As long as Britain has been involved in Ireland it has bought or cajoled or intimidated some people into acting as their eyes and ears, their spies and spooks, and advocates. Some of these do so because it suits their own politics and prejudices. But the end result is that citizens die and freedom is denied.
These strategies are not unique to Ireland or indeed to the British. They are as old as wars. However, in the most recent period of conflict their use became an indispensible part of Britain’s counter insurgency strategy in Ireland. As I have recorded in these columns before the foremost counter-insurgency stratgist was the British Army’s Frank Kitson. When he arrived in Belfast in 1970 he set about restructuring the RUC and British Army approach based on his experiences in post second world war British colonial wars.
The British Army brought with it the techniques of torture; of counter-gangs; of propaganda, and of media and political manipulation. The key objective for Kitson, and for others in the British intelligence and security services, was to reshape the government, the law, the judiciary and the media to defeat Irish republicanism. It didn’t matter how this was done or what the consequences were.
Kitson who served in many of Britain’s counter-insurgency campaigns wrote: ‘The fundamental concept is the working of the triumvirate, civil, military and police, as a joint and integrated organisation from the highest to the lowest level of policy making, planning and administration.’
For example Kitson rationalised the use of death squads and the corruption of justice: ‘Everything done by a government and its agents in combating insurgency must be legitimate. But this does not mean that the government must work within exactly the same set of laws during an emergency as existed beforehand. The law should be used as just another weapon in the government’s arsenal, in which case it becomes little more than a propaganda cover for the disposal of unwanted members of the public.’
Of course, he wasn’t the first to apply these arguments. The stories of spooks and spies, of agents and informers working for the British state during the centuries of Ireland’s long struggle for freedom are legion. An informer called Owen O’Connally gave information to the British during the 1641 rebellion that led to the arrest and executions of two of the leaders, Lord Maguire and Colonel McMahon. Money was his reward.
The 1798 rebellion by the United Irish movement was bedevilled with informers. Many are named in the history of that period. Men like Leonard McNally and Samuel Turner and Thomas Reynolds were informers. In his ‘History of the Irish Rebellion of 1798’ WH Maxwell writes: ‘The prisons were crowded with persons denounced by those infamous informers, Armstrong and Reynolds, Dutton and Newell, with a list of subordinate villains acting under the direction of police agents, themselves steeped deeper in iniquity than the perjured wretches they suborned … Numbers, innocent in most cases, through the instrumentality of those bad men, were brought hourly to the scaffold.’
In later years agents and informers remained an integral part of Britain’s colonial class in Ireland in their efforts to subvert the Young Irelanders; the Fenians; the Land League and Charles Stewart Parnell.
It was the evidence of Pierce Nagle, who met Chief Inspector Mallon each week in Dublin Castle that led to the arrest of the Fenian leaders O’Donovan Rossa, John O’Leary and others. It was also at this time that the Special Branch was established. Mayo man Michael Davitt, leader of the Land League, recorded some of the actions of the spies and spooks at work against the tens of thousands seeking land reform. In his book, ‘The Informer’s’ by Andrew Boyd writes: ‘Davitt accused the British government of employing terrorists to lure young Irishmen in political crime and them have them arrested, imprisoned and even hanged’.
The Tan War saw the use of agents and informers increase enormously as the British sought to defeat the IRA. For its part the IRA dealt with such spies ruthlessly. Michael Collins execution of 14 British agents on the morning of Sunday November 21st is one of the best remembered actions of that period. But there were hundreds of others killed as informers. One occasion two IRA volunteers brought one man out onto a river and drowned him rather than shoot him.
In the most recent decades of conflict the application by MI5 and the RUC Special Branch and British Military intelligence of evolving and increasingly complex technologies to listen, record, monitor, track and trap their enemy became an essential element in all of this. Recent court cases show that this is still going on.
Forty years ago these same organisations were involved in the establishment of armed loyalist paramilitary groups which they then supplied with information and weapons to kill Irish citizens and foment sectarian strife.
The recent publication by the British Secretary of State Theresa Villiers of the MI5 report into allegations of paramilitarism but specially the IRA, is an example of how the use by Britain of agent provocateurs, and of spies and spooks continues. The political exploitation of this report to attack Sinn Féin, especially by some elements of the Dublin based media, is also evidence of the deep desire on the part of some to use any excuse to criticise republicans. They are unconcerned about the bone fides of the authors.
So, the fact that MI5 has been involved in the murder of countless hundreds of Irish citizens, including those murdered by the Dublin-Monaghan bombs, and has no credibility as an independent source, is deemed irrelevant.
One contemporary example of this emerged within days of the publication of the panel report. The Public Prosecution Service in Belfast revealed that it was initiating a major investigation into the role of an MI5 agent – named Stakeknife – and his alleged involvement in the murders of between 24 and 40 people. Critically this investigation will also examine the roles of all of those in the RUC Special Branch and MI5 who were involved in running Stakeknife.
But Stakeknife was not alone. MI5 and other British security agencies ran hundreds of agents. Whether it was people like Mark Haddock, a loyalist serial killer in north Belfast, or those who murdered human rights lawyer Pat Finucane, MI5, British Military Intelligence and the RUC colluded in the murder of citizens.
Today there are still some in those organisations who believe that the peace process was wrong. That it was possible to defeat the IRA. And who resent deeply the growth and popularity of Sinn Féin.
In my view the report from Theresa Villiers was and is primarily aimed at undermining the political institutions and the Good Friday Agreement. It is regrettable but not surprising that elements of the Irish political establishment and sections of the Irish media are willing to exploit this specious report to attack Sinn Féin.