A succession of investigations and court hearings have provided glimpses of how these unorthodox officers infiltrated some of the ruthless death squads stalking our streets and countryside, but only now has an ‘E Department’ insider spoken candidly about the precarious and deadly game being played out in the shadows.
In a new book exclusively serialised in the News Letter next week – Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat The IRA – former Special Branch detective William Matchett lays bare the facts around what he calls “the most widely misunderstood aspect of the Northern Ireland conflict”.
The scramble for quality intelligence as the Troubles escalated, how police and military specialists skilfully interpreted what was often sketchy intelligence, and how the joint E Department/SAS operation at Loughgall in 1987 shook the IRA to its foundations, are all covered in this ground-breaking and compelling exposition.
Matchett is certainly well qualified to guide the reader through this intriguing, and often disturbing, reminder of our recent past.
Having joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary as a fresh faced 18-year-old in 1982, the young officer learned his trade quickly in south Armagh’s notorious ‘bandit country’.
The author is fully aware his description of the Northern Ireland conflict as an “irregular war” will not sit well with many of his former colleagues or victims of terrorism, but he contests that the label does not in any way help legitimise the years of violence.
“Essentially it was a terrorist campaign, but it was more complex,” he said.
“I appreciate that can be controversial but when you actually start to study what an irregular war is then this conflict starts to make sense. Everybody can envisage someone in a balaclava with an AK 47...and they understand that definition, but it’s the propaganda side, the political arm and how the two work together, then all of a sudden ‘irregular war’ starts to make that easier understood.”
The author has worked as an advisor to police forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and sees many similarities between the tactics of Islamic insurgents and those employed by the Provisional IRA.
“Whatever way you want to look at it, the IRA was a sectarian organisation. It profited from dividing two communities. The bigger the division the better for the provisional movement. What we had was the most human rights compliant security response to any conflict before or since.”
The book does much more than explain the intelligence agencies’ response to the terrorist insurgency. It frames their actions in the context of the political environment and legal restraints.
In one chapter, Matchett praises the general self-discipline shown by the military – preventing an escalation in violence and maintaining a climate in which agents could operate.
“The British Army took a hammering and it is testament to their restraint and professionalism that there was only one Bloody Sunday,” he said.
On the subjects of alleged ‘shoot to kill’ and ‘collusion,’ he is equally forthright.
“In Iraq, at least 70% of covert operations ended in insurgents being killed. The same applies to Afghanistan. This is what a ‘shoot to kill’ policy looks like.”
The author highlights ‘collusion’ as replacing ‘shoot to kill’ in the propagandists’ vocabulary when the latter became “vulnerable to the facts”.
He says: “Chicago police shot dead 240 people in four years from 2010 to 2014. Even for the most diehard republican, seven terrorists and one terrorist suspect killed by E4 over a 30-year conflict does not speak ‘shoot to kill’.
In a damning assessment of the recurring claims that police colluded with loyalist paramilitaries, Matchett states: “Collusion is whatever the author wants it to be. But when one knows SB’s covert policing tactics as opposed to the myths ‘collusion’ makes no sense.
“Redundant Provos in suits were put to work on a ‘collusion’ campaign guaranteed to play out favourably in the courts and media.”
• Secret Victory is available from www.amazon.co.uk from November 17 priced £12.95.