"The IRA, The Troubles & Intelligence" – with Eleanor Williams and Thomas Leahy
Andrew Hammond: Hi, and welcome to "SpyCast." I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, historian/curator here at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. "SpyCast's" sole purpose is to educate our listeners about the past, present and future of intelligence and espionage. Every week, through engaging conversations, we explore some aspect of a vast ecosystem that looms beneath the surface of everyday life. We talk to spies, operators, mole hunters, defectors, analysts and authors to explore the stories and secrets, tradecraft and technology of the secret world. We are "SpyCast." Now sit back, relax and enjoy the show.
Andrew Hammond: This week, I sat down with Eleanor Williams and Thomas Leahy to discuss the intelligence war during the 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland known as The Troubles, a cat-and-mouse game between Republican paramilitaries, Loyalist paramilitaries and the Irish and British states. Eleanor is studying the role of intelligence services and the Colombian and Northern Irish conflicts, and she lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland, while Thomas is the author of the recent book, "The Intelligence War Against the IRA," and he lives across the Irish Sea in Cardiff, Wales. They're working together on a project that examines the role of informants. So what role did MI6 play during this period? What role did MI5 play? Did the intelligence war have any bearing on the Good Friday Agreement, which formally brought The Troubles to an end in 1998? Well, you'll have to listen to find out. We will discuss the role intelligence played in this conflict on the rainy (ph) islands in the northwest of Europe, the key players, their motivations and the intelligence landscape, how the IRA organized intelligence and counterintelligence within their cell structure and what it's like to drive the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Andrew Hammond: Tell us what we're talking about here. What are The Troubles? When did they begin? And what's at stake?
Thomas Leahy: Sure. OK. So what - I'll just set the scene, and I'll pass it on to Eleanor, and we'll go through the different actors involved in the conflict, which probably gives people a good sense of what's at stake, really, for each side. So I think overall, when you look at the conflict, it kicks off officially in 1969, and then there's a peace agreement in 1998. Really, what we're looking at is kind of four principal actors. So Eleanor, probably if you want to kick off with the first one, which is about the role of the U.K. government in the conflict.
Eleanor Williams: Yeah. And the U.K. state's role in Northern Ireland was primarily to kind of maintain the status quo. And so that in a sense, was to keep Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. And I think it's kind of really noteworthy to highlight for the listeners that in the 1960s, the House of Commons usually spent less than 2 hours a year discussing Northern Ireland. And MI5 knew more about Africa than they did about Northern Ireland prior to The Troubles, and it actually had very little experience in counterterrorism. So perhaps their aim to maintain the status quo in Northern Ireland was actually to do more out of ignorance rather than a well-thought-out policy. But British army troops entered Northern Ireland, like Thomas mentioned, in 1969, and they in turn developed their own intelligence wing. And so first came the military reaction force known as the MRF. And then you had the Force Research Unit, known as the FRU. But there were also other intelligence agencies working for the U.K. state during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. So you had the Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch. That's the intelligence wing of the Northern Irish police force at the time. And then you also had an MI5 operating, 14 Intelligence Company, and you had the Special Air Service, which is commonly known as the SAS. And like Tom had mentioned, there were - the Loyalist paramilitaries that Thomas is a bit more familiar with. So I'll hand over back to Thomas to cover that.
Thomas Leahy: Essentially, with the conflict, it was - if you're not particularly familiar with it, probably from general knowledge you'll know about British government's Royal British army's role, British intelligence. And then the main paramilitary group really was the Irish Republican Army, the IRA. The loyalist paramilitaries are super-key in the conflict as well as the kind of third main party to the conflict. So loyalist paramilitaries represented a sizeable minority of the Protestant British community in Northern Ireland. So there are methods aimed to deter Irish Republicans from continuing their armed conflict to force a united Ireland. And it was also a way of trying to warn the U.K. and Irish governments, basically saying, you know, don't concede to IRA demands because otherwise we can step up our violence in return.
Thomas Leahy: So ultimately, loyalist Protestant paramilitaries wanted Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom because they felt attachment to the British Crown. And essentially, they believed the British Crown had protected them over the years and centuries when they arrived to represent the British or, as it was back then, English and Scottish crown - Protestant crown, primarily - in Ireland from the 1600s. So loyalists feared that British culture, identity and Protestantism would be undermined in some kind of all-island republic that would be dominated by Irish nationalist Catholics in population terms.
Thomas Leahy: So at the start of the conflict, what you have is two main loyalist paramilitary groups. There's quite a few, but we'll focus on the main two to keep that easy for today. So one of them is called the Ulster Volunteer Force, also known as the UVF. And the Ulster Defence Association, the UDA, was the other. And they opposed, right from the word go at the start the conflict, any concessions to the Northern Ireland largely Catholic civil rights movement.
Thomas Leahy: So the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland was protesting against Protestant Unionist majority rule, which had existed there since partition in the 1920s. So various scholars, for example, including White (ph) and Dr. English (ph) - they've all explained how Unionist Majority Rule from 1922 right up to 1972 in Northern Ireland was seen as discriminating against Irish Catholics in areas such as social housing, jobs and electoral boundaries with the purpose just to secure the Protestant dominance in that part of Ireland.
Thomas Leahy: So Protestant British loyalists - so, again, those who were willing to use political but also armed methods to make their point - and then also Ulster Unionism, which was the purely political form of British Protestantism in Northern Ireland - both of them refused to concede to civil rights demands and even things like powersharing at first in the 1970s because from their perspective, if you start making concessions, that was a kind of slippery slope to an all-Ireland republic. So naturally, they opposed the IRA, who Eleanor's going to talk about as the kind of other main party to the conflict.
Eleanor Williams: So to understand kind of the IRA's aims, I think it's really handy just to take a step back nearly and understand the difference between a nationalist and a Republican first. And the term nationalist refers to anyone who wanted a united Ireland, and these people tended to be part of the minority Catholic community. So the Social Democratic and Labour Party, known as the SDLP, fit into this description. And the SDLP were moderate nationalists who consisted of individuals such as the late John Hume and the late Seamus Mallon.
