Secret war against IRA: '˜If there was murderous collusion, how did the IRA leaders survive?'

In '˜Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat The IRA' former Special Branch detective William Matchett gives an insider's account of the '˜secret war' that brought committed terrorists to the negotiating table

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 17th November 2016, 7:31 am
Updated Thursday, 17th November 2016, 3:18 pm
The Patrick Finucane murder is collusions centre of gravity
The Patrick Finucane murder is collusions centre of gravity

It has reached the stage where barristers in court argue that, no evidence of ‘collusion’ is evidence of ‘collusion’ and historical reports state, not finding evidence of ‘collusion’ does not discount ‘collusion.’

Lawyers’ arguments are more theatre than fact, and police ombudsman reports more dissertation than investigation.

‘Collusion’ is a dream for lawyers, journalists and authors of historical reports. ‘Collusion’ grabs headlines. But on many occasions, what is presented to the public is a failure to understand the limits of intelligence rather than an intelligence failure.

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Dr William Matchett, author of 'Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat The IRA'

Finding fault is the mindset. A relative of a victim need only believe there was ‘collusion’ to trigger an investigation. And it seems no-one lodging a ‘collusion’ complaint to the police ombudsman has been disbelieved.

The filter of healthy scepticism normally found in assessing the validity of a criminal complaint is missing. Retired police believe that the ombudsman at the start of an investigation identifies if an agent was connected and then reverse engineers the investigation around the agent’s existence to fit conclusions that murders were preventable.

If this is the case, evidence is not being followed but an agenda. In an environment where agents were one or two steps removed from a conspiracy to murder, getting links to support such conclusions are easy.


'Secret Victory' by Dr William Matchett

In the final of three different investigations lasting over a decade, the Stevens team amassed one million pages. Although critical of Special Branch (SB), FRU and MI5 it did not provoke criminal proceedings against intelligence personnel.

Instead, a non-legal definition for ‘collusion’ that ranged from poor record-keeping to conspiring with an agent in murder was constructed. The cynic would say this allowed Stevens to justify a massively expensive and lengthy investigation that produced nothing substantial.

Stevens and his team of England-based CID detectives could not get their heads around SB dominance and the agent concept. They viewed policing the Troubles through the eyes of a British bobby. If it didn’t comply with what happened in England it was wrong. The enormous workload, challenging environment and inadequate resources were ignored. Innovation, initiative, failing to take evidence-gathering opportunities and shortcomings were treated as criminal conspiracies.

The practical foundation on which Stevens based his claims is fundamentally flawed.

Dr William Matchett, author of 'Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat The IRA'

The majority of fall-out centres on the murder of Catholic lawyer Patrick Finucane by the UDA in 1989. He was viciously gunned down at his home in front of his wife and young family.

Mr Finucane was well known for defending IRA suspects. Under parliamentary privilege Patrick Finucane was named in the House of Commons in a way that highlighted him in sympathy with the IRA. The majority of people reviled his clients and, unfortunately but inevitably, him with them from ignorant quarters. In Ulster’s sectarian turmoil the parliamentary statement was damning.

Compounding matters, intelligence agencies were aware that Mr Finucane was a potential UDA target. The accusations are, they knowingly stood aside to allow his murder or actively facilitated it and were directed to do so from the top – Prime Minister Thatcher.

The Patrick Finucane murder is ‘collusion’s’ centre of gravity. When one studies ‘collusion’, however, like republicanism it is riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions. One minute SB officers are master criminals, the next bumbling incompetents, anti-Catholic then anti-Protestant, protecting agents at all costs then sacrificing agents when the cost is too high.

'Secret Victory' by Dr William Matchett

And if murder was the policy, why did the IRA’s permanent leadership survive? They would have been top of the hit list. ‘Collusion’ is whatever its author wants it to be. But when one knows SB’s covert policing tactics as opposed to the myths ‘collusion’ makes no sense.


A multi-million pound industry emerged in which law firms, NGOs, academics and a liberal elite have prospered. The state has been thrown into a spin of investigating itself. An historic investigation has more time and resources than the original. It examines police officers with far more rigour than it does the murderers.

The British are litigating their way out of the Troubles. As with the Internal Security Solution, most fall-out is local. Republicanism’s victim and compensation culture gave it an enormous head start on everyone else.

Few reverberations make it across the Irish Sea, although the arrest of a retired member of the Parachute Regiment in 2015 in connection with a new murder investigation into Bloody Sunday is one of a few exceptions. Only when this happens does anyone on the UK mainland take notice. The British Army is still fighting small wars overseas. Westminster cannot afford to have soldiers they have asked to protect the nation think about being sued afterwards for opening fire in the heat of battle. This is what is happening in Northern Ireland.


‘Collusion’ is a key part of a ‘peace process’ criticised for its underhandedness. Secret side deals with the IRA have brought it into disrepute.

Of this a senior figure of the Thatcher government (Lord Tebbit) states:

“In my view the combined security forces had done a very good job in Northern Ireland and the IRA was all but totally defeated. The organisation had been penetrated by the security forces up to and including the Army Council itself.

Senior IRA members had been induced (one way or another) to become informers on their colleagues. The net was also closing on one of the most senior figures in the IRA. Indeed, I understand that a file had been sent to the office of the prosecutor linking him to eight separate murders, but it had attached to it a note to say that in reaching his decision the prosecutor might wish to take into account that the individual concerned was expected to be a delegate at the (then) projected talks on a cease fire.

Those talks eventually led to the so-called Good Friday Agreement. And it led to the On The Run letters and I believe other unpublished guarantees given by Mr Blair.”

Lord Tebbit reminds us that the IRA was forced to negotiate and how far the prime minister went to secure peace. ‘Collusion’ distracts from this, IRA brutality and a duplicitous long war strategy.

The difficulty, especially for people like Norman Tebbit who has had to care for his wife Margaret, permanently paralysed by the Provos’ Brighton bomb, is that the IRA was not compelled to say sorry.

How do you forgive someone who does not want forgiven? Someone who insists murder is right? If there is no repentance there is no reconciliation.

The ‘armed struggle’ was evil, immoral, sectarian, unlawful, unethical and wrong. But do not say this out loud. It annoys republicans, and you do not want to do that.

Ultimately, the ‘peace process’ boils down to placating Provos. It is not a peace process but an appeasement process. The main benefactor by far has been the republican movement. But there has been no reciprocity. Not until republicans deal with their demons can a genuine peace process begin and inverted commas removed from the term.