as their cheerleaders elsewhere, would have us believe otherwise. So to the latest “revelation” in the Belfast Telegraph:

“Half of all senior IRA members in the Troubles were working for intelligence services, a secret dossier of evidence into the murder of two RUC men has claimed.

The remarkable document has laid bare a startling series of claims about the infiltration of both the police and terror groups during the ‘Dirty War’.

It claims the IRA ran agents in the RUC and also that Dundalk Garda station was regarded by British intelligence as “a nest of vipers”, with at least two officers actively assisting the Provos.

The information is contained in a secret 24-page document in the name of Ian Hurst — a British intelligence whistleblower — which has been seen by the Belfast Telegraph.

The sensational claims are due to be made to Justice Peter Smithwick’s Dublin tribunal of inquiry into the murder of two senior RUC officers in 1989.

The victims, Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Robert Buchanan, died in a hail of IRA gunfire as they crossed the border following an intelligence exchange with the Garda in Dundalk.

The dossier also claims:

•The shadowy Force Research Unit (FRU) had a file on suspected rogue gardai prepared to pass information to the IRA and act as its agents. MI5 also had a network of agents with the Garda.

•The IRA had a network of informants in public agencies such as social security offices and vehicle licensing departments.

•One in four IRA members was an agent, rising to one in two among senior members.

•Martin McGuinness was involved in all strategic military decisions taken by the IRA.

At the centre of the web of intrigue sat the IRA’s head of internal security, the agent known as Stakeknife, who took information from rogue gardai while himself working for British intelligence.

Perhaps the most shocking claim is that a rogue Garda Sergeant leaked intelligence to Stakeknife. Stakeknife has been identified as Freddie Scappaticci, a veteran Belfast republican.

Scappaticci has strongly denied working for British intelligence and said he had cut his links with the IRA in 1990. He is legally represented at the Smitwick Tribunal and is now considering giving evidence in person.”

In fact this much-heralded exclusive is anything but. The so-called “secret” document has been freely available on Cryptome for the last two months. The problems with it lie in the complex mixture of truth and falsehood that pervade the file. Undoubtedly everyone was spying on everyone else. But much of the Ian Hurst statement needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt. Or two.

Volunteers of the Derry Brigade of the Irish Republican Army parade through Derry City, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1970s

For instance it contradicts some of the claims made by him in previous statements and interviews (usually under his long-standing nom de guerre of Martin Ingram). In 2006 he stated that:

““It’s time ordinary republicans stopped being led like sheep and started asking questions. At grassroots level, around one in 20 members are British agents. Higher up, it’s one in three.”

Somewhat different from the numbers given by Hurst now. To say the least.

His alleged statement to the Smithwick Tribunal starts with an introduction:

“I was born in the north of England. When I was 20 I joined the British Army. Within a few months of joining the Army 07 01 1980 I joined the Intelligence Corps at Templar Barracks, Ashford, Kent. When I left Templar Barracks I had graduated into the Intelligence Corps as a lance corporal and posted as requested to Northern Ireland. All Intelligence Corps soldiers are negatively vetted (NV) on entry into the Intelligence Corps – which allows regular access to secret material but only occasional access to Top secret.

In 1981 I was posted to 3SCT (Special Collation Team) based at HQNI. The unit manually typed RUC source documents (RIRAC) onto the Intelligence computer system 3702 and was also responsible for Vengeful the Vehicle Intelligence system.

A few months later I moved to 121 Intelligence cell to cover the Derry desk. 121 Int cell is the Intelligence unit within Head Quarters Northern Ireland (HQNI) that supported both General Office Commanding Northern Ireland (GOC) his G2 staff officers, MI5 detachment and HQNI FRU. Employment within HQNI 121 Intelligence required access to computer 3702 level 1 access and access to classified intelligence.