Eleanor Williams: Republicans also wanted a united Ireland, but they believed violence was necessary to achieve this. And the Provisional IRA - I would refer to them as the IRA today just to make things a little bit easier to understand - fit into this description. And the IRA also had their own political wing, known as Sinn Fein, and they were particularly active from the 1980s onwards. They had key characters within the Republican movement. So you had Gerry Adams from Belfast, and you had Martin McGuinness from Derry - Londonderry.
Eleanor Williams: And the reasons behind why individuals wanted a united Ireland varied. Some came from militant Republican backgrounds who had, like, several generations of IRA volunteers within their families. But you also had others who perhaps didn't come from such a strong militant family but supported the cause as they believed that it was only through a united Ireland that discrimination, like Thomas mentioned earlier, could end against Catholics.
Andrew Hammond: I just want to come back just a little bit to the 40,000-feet view. So I'm going to give myself a challenge here. I'm going to try to explain it as a non-specialist, and I want the two of you to jump all over me whatever I get wrong (laughter). So as far as I understand, there's four historic areas of Ireland - Connacht, Ulster, Leinster and Munster. Ulster is not coterminous with what is now Northern Ireland.
Andrew Hammond: But basically, to cut a long story short, there was - a lot of people came over from England and Scotland to Northern - what's now Northern Ireland, settled there. And then when Ireland was partitioned, the Protestants in what is now Northern Ireland - they felt that they had their own identity, but also, they were concerned about the role that religion would play in a future Irish state. From their point of view, up until quite recently, the state and the church weren't necessarily divided quite strongly. And from the Republican point of view, they basically think that Ireland is one Ireland and it should be united. It's always been united. It was united before, and it should be united. Now that Britain's out of the EU and everything else, is that where we're at?
Thomas Leahy: I would say so. I think if we look at the Republican side of it, you've got it almost spot-on there. From their perspective - and this goes back - and, again, some of your listeners might be more aware of the earlier period, like the Irish War of Independence, which then led - so that's basically officially 1919 to 1922. But you could technically put it back to the Easter Rising by Irish Republican rebels during World War I against British rule in Dublin. So really, 1916 to 1923, various historians would call out in revolutionary periods that led to the formation of what later became known as Republic of Ireland - so 26 in 32 counties on the island of Ireland. So going back to the point you said of Irish Republicans, from their perspective, two things - first of all, one of the kind of key landmarks, then, is the 1916 rebellion against British rule, which declared a self-proclaimed Irish Republic - so then put down then kind of gets resurrected during the Irish Republican Army and its political wing, Sinn Fein's, campaign for Irish independence later on in the Irish War of Independence against U.K. rule. From their perspective, they, therefore, feel, well, the independence was declared in 1916 for the whole island. It didn't make exceptions for six counties in the northeast. And the other thing they'll often talk about - and you'd see this during the conflict with the kind of modern version of the IRA, Sinn Fein, in that conflict for Irish Republicanism between 1969 to 1998 - they made the point and said, well, look; there was a Westminster election in 1918 and another one in 1920, a couple of years later, and it was an all-Ireland Westminster election, and when you look to the results across the island, Sinn Fein and pro-Irish Independence parties won that vote. So they said, therefore, there was no mandate for splitting up six of the counties away from the other areas. So, yes, definitely from an Irish Republican perspective, that would be (unintelligible) for you on that. And loyalism, from my perspective, and unionism, that's perfect - exactly that their concern was if you come under an all-Ireland Republic, we'll be discriminated against because there'll be a close link between the Irish independent state and the Catholic Church and, in a sense, no place for Protestantism. Yeah, essentially so - and, Eleanor, did you want to add anything?
Eleanor Williams: No, I think you've summed it up perfectly there, Thomas.
Andrew Hammond: And when we're talking about this intelligence war, we're really speaking about the Troubles, right? We're speaking about a series of events in modern Irish history that began in the second half of the 1960s. Can you just put a framework around the Troubles for us? Like, just tell us, like, how they began and when they ended, if they have ended, and where we are now.
Thomas Leahy: Sure. Eleanor, I'll go first on that point, so - and then I'll pass over to you for parts. So, essentially, when we talk about an intelligence conflict - yeah, in Northern Ireland, this does kick off in 1969 and goes right out to the end of the conflict. I think the key point here is it takes a while to get going and come to momentum because the U.K. security forces, when they come in a much larger scale to Northern Ireland, particularly the British army, they're up against clandestine Protestant Loyalist British and then Irish Republican paramilitaries who basically use, like, hit-and-run tactics. So the paramilitaries operation is on-the-ground organizations, so British forces and the Northern Ireland Police, which was known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the RUC, and the U.K. intelligence wanted to try and catch paramilitary members; they were going to need intelligence from insiders to do that. The problem for them at first was there was initially, basically, not very much intelligence on the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries. So we see this, for example, when you have things like internment without trial in August 1971 - Eleanor will talk about this a little bit more later on - but it's basically where the U.K. forces arrested, mainly what they suspected were Republican suspects, but most of them actually ended up getting released because they weren't connected to the IRA. And actually you can see the kind of intelligence deficiencies there because various IRA leaders weren't arrested at all initially in the original sweep. The same things applied to Loyalists that a lot of the kind of Loyalist leaders initially weren't arrested. But what we don't know with that - and some of the archival evidence suggests they did know who Loyalist leaders were, but, potentially to try and avoid a kind of two-front conflict for British forces, they didn't intern Loyalists of the same level initially. And again, if you think about other conflicts the U.K. forces involved in, like Israel-Palestine in the '40s, for example, there was always a concern for U.K. forces is if you provoked a civil war between the two communities and you're in the middle of it, it's going to lead to some kind of messy withdrawal situation, which U.K. state really did not want. Certainly, and as well we see kind of initial period of the conflict, as we said, you had the civil rights demonstrations largely for the Irish-Catholic population, demanding equal voting rights, equal access to social housing, etc., with the Protestant Unionist community, essentially the British government, does push for those reforms, but it does when the conflict begins to escalate between the two sides, in my view, certainly. Anyway, lean back a little bit against that because it didn't want to upset the Unionist community towards a civil war with the British government caught in the middle - a couple of reasons - initial intelligence being quite poor, quite hard to build intelligence in some Irish Republican areas, so because, essentially, it barricaded them off. So there's a place in Derry City, second city in Northern Ireland, which the IRA then named Free Derry at the Bogside area because they put barricades up, which meant U.K. security forces couldn't go in there. So in intelligence terms, it was just basically inaccessible. The second thing as well with the IRA - and it's pretty much the same for the UVF and UDA, and so quite new organizations, although they've claimed parentage from previous manifestations - there was a lot of young people joining them. So what you were having there - and I'm going to touch on this, which we talked about the IRA a little bit earlier - it wasn't necessarily people with a long, family tradition in the IRA or Loyalist paramilitaries who were joining these organizations, so it was quite difficult to know who was involved initially. So, yeah, really from the kind of starting point about the conflicts and the intelligence conflict, it was quite slow to get going. Yeah. And as the years progressed, then some of the things changed, which we can talk about a little bit later. But I don't know if, Eleanor, you wanted to add anything to that?
