British Spies, Agents And Informers In The IRA

Last week the BBC news and current affairs programme, Spotlight, broadcast a series of interviews and dramatic reenactments with a man they called “Martin”, the pseudonym of a supposed British spy in the ranks of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army. According to the alleged informer he had joined the insurgent movement in the last years of its three-decade armed struggle against the continued UK occupation of the north-east of Ireland. In fact, he claims to have sold his services to the Royal Ulster Constabulary or RUC, the UK paramilitary police force in the region, several weeks after the guerrilla organisation declared its final military ceasefire of July 20th 1997. That was less than nine months before the signing of the Belfast Agreement of April 1998, a multilateral peace deal effectively ending three decades of conflict in the Six Counties, and the culmination of the previous ten years of the Irish-British peace process.

In other words, “Martin” claims to have joined the Republican Army only when the end of the war was in sight and to have become an informer only when the war was all but over. The Spotlight documentary made much of the claims by the self-styled intelligence agent that Gerry Adams TD, the leader of Sinn Féin, had sanctioned the assassination of the acknowledged former republican informer, Denis Donaldson, by (P)IRA in 2006. Or rather “Martin” concluded that Adams’ must have authorised the killing without actually having heard or being specifically told by anyone that he had done so.

Donaldson came to public notice in December of 2005 when he was exposed as a double-agent for the UK’s security services. Before that time he had a long and well-regarded political and military career within Sinn Féin and the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army, reorganising the movement’s support base in the United States of America during a crucial period in its development. In October of 2002, the East Belfast man was arrested by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the reformed successor to the disbanded RUC, while it was investigating an alleged (P)IRA intelligence gathering operation known as the Stormontgate Affair.

Three years later in December of 2005 the United Kingdom dropped its espionage charges against Denis Donaldson and two other individuals on the grounds that it would not be in the “public interest” to proceed with them. Within days Donaldson made a public statement admitting his role as a spy for Britain, apparently following a prolonged debriefing by members of the IRA’s Intelligence Department (IRAID). With the insurgent group’s presumed agreement he retired to an isolated pre-Famine cottage near the village of Glenties in County Donegal which had been used as a holiday retreat by his extended family for many years.

On the 4th of April 2006, the fifty-six year old was found shot dead inside the run-down house by Gardaí investigating reports of broken windows in the dwelling spotted by a passing neighbour. Almost immediately the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army issued a terse communique denying any involvement in the assassination, while Gerry Adams and other leaders of Sinn Féin explicitly condemned the killing as “murder”. Rumours swirled around the identity of the two shotgun-wielding culprits behind the slaying until the main focus of the investigation by the Garda Síochana was confirmed in statements of responsibility from the leadership of the Real IRA, a guerrilla splinter group, in a newspaper interview and a speech hosted by the allied 32 County Sovereignty Movement in April of 2009. However the recent Spotlight programme and its star turn, “Martin”, claims that the Provisional IRA carried out the summary execution at the insistence of the army’s strict South Armagh Brigade in order to maintain military discipline, and with Adams’ approval.

A Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army with an RPG-7 rocket-launcher
A Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army armed with an RPG-7 rocket-launcher, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1994 (Image: © Rory Nugent, used with permission)

The allegation about (P)IRA’s role in the murder has been greeted with incredulity or outright derision from most informed commentators on the 1966-2005 Long War. While the anti-republican press in Dublin and London have taken up the story with gleeful enthusiasm, the reaction of the general public seems to be one of jaded cynicism. In the harsh words of the veteran Irish journalist and broadcaster, Vincent Browne, for The Journal:

“THE BBC SPOTLIGHT programme on the likely complicity of Gerry Adams in the 2006 murder in Donegal of a former Sinn Fein and IRA colleague, Denis Donaldson, was compromised from the outset.

…there was something dodgy about this “informer” from the outset or there was something dodgy about how the programme was constructed.

The Spotlight programme was full of the bullshit drama effects that go along with dodgy journalism – scary sound effects, dark atmospherics, the whole diversionary panoply from the thinnest claims.

Undaunted, the Irish Independent went into its Adams hysteria as though a smoking gun had been revealed, with the usual suspects lining up to ridicule Adams’s denial of any involvement in the Donaldson killing. The absence of any credible evidence was of no importance or significance to the Talbot Street excited airheads.

And then there was the rank opportunism of Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin…”

Browne’s criticisms have been supported by security sources in Ireland and the United Kingdom, as admitted by the ideologically unionist Belfast Telegraph newspaper.

“Gardai and have ruled out any involvement by mainstream republicans in the murder of British spy Denis Donaldson, it has been learned.

Detectives on both sides of the border knew within hours the murder had been set up and run by a Real IRA leader…

Intelligence gathered by the PSNI also ruled out any involvement by the Provisional IRA.

The repetition of this position yesterday by security sources raised questions about the claims of the former IRA man and British agent who told the BBC the IRA killed Donaldson. One garda source described it as “a pile of c***”.”

