SpyCast 3.29.22
Ep 532 | 3.29.22

"The IRA, The Troubles & Intelligence" – with Eleanor Williams and Thomas Leahy

Show Notes


Thomas Leahy (Website; LinkedIn) and Eleanor Williams (Website; Twitter) join Andrew to discuss the intelligence war during “the Troubles.” Thomas lives in Cardiff and Eleanor lives in Belfast. 

What You’ll Learn


  • The Troubles through the lens of intelligence
  • Some key intelligence players in the Northern Ireland conflict
  • How the IRA and the British Army adapted organizationally
  • The role intelligence played in the end of the conflict


  • The fluid nature of motivations and intentions
  • How historic narratives shape and constrain the here-and-now

And much, much more…

Episode Notes

From the late 60’s to the late 90’s Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, and the British and Irish states, were engaged in a period known as “the Troubles”: a struggle to define or redefine the future of the island of Ireland. This is an issue with deep and complex roots, but the intelligence dimension of the period known as the Troubles is fascinating and often overlooked.

To help us get our head around it all, Andrew sat down with two specialists to discuss all things intelligence and the Troubles: from the role that MI5 and MI6 played, to the Force Research Unit and the RUC Special Branch, through to how the IRA played the counterintelligence game and the role that informers, agents and moles, such as the notorious “Stakeknife,” played. 

Thomas is the author of the Intelligence War Against the IRA, while Eleanor is a doctoral candidate comparing intelligence use during the Northern Irish and Colombian conflicts. 


The head of the Republic of Ireland’s police and security intelligence force, the Garda Síochána, is Drew Harris. Drew Harris was a career Royal Ulster Constabulary officer whose father, also a career RUC officer, was killed by the IRA in 1989. He was the first external appointee from outside the Garda.

Quote of the Week

"What's their [IRA] main role in this intelligence conflict?...one of the key points here…the IRA was quite highly regional regionalized. That's actually quite key to explain why British intelligence had some difficulties against them…Initially, it was set up similar to armed forces. It would have brigades, battalions and companies…the IRA operated this kind of army structure up to 1975…the IRA then switched to this new strategy…And part of this was to prevent mass infiltration, which had started to become a problem, particularly in Belfast pre-1975. So, what it adopted in Belfast and Derry was a cell structure." – Thomas Leahy



  • The Intelligence War Against the IRA, T. Leahy (CUP, 2020)
  • Britain’s Secret War Against the IRA, A. Edwards (Merrion, 2021)
  • Thatcher’s Spy, W. Carlin (Merrion, 2019)
  • The Accidental Spy, S. O’Driscoll (Mirror, 2019)
  • Snitch! S. Hewitt (Continuum, 2010)
  • Infiltrating the IRA, R. Gilmour (LB&C, 1998)
  • Fifty Dead Men Walking, M. McGartland (Blake, 1997)
  • Best Books on the Troubles (Five Books)





Primary Sources

Oral Sources

Wildcard Resource