For many people the term conjures up images of criminal conspiracy, giving a misleading impression of agent handling, Dr Matchett says in his new book – ‘Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat The IRA.’
“Everything here is about blaming the state because that is the easy way out for everyone, but when you understand the intelligence apparatus then the collusion aspect doesn’t make any sense.”
Dr Matchett said the first rule of agent handling was never to trust an agent.
“Generally speaking, agents were men and women who disagreed with terrorism and wanted to help the authorities. If they were talking to a handler there is a good chance they’d talk to someone else, whether anonymously to a journalist or to a subsequent criminal investigation, about what a handler told them to do.
“Given the training and experiences, it is inconceivable that a handler would involve an agent in a conspiracy to murder, as popular accusations claim.
“Yes, a handler needs to build trust with an agent, and agents provided invaluable life-saving intelligence, but they are not a handler’s best friend. They hold back stuff, forget things, omit detail or play down what they have done or plan to do. This is their survival mechanism. A handler never gets the full picture. But something is better than nothing.”
In the book, Dr Matchett also rejects specific allegations that the state used loyalist terrorists to attack republicans.
“I didn’t find anything that suggested there was a policy of ‘let’s get loyalists as a counterweight against republicans.’ People were recruited within loyalist terrorist organisations, the same as they were in the IRA, to prevent loyalists from murdering Catholics or innocent Protestants.
“From the start of the conflict you can see, politically, the government was doing all it could to stop loyalist retaliation because everything becomes very messy and the people who benefitted most from that were the IRA. The last thing the police needed was the loyalists getting pulled into the equation. This made defeating the main threat – the IRA – a lot harder.”
Dr Matchett does not claim that Special Branch had no bad apples, but that this was no more than similar intelligence departments in other UK forces or the Garda. “And if anything, it was probably less.”