Secret war with IRA: ‘Al-Qaeda’s leader had an interest in NI peace process’

Author and former Special Branch officer William Matchett with US General David Petraeus
Author and former Special Branch officer William Matchett with US General David Petraeus

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

Al-Qaeda and the IRA are cut from the same cloth.

Author William Matchett (right) with Colonel Tim Collins in Fallujah, Iraq in 2007

Author William Matchett (right) with Colonel Tim Collins in Fallujah, Iraq in 2007

The audacious [1992 attack on the Baltic Exchange in London] was Sinn Féin strengthening its political strategy and spelling out how great the IRA is to supporters in Irish-America.

In case any remote observer missed the message of striking at the heart of the evil empire, similar ‘spectaculars’ occurred in Bishopsgate (1993), Canary Wharf (1996) and Manchester (1996).

The explosions killed six civilians, including schoolgirl Danielle Carter (15), injured around 500, a large number seriously, and cost the taxpayer at least £2 billion.

Responsible for all of them was the last properly functioning IRA brigade – South Armagh. It was the desperate and depraved throes of a dying insurgency. Insurgents do not abandon their terrorist campaign out of goodness.

'Secret Victory' by Dr William Matchett

'Secret Victory' by Dr William Matchett

Bombing England for many Irish republicans and planes flying into buildings in America for many Sunni Muslims was giving the oppressor a rightful taste of their own medicine. 9/11 marked the start of al-Qaeda’s Global Insurgency against the US and the west.

Besides the awful carnage of that day, America was awakened to the frustrating reality that insurgency forces people to choose sides, and it is not always clear what side people are really on.

Hot on the heels of the intelligence war against the IRA was the Global War on Terror and conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. On television screens al-Qaeda’s mesmerising attacks in New York surpassed IRA attacks in London, and bombs in Baghdad’s dusty roads replaced bombs in Belfast’s kerbed streets.

Terrorism had moved on in sensational style. al-Qaeda was the IRA on speed. Insurgency, a term new to most, was on everyone’s lips. Few,however, understood it. Adding to the not knowing was the shenanigans of the Belfast Agreement, which was the IRA’s political exit a benevolent Whole of Government strategy facilitated. Feeling no obligation to return the generosity, Sinn Féin heralded the Provos as ‘peacemakers’.

This set the post-conflict tone. The ‘peace process’ was not about recovering counterinsurgency lessons. A security-free Northern Ireland model emerged to explain to the world how peace was achieved. Although a partial picture it was the rising tide that lifted all political boats. In a conflict it is an account that should come with a health warning – NOT FOR USE IN AN EMERGENCY.

All the Agreement’s accolades were for politicians and terrorists. Without question the third party brokerage of US Senator George Mitchell, contribution of insurgent leaders, Irish Taoiseach and local political parties must not be devalued. But winning the intelligence war is what made peace possible.

An irregular war cannot be ended without an effective security response. Ask governments in Baghdad and Kabul.

From a militant’s perspective the Northern Ireland model says terrorism works. Today’s peace-breakers are tomorrow’s peacemakers. They see it reaffirming their belief that the west is politically weak (afraid of getting bogged down in an unpopular and lengthy war) and morally bankrupt (will change the definition of right and wrong when politically expedient to do so).

Hate speech

Given that al-Qaeda’s leader had an addiction to the BBC news and interest in the NI ‘peace process,’ did he envisage himself being feted at the White House and Downing Street like Sinn Féin’s President?

Gerry Adams promoted the ‘armed struggle’ as successful and justified. ‘We beat the Brits’ language of the Belfast republican was music to the ears of the warlord. Did the jihadist see the odd ‘spectacular’ in London and regular terrorism in Northern Ireland a combination worth copying?

Did the IRA inspire 9/11? Have Provos shaped al-Qaeda’s near enemy/far enemy long war? You cannot propagate the airwaves with 30 years of hate-filled bile and continue to justify murder and think it has no adverse impact in places you have never been and on people you have never met.

Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq painfully laid bare the novelty of the UK’s new thinking. Attempts to build police capacity in southern Iraq were based largely on British bobby style policing.

It was an unmitigated disaster. Colonel Tim Collins believes that Prime Minister Blair’s cabinet got “carried away” by the euphoria of the ‘peace process.’

He states:

“British Army officers were dismayed that Government were much too insistent in pursuing a deal with Shia militants in Basra and paid less attention to security, much to the alarm of the Americans.”

IRA abroad

Outside of Northern Ireland, Special Branch has protected life, whereas the IRA has much foreign blood on its hands. Besides influencing al-Qaeda and insurgents in Iraq, IRA relationships with terrorist groups in Spain (ETA) and Colombia (FARC) saw spikes in terrorism in these nations. Hezbollah and the PLO are other alliances. Terrorism has a tiresome constancy and predictability.

Little is new. Scale and settings change but the basics stay the same. The IRA is only a step behind the Islamic State.

• ‘Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat The IRA’ by Dr William Matchett – available from and No Alibis books Belfast priced £12.95.

Special Branch insider’s view of Northern Ireland’s ‘secret war’