Decades after end of Northern Irish conflict, the legacy of spies remains obscure

Northern Ireland Troubles BelfastTHE NORTHERN IRISH CONFLICT was a 30-year irregular war involving the government of the United Kingdom and an assortment of paramilitary groups. By the mid-1990s, when most of these groups had declared ceasefire, over 3,600 people had been killed and over 40,000 injured. The major paramilitary groups that participated in the conflict were the separatist Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), and the pro-UK, or ‘loyalist’, Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

Although the bloody conflict has been the subject of numerous studies, its intelligence component is still obscure. This is especially so when it comes to the legacy of the spies who —by all accounts— were central to the day-to-day progression of this persistent conflict, which came to be known as “the Troubles”. In an insightful paper, Eleanor Williams, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast, and Thomas Leahy, Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University, examine this little-studied aspect of the Northern Irish conflict. The article, “The ‘Unforgivable’?: Irish Republican Army (IRA) informers and dealing with Northern Ireland conflict legacy, 1969-2021”, was published on Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Intelligence and National Security.

The authors list the substantial number of UK security agencies that had a role in recruiting and running informers during the Troubles. They include: the Security Service (MI5); the Metropolitan Police Special Branch; the Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch; and the Northern Irish Police Special Branch. Informants were also recruited by a host of intelligence organizations belonging to the British Armed Forces, such as the Military Reaction Force and the Force Research Unit. Although these agencies coordinated their intelligence activities to some extent, cooperation was not close. Consequently, there were hundreds of informants recruited by numerous UK state elements of the throughout the 30-year conflict. Their exact number remains unknown to this day.

Williams and Leahy agree with the bulk of the research on the topic, which suggests that “[t]he use of informers was a crucial part of UK intelligence and security strategy against paramilitary groups” during the conflict. Informers used against the IRA, in particular, which is the subject of the article, can be classified into three types. First, IRA members who were convinced or coerced by the authorities to provide information. Second, agents who did not initially belong to the IRA, but were “carefully maneuvered” into joining by UK intelligence agencies. Third, intelligence officers who infiltrated the IRA in an undercover capacity.

The effectiveness of IRA informants is a contested subject. Although some informers did enable UK government agencies to score tactical victories against the IRA, the group’s upper echelons were not infiltrated. As a result, Williams and Leahy argue that the intelligence war between the IRA and the UK government ended in something resembling a “stalemate”. Yet, much of the information about the role of informants during the Troubles remains obscure, and it is difficult to draw foolproof conclusions.

The authors point out that part of the reason for the lack of data is the absence of a “clear legal mechanism […] encouraging the state and Republicanism [i.e. former IRA leaders] to address all informer legacy cases in a systematic way”. In other words, the UK does not have anything like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has helped uncover the hidden legacy of Apartheid and the struggle against it. This “haphazard way of approaching informers’ legacy” has meant that some cases of informants are openly discussed and focused on, while others are ignored, or remain completely unknown.

There is therefore a “mixed approach” to this issue, meaning that some informants have essentially been given “amnesty” by the IRA or its political heirs, while others have been targeted in what appear to be punishment killings. The choice, the authors suggest, depends on “[c]urrent political calculations, but also the suspected motivations behind some informers’ legacy cases and community perspectives”. Looking into the future, a unified response toward alleged informants from the UK government or from republican militants is unlikely, Williams and Leahy conclude.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 August 2022 | Permalink

One Response to Decades after end of Northern Irish conflict, the legacy of spies remains obscure

  1. Pete says:

    There is also the simple issue of maintaining privacy for many ex-informants. Many informed or were agents of influence because they wanted peace.

    There is no equivalence with the mentioned “Apartheid and the struggle against it.”. In South Africa there were the “Apartheid-ists” who were clearly in the wrong.

    A clear distinction that was absent from The Troubles which was influenced be religious, ethnic, nationalist, class, imperialist and ideological conflicts in broader UK-Ireland that had been going on for centuries.

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