Was Martin McGuinness A British Agent? – Toby Harnden Asks The Question

This article was originally published in The Sunday Times (Irish Edition) and reprinted in Real Clear Politics. Enjoy:

McGuinness: The Slippery Shadow in Irish Dirty War

By Toby Harnden
March 31, 2017

Towards the end of my time as a reporter in Northern Ireland I had a dream in which I was opening an envelope. In it, I had been told, was a list of all the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries who had been secret agents for the British intelligence services.

Even in the dream it felt as if all my senses were tingling in anticipation of being given the key to unlocking the greatest mysteries and contradictions of the Irish Troubles. But when I took the piece of paper out and unfolded it, it was blank.

That was in the late 1990s. I had a similar sense of anticlimax when — nearly 18 years on — the death of Martin McGuinness at the age of 66 was announced last week.

There were the inevitable salutes, cloaked in a green mist, to his status as a sainted Irish revolutionary hero. And of course the equally predictable condemnations of him as a blood-soaked terrorist who should rot in hell.

Between these extremes was the comfortable narrative of the type beloved by western liberals that here was a man of violence who laid down his gun and instead took up the cause of peace and democracy in a Damascene conversion.

None of this contributed much more to any greater understanding of what happened in the Troubles than the blank piece of paper in my dream.

Irish republicans never underwent a moral transformation. Their pursuit of a united Ireland involved both slaughter and negotiation.

In fact the two things were always inextricably linked. The “Tuas” doctrine drawn up after the 1994 ceasefire stood for “tactical use of the armed struggle” and not — as some naive British officials hoped — “totally unarmed strategy”.

Neither the brickbats nor the bouquets did much justice to the immense complexity of McGuinness’s career. He graduated from being a butcher’s apprentice in Derry to a fearless IRA fighter before becoming a de facto commander who occupied every senior IRA position.

Ultimately he became the chief negotiator for the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, playing a central role in brokering the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which ushered in a flawed peace. Perhaps most remarkably he struck up a genuine rapport with Ian Paisley, Ulster’s erstwhile “Dr No”, as the unlikely duo — dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers” — co-governed the province’s six counties.

That’s not all. Just as most news reports of McGuinness’s passing omitted the fact that he had been part of the IRA army council that ordered the 1996 South Quay bombing in London’s Docklands, they also ignored one of the central questions about him.

Put bluntly, if that piece of paper in my dream had not been blank, would the name Martin McGuinness have been on it?

On the face of it the very notion is preposterous. As leader of the IRA’s Derry Brigade after Bloody Sunday in 1972, McGuinness had almost certainly killed dozens of British soldiers and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers.

While Gerry Adams’s operational experience as an IRA volunteer had been minimal, McGuinness was a military man, respected and feared in equal measure.

The case that McGuinness was a British agent — opinion is divided as to whether it was MI5 or MI6 — is mainly circumstantial but has been longstanding and propounded by a variety of diverse figures. Over the past 15 years it has become clear that the Provisionals were thoroughly infiltrated by the British state.

In 2003 Alfredo Scappaticci, known as Freddie or “Scap” and head of the IRA’s infamous “nutting squad” that interrogated and murdered informers, was himself unmasked as an informer. Codenamed “Stakeknife”, he had been in the pay of the British since 1978.

A little over two years later, it was the turn of Denis Donaldson, a senior Sinn Fein aide and confidant of Adams who had worked for the RUC and MI5 for two decades. He was shot dead by the IRA at a farmhouse in Co Donegal a few months later.

Since the 1999 publication of my book Bandit Country: The IRA and South Armagh, I have received confirmation that the April 1997 arrest by the SAS of an IRA sniper team was based on information provided by an informer that led to listening devices being planted at a remote farm.

The arrest operation at the farm was a pivotal event in undermining the IRA’s military campaign and boosting the case being made by Adams and McGuinnese that political talks were the way ahead.

Any doubt that men at the heart of the republican movement responsible for continued murder and mayhem could have been British agents had vanished.