In early 1982 I applied to join FRU (Force Research Unit) as a collator in Derry, Having completed my FRU collator training course, I was posted to FRU North, based in Derry. FRU (N) is a very busy office that deals with Human Intelligence sources within the counties of Londonderry, Tyrone, Northern Fermanagh, Northern Antrim, Derry City. The following areas were also part of FRU (N) responsibilities (AOR) Donegal, Sligo shared with FRU (W). This office along with every other FRU office dealt with Agents both within Republican Paramilitaries and the general public who were in a position to supply information of Intelligence value.

FRU (N) in accordance with province wide FRU instructions recruited NO loyalist paramilitary members; this rule could only be deviated upon unless the person/agent was a former member of the Britsh Army. A good example of that Policy was Willie Carlin & Brian Nelson who were handled by FRU (E) (N) respectively.

FRU is a force unit hence the name Force Research Unit. That means it is different to most British Army units operating within Ireland and during my service in the Intelligence Corps the following units were Force units and were active in NI:

a. 22 (SAS) – RUC controlled

b. 14 Coy – RUC controlled

c. FRU – No direct RUC operational control

The major advantage of being a force unit was being outside the normal command structure thus we had more power and influence for operational matters and from a soldiers point of view we had increased pay and allowances. FRU was an Intelligence Corps unit but was manned (Handlers) with approximately 60% Intelligence Corps and 40% other unit members. FRU was in operation from 1980 until the early 1990s when its name was changed to the Joint Services Group.

In Aug 1984 my father became seriously ill and I was compassionately posted to an Intelligence & security detachment in the north of England to be close to him until his death. At this time I was promoted to the rank of sergeant. Subsequently, I was seconded to L Branch, Repton Manor, Templar Barracks involved in the resettlement of exposed agents like Willie Carlin and Mr Frank Hegarty (RIP). I was seconded for six months to Belize and returned to England in 1987. I then completed a current FRU handler course in Templar Barracks and was then posted to FRU West, based in Enniskillen. During late 1990 I was posted to Ministry of defence in London with a recommendation for promotion and considered suitable for commissioning. Whilst serving as a middle eastern desk Intelligence officer in the MOD defence Intelligence Staff (DIS) This post required that I was enhanced positively vetted (EPV) which allowed access to the highest grade intelligence available within the UK including Sig Int and Satellite Imagery. That vetting was completed in Northern Ireland over a 6 month period prior to me taking up employment at the ministry of defence (MOD).”

He then continues with some more background information on the British Intelligence system in Ireland, as well as numerous allegations about the use of agents and counter-agents, and the manner in which all participants in the conflict penetrated each other’s organisations to one extent or another. The full statement is here in a downloadable PDF format.

All very interesting, and indeed plausible sounding on the face of it. However that’s the problem. When one starts to dig down into the many and varied statements of Ian Hurst “Britain’s top spy in Ireland!” one soon finds that the face takes on a thousand sides. Hurst, under his assumed name of Martin Ingram, emerges from the Bloody Sunday Inquiry examining the attack upon an Irish civil rights protest by British troops in Derry, 1972, as a less than credible witness:

“It is the case that Martin Ingram claimed that he had access to all documents while he was working at HQNI.  However, he was at that time only a Lance Corporal.

…We are of the view that Martin Ingram to a substantial degree exaggerated the importance of his role at HQNI and his level of knowledge and access to intelligence.

…Martin Ingram was too junior to be entrusted with the information.

Martin Ingram told us that while he was working in the Army’s Force Research Unit in the early 1980s he saw documents relating to the IRA’s plans for the day…

Martin Ingram gave confused accounts in the course of his evidence about the intelligence that he said he saw.

We formed the view that Martin Ingram had, at best, an imperfect recollection of events and that it would be unwise to rely upon his evidence.”

For some Hurst/Ingram provides more evidence of the hidden hand behind three decades of conflict in the north-east of Ireland. It feeds their version of what can only be described as form of “Fantasy Troubles”. For others it is just another dark and murky corner of Britain’s ongoing Dirty War in Ireland.

A Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army on active service in the British Occupied North of Ireland, armed with an AKM assault rifle, early 1990s
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