Review of Agents of Influence: Britain’s Secret Intelligence War Against the IRA
By James Stejskal
Agents of Influence: Britain’s Secret Intelligence War Against the IRA
by Aaron Edwards, Newbridge, Merrion Press, 2021, 294 pp. ISBN: 9781785373411, $21.95
The security situation in today’s Northern Ireland is rather placid in comparison with the Troubles of the 1970s and 1980s. That said, hot-button issues like BREXIT have reignited fears of unrest and violence. The threat to peace remains high.
Enter Aaron Edwards’ new book, which takes a detailed look at the importance of intelligence in the United Kingdom’s war against the IRA. Edwards is a senior lecturer with the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, author of UVF: Behind the Mask and co-author of Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law: Aden and the End of Empire. The author brings a wealth of academic expertise to the subject and with this book he lays bare the treachery, subterfuge, and danger of undercover work in Northern Ireland alongside the contributions it made to the peace process.
Agents of Influence presents Edward’s controversial contention that secret intelligence contributed much to bringing about the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. It is a difficult view to take and is contrary to the beliefs of several scholars who have written that both sides were open to negotiations all along. Thomas Leahy for one suggests the IRA was not forced into peace by British intelligence.
Edwards takes another view. He believes secret intelligence acted as a lever to subtly push the Republican leadership towards peace. He details how intelligence operations supported the UK’s overall political strategy through the use of “agents of influence.” The intelligence war did not get off to a good start, however. As Edwards details, with the resumption of violence in 1969, the UK’s varied security services including MI5, Army Intelligence, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s Special Branch waged a largely uncoordinated and competing effort against the IRA (as well as the Loyalist UVF) that was handicapped by jealousies and infighting. This only subsided when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sternly instructed them to work together, although Edwards thinks some competition remained until the 1990s.
Edwards begins the book by outlining the creation of the Tasking Coordinating Group (TCG) and the appointment of retired SIS Director Maurice Oldfield as Security Coordinator in Belfast as a critical component to a new intelligence-led strategy. He does a very good job of explaining the convoluted world of the UK’s inter-intelligence agency politics and the success the new strategy had on tactical operations against the IRA, while also showing the Republican response and the increased threat it posed both in the North and in Britain and against British Forces stationed in Europe in the 1980s.
The book’s major contribution is its description of the human aspects of intelligence operations, essentially the agent handling involved with the UK’s supergrass strategy. A supergrass in British parlance is an informant, a polite form of what the locals would call a “tout,” a member of an illegal organization who turns over evidence to the police. While the use of informants is often controversial and sometimes problematic, there was another aspect to the program that Edwards says worked well. That was the use of well-placed volunteers who had become disenchanted with the movement to influence the IRA’s leadership in ways that would maneuver them towards peace. He does this through excellent use of declassified documents and interviews with the former agents and their handlers who played roles in the process.
One of the most interesting agents was Willie Carlin, aka Agent 3007. Carlin became an informant after the murder of a census taker, a young single mother. Carlin would eventually get close to IRA Chief of Staff Martin McGuinness, whom Carlin allegedly persuaded to adopt a political strategy that moved him away from military action. Other agents appear in varying measure, and their work often led to tactical successes on the ground such as the thwarted IRA attack on the Loughgall Police Station.
There were failures as well and Edwards details several, including the killing of three known, but unarmed IRA operatives in Gibraltar by the UK Special Air Service. Whether justified or not, such mistakes cost the UK in the eyes of Europe and gave the IRA propaganda victories.
This reader would have liked to have seen descriptions of any deception operations that may or may have not been used against the IRA, but probably those details are probably still locked up by the Official Secrets Act. Details on the less successful intelligence operations of the early 1970s would have been useful, especially those of General Sir Frank Kitson’s disastrous Military Reconnaissance Force, an experiment that tried to use tactics first pioneered by Kitson in Kenya but which were ill-suited for Northern Ireland.
As to the question of their effectiveness, like Edwards, I believe that agents of influence made valuable contributions to, if not resolving the conflict, at least bringing it to the peace tablet. If, as some say, the war was at an impasse and both sides were open to negotiations, undercover operatives working behind the scenes were still important to strengthen the hand of IRA leaders who saw that a political resolution was preferable to continued conflict.
This book highlights a difficult and contentious period of UK history. With great detail and accuracy, Edwards has given us an important account with deep insights into how a coordinated intelligence program was key to containing the IRA. One wonders if UK policy-makers have continued such operations to forestall future violence. If not, they should.