Eleanor Williams: Yeah. And I think a really key kind of part to stress in the initial years of the conflicts were the kind of overt intelligence measures that really exacerbated the conflict and really propelled the conflict for several years afterwards. An example that kind of Thomas mentioned earlier was internment without trial. This is a key example that everyone kind of refers to, and this was in early August 1971. And like Thomas mentioned, it involved the mass arrest of 342 people within the first 24 hours. But by 9 December '75, just shy of 2,000 people had been interned. And, like Thomas mentioned, the issue with internment was that the intelligence that it was based on was insufficiently accurate. So kind of many key IRA members all were based in the Republic of Ireland, anyway, and the ones that weren't based in the Republic of Ireland had already gone on the run, allegedly forewarned of internment. So due to the insufficient intelligence, those that were interned were usually either completely innocent or inactive Republicans. So many individuals that were wrongfully interned were released within a day or two, which just added to the widespread perception that internment was a completely bungled operation.
Eleanor Williams: And like Thomas mentioned, with no loyalists being interned until 1973, it was always going to add to the sense of injustice tied to the internment program. And this - and of course, then, as Thomas mentioned, the U.K. security services didn't want to kind of have a two-front war, like Thomas mentioned, and - as it would have stressed the security services who were already under immense pressure.
Eleanor Williams: But also, kind of the manner in which internment was conducted really infuriated the nationalist community. And fuel was only added to the fire when it became kind of common knowledge that 14 internees were subjected to the five notorious techniques to wear down subjects. So these include wall standing, hooding, subjection to noise, sleep deprivation and deprivation of food and drink. And the uproar against these techniques were momentous. And then Edward Heath, the prime minister at the time, had to actually ban such practices, admitting that such techniques were wrong to use. So these overt measures really kind of escalated the conflict in the initial years and kind of gave the IRA enough recruits to kind of propel them forward until the next stage of the conflict.
Andrew Hammond: Putting a broader historical framework around - like in your book, Thomas, you talk about previous British experiences of counterinsurgency - Palestine, Kenya, Cyprus. Can you just contextualize The Troubles within that longer thread of British counterinsurgencies?
Thomas Leahy: At the initial stage, there seemed to be some practices, as Eleanor was talking about - for example, internment without trial - that were picked up from other, you know, postcolonial episodes, from decolonization, essentially from the British Empire. So things like internment without trial - we'd seen quite similar episodes in, for example, the Kenya conflict, as one example.
Thomas Leahy: And the difficulty for the British forces - and I think this partly links to how the government's very careful to not try - you know, to stand that balance between - in essentially stopping a civil war between the two sides because this was part of the U.K. and the U.K. constitution at that point and the government's oversight. So they were very careful not to use measures that then, where possible, were going to lead to the conflict getting worse in that situation but also potentially public pressure back home and certainly scrutiny from the media and for whichever government was in potentially disagreements with the opposition to try and maintain a bipartisan line.
Thomas Leahy: So what that meant is, you know, there was, to some extent, more restrictions - certainly in overt measures, as Eleanor said. And when you had the early measures, such as internment without trial, which, as Eleanor pointed out, had actually just led to a spiral in violence and made the situation worse, you also had things, which your viewers, again, might be aware of, things like Bloody Sunday. This happened in Derry in 1972, where 13 and later 14 unarmed people were shot dead during a civil rights protest in the basically nastiest areas of the city by the British army. And now, the British Government apologized for that in 2010 under David Cameron. But at the time, it said that, in a sense, the civil rights movement created the situation, and they suspected the IRA was behind it.
Thomas Leahy: So what's interesting with these episodes is actually when you get past 1972, the kind of - I mean, later, we'll talk a little bit about like, SAS ambushes, which, again, are a little bit more overt to some extent. But the real pattern you see from the early stages of the conflict, which is unlike some of the kind of other episodes you might have seen in decolonization for the U.K. government - they tended to stay away from these kind of overt, as you can call them, quite public displays of military power in terms of rounding people up or maybe engaging in firefights because it would have an effect on public opinion, not just in Northern Ireland, and could make the situation worse. But they were really cautious not to draw U.K. public opinion into, for example, demanding, like, a troop withdrawal, which could lead to then a civil war scenario, which would affect the U.K. government's reputation. So the government was always aware of that to some extent during the conflict.
Andrew Hammond: I want to go into some of the characters in a moment, but I just wondered if you could briefly help break down the term intelligence with regards to this issue. So we're mainly talking about human intelligence, for example. And also, if you could break intelligence down in terms of - you know, you mentioned at the beginning there are new organizations that don't have a lot of knowledge. So we're talking about one form of intelligence, which is who are the dramatis personae? What's their aim? What's their goals, their methods? And then we're talking about also tactical intelligence, like when are they going to plant a bomb and try to blow up X or Y? And so if you could just break - both of you, if you could just break the term intelligence down for us a little bit more and as far as that applies to this particular issue.
Thomas Leahy: Yeah, so what I'll - and I know what I'll do first, so I'll just talk about this. So there's various different U.K. intelligence agencies involved in Northern Ireland. But I think it's a really good point you make, Andrew, about human intelligence is key in Northern Ireland, but in some of the episodes we'll talk about later on, electronic intelligence is key. Surveillance would be super key as well, and also the use of special forces. So there's various different organizations. You might have seen when we were speaking at the beginning then about, you know, what are the different organizations involved? And actually, this is one of the points we'll come back to about how successful is U.K. intelligence against the Irish Republican Army, in particular, its main enemy, but also loyalists to an extent as well, paramilitaries?
