In the latest essay in our series, an ex Special Branch officer TIM EASLEA remembers the vital work of agents in saving lives during the Troubles
In the post conflict era in Northern Ireland, an invented narrative is emerging about the conduct of small numbers of police who were involved in counter-terrorism work.
This story has been sustained and nurtured in the form of a widely used but poorly defined term ‘collusion’.
To date although no serving or former police officer has been charged with any form of criminal conduct linked to allegations of misconduct defined as collusion, but there is no end to the search for it.
But I do not want to concentrate on that distortion in this article, because it has been covered in other excellent essays in this series.
The ex Special Branch officer William Matchett has already written about how “republican conspiracy nonsense” has been indulged to trash the RUC.
Doug Beattie MC has explained how collusion is defined so widely as to be meaningless, in order to blacken the security forces.
Chief Superintendent Norman Baxter has described “how ironic it is that the perpetrators of murder are now the arbitrators of justice to the victims they created”.
The lawyer Neil Faris has outlined how unfair it is that police can be named and shamed in the proposed legacy structures and not terrorists (an emerging scandal).
And Colonel Tim Collins has made what should be the obvious point, but one that has to be made again and again, that if there had been institutionalised collusion the IRA leadership had been wiped out.
I want to talk instead about the crucial work that agents did.
Let me first explain why I became an agent handler.
It was after I had seen a man murdered by the Provisional IRA in south Belfast in 1988. He wasn’t the first individual I’d seen at close quarters killed as result of terrorism in Northern Ireland, but he would be the last.
I was on beat patrol and decided after that day I needed to be somewhere in the police where I could bring some influence to bear on preventing murder and terrorism, irrespective of who commissions and instigates it.
To be a response police officer is a fine vocation, but in Northern Ireland it is also to be powerless in terms of preventing such mayhem.
I made the move to Special Branch. As the years progressed, I began to see how effective well-placed agents can be in the ranks of the paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland dedicated to murder.
I began to find also that these agents, denigrated as pariahs by their associates and occasionally regarded as a necessary evil by others, demonstrated courage and commitment in providing Special Branch with remarkable levels of insight into the ambitions of illegal organisations.
For the agents however it is a strange and perilous existence; living a constant lie in their own communities and with their paramilitary associates and families, before emerging occasionally to provide their handlers with the truths and half-truths that emerge from their infiltration of terrorist groups.
I learnt that agent handling is not a precise science. But I rapidly grasped that without the commitment and courage of these men and women, Northern Ireland would have suffered greater distress.
And what of the police officers who recruited, and sustained relationships with, these agents on behalf of the state?
What were the ramifications of this work for them?
I have long suspected that the physical and psychological isolation of the work conditioned me and other Special Branch officers to maintain a discreet distance from the centralised control of police headquarters and from other police officers generally.
However, that sense of isolation was not designed to enhance our mystique or set us apart from friends and colleagues as some kind of elite; quite the opposite, because the ego is best suppressed in intelligence work.
No, our insularity was driven primarily, I suspect, by the inherently sensitive nature of our work and our understanding of the consequences attached to idle or dangerous talk, particularly in a small region like Northern Ireland.
Special Branch officers tried to remain out of sight; we did not enter police stations unless necessary, nor did we often attend court hearings.
We did not routinely carry out reactive arrests or lay charges against individuals, neither did we identify ourselves fully to the people we dealt with covertly; other than by way of supplying our Christian names as a point of contact.
We did not don police uniforms nor did we wear suits and ties.
Even so, there was always the remote possibility of a chance encounter with an agent in a normal setting, such a supermarket or town centre.
In some ways we came to resemble, by way of casual dress, manner, appearance, thinking and lexicon, the terrorists and criminals whose illegal activities we were trying to deter. Nevertheless, I cannot emphasise enough, we were never above the law. We remained committed police officers.
Despite the opportunities that existed, throughout my police service, I eschewed promotion because I was absorbed by counter terrorism work.
I felt I was far more effective in meeting that challenge in a ‘hands on’ practitioner role, which I did for the better part of 20 years.
It was a strange existence, which called for the development of a range of coping strategies and chameleonic behaviours for dealing with frightened, vulnerable human beings (agents), who were prepared to risk their lives on behalf of the police and the wider community. Each agent was different so you had to keep adapting to them. The process was exhausting.
My insularity and mistrust of people outside the police deepened as I learned over many years of the myriad ways terrorists in Northern Ireland harvested information on people and places for the purpose of taking their lives or destroying the economic infrastructure of the region.
Despite everything levelled at the RUC, and Special Branch in particular, I take great pride in my policing experience. I am grateful to have served with others in a counter-terrorism capacity that saved lives. Many others were engaged in such meaningful work.
Operationally, I seldom encountered any moral ambiguity in what it was I was trying to achieve in combatting terror; for Special Branch it was always about safeguarding life and property and degrading the capabilities of a small number of people who had murderous intent — and central to this work was a pool of extremely brave agents.
Around 70 alleged agents were shot dead by brutal men in horrible circumstances, then ditched to dehumanise them.
It is shameful that such people are now being allowed to tar the vital work that Special Branch and its agents did, which saved countless lives.
• Dr Tim Easlea is a former RUC agent handler