Gerard Hodgins’ warning in The Guardian that advances in surveillance technology render an armed campaign like that being pursued by dissident republicans impossible in the absence of popular support and that the various dissident republican groups should therefore call a ceasefire makes complete sense. So does his implicit assumption that the dissidents are riddled with informers.
If anything the former IRA activist and hunger striker is probably understating the technological disadvantages that would be suffered these days by armed insurgents facing a modern, advanced state foe.
The Provisional IRA’s campaign was probably doomed by these advances long before the peace process brought it to an end. By the early 1990’s only South Armagh had withstood significant British intelligence penetration – it was the reason why all the big blockbuster bombings of London were organised from there. But one could have predicted that in a very short time the use of drones, especially miniaturized drones, would have rendered the area completely vulnerable to British domination. The British would have been able to spy at will and take out active service units whenever they wished with devastating consequences for capability and morale. With that the IRA’s war would truly have been over.
Hodgins is also right about the role of informers in this story, but this is where it all becomes complicated.
There is no doubt in my mind that in the years before the 1994 IRA ceasefire, the republican movement was hopelessly undermined by agents within its ranks. Without compromising any sources I can say with complete confidence that at this time British intelligence’s own estimate was that one in three IRA members were working for one or other branch of Britain’s spying apparatus, either MI5, British military intelligence or the RUC Special Branch.
So badly infiltrated was the IRA that one could justifiably ask the question: who was really taking the decisions, the Army Council or the British government?
Common sense and a rudimentary knowledge of intelligence methods would tell you that when the IRA split in 1996 and the McKevitt faction walked out, a very large number of British agents in the mainstream IRA would have been ordered by their handlers to join the new group and when the Real IRA itself split, to spread out amongst the various sub-groups that have multiplied in number since. And once in place the agents would provide information that could lead to the recruitment of others; and like an amoeba endlessly dividing soon there would be agents everywhere inside the dissidents.
Not to have done this would have been egregious incompetence on the part of the British spymasters.
This undoubtedly means, as Hodgins suggests, that not only do the British know all there is to know about the dissidents but that they are also probably controlling them as well and deciding which directions they should take.
It is here that the issue of calling a ceasefire becomes problematic.
If, as one is entitled to believe, the British effectively control the dissident groups why don’t they just edge them towards a ceasefire and end the violence? Clearly they haven’t done that although they could. It is now nearly a decade after the St Andrew’s Agreement, over fifteen years since the Good Friday Agreement, eighteen since the Real IRA split and twenty since the first IRA ceasefire and still it hasn’t happened.
So why not? Gerard Hodgins provides one answer himself, which is that the existence of the dissidents helps Sinn Fein win votes on the basis that as long as they are kept politically strong, the Provos will act as a bulwark against returning to the bad old days, something very few Nationalists want. And dissident violence can also be a helpful distraction from the perceived disappointments and shortfalls of the peace process. Surely the British agencies, invested in the process as they are, would approve.
So strategically, it makes sense for MI5 and military intelligence (police intelligence seems to be out of the picture these days after the fall of the Special Branch) to keep the dissidents going: the policy gives Nationalists a very good reason to vote for the peaceful republicans and blocks the emergence of political opposition to the Provos, something that could be far more threatening than dissident bombs.
There is another more mundane but no less potent obstacle in the way of a ceasefire and this one exists on the dissident side of the equation. If British intelligence has penetrated these groups to anything like the extent they did with the Provos then there are an awful lot of these guys picking up a weekly pay check for doing something that is probably not all that dangerous.
In the days of the Provisional IRA, the British made sure that they had an excess of agents inside the Internal Security Unit which had the task of hunting down British spies. That way they would know if the IRA was on to any of their agents and take appropriate action, such as ensuring that someone else was blamed. They have probably done the same with the dissidents, assuming any of them have even bothered creating spycatcher units. Anyway the informer in the ranks can be pretty sure that one way or another, MI5 has his or her back.
So if you are picking up a nice sum of money for doing something that is not terribly dangerous and can often be quite exciting and you get to meet people who regard you as being important, would you want to give it all up, especially when the alternative would be living as a nobody with no money and no status in Ardoyne or Ballymurphy? I don’t think so.