Furthermore the family of the late Denis Donaldson have refuted any allegations connecting the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army to their loved one’s death, featured in a brief report by the Guardian:

The family of Denis Donaldson, a British spy inside the IRA who was murdered in 2006 after he was exposed as being a secret agent, have said they do not believe his former comrades in the Provisionals killed him.

Donaldson’s relatives also rejected claims broadcast on a BBC investigation earlier this week that Gerry Adams sanctioned the killing of his former colleague at a remote cottage in Donegal a decade ago.

A lawyer for the Donaldson family met the deputy head of the Garda Síochána on Friday to discuss the allegations contained in the Spotlight investigation on BBC One.

Following that meeting, solicitor Ciaran Shiels, speaking on behalf of the Donaldson family, said: “The one theme that has come of today’s meeting is that the theory that was being advanced by BBC Spotlight earlier this week, that this was in some way carried out by the Provisional IRA or authorised by Gerry Adams, I think it’s absolute nonsense.

It does not marry in any way with the lines of inquiry that have been progressed by the [Garda] or by the police ombudsman.”

An Active Service Unit of the Irish Republican Army
An Active Service Unit of the Irish Republican Army sets up a vehicle-checkpoint, British Occupied North of Ireland, 1994 (Image: © Rory Nugent, used with permission)

Like other tales of British “super-spies” in the ranks of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army, and their role in Britain’s latterly imagined “defeat” of the insurgent force, when one examines the Spotlight allegations in detail they quickly fall apart. While newspaper columnists may boast that the British Forces had “…up to 800 informers in the Provisional movement” the known facts of the period prove such figures to be a fantasy. Like the statements of Martin Ingram, the pseudonym of former British Army soldier Ian Hurst who supposedly served with Britain’s infamous Force Research Unit (FRU) in the 1980s and ’90s, these claims of infiltration are so exaggerated as to be laughable.

To take the most frequently cited example, (P)IRA had some 250-300 volunteers on active service at any one point in the 1990s, with another 200 or more in logistical or command and control positions (these numbers exclude the dozens of POWs, political prisoners and people living overseas but still regarded as serving volunteers). Martin Ingram and his supporters have argued that of the estimated 500 and more operational guerrillas some 200 were British spies, agents or informers. That is 40%! Are we really supposed to believe that up to half of (P)IRA was in the pockets of the RUC, British Army and MI5 (the UK Security Service) at the very same time that its block-buster bombs were harrying successive British governments into covert and then overt negotiations with Sinn Féin? Are we really supposed to swallow the line that “one in every two officers” in the insurgency was a traitor while Active Service Units in the early 1990s were shooting British helicopter gunships out of the sky every few months or so? The same people who crowed about the previous estimates of informers now argue that (P)IRA had 800 traitors in its ranks. Which is 62% more people than (P)IRA actually had as soldiers!

The conspiracy theory that “British spies controlled the IRA” has become the stuff of modern myth and myth-making and there is no end of vested interests willing to promulgate it, for reasons both noble and ignoble. From diametrically opposed positions it has become an obsession which unites some Irish revolutionary republicans and some Greater England nationalists who long for an alternative explanation for (P)IRA’s cessation of military operations in 2005. Where Ireland’s “dissidents” see defeat out of victory, the United Kingdom’s “Britnats” see victory out of defeat. However both are mistaken. In the end the simplest explanation is the most obvious. Peace was born from a military and political stalemate that required compromises on all sides.

As for spies and informers, the words of a senior British intelligence analyst in a confidential MI5 memo compiled around 1989 states the situation clearly:

” …recruitment of PIRA players has proved impossible”

He might not have been entirely correct but he was not entirely incorrect either.

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6 comments

  1. “Are we really supposed to believe that up to half of (P)IRA was in the pockets of the RUC, British Army and MI5 (the UK Security Service) at the very same time that its block-buster bombs were harrying successive British governments into covert and then overt negotiations with Sinn Féin? ”

    Yes.
    Not all the time, but when it was convenient. The IRA had a long history of settling internal disputes by splitting and/or killing each other. This isn’t a sensible or safe policy and discourages new recruits. On the other hand, get the Brits to kill or arrest the people you’ve got difficulties with and it solves a lot of problems,

    1. 40% of (P)IRA volunteers were British agents, spies or informers? Is that really credible though? Or that half of the seven person Army Council (3, 4 or 5 people?) was also on the UK payroll?

      1. Not always, or even often, but if the only way to settle a dispute was violence, then it was less dangerous to get the Brits to arrest or kill them. Remember Stakeknife/Freddie Scappaticci is said to have first become an informer to deal with a man who’d beaten him up.

  2. Interesting points – Ian Hurst was demolished by Smithwick, also Leveson did not wish to touch the Bolton debt collector who has a lucrative side line in illegal activity (electoral rolls) and being on MI5’s payroll. Hurst also connects to a bent ex cop now being looked at by the IPCC and CCRC. As to gardai, didn’t they collude in the assassination of Eddie Fullerton?

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