Thomas Leahy: Some of the - and there were successes. But when we talk about some of the limitations and lack of success in other areas, actually some of it does come down to what was intelligence about, how it was coordinated in Northern Ireland. So there was a lot of institutional rivalries. And just to try and explain that, what you - the main kind of intelligence collator in Northern Ireland would have been what was called the Royal Ulster Constabulary Police, but they had a special branch. So they in a sense were the - really the central collator and central focus of the intelligence network. But what confuses the situation there as well - and again, there's the parallels here to other U.K. operations that they had, particularly in former parts of the empire. British intelligence was present there as well, so this confuses things a little bit.
Thomas Leahy: So for example, from the early 1980s - now, Eleanor has already mentioned this - there was something called the Force Research Unit, which ran agents and informers within the IRA, to a lesser extent loyalist paramilitaries, to British forces. There was something called the 14 Intelligence Company by the 1980s, and that was conducting surveillance for the U.K. Armed Forces. S.A.S. Special Forces are deployed mainly in rural areas, which we'll touch on a little bit later. And then you had - MI5 are there as well, mainly with a few agents, but their main expertise was in electronic surveillance. GCHQ were involved with - now Richard Aldrich's book is particularly good on this and talks about it - intercepting telecommunications, particularly in Northern Ireland itself, but also the IRA might have been, for example, using between Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. And to make this even more complicated, MI6 were also involved in political backchannel talks with Sinn Fein and the IRA and the British government, but primarily with political intelligence.
Thomas Leahy: Now, there was some attempt to actually coordinate all this. So in the 1980s you've got the - rather aptly named on that point - tasking coordinating groups, which try to bring these multiple agencies together in certain intelligence operations. So one standout example of this - and again, we'll touch on this a little bit more later - was an S.A.S. ambush that took out eight East Tyrone IRA members. So the East Tyrone IRA was particularly deadly rural brigade of the IRA, and they were attacking the police barracks in a place called Loughgall in 1987, and the S.A.S. shot them dead (ph).
Thomas Leahy: But the problem was as well this setup, which might seem confusing - and that's because it was in person - what happened here is you've got ongoing rivalries and suspicions. So RUC Special Branch members at times - not with all personnel, but some felt that MI5 or British Army intelligence were trying to get information and control it quickly and did not really care as much about protecting informers because U.K. armed forces, for example, might have short tours in Northern Ireland. But then in contrast, we see anyone connected to British army intelligence saying, well, the RUC Special Branch was secretive. We didn't always know what they were doing.
Thomas Leahy: So this structure was quite imperfect, and we can see this because the U.K. government conducted an inquiry into Rosemary Nelson's death in 2007. So this investigated alleged collusion between U.K. intelligence forces with loyalist Protestant paramilitaries in the death of Rosemary Nelson, who was a human rights lawyer. And what that report confirmed is that now post-conflict, post-'98, MI5 collates all the intelligence about Northern Ireland. So in other words, the U.K. state saw that the structure of how intelligence worked was just inadequate during the conflict overall.
Thomas Leahy: Before I pass back to Eleanor, probably a good thing to touch on here. So we talked about, you know, what's U.K. intelligence doing? What's their kind of role in this conflict? I think it's important as well to try and look at, you know, what is the Irish Republican Army doing? What's their main role in this intelligence conflict? Since we said, you know, they were set up really in 1969. They were known as the Provisional IRA, which was a differentiate - and I won't go massively into this; it gets really confusing - other factions of the IRA. So they've all emerged out of this kind of IRA that led to the Republic of Ireland's independence in the 1920s. But they then splinter off at times because they disagree about strategy. In the Northern Ireland conflict, the largest IRA faction became known as the Provisional IRA - provisional because it claimed to be the provisional government of an All-Ireland republic in waiting, so hence that name.
Thomas Leahy: So one of the key points here in terms of the intelligence conflict - and this was key for the opposition U.K. intelligence forces - the IRA was quite a highly regionalized organization. And that's actually quite keen to explain why British intelligence had some difficulties against them. So its leading body was something called the IRA Army Council. So the job of the IRA's army council was to devise the kind of day-to-day strategy of the movement, when to call cease-fires and that kind of thing. It claimed seven representatives from across the northern part of Ireland, and they're across the urban and rural heartlands. And again, that's quite a key point because it meant that, say, Belfast IRA individuals couldn't just boss around people in rural areas what to do, so it was quite a regionalized organization.
Thomas Leahy: Initially, it was set up similar to armed forces. It had brigades, battalions and companies, and it would follow just the kind of typical army structure. Up to 1975, key heartlands for the IRA would've been in Belfast and Derry City, the two cities of Northern Ireland. It also had crucial rural Republican heartlands, and I really underline that. These are really crucial to the IRA's campaign as, you know, over the years in the course of the conflict. So a couple examples of these - there's a place called South Armagh right by the border with the republic. It's an almost kind of 90% Irish Republican, Irish nationalist area and really became an IRA stronghold. Also, we got places like East Tyrone, North-Mid Armagh, parts of County Fermanagh. Now geographically, for kind of mind's eye for people, these are all areas by the border with the Republic of Ireland, and the IRA would've been quite strong in these areas. And as we see, they would also be operating in places like England as well, which we'll touch on.
Thomas Leahy: One last point with the IRA is - so we said they operated this kind of army structure up to 1975. So there's a cease-fire in 1975, Fell talks to the British government, cease-fire collapses. After that point, the IRA changes its strategy slightly. So certainly, in the view of my work, nearly O'Doherty and its evidence come out from Republicans, U.K. sources, etc., which suggests that the IRA then switched this new strategy, which it called the Long War. And basically, the purpose of this was to prolong its conflict, persist and not escalate it. 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 was - and Derry - was cell structure. And what this was about was allowing the IRA to persist in the longer term, because the way it looked at it was that, well, it escalated the conflict in the early '70s and the British government hadn't withdraw, which was its aim, despite cease-fire talks. So what it decided to do was then to just try and persist over time, add in a political mandate by the political wing, Sinn Fein, and then hope you could pressurize the British government and all the other parties back to talks.
