Book review: How British agents infiltrated and penetrated every level of the IRA for over 30 years

There are actually two narratives in Agents Of Influence: separate, yet crucially interconnected.

Saturday, 5th June 2021, 5:00 am
Updated Saturday, 5th June 2021, 11:20 am

One is the story of the agents of influence themselves, “with codenames like Infliction, Stakeknife, 3007 and Carol (who) played a pivotal role in the fight against Irish republicanism”.

That’s the story of the penetration and infiltration of the IRA at every level by British agents for over 30 years; not simply to destroy the organisation once and for all (which unionists regarded as the priority), but rather to manipulate it (and Sinn Fein) into a position of accepting that unity was more likely by political/electoral methods than by terrorism.

Which leads to the second story: the long term policy of successive UK governments.

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As early as June 1981, for example, David Ransom, MI5’s most senior officer in NI at the time, produced a briefing note for Margaret Thatcher.

It said: “We have tended to regard the involvement of the Provisionals in political activity as a development to be encouraged. But it is a development that requires a response from the government...

“Unless their political exploitation of the hunger strike situation – and the resulting recrudescence of support for PIRA – can be countered, then the Provisionals ‘going political’ can succeed where there terrorist activity has failed, in reversing the progress of recent years towards ‘normality’ and renewing for them a base from which a revitalised campaign could be launched.”

It was clear at that point (and shortly afterwards Downing Street moved to end the strike) that it had been decided British interests would best be served by encouraging the IRA/SF towards political activity.

By the end of 1981 they had moved onto “Armalite and ballot box” territory and a year later, in October 1982, Sinn Fein fielded candidates in the Assembly election, winning five seats (including Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Danny Morrison) and 10% of the vote.

Aaron Edwards notes SDLP concerns at the time that it was likely to lose electoral ground to Sinn Fein because of electoral abuses.

But “despite the NIO giving assurances to the SDLP, the British government did not take a unified stance on the matter... in his briefings with his handlers, Willie Carlin [one of the agents of influence featured in the book] was actively encouraged to help Sinn Fein win more votes by any means necessary... there were also allegations that the NIO’s Security Department was ignoring reports from Special Branch officers about the level of personation and intimidation”.

One of the most extraordinary episodes included in the book was to have consequences which are still felt today.

In September 1983 Ivor Bell, the IRA’s chief of staff, was arrested after he was incriminated by Robert ‘Beano’ Lean, an aide to Gerry Adams and alleged to have been the adjutant of the Belfast brigade staff. Lean was ‘turned’ by CID officers and he fed them Bell and 27 other senior people.

According to former IRA member Anthony McIntyre: “I think, perhaps, a more crucial year is 1983 when there’s a change in the composition of the leadership and the Chief of Staff was replaced and the balance of power within the Army Council shifted to the people who favoured Adams’ more political strategy from those who favoured Bell’s more military strategy.

“And I think this is where the role of the intelligence agencies is crucial. Bobby Lean’s contacts were with Gerry Adams, yet the British got Bobby Lean to take Ivor Bell out of the equation and by the end of 1983 the Army Council was backing Adams rather than backing Bell.”

The book provides compelling evidence that British intelligence manipulated Martin McGuinness into standing for the 1982 Assembly election, ensuring that both Sinn Fein and the IRA’s dominant figures were at the heart of the political process and sending a very clear signal that this would, eventually, become the only route to Irish unity.

It confirms that Adams’ life was twice saved by Special Branch, acting on information supplied by their network of agents of influence.

And while it was already known that MI6 officer Michael Oatley had drawn McGuinness into a lengthy process of talks that would push the IRA ever closer to participation in the formal peace process from 1992/93 onwards, Edwards provides considerable detail about the background and choreography of the Oatley/McGuinness dialogue.

Edwards also has new insights into another key player in the process, Brendan Duddy (a long-time conduit between the British government and the IRA), including the startling revelation that Duddy advised the IRA to switch from killing locally recruited members of the security forces to high value targets, just before the Brighton bomb in October 1984.

The back-stories of the agents of influence are fascinating. They don’t conform to a type or specific profile, yet all have to adhere to Edwards’ quote from Kim Philby: “The first duty of an underground worker is to perfect not only his cover story but also his cover personality.”

That cover requires an ability to finesse moral hurdles, not least because these agents – like all other kinds of underground worker – must remain in situ even when they know that what they’ve heard in relation to a planned murder or bombing cannot and sometimes will not be prevented. We probably have many reasons to be grateful to them (not least because of the huge personal risks their work involved), but it’s not always easy to like them.

Like Edwards’ other books the greatest strength lies in the painstaking attention to detail and the piecing together of complicated, often confusing, and sometimes very long, threads of evidence. I would like to have seen a chapter in which he draws some conclusions from the two narratives, the nature, purpose and impact of the agents of influence; and the specific ‘political’ intentions of successive governments since 1970.

But that’s more of a personal quibble than a broader criticism. Nevertheless, a fascinating and rewarding read.

l Agents of Influence is available from Merrio Press at £18.99