Intelligence from IRA infiltrators has saved thousands of people in Northern Ireland, including senior members of Sinn Féin, a former PSNI deputy chief constable has said.
Alan McQuillan who also served as a senior RUC Special Branch officer, said people like Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams should acknowledge that he had been warned “many times” of a threat to his life based on intelligence sources.
“Ask Mr Adams how many times he was warned by the police about threats to his life,” Mr McQuillan said.
“Where did he think that information had came from? The tooth fairy?”
Mr McQuillan was speaking to the News Letter before the airing of a BBC TV show on Tuesday night that linked one of Britain’s most important agents inside the IRA – codenamed Stakeknife – to 18 murders.
A £35m criminal inquiry named Operation Kenova is investigating whether Stakeknife’s fellow spies were sacrificed so that he could continue as a spy.
BBC Panorama’s investigation suggests that Stakeknife’s protection as a prized agent was prioritised over the lives of some agents.
In the programme, Northern Ireland’s DPP Barra McGrory QC said a classified report detailing Stakeknife’s connection to these murders “made for very disturbing and chilling reading”.
Mr McQuillan stressed the high-pressure nature of decision making based on intelligence sources and said that the “bottom line” is that thousands were saved from paramilitary violence thanks to agents within organisations such as the IRA.
“The issue is very simple – hindsight is wonderful,” he said.
“If we have all this information now after so many years it is great to be able to say ‘perhaps if you had done this or done that’, but these decisions were often taken at a moment’s notice.
“I recall decisions being taken whereby I was approached and told ‘people are going to kill X and they are going to get the guns now to go and do it’.
“You have to react immediately in those circumstances to try and stop that so it is not as simple as when we are sitting back with a team of lawyers, 20 years later, poring over these decisions.
“There was an immediacy to them and if you didn’t act immediately and do the best you could in the circumstances, people would be killed. Sometimes when you did react immediately and do the best you could, people would still be killed.”
He continued: “Let the investigation take place and see where we go. The bottom line is that there are thousands of people walking around our streets today – literally thousands – who if we hadn’t had the intelligence services and we hadn’t had the police running informants, they wouldn’t be here today. Included in that are a number of senior members of Sinn Féin.”
Another former Special Branch insider, Dr William Matchett, rejected any suggestion that the intelligence services – whether in MI5 in the case of Stakeknife or in Special Branch – ‘played God’ with people’s lives.
Speaking to BBC Radio Ulster before the Panorama programme was broadcast, Dr Matchett said he has interviewed “over 100 officers” in the course of his research and found none with the ‘playing God mentality’.
Dr Matchett, whose book ‘Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat The IRA’ frames the intelligence agencies’ response to the terrorist insurgency in the context of the political environment and legal restraints of the time, said: “You hear it wheeled out incessantly that ‘Special Branch, MI5 or the military played God’.
“Personally, when I was in a handling team and then when I actually went into training handlers, I’ve never come across anyone where it wasn’t all about protecting life.
“There was no moral ambiguity or uncertainty with a handler in Special Branch. In fact, it was very clear – your job was to protect life and protect property.”