British Spies In The IRA, Myth Versus Reality

Just a quick heads-up for those who have access to the series “Twentieth Century British History” from the Oxford Journals. A recent edition features an article titled “The Influence of Informers and Agents on Provisional Irish Republican Army Military Strategy and British Counter-Insurgency Strategy, 1976–94” by Thomas Leahy of King’s College, London. In it the researcher pretty much demolishes the myth of British “super spies” in the ranks of (Provisional) Irish Republican Army. From the introductory abstract:

“This article investigates the impact of British informers and agents on Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) military strategy and British counter-insurgency strategy in Northern Ireland between 1976 and 1994. The importance of this topic was highlighted by revelations in 2003 and 2005 concerning two senior republicans who had both been working for British intelligence for decades. While acknowledging other important factors, various authors believe that these intelligence successes were vital in containing the IRA, and significantly influenced that organization to end its military campaign in the 1990s.

Yet after cross-referencing new interview material primarily with memoirs from various participants in the Northern Ireland conflict, this article reveals that the nature of many rural IRA units, its cellular structure in Belfast, and the isolation of the IRA leadership from the rest of the movement, prevented it from being damaged to any considerable extent by informers and agents.

In fact, by the 1990s the resilience of the IRA was a crucial factor encouraging the British government to include Provisional Republicans in a political settlement. The IRA’s military strength by the 1990s also points towards the prominence of political factors in persuading the IRA to call a ceasefire by 1994. The role of spies in Northern Ireland and the circumstances in which the state permitted negotiations with paramilitaries such as the IRA, are key considerations for those interested in other recent and current conflicts.”

This of course is an argument that I have been making since 2011 which can be found in such ASF posts as:

Playing Fantasy Troubles

Fantasy Troubles Part III – Britain’s Superspies!

More Cloak And Dagger Shenanigans In Fantasy Troubles

Fantasy Troubles Part 4

Tolerating The Armed Struggle

Update: For the other side of the coin, “When The IRA Busted Britain’s Spying Operations In Europe“.

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8 comments

  1. excellent story. I had always had deep doubts, in my own mind, about what actually went on. There were British successes, such as agent stakeknife, plus various low level informers, but this shows quite clearly that yet another counter propaganda myth has been exposed. The German penetrtaion, during WWII, of MI5 and the existence of whole networks of German agents in the UK, right up until 1945, uncaught, is another example. , the spooks have feet of clay, on this one.

  2. You have to figure the British wouldn’t let the IRA get away with Bishopsgate, Manchester and Baltic exchange if they had the IRA working to it’s will.
    Also I was on Wikipedia; and they have a timeline of IRA operations through the years including the 1980’s and 1990’s. From that you can see the IRA had their constant tempo of operations.. including some spectalars in Belfast.
    They blew up a Royal Navy ship been built in Belfast H &W shipyard. (HMS Fort Victoria IIRC- or her sistership).
    This set the ship back by something like 18 months and cost about 180 million quid IIRC.
    Also in the 1990’s they found out that the British army were using an undercover van to transport their soldiers in and out of “ulster” and they attacked it.
    An intelligence success..just like gaining access to H&W was also.
    They also in the 1980’s got a bomb into Shorts and damaged an aircraft.
    So, they were able to mount successful operations right upto the end…including bombing the Army HQ in Lisburn with two car bombs IIRC. Thiepeval barracks.
    so, yes these stories are most likely for the right wing press.

    Also, the complete failure of the British army at COIN in Afghanastan and Iraq leads their record open to question as to how good they really where.
    Consider that they had 1 security force member for every 4 catholic males between the ages of 18-44’ish.
    The odds were in their favour..and their best return was a draw.
    Not to mention the language situation and the locals were the same ethnicity etc.

    It should have been a “slam dunk” for the Brits.
    But a draw is all they got.

    1. That’s because unlike Russian barbarians the Brits restrained themselves and fought the Irish Republican so-called army with both hands tied behind their backs..
      Stalin, who ordered NKVD to shoot their own troops, would have simply exterminated all the Catholics in the north if necessary.

      1. Janis.
        I think I can just direct you to the hooded men article.
        Also the British used Loyalists as proxy killers..Hardly restraint.
        What they did do; was conduct operations in the “deniable Zone”

        True about Stalin and the NKVD. But then you have to ask yourself…What happened to the Native Irish in Ulster..before the plantation?.Stalin would be proud.
        And under the Brits the Irish were at one stage reduced to owning something like only 5% of their land ( by area) at one time.
        The only reason why that changed was because the Brits tried to buy the Irish off under their strategy ” killing Home Rule with kindness” and various land Acts were brought in.

      2. Latvia welcomed the Soviets into Latvia.Too cowardly to put up a fight.
        Excellent at collaborating with Nazis to murder their own civilians though.

      3. Jānis, the British did not restrain themselves. Regional, national and international circumstances restrained them. Margaret Thatcher was prevented from indulging her Cromwellian fantasies of ethnic cleansing the Irish nationalist population from the north-east of Ireland in the 1980s because her political, military and civil service advisers convinced her of the drastic reaction it would trigger both between Ireland and the UK, and between the UK and the international community. The United States may have turned a blind eye to British activities in the north, and at times co-operated with the UK authorities, but even it had its red lines that could not be crossed.

        1. Do you have any sources that back up the claim that Thatcher wanted to ethnically cleanse the Irish?

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