During the night of 11th October, 1972, three armed men broke into the house of Noel Curran, manager of a branch of the Allied Irish Bank on Grafton St., Dublin. Securing Curran’s family as hostages, the armed men drove Curran to the bank and forced him to let members of staff enter as they arrived for work, imprisoning them in the bank’s strongroom.
The gang then began filling bags with cash. They would escape with over £67,000, at that time the largest cash robbery in Ireland’s history. Some of the stolen cash was found shortly afterwards at an address in Drumcondra, and the Gardai issued arrest warrants for a pair of English brothers, Kenneth and Keith Littlejohn.
This was not surprising. The older of the Littlejohn brothers, 27-year old Kenneth, had a history of armed robberies in England and was wanted in connection with a 1965 Birmingham wages snatch. The brothers were also allegedly involved with the Official IRA (OIRA), though speculation on both sides of the Irish Sea linked the robbery with the OIRA’s Republican rival, the Provisional IRA (PIRA). However, the truth is almost as unbelievable as a Hollywood movie.
Indeed, suspicions that the Allied Bank robbery was not what it appeared to be were raised when the extradition proceedings against the Littlejohn brothers were, unusually, held in camera. These suspicions were heightened when Kenneth began to make bizarre statements that he and his brother were not just common-or-garden bank robbers but secret agents working for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.
According to Kenneth’s authorized version, he had been recruited to MI6 through Keith’s professional relationship with Lady Onslow, who was friend of Lord Carrington (pictured), Defence Minister in Edward Heath’s Conservative government, 1970-74.
Allegedly, during a business trip to Kerry, Kenneth Littlejohn had been offered a Russian AK47 rifle that had apparently been landed as part of an arms shipment supplied by Russia. Fearing a communist influence on the growing events in Ulster, Littlejohn had rushed back to England in the hope of informing Lord Carrington of this perturbing event. Though Littlejohn did not actually meet Carrington, he claims representatives recruited him into MI6, under the control of the experienced agent Douglas Smythe.
The Littlejohn brothers established themselves in the border country of Ireland and, with Smythe’s secret direction and assistance, they infiltrated the OIRA. Kenneth Littlejohn claims that not only did Smythe direct the brothers to attack Gardai stations in Castlebellingham and Louth with petrol bombs and stage a riot in Dundalk, but also supplied them with weapons.
It is not difficult to see that Kenneth and Keith Littlejohn (pictured) were being directed in the pursuit of two ends. The first was to infiltrate the OIRA to gain information and disrupt the group’s operations. Indeed, Kenneth Littlejohn made claims that he was involved in planning the assassinations of two senior commanders of the OIRA, as well as the PIRA’s Chief of Staff, Sean MacStiofan, almost certainly to further diminish relations between the two Republican groups.
However, it is the probable secondary function of the Littlejohns’ operation that made it more incendiary. By engaging in armed robberies, firebombing Gardai stations and generally running amok throughout the Republic of Ireland, it increasingly pressurised the Irish Government to act against paramilitary Republican groups, particularly through the proscription of the OIRA and PIRA, as well as the introduction of internment in Eire.
Internment, which had successfully stymied the IRA’s Border campaign (1956-62), had been in effect in Northern Ireland since Operation Demetrius had been launched on 9th August, 1971. As Eire had refused to use internment, it had failed to be effective in Northern Ireland. Clearly, the Littlejohns were, as both the PIRA and OIRA stated when denying involvement in the Allied Bank robbery, agent provocateurs.
Further intrigue followed the Littejohns’ handler: Douglas Smythe was also MI6 officer John Wyman (see pic) and he appears to have been, to some extent, controlling MI6 assets in Eire. Thus, besides the Littlejohn brothers, Wyman had developed a high-level asset in the Gardai itself, Derek Crinnion.
Crinnion was private secretary to the head of the Gardai Special Branch, John Fleming, and he had access to a veritable smorgasbord of high-level intelligence; ten top secret files were found concealed in his car, and even more were found in his home following his arrest. The dismantling of this spy ring was precipitated by the arrest of a third man, Alexander Forsey, who had infiltrated the IRA but was captured trying to free Sean MacStiofan from the Mater Hospital during the latter’s hunger strike.
The story does, however, become even darker. On Friday, 1st December, 1972, two car bombs exploded in central Dublin, 18 minutes apart, killing two people and injuring at least 100 more. Coincidently, the bombs exploded as the Dail was debating the Offences against the State (Amendment) Bill. This Bill was thought to be unlikely to pass as there was general opposition to some of its draconian clauses. However, after an hour’s recess following the double bomb blast, the Bill was voted on to the statute book. After the initial shock had passed, Irish opinion came to believe that the British were involved in these dramatic occurrences. Even Taoiseach Jack Lynch implied that the British intelligence services could be responsible.
After the events involving British intelligence in the Republic and the fact that two bombs exploded while the Dail was debating a Bill that would be hugely beneficial to the British, it is hard not to conceive that there could indeed have been British duplicity and influence behind the bombings. Significantly, the Barron Report into the Dublin bombings between 1972 and 1974 did not discount British involvement, and anecdotal evidence suggests that Loyalist paramilitaries planted the bombs with the assistance of British military sources, such as Capt. Robert Nairac.
Crucially, at the time, the press reported that numerous British officials had admitted that the Littlejohn brothers had been employed by MI6 during their time in Ireland, but the extent of Smythe’s/Wyman’s work in Ireland was obscured. It is hard to disagree with investigative writer Martin Dillon’s opinion that ‘The Troubles’ is a bit of a misnomer – it really was a Dirty War.
Nick Clifton is a PhD student in History at Kingston University, Surrey
(Images: Wikimedia Commons and Dublin City Council)