When The IRA Busted Britain’s Spying Operations In Europe

In October of 1989 Britain’s left-leaning current affairs magazine, the New Statesman, published a four-page exclusive revealing the successful penetration of the espionage and counter-insurgency operations of the United Kingdom in western Europe by the Intelligence Department of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army. Written by the investigative journalist, Duncan Campbell, the article gave an overview of a number of key documents leaked to the reporter by the insurgents detailing the activities of Britain’s Security Service (SS or MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) and several other related bodies.

At the time of the leak, (P)IRA was engaged in a sustained offensive against known or suspected British military personnel and installations in Germany and the Netherlands. Several of these operations resulted in collateral civilian casualties, including the deaths of two Australians tourists, Nick Spanos and Stephen Melrose, a German national, Heidi Hazell, and the young daughter of a British soldier, Nivruti Islania. These murders, however unintended, rightly caused widespread revulsion and inflicted considerable damage to the movement’s public image on the Continent. A noticeable reduction in support and sympathy in Europe, coupled with the loss of volunteers and equipment to the German and Dutch security services, caused the campaign to peter out within eighteen months.

Below are some key extracts from Campbell’s original article, “Carry on spying – and dying?“:

“The leak of MI5 documents to the IRA is the biggest security disaster in the 20-year-war with the Provos.

Exactly one year from the moment that Douglas Hurd imposed the broadcast ban on Sinn Fein, the Republican movement has scored its biggest ever propaganda coup against the British government. The leaked documents describing British intelligence operations in West Germany – code-named WARD and SCREAM – are as catastrophic a failure of British intelligence as was Kim Philby’s defection to Moscow a generation ago.

Even before the revelations in the Sinn Fein organ, Republican News, there was mounting evidence that the IRA’s recent terror campaign in West Germany had been conducted with remarkable and unacceptable freedom from interference by British and German security and anti-terrorist units. The campaign began in March 1987 with a huge 300lb car bomb attack on Rheindahlen, home of the British Services Security Organisation (BSSO) in West Germany.

Since then, five servicemen and the West German wife of a British soldier have been killed. Until a few days ago, no-one had been arrested for any of these offences and there were no clues as to the identity of the bombers. These security failures are strong evidence that the IRA may have played the counter-intelligence game themselves – and won, by turning agents back against the British.

The IRA leak is thus the beginning of a long nightmare for BSSO, the Security Service (MI5), the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Cabinet Office intelligence staff. It is apparent that the files leaked to the IRA from the offices of BSSO, which is a joint MI5/Ministry of Defence organisation.

Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army, UK Occupied North of Ireland
Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army, UK Occupied North of Ireland

It must be assumed that the IRA has had possession of these and other documents for much of the last five years. They are likely to have been used to “turn back” the organisations and operations described against the British army and its security measures. The fact that some of those named as useful to MI6 are understood now to be alive and well and living peacefully in a large southern Irish town strongly suggests that they have won the favour and protection of the Provisionals.

The Operation WARD documents appear to have been taken from file S/16173/4 at BSSO
headquarters in Rheindahlen. BSSO liaises with MI5 in London, and with MI6 and MI5 officers at the British Embassy in Bonn. BSSO also has a major liaison branch in Cologne which works with the German security organisation, the Bundesamt fur Verfassungschutz (BfV)… There is an important BSSO branch in Berlin, where BSSO and SIS run extensive surveillance operations, including telephone-tapping.

The documents also reveal that British security organisations were able to produce no worthwhile intelligence or security information whatever. They were continually at war with each other.

No-one yet knows what other information has leaked. But many of the documents refer to “annexes” of further information, which appear to include details of the agents used in WARD and SCREAM. It is more likely that the IRA are selectively releasing information than that they only obtained parts of a complete document. So how much has actually leaked? “Until they (MI5 leak investigators) know the answer to that question,” says one experienced intelligence officer who has seen the documents, “all the Army’s current activities are at risk.” It’s worse than that. Lives are at risk too. And there is real damage to Anglo-German relations – they refer to German operations too.

It must now be assumed that every British agent, every security and intelligence operation in Germany and perhaps further afield, is at risk from the WARD disclosures and the opportunity they gave the IRA to penetrate British intelligence activities with their own double agents. With one blow, an entire British security apparatus has been turned, potentially, into what the trade normally calls a “negative asset”.

As I have noted previously, it is important to compare the reality of the Long War, the conflict between the Irish Republican Army and its British equivalents, with the myths that have been propagated since its end. Especially when it comes to the intelligence struggle waged by both sides.

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5 comments

  1. That’s really interesting. I’d never come across these details before.

    The great uncle was in the Border Campaign and stole guns from barracks in England with Mac Stíofáin ended up working for MI6 in Aden and various other African possessions thereafter. Up until the early 80s when he decided no more, so they tried to assassinate him. He got very lucky and survived. Ended up doing a Pat Kenny interview as Mr X where he spilled every secret to remove further motivation.

    Lessons learned – spookery is murky and everyone slits everyone else’s throat, the only winning move is not to be a participant.

  2. Great article Seamus – GRMA.

    The IRA bombing campaign of London throughout the 1990¨s illustrated – very forcefully – that the IRA were several steps ahead of the British Secret Services.

    1. Especially given Slab’s farm was under surveillance by both sides the entire time the London spectaculars were being built there.

  3. I was living in Germany at the time and there was not a lot of sympathy for the British army occupying Germany by most Germans, in fact many bars refused to serve them.

  4. Having spent a considerable time in Germany up to 1987, I can tell you most Germans at the time, if they knew anything about it at all, looked at the “Long War” as a senseless “Brother-War” waged by fanatical Catholic extremists. When McGeough (who was tagged for the Rheindahlen bombing) and Hanratty were arrested after attempting to cross the border from Germany to Holland, and finally officially charged around July of 1989, the (actually left-leaning) German “Der Spiegel,” in its article reporting on that event, among other rather “British” interpretations of history, goes on to state, “Die IRA, die sich auch PIRA nennt (“Provisional Irish Republican Army”), kämpft in Nordirland seit vielen Jahren einen erbitterten Bürgerkrieg gegen Protestanten, Polizisten und Soldaten, der allein seit 1969 über 2700 Todesopfer gefordert hat. Die IRA rekrutiert sich aus extremistischen Katholiken Nordirlands, die eine sozialistische Republik in einem vereinigten, von London losgelösten Irland erzwingen wollen.” Which, in a nutshell. says that the PIRA had been waging a bitter civil war against protestants, police officers, and soldiers in the attempt to forcibly create a unified socialist Irish Republic independent from London. The article negates the existing (unoccupied) Irish Republic already being independent of London at the time, and completely negates any notion that 1. the Irish are different people from the British (far from being “brothers” anyhow) and 2. are not just motivated by socialism and religion, but are fighting to be free from the yoke of hundreds of years of occupation by another nation. The full article can be found here http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/d-13492994.html . It should be noted that in the heavily protestant areas of Germany (which is a predominantly Protestant country), at least in the one I resided in for certain (it was rural, which could have been part of it), Catholics were openly discriminated against and were openly disadvantaged in many public programmes. I went through much fighting there in school as a child, mostly based on religious prejudice. In the end, my (adoptive) brothers went to (Catholic) boarding school, and I finished school in an International programme; this was not something easily overcome at the time (the seventies).

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