Thomas Leahy: So in the cities, they adopted these cell structures. So what was different about these - pre-1975, say, in Belfast, the IRA might have 20 people in a company, which in some sense, this has an advantage. It keeps people, say, on the same street in a kind of loyal little unit. But the disadvantage is, if one becomes an informer, then everyone could be just arrested, and it's very difficult to work out who is informing. So the cells meant you'd have - you were kind of four to six volunteers. In theory, they wouldn't be known to each other, but they often were, so they didn't always work in practice perfectly. But what the cells meant - if someone informed, you could restrict it to a certain cell, and that shouldn't kind of infect the rest of the IRA in that area.
Thomas Leahy: One last caveat with this is that the cells wouldn't operate in the rural areas - like places we talked about, like South Armagh - because you didn't need to because they were already small, little units in tiny rural areas anyway. Now, the cells are not watertight as planned, but it did allow the urban IRA to persist over time, which we'll talk about. And I don't know if, Lea, if you wanted to talk a little bit about loyalists at this point as well.
Eleanor Williams: I think similar to the IRA, loyalists also had a lot of informers within their ranks. However, it's really difficult to kind of estimate the number, as current evidence is just incomplete. But according to Colin Crawford's book, which is a really good book on the UDA, by the 1990s, the loyalist paramilitaries were actually also trying to weed out informants like the IRA. So that was kind of through interrogations and shootings and so on.
Eleanor Williams: The one kind of U.K. intelligence agent within the loyalist paramilitaries who is really famous is Brian Nelson. Now, Brian Nelson presents one of the best cases regarding - well, infamous cases - regarding collusion from the U.K. state. And the FRU actually succeeded in infiltrating Nelson into the UDA, which, as Thomas mentioned, was a loyalist paramilitary organization. And within the UDA, Nelson was quickly appointed an intelligence officer. And Nelson's role included identifying and developing information regarding potential targets for murder. And obviously, to shine as an informer, Nelson had to behave no differently to anyone else within the UDA. And according to the security service's own notes and Nelson's own notes, he was involved in at least 15 murders - 15 attempted murders - and 62 conspiracies to murder. And Nelson's role became widely known after the loyalist paramilitaries killed a Catholic man in '89, and they insisted that he was an IRA intelligence officer. And the loyalist paramilitaries actually proved this by producing copies of confidential security force material, which actually contained suspected paramilitary members, and the Catholic man's name was included in that document. And what's super kind of interesting about this case is that this material could've only come from a UDR base in County Down, so that was a Ulster Defense Regiment base.
Andrew Hammond: Just briefly, the UDR - that wasn't similar to the UVF and the UDA because the UDR was on the level organization, right?
Eleanor Williams: Yes, yes. The UDR was an organization kind of - that worked - that was based in Northern Ireland and that often assisted an RUC with operations. But not a loyalist paramilitary organization, no.
Thomas Leahy: That's perfect. This essentially, yeah, not a loyalist paramilitary organization, but there was the Ulster Defense Regiment when it was created. And then it was created the beginning of the Troubles to replace something called the Beasts - what nationalists refer to the B specials, which is called the Ulster Special Constabulary. The Ulster Special Constabulary existed from Partition up to the late '60s. When it's reformed, it got reformed because the British government and the Northern Ireland civil rights movement considered it was to basically pro-Protestant loyalist.
Thomas Leahy: So what they tried to do is create this new Ulster Defense Regiment as a backup to the RUC, the police and the British army that would be cross-community, but probably partly largely because the conflict escalated at that point and various elements in nationalist community therefore being alienated as they felt from the state, that its recruitment was almost predominately from the Protestant British community. So this then led to some difficulties over the years for the UDR because there was accusations in certain areas and specific bases that they were involved in loyalist paramilitaries, which they denied in some cases that has been proven correct in inquiries. Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: I know that it's technically British territory, so that would be MI5, but are MI6 operating in Ireland? Are MI6 operating in the United States? Are they trying to penetrate networks in that way? Help us understand the role of MI6 in all of this.
Thomas Leahy: That's a good question. So with MI6, first on its political role - the political intelligence is key with MI6 - and yes. So what they do, they tend to go as a go-between between the IRA, Sinn Fein and the British government essentially. And there's a couple of individuals to be involved with that for them throughout the conflicts, and some of them are quite consistently involved in this from the early '70s, right up to 1990s with the peace process. Really, their role was to - whilst the British government wasn't keen in certain stages of the conflict to officially or unofficially talk to the IRA and Sinn Fein, because at times even unofficially you might give the message that there's something at the other line - on the end of the other line so there's an opportunity. British government at times didn't want Republicans to think there was.
Thomas Leahy: Their aim is really to find out, like, what Republicans wanted to do and try to have a link to the Republican leadership, which they managed to do via a particularly good book, if people are interested in this, Niall O Dochartaigh - "Deniable Contact." So there was a person called Brennan Duddy (ph) was an intermediary from Derry City essentially for the Irish Republican Leadership with MI6 and MI5 throughout the conflict for various attempts at peace. And yeah, MI6 would therefore have input with Republican members from Northern Ireland about this. But also in the Republic of Ireland as well, they would have input. Initially in the '70s, the leadership of the IRA and Sinn Fein was largely from the Republic of Ireland. That changes in the latter - after 1975 ceasefire, which we talked about collapsed.
Thomas Leahy: So MI5 would have been involved in that, and that's the primary role of MI5 is the kind of political intelligence side of things. And partly, as you would guess, we see this in the '90s when I was talking about MI5 becoming involved in the political intelligence, there seems to be - and Christopher Andrew's book on MI5 is quite good on this as well - a little bit of a battle, MI5 saying, hang on a minute. This is in Northern Ireland. Why are these people carrying out backchannel talks with Sinn Fein and the IRA in this place? So there was a bit of, it seems, internal friction about that. And actually, a lot of the backchannel talks as you get deep into '90s like '91, '92, '93, yeah, did had much more input from MI5.
Thomas Leahy: Good question about the connections with the IRA's campaign abroad. Yes, so MI6 then would have connections, for example, with guard special branch - that's the Irish Police Special Branch, but also with the U.S. intelligence services about attempts to gun run by the IRA. And that seemed to be, you know, as you go into 1980s, more successful. So we talk about some successes and failures today as a side point. That probably was relatively successful because the United States certainly began to clamp down on weapons going to the IRA from the U.S. after the early '70s period. But the IRA then found other routes around that, such as kind of Gadhafi's Libya. But yes, so MI6, in terms of U.K. and the island of Ireland, definitely more the political side of things. But in terms of abroad, like IRA in Europe or IRA in America, yes, they then played a standard role with both kind of political, military intelligence. Yeah.
