Regular readers of this blog will know that I am no great fan of British spooks, either of the RUC/PSNI variety or the British Army/MI5 sort. Nor do I have much time for their Provo/Loyalist counterparts.
Whether British or Irish, government or subversive, the scheming, dirty-dealing and secrecy that often characterises their work in the dark shadows of conflicts is the antithesis of the work that journalists do, or at least say they do/try to do. We want to know what is really going on; they will do their utmost to prevent us finding out. Or, worse, they will try to exploit, mislead and use us.
So dear reader, you will be surprised to read a few lines here in praise of Robert Hannigan who today announced his resignation as the head of GCHQ, the British government’s electronic and cyber spying agency. Apparently his wife is ill and both his parents are aged and in need of care and so he has given up his job to take on the burden of ensuring their well-being.
I wish him and his family well in the coming weeks and months.
While I would be delighted to be given the opportunity to rummage around GCHQ’s offices and computer files, let me be clear about one thing: I abhor the work that GCHQ does. This is not because I do not believe there are circumstances where such electronic spying is necessary, because there are.
No, it is because with such sweeping and largely unaccountable power comes the very real possibility of abuse and the subversion of democracy. Edward Snowden has courageously made this case and exposed the leaders of GCHQ’s American equivalent, the NSA, as liars and scoundrels.
But even the most dubious of organisations can be led by men of principle and integrity and I know from experience that Robert Hannigan was one.
Back before he worked at Downing Street and then for GCHQ, Hannigan was in charge of media relations at the Northern Ireland Office in Belfast. I encountered him first when I moved to New York in 2001 and for a year or so continued to write about the North from the US for The Sunday Tribune.
We never actually met face-to-face in those days but spoke regularly on the phone. In 2001 the peace process was still making its weary and seemingly endless journey to the St Andrews’ deal. The Assembly was shaky, a stable, working Executive more an aspiration than a reality, and there were more crises in the pipeline, amongst them bank robberies, spy-rings and IRA killings.
The arrangement was fragile to say the least.
It was at this point that myself and the Tribune were sued for libel over a story that I had filed from New York, the only time in my journalistic career that I was pursued in such a way.
The legal case eventually made it to court in Belfast and I turned up to give evidence. The Tribune was in its post-Vincent Browne phase at the time and but for that I am sure that my advice to fight the case would have been taken.
But the Independent group had a vice-like grip on the paper by this stage and the Indo had a policy of never fighting libel cases, no matter the damage done to the institution or its employees, or the strength of the case it could present.
So, I arrived to find no-one from the Tribune office in court. The responsible executive at the paper had suddenly discovered an urgent medical appointment in Dublin and I was left alone to face what came next.
Except I wasn’t quite alone. Robert Hannigan had turned up to tell me that he was ready to give evidence on behalf of the Tribune, to back up my story and to reveal to the court that he had been its source. (Needless to say, I was not going to reveal this myself)
He needn’t have done that, and if he had not turned up that day, I would not have complained. But he did.
That was a brave and principled thing to do, for which I have always been grateful. A decent man, doing an honorable thing.
And I will admit, it even persuaded me to look at GCHQ with a slightly kinder eye during the two-and-a-bit years he headed the agency, knowing it was led by such a person.