Despite his military record McGuinness had long been a proponent of negotiations. Sean MacStiofain, the Provisional IRA’s first chief of staff, claimed to Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA man who served 18 years in jail, that McGuinness was lobbying for a ceasefire as far back as 1972.

A declassified British military document carried an account of a meeting in May 1973 between two of the most senior British Army officers involved in the Troubles during which the existence of a source, apparently named “Brocolli”.

General Sir Frank King, who commanded British troops in Northern Ireland from February 1973 and August 1975 and General Sir David Fraser, Vice Chief of the General Staff, were apparently concerned about “the problem” of the source’s protection.

Brian Keenan, the veteran IRA leader who died of cancer in 2008, suspected that McGuinness had set him up for arrest at a roadblock in 1979. Keenan was wanted at the time and was suspicious that McGuinness had flagged him down shortly beforehand, alerting the security forces to the car he was in.

In his powerful book A Secret History of the IRA, Ed Moloney, a veteran journalist with unrivalled Provisional contacts, laid out details of the charmed life that McGuinness led while he promoted men suspected of being informers and IRA operations that he oversaw were infiltrated.

Eight IRA men were killed in an SAS ambush at Loughgall, Co Armagh, in 1987, the biggest death toll for the organisation in any single incident since 1921. Those who perished were regarded as being among the most militant members of the IRA, whose East Tyrone Brigade was adamantly opposed to the talks strategy being drawn up by Adams and McGuinness.

Somehow the IRA plan to blow up an RUC station had been completely compromised, although it’s possible that it was electronic surveillance rather than treachery that led to the SAS operation.

The previous year, the IRA’s Northern Command had been given the power to vet planned attacks to avoid them conflicting with Sinn Fein’s political plans. The head of Northern Command was none other than McGuinness.

One of the most notorious atrocities of the Troubles was the “human bomb” attack on the Coshquin checkpoint in 1990. Patsy Gillespie, 42, a Catholic canteen worker at Fort George army base, was abducted at his home in Derry and ordered to drive a lorry loaded with explosives to the checkpoint.

Rather than allowing Gillespie time to escape, as had been previous IRA practice, the bomb was detonated by remote control as he reached the checkpoint. Five soldiers were killed and the largest part of Gillespie’s body to be recovered was part of his hand.

In an IRA statement authorised by McGuinness, who had approved the operation, Gillespie was described as having deserved death because he had been “a part of the British war machine”.

In 2006 a former British soldier using the pseudonym Martin Ingram, who had been an informant handler in the army’s Force Research Unit (FRU), produced the transcript of a tape that he said was an intercepted conversation between McGuinness — codenamed J118 — and “G”, an MI6 officer.

During their conversation the two men talked about the upcoming Coshquin attack, which appeared to be the MI6 officer’s idea.

The murder of Gillespie caused an entirely predictable uproar even among Catholics normally supportive of the IRA. The attack had been approved by McGuinness and the IRA leadership.

“One thing can be said with certainty,” Moloney wrote. “The human bomb tactic fortified the peace camp within the Provisionals and weakened the militarists.”

Could MI6 really have colluded in the slaughter of five British soldiers in order to nudge the IRA towards peace? It seems far-fetched. But the Troubles were not described as “the dirty war” for nothing.

Certainly on occasion the British authorities were prepared to arrange murders for what was judged to be a greater good.

During research Bandit Country I established that the IRA bomb maker Paddy Flood, who was nicknamed “warhead” and was killed as an informer by the IRA in 1990, had been set up by the British to protect another informer, Martin Hogan, a senior Derry IRA man.

Flood, subjected to a brutal interrogation in a south Armagh barn, had given a false confession. His body was found dumped in a bin bag on the border.

A year later Hogan was spirited away from Derry by his handlers and given a new identity abroad.

The Coshquin attack effectively marked the end of the road for the IRA in Derry— the five soldiers who died that day were its last military victims.

Derry’s IRA brigade had been riddled with informers. Among them was Frank Hegarty, shot dead in 1986 after being lured home by McGuinness with a promise of immunity. The more suspicious in the brigade noted Hegarty had been promoted by McGuinness though there had been rumours he might have been a British agent.

It was notable, moreover, that the IRA was effectively shut down in Derry long before it was neutralised elsewhere — and that the senior commander there was McGuinness.

Raymond Gilmour was a Derry IRA informer who fled the city in 1982 and died of apparent natural causes at the age of 56 in Kent last year. He once used to wake up screaming after nightmares that McGuinness was about to shoot him but later concluded that the future Sinn Fein chief negotiator was, like him, a British agent.

Adams and McGuinness seemed to have calculated as early as the 1980s that the Irish war was destined to be a stalemate

“I could never understand how I was allowed to run so long and do so much damage,” he said in 2006. “Now I can see McGuinness was looking out for me.”

Around the same time, a former RUC Special Branch officer told The Sunday Times that McGuinness had been an informer codenamed “Fisherman”.

What could have motivated McGuinness to betray the IRA? Adams was always openly hostile towards me, a journalist with the pro-unionist, conservative Daily Telegraph. The first words he spoke to me when I challenged him on his assertion that he had no idea what the IRA was thinking were the distinctly menacing: “Who are you?”

Officially The Daily Telegraph did not talk to Sinn Fein in those days — though I regularly met IRA members as part of my book research in south Armagh — and Sinn Fein would speak to the British government but not The Daily Telegraph.

McGuinness and I would exchange glances and he would nod at me, as if to acknowledge that he knew the way things were. Years later we met at a St Patrick’s Day event in Washington and he shook my hand warmly. He was enjoying his role as deputy first minister — a minister of the British
crown — and was full of bonhomie.

One intriguing nugget in the late Liam Clarke’s definitive biography Martin McGuinness: From Guns to Government, a biography he co-wrote with his wife, Kathryn Johnston, was that McGuinness was “prone to attacks of depression, which were sometimes severe . . . they were followed by fits of elation”.

Such a vulnerability — or others we may not have known about — could have provided the intelligence agencies with leverage.

The most plausible theory perhaps is that while he was never in the pay of the British, he — along with Adams — was regarded as an “agent of influence” by MI5 and MI6, a force for encouraging the Provisionals to move towards politics.

After all, the pair had been involved in political talks with British officials and MI6 at Cheyne Walk, in London’s Chelsea, in 1972. As the Troubles wore on, it seemed increasingly that they were being protected by the British government for fear of them being supplanted by more militaristic figures.

Detective Superintendent Ian Phoenix, head of the RUC’s surveillance unit, who was killed in the 1994 Chinook helicopter crash at Mull of Kintyre, wrote in his diaries that surveillance of McGuinness and other Sinn Fein leaders was curtailed in 1993, a decision he viewed to be a result of political pressure.

If the political will had been there, a criminal conviction on charges of directing terrorism would have been a virtual inevitability.

In 1998 Mickey Donnelly, a veteran Derry republican who had been critical of the Good Friday agreement, was subjected to a vicious beating as punishment for his dissent. Donnelly’s wife, Martina, confronted McGuinness on his doorstep, telling him he was a “traitor” to the cause of Irish unity.

Donnelly commented: “It shows that McGuinness and some of his henchmen are a protected species: they are safe from arrest as long as they do not attack the British forces or the loyalists.”

In 2009 McGuinness himself referred to dissident republicans as “traitors to the island of Ireland” for the murder of Stephen Carroll, a Catholic police officer shot dead by the Real IRA in Co Armagh. It was the type of IRA operation he would have considered routine 20 years earlier.

Adams and McGuinness seemed to have calculated as early as the 1980s that the Irish war was destined to be a stalemate. The IRA was too compromised and contained to achieve victory but its capacity to bomb England meant the British were prepared to make huge concessions.

By persuading the British that the cure for the disease — the Troubles — was disengagement, they might actually bring about what the disease itself