Andrew Hammond: And in terms of this intelligence struggle, I wondered, Eleanor, could you tell us, did some of these paramilitary organizations have individuals who would specifically focus on intelligence with the IRA or the UVF, have an intelligence officer, or was it more just paramilitary organization? And, of course, they're trying to get information, but there's not really anyone responsible for it? So I just wondered if you could tell us, like, were any of these organizations - did they ever have personnel specifically focused on intelligence or counterintelligence?
Eleanor Williams: I think there's more kind of literature around this surrounding the IRA compared to the loyalists. Within the IRA, you definitely had an intelligence company that was designated in finding intel, but also rooting out informers within the IRA. And I think - and I'm sure Thomas will talk about a Stakeknife case later on - but this was an intelligence officer within the IRA, and they called this unit the Nutting Squad, which is quite a dark name. They were tasked with rooting out informers. And, well, one of the few cases of members of the intelligence agency within the IRA was Stakeknife, who was allegedly a British agent. And he was tasked with finding informers, but he was actually a British informer himself. You also had Eamon Collins, allegedly, again, a British informer as well, and he was also tasked with rooting out informers. So it's quite - because people within the intelligence and agency of the IRA weren't kind of subjected to the cell structure that Thomas mentioned earlier - so it's much harder to root out informers within the intelligence wing of the IRA just because they weren't part of the cell structure and that the other active service units were meant to do were passive. And I'm not sure if, Thomas, you want to jump in there with any more thing of - have I missed anything?
Thomas Leahy: No, that's - I think that's right about the Stakeknife case. I mean, specific with this case, as you said, this is a kind of stand-out debate about intelligence operations in Northern Ireland now. And the reason there's (unintelligible) is because - and when I say that, I should say that not just a stand-out case, but it's been the real catalyst for journalists and academics debating, OK, did U.K. intelligence pressurize the IRA into peace and help lead to the peace process? The reason it's so important, as Eleanor was saying, is because in the Stakeknife case, this was a person who was alleged to be within the IRA's Internal Security Unit, which we certainly can work out had a remit in Belfast. And really, the remit of that organization as part of the IRA was to root out informers and agents and also vet recruits coming in. So again, if you kind of draw back from that, what you're dealing with is that the person in Belfast - one of the key people in Belfast who is alleged to be rooting out informers and agents is an informer themselves. So for the IRA, that was obviously going to lead to disruption to the campaign.
Thomas Leahy: What we can work out with the Stakeknife case is - so they're apparently informing for the British Army's what's called the Force Research Unit, the FRU. So it's basically British Army intelligence that handles, from late 1970s onwards, informers and agents, which, as you know, a key point of this is that persons accused of being Stakeknife reject all the allegations. On the other hand, you've got various intelligence personnel, past and present, plus Irish Republicans who say the allegations are true. The key thing with this, and to show the kind of impact it had, you know, you've got various Republicans and U.K. security sources believe that Stakeknife - in fairness, alongside other intelligence operations in Belfast by the U.K. state - they reckon altogether they were preventing up to about 8 out of every 10 Belfast IRA attacks by the 1990s, which is quite a sizeable number.
Thomas Leahy: The flip side to this, when you think about it with the Stakeknife is, actually, the Belfast IRA still orchestrates various high-profile city senate bombings in Belfast in the early 1990s. So again, it might show that the cell structure does seem to allow the Belfast IRA to persist, and this Stakeknife character doesn't have access across the whole IRA in Belfast. The other thing, which we'll come - I'm sure we'll come again on to later, is just that there have been various accusations that the agent believed to be Stakeknife may have been allegedly taking out other informers and agents or innocent civilians. Again, they've denied those accusations. But it's interesting, this case, because see Steve Hewitt's book - so he writes about informers and agents generally across the globe, and there's an idea that they can sow the seeds of disunity in communities against the state. True, he says, but cases maybe like the Stakeknife one might show, actually, it can have the opposite effect because it can consolidate an image of certain intelligence activities or states being unethical. So the Stakeknife case is quite interesting, and there are independent operation (unintelligible) - independent investigation ongoing about that at the moment as well.
Andrew Hammond: On "SpyCast, " one of the things that we look at quite frequently is the motivations of agents for doing what they do. So I just wondered if you could tell us a little bit more maybe by looking at a couple of cases. Like, I assume that if you get through the door to be in the IRA, at the surface level, anyway, it looks like you're the real deal. You believe in it. You're wedded to the cause. So why would people become informers? So on "SpyCast, " we look at, you know, is it money? Is it ego? Is it ideology? Have they been coerced? So help us understand, like, why would someone in the Irish Republican Army start informing against that organization? Like, what were the motivations?
Eleanor Williams: Well, I think it's really key to kind of highlight for the listeners that it's really kind of difficult even to know what the motivations were. Obviously, there's money. There's ideology. There's kind of hating certain kind of key members in the organizations. I think kind of one really interesting case is Willie Carlin, who's - he was actually an agent within British intelligence. But he was actually - he was a Catholic from Derry - Londonderry, but he was actually a British army soldier. And British intelligence approached Carlin, asking if he'd be interested in a purely political role, kind of infiltrating Sinn Fein. And they kind of specified that this really didn't include the IRA. So for him, perhaps, it was more - he saw his role as continuing as being a British army officer but an intelligence kind of slant to it. And I think this was the same for Brian Nelson, perhaps. But I think what's really key with Carlin - that he was an agent for 11 years, and his roles included occasionally chauffeuring Martin McGuinness about, analyzing Northern Ireland summary documents. He gave speeches at IRA funerals. And just before his cover was blown, he was meant to be running for local elections as a Sinn Fein candidate. So that's kind of how kind of central these agents could be. And according to Carlin's memoirs, during his time as an agent, he actually participated in Republican debates surrounding the (unintelligible). So this was - and he advocated for a political approach rather than a military approach to achieve united Ireland. I just find this case really interesting as it was involved in the political side of the conflict. And his kind of motivations, perhaps, was to - he saw his role as achieving peace rather than betraying an organization. But it's also really key, and I must note, that Carlin may, perhaps, overstate the importance of his work.
Thomas Leahy: So there's work by Snow and Taylor - which they've looked at, why did people in the United States inform for the Soviet Union during the Cold War? And, again, what they said is there's multiple motives. And at times, the reason the person might publicize their motives might not actually be the reason they informed in the first place. But what they did say, and I think is definitely applicable to Northern Ireland as a comparison, is that these motives can change over time, and handlers would know that. And it was a way of keeping people going with passing information to intelligence services. So they came up with this nice acronym which was MICE, which - the top of my head - was money, ideology, coercion, ego, and then they added, like, et cetera, as well.
Thomas Leahy: And to give an example of this from Northern Ireland context - so a slightly different one from the one Eleanor's talked about. So Raymond Gilmour was a member of the IRA in the early 1980s, and he also was an informer, and he later became something called a supergrass. So what supergrass was, in the early 1980s, is where the Northern Irish police service, the RUC, got people turned or to inform on people when they were arrested - a little bit different with Gilmour 'cause he really was an informer, and then when he got asked to try and get various people in court, then obliged to do so. And what that did was it led - in Gilmour's case, it was, like, 35-plus people who were put on trial. Eventually, the case collapsed because the court of appeal didn't want that many people convicted on the word of one person, essentially. But anyway, the useful thing in this case with Gilmour - so in his book, he's written memoirs and he informed various years on a Derry city IRA and disrupted it. He says and his book shows us that there's various motives going on, and it really kind of coincides with the MICE thing, as the acronym, because he does mention that, you know, they were going to pay him money. And for someone from the area he came from, the money they were offering was quite a lot compared to, like, local employment or not having employment. The second thing he said was the kind of the ego bit as well, that they - the people who were handling them would say, you know, you're doing a good job for your community. You're helping people out. You're saving lives. And that seemed to appeal to him. But he also did talk to an extent about pressure as well because he said that, essentially, for him, he was involved in just local crime around the area like stealing, that kind of thing, I seem to remember he talked about. And yeah - and then the police would warn him and said that, you know, this is your last chance, basically. And if you want to avoid prison sentence, then you could do this for us - just watch a few names. So it's a kind of mixture of factors, and that's quite the interesting point in the set because what that allows - and I don't think that's unique to Northern Ireland - is the widest possible net to try and recruit people because of you trying to look at various motives.
Andrew Hammond: And we've spoke about the infiltration or agents on one side, but I wondered if we could go the other way. Were there ever the IRA or any other organizations succeed and someone in the British government working on their behalf or someone in the British army, the RUC? I feel like if we go into the UDR and loyalist paramilitaries, that could easily be a whole separate podcast. So let's focus on the British government and the British army. Was there ever anyone in any of those organizations that was working on behalf of the IRA?
Thomas Leahy: The evidence is patchy, OK? But I think from studying the conflict, there's certain events that stand out for suggesting there must have been some insider information. The main one I can think of - and, again, top of my head with this, is in '96 - is something called the Thiepval Barracks bombing in Belfast. So in a sense, this is where there's the main kind of base for British soldiers positioned in Northern Ireland. The IRA then just seems to think that this was blew up - some kind of car bomb in the vicinity of this area. And people who would know that area, like, locally - it's an armed fortress, so how on earth they managed to get through security and get this inside is unknown. So I think that there's instances like that where, you know, it's never been rumored specifically who would have been involved in that, but they obviously had insider information because it was difficult for anyone to get in there on that particular point.
Thomas Leahy: The second thing is - so we do know at times, there was clearly information leaked to the IRA. So in the late '70s, Brigadier Sir James Glover - top of my head - released a report which was about saying the state of play with the IRA. So when they introduced the cell structure, what were they like? How was that campaign going - and the British security forces, in a sense, driving them into the ground? And then he essentially says, actually, they're pretty sophisticated, and they've actually adopted to this kind of hit-and-run, low-level, persistent campaign. And Sir General James Glover, at that point, is just saying, yeah, basically, that they can persist with this in the long term, and we're going to be stuck for quite a while with this campaign. Now, what then happened is that was then published in a Republican newspaper. So it was an internal document that somehow it obviously got out, and therefore the Republicans then published it thereafter. So there would have been things like that. And Eleanor might remember as well, within time of that trial, it's the same kind of thing because there's that argument about, you know, why were IRA leaders - some of them who would have been known at that point. They were quite renowned for many, many years. But they even escaped that - and the suggestion there was some kind of insider in the Northern Ireland civil service or government at that point that had told certain IRA leaders to go on the run. So there's - what we get is is kind of slim pickings of evidence. But it's a good question, and they obviously - there was - and these are the kind of standout ones we're talking about. There's other low-level examples in different areas where, you know, certainly when you look at it as a researcher, you think - and just from knowledge of other conflicts, you think there's no way they would have able to carry that out with some outside - and without some outsider information. So yeah, good question.
Andrew Hammond: I just want to walk forward to the Good Friday agreement, and what role, if any, does intelligence play in that and the new (unintelligible)?
Thomas Leahy: OK, so probably taking that one because it's partly the kind of main thing that my book looks at. And I do think, you know, British intelligence and British intelligence operations did have successes against the IRA at times, and they did have an impact to an extent. But that's not the same thing as when you look at it across all the different areas, saying that British intelligence forces the IRA into peace. And I think partly, some of the reasons for that because of the regional set up of the IRA. And I think it shows there were clearly intelligence gaps with some of the things the IRA was able to orchestrate, conduct and actually get away with. So I think there's kind of three main reasons when we look at current evidence, from my perspective, why the IRA and Sinn Fein was not forced into peace to any significant extent by British intelligence.
Thomas Leahy: So the first one is with the Belfast and Derry City IRAs, the IRA's kind of main urban units. So it has this cell structure after 1975, and I do think it facilitated the IRA in persisting, which I think was its aim post 1975. And we can see, yes, there was, as we talked about, the state life case, and there were other informants as well in the Belfast IRA that we did talk about. They still conducted various high-profile city center bombings into the early 1990s. So what the cell structures seemed to do is just allow the IRA to compartmentalize information and activities in the cities after 1975. And it just seems that neither Stakeknife nor others could foil attacks on a kind of mass scale unless they had infiltrated all of the cells. And the fact the cells - the attacks were still being carried out, suggested they had managed to do that.
Thomas Leahy: The second reason for this argument is that there seems to be a kind of elusive and tight-knit nature of rural IRA units, and that was really, really key to enabling those units to persist, but also the IRA in its entirety to continue its campaign. So the East Tyrone IRA we talked about was one particular strong rural border IRA unit, and they did have problems at the hands of the SAS from early 1987. We talked about one of the SAS ambushes later - earlier on, sorry. And there also was a couple of others after. It was quite persistent. So sure - it does seem that there was some intelligence against that unit because the SAS just doesn't turn up by lock and take out IRA members. They obviously were acting on intelligence. But if we look elsewhere, the other kind of main IRA rural units, particularly the South Armagh IRA - and then there's the North mid-Armagh IRA and Fermanagh IRA in the rural areas. But the IRA's 1994 ceasefire, really when the peace process in public commences, they don't seem to be forced into peace by British intelligence.
Thomas Leahy: And this is really key because British forces themselves and Republicans have said rural IRA units, they're not a sideshow to what's happening in the cities because the rural units enable the IRA to persist and just spread its campaign and keep Northern Ireland destabilized. The reason this was was because the small and tightknit rural IRA units - that particular feature that made them very difficult to infiltrate, often friends and family operating together. There was other things as well, such as they had access to the Irish border, which from actually what we just talked about isn't because the Irish state didn't want to clamp down on them. It was just the border was absolutely huge, and this had been some of the debates with Brexit. But you can't police that fully without huge resources being committed to it. So it gave the IRA opportunities to escape captured occasionally in Northern Ireland to the Republic if they wanted to do that, particularly in the rural areas. And actually a really interesting point about rural units - Operation Banner, which is the British Army's post conflict (ph) report, actually says in hindsight, when British forces reflect on it, the rural border areas for the IRA's campaign really should have been the geographical focus of the country's (inaudible) campaign.
Thomas Leahy: The third reason as well why the IRA wasn't forced into peace - I think its very highest levels, such as its Army Council, just didn't appear to be infiltrated to any significant extent. So we can see this because the IRA's Army Council helped select volunteers for operations in England and also to try and bring in weapon shipments. Now, there were some intelligence successes. We talked about a couple earlier. But there were clearly gaps and failures. So the majority of shipments from Libya, although one was stopped in 1987, a large shipment, the others got through from Colonel Gaddafi's Libya. And that was really key because it allowed the IRA with that kind of equipment to persist in a low-level campaign. In England, again, we can see the IRA carries out various high-profile attacks - 1984 Conservative Party conference bombing in Brighton. There's various attacks in London, one in Manchester as well during the 1990s. So the reasons this seems to be the IRA Army Council seems to be a long-term committed leadership, and that's going to make it very, very difficult to actually infiltrate. They're not involved in operations either, so they don't just kind of move aside for other people to take their role. Operations in England points to this essentially. The volunteers will be mixed from different areas of Ireland. It's difficult for people to, in a sense, form on each other because they wouldn't know each other. And the other point is when operations would fail in England, like with Sean O'Callahan, IRA would rotate who was involved. So you couldn't, in a sense, permanently infiltrate it. So I think on that really - yeah. On a day-to-day level, British intelligence did disrupt IRA operations in specific areas, in specific times. But the evidence doesn't suggest they forced them into peace. And really, what instead led to peace was this political and military arms stalemate between all sides where no one could win. And actually they didn't compromise. They were just faced with long-term conflict, really. But then if Eleanor has got anything she wants to add to that.
Eleanor Williams: Yeah. I just want to jump in. Kind of one of the key reasons Thomas mentioned that the IRA weren't defeated, was the rural IRA units. And I really agree with Thomas, but what was quite interesting was the rural units didn't really start becoming more militant until after internment (ph) trial. So as I mentioned earlier, internment trial (ph) 1971. But this was the first security measure that was implemented throughout the whole of Northern Ireland. So before internment, you had the conflict that was primarily contained, was just Belfast and Derry Londonderry. It wasn't a nationwide conflict. But after internment, there was a 600% increase in the amount of people killed by the IRA outside of Derry in Belfast. And on the border beforehand, you had about four incidences a month. After internment, had about 16. So you can really see how the conflict has really transformed from kind of a regional conflict to a nationwide conflict. And this is really unsurprising after internment. So it's nearly how British intelligence, their failures in the early conflict - you can see how it ripples and even has an effect in the 1990s. So it's really looking at the long-term impacts of intelligence methods as well, which I think is really key to south armagh's (ph) success as well.
Andrew Hammond: I think it's really big of you both to say this, because economists and economic historians think that their economy is the sole focus of everything that happens in the universe, and the same with social historians and cultural historians. So, you know, for intelligence historians to say that the whole world doesn't revolve around intelligence is very refreshing (laughter). OK. Just out of interest. How long is the border?
Thomas Leahy: Ooh, that's a good question. It is - I can't remember the precise figure, but it's definitely 300-plus miles long. And the problem, I think, with this as well, to explain to viewers, is in some places, if you drive it, which I recommend people to do - and even if you come in, say, from cross the U.S. to Ireland, do have a drive. It'd be good to do. When you drive it, you'll notice that you'll just zig-zag in and out of it. So it's not even like when you cross between, say, other parts of the world to different countries where you think, OK, this is the border. You go through checkpoints or you go through a certain place and now you're on the other side. It meanders in and out. And that's massively problematic because, say, for British forces, at times, you're having to, like, block a side road, but then locals build another side road where they know you can get around (unintelligible). So you can see with that as well with the debates that have been happening in U.K. with Brexit, that's the kind of thing that people are worried about - this, you know, things like smuggling which used to go on of goods, et cetera, weapons. It's very possible to do because the border is so difficult to police because it meanders in and out fields, mountains, et cetera.
Andrew Hammond: Thanks for listening to this episode of "SpyCast. " Go to our Webpage where you can find links to further resources, detailed show notes and full transcripts. We have over 500 episodes in our back catalog for you to explore. Please follow the show on Twitter @INTLSpyCast and share your favorite quotes and insights or start a conversation. If you have any additional feedback, please email us at email@example.com. I'm your host, Dr. Andrew Hammond, and you can connect with me on LinkedIn or follow me on Twitter @spyhistorian.
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