Thomas Leahy’s The Intelligence War Against the IRA is an important new contribution to the growing, and changing, interpretations of The Troubles. As the title suggests, the main thrust of Leahy’s book is an analysis of the intelligence war that the British security forces, both overt and covert, waged against the IRA.
He evaluates how effective this intelligence was in bringing the IRA’s leaders to the negotiating table. It is a timely book, as it contributes to the interesting subtheme of The Troubles but also, importantly, questions the prevailing orthodoxy that the intelligence war was the key to defeating the IRA.
As Leahy notes in the introduction to the book, the effectiveness of Britain’s intelligence war in Northern Ireland has been the subject of fierce debate among researchers. This is due to almost one significant factor: the discovery of a British agent at the highest levels of the Provisional IRA (PIRA), who was code-named Stakeknife. To many researchers, the use of human intelligence agents stymied the PIRA’s operational activities to such an extent that they had little choice but to negotiate a peace with the British. (1) Leahy successfully challenges this.
Firstly, Leahy supplies ample insight into the various agencies in the Northern Irish intelligence structure and provides a clear analysis of the changes that were made to increase the system’s effectiveness. As Leahy himself states, this can be seen as a clear link to Britain’s counterinsurgencies where intelligence was vital in defeating the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya (1952-60) and resolving the Cyprus Emergency (1955-59). Both instances relied heavily on human intelligence sources to provide inside information to quell the insurgency.
In Northern Ireland, the intelligence structure was streamlined following the introduction of police primacy or ‘Ulsterisation‘ and the Walker Report, which established Tasking and Coordinating Groups (TCGs) and a Director and Coordinator of Intelligence in Northern Ireland (DCI). The TCGs coordinated each intelligence service into a province-wide security strategy, while the DCI acted as a liaison and coordinator between the agencies and the British government. (2)
Accordingly, this intelligence system relied heavily on the collation of human intelligence sources. From the outset of The Troubles, various state agencies had tried to recruit sources in the Republican paramilitaries as well as informants amongst the civilian population, and been generally effective at doing so.
However, as the imprisonment of PIRA operators increased, often through intelligence provided by informants or ‘touts’, senior PIRA prisoners reassessed the organisation and altered its structure. They moved from a militaristic structure of brigades and units to a cellular construct, in theory making it far more difficult for an enemy to infiltrate the PIRA. This is a common observation which is well-supported in the main historiography.
Yet, this is where Leahy differs from current orthodoxy. To some, such as Moloney and Matchett for instance, this re-organisation of the PIRA led to its defeat in the intelligence war, but Leahy moves away from this interpretation. Whilst the PIRA was in its former structure, it was large, unwieldy and open to infiltration because of this. Once Active Service Units (ASUs) were active, though, the circle of knowledge was massively reduced. This contradicts Moloney, who states that once the British agent Stakeknife had become a member of the PIRA’s Internal Security Unit, the security forces not only had a mine of intelligence but a way of sowing discord and eliminating the PIRA’s top operatives. (3) This view is supported by a former Force Research Unit (FRU) operative, Martin Ingram. (4)
In contrast, Leahy convincingly argues that this aspect, and the element of human intelligence, has been overplayed. Using archival material, he counters that the invention of the ASUs had left the PIRA a tighter and far leaner organisation, while agents such as Stakeknife had, in fact, limited powers outside the hubs of Belfast and Derry; their effect on the rural ASUs had very little impact. As well as this, Leahy quotes former Sinn Fein publicist Danny Morrison that, through the cellular structure, ‘the more information they [agents] gave, it became easier for the IRA to work out who was the common denominator’. (5)
Here we come to Leahy’s main divergence to the current narrative. He believes that the PIRA were not actually beaten by the intelligence war. As mentioned above, outside of the ‘hotbeds’ of Republican action, Derry and Belfast, the rural ASUs suffered little, if any, enemy intelligence penetration throughout The Troubles.
It is generally known that Captain Robert Nairac operated in the Armagh area, often disguised as a Republican; to Leahy, instead of showing the effectiveness of the British intelligence effort, it was a reflection of the paucity of information that the security forces held on the area, which became known as ‘Bandit Country’. As Leahy observes, ‘In fact, putting an Oxford graduate such as Nairac undercover in South Armagh suggests that British intelligence was struggling’. This is an opinion it is difficult to disagree with.
In actual fact, it is also hard to dispute that the PIRA were far from being defeated outside of Derry and Belfast. The South Armagh Brigade of the PIRA, for example, were among the most, if not the most, effective of the PIRA’s units. They organised and undertook the Warrenpoint Massacre of 18 British soldiers on 27th August, 1979, as well as the assassination of Lord Mountbatten on the same day. By the late 1980s, they were central in providing the bombs for the PIRA mainland bombing campaign. This was possible, argues Leahy, because it was impossible for the security forces to penetrate the close-knit Republican communities, while the Armagh ASUs were deeply suspicious of the PIRA city operators that they came into contact with. Despite the eventual curtailing of the South Armagh Brigade (most members were killed in an SAS ambush at Loughgall), the activities of rural ASUs did not allow violence in the province to drop to ‘acceptable levels’.
The final argument presented in the book is that The Troubles were eventually brought to a close because of the PIRA leadership’s intentions to pursue political objectives. Here, Leahy argues that much of the violence, with some exceptions, were attempts to bring the British to the negotiating table. Stating that since the mid-1970s, the PIRA had been aware of the British state’s wishes to see an agreement between the Republicans and Loyalists, it was the mandate established by Sinn Fein’s electoral success of the early 1990s that made it impossible to exclude Sinn Fein from the peace negotiations. As Leahy states, talking to the terrorists was far ‘more effective than the intelligence war which had mixed results and did not reduce IRA activity to an acceptable level across Northern Ireland’. (6)
To sum up, Leahy’s book is a great addition to The Troubles canon. It is a well-researched study with a diverse range of secondary material, a wealth of archival evidence and interviews with significant figures on all sides of the conflict. The book offers a compelling reinterpretation of the effectiveness of Britain’s intelligence war against the PIRA, one that disputes that it was a central to bringing the conflict in Northern Ireland to an end. As Churchill famously said, ‘meeting jaw to jaw is better than war’.
Nick Clifton is a PhD student in History at Kingston University, Surrey
(1) Thomas Leahy, The Intelligence War Against the IRA (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), p.2.
(2) Ibid, pp.140-143.
(3) See Ed Moloney, A Secret History of the IRA (London: Penguin, 2007).
(4) See Martin Ingram and Greg Harkin, Stakeknife: Britain’s Secret Agents in Ireland (Dublin: O’Brien, 2004).
(5) Leahy, pp.145-155.
(6) Ibid, pp.236-247.
(Images: Wikimedia Commons)