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.
The security agencies also have a powerful incentive to keep the conflict simmering – their budgets. If the threat lessens there is also less reason to appropriate money for MI5 and the other spooks.
I completely agree that the advances in technology-based surveillance and intelligence-gathering witnessed over the last three decades contributed significantly towards the dramatic reduction in (P)IRA’s operational freedoms in the late 1980s and early ’90s. These were the sort of advances that only a nation-state could have invested in and if the conflict had continued a process of trial-and-error would have made them all the more effective. Likewise it is clear that the contemporary would-be Republican Resistance has yet to grasp the importance of technology in the ongoing insurgency/counter-insurgency struggle (if we can title it as such). Indeed they seem almost wilfully ignorant of it and some carry on as if 2014 was 1974 (which may be attributable to the generation of people at the leadership level).
One can also agree that there was a very significant penetration of (P)IRA ranks with British agents, spies and informers, by the mid-1990s. However the oft-repeated “one-in-three” claim by the popular media is surely an exaggeration? Hurst/Ingram has been peddling this line for years, starting with “one-in-twenty” and now upping it to “one-in-three” for tabloid edification but does anyone really buy into it? Out of any 300 Volunteers at least 100 were British agents?
The conspiracy theory behind the continued existence of the so-called Dissidents is another favoured theme in populist media and some Republican circles (not least amongst some Sinn Féin members) but does it really stand up to scrutiny? Dissidents as a safety valve for the Nationalist community, a way for the frustrated to blow off steam while generating votes for SF with the imprimatur of Military Intelligence and MI5? Convoluted to say the least.
One could just as easily argue that the post-Agreement claims of Britain’s counter-intelligence successes against (P)IRA in the 1980s-90s and the Dissidents in the 1990-2000s in terms of “human assets” is simply part of a broader British counter-insurgency strategy, one designed to sow misinformation, fear and mistrust amongst Republicans in general and active military Republicans in particular. It is more to do with rewriting the past and deterring a Republican future than anything else.
As for the not terribly dangerous pastime of being an informer? Even in the weakened and confused state they are in Dissident Republicans still have the capacity to uncover spies in their ranks, even if just by accident or carelessness on someone’s part. And the penalty for that is not a slap on the wrist. Though admittedly those who claim to hold the Fenian flame at the moment seem more intent on killing or maiming each other for reasons financial or personal than anything else.
i don’t know where the popular media get their estimate of IRA penetration by the british but i know where i got mine and it is ironclad as you can get – you would readily concede this were i able to tell you. so how many informers have the dissidents caught in the near twenty years since the real ira split? i don’t think you understand what i was saying. not that the dissidents are a safety valve but because their recipe is so unwelcome and disliked by nationalists they will vote for the provos to ensure the dissidents remain small and insignificant and that is good from the vantage of supporters of the peace process which presumably include british intelligence.
On the variable estimates of British agents in (P)IRA ranks pre-1994 I accept your superior access to those in the know. Based upon my own knowledge I would say that the number is higher than (P)IRA will “officially” admit and lower than the British claim. I would however say that the number of agents increased dramatically after the ’94 ceasefire, particularly post-1996 (as one now elderly person described the self-inflicted damage to me “It was another 1975 but this time with no way out”).
Animosity towards Dissident actions spurring continued political support for SF as part of the Stormont administration is a more complicated reason for the British to tolerate a low-level, barely credible insurgency. I’m sceptical, if for no reason its inherent dangers. So many variables, so many opportunities for it to spin out of control. If the British really are playing that game then they are playing with fire. Competing ideological interpretations, personal vendettas, the lure of criminality and financial gain may have crippled the Dissident movements but their very existence provides a fertile soil in which future revolutionary republican seeds could take root.
It may be a simplification and something of a cliché to say so but al-Qaeda grew in part from the Arab Mujahideen groupings encouraged to travel to Afghanistan in the 1980s. And who were the ones who funded that movement, who subsidised its growth and development, who thought they exercised the levers of power and control yet ultimately paid the price for their own hubris?
I agree with Hodgkins that dissident republican groups should call a ceasefire–and as you so well said–because of infiltration and advanced technology, their strategy is doomed. Their outmoded kind of war cannot be won. They are clinging to a past that saw little gains politically–their idealism is misguided and completely unrealistic. The dissidents don’t seem to grasp where the real power is. And that is, to get what they want-they need to become part of the political process until gradually they infiltrate and become the dominant political party.–.inching towards a united Ireland. All the hunger strikes of the past accomplished nothing other than romantic martyrs for the cause. Only when Bobby Sands was elected to Parliament on his death bed.—were real political gains made.
This is where the future of surveillance lies. Its not good news for anyone 😦 http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/apocalypse-new-jersey-a-dispatch-from-americas-most-desperate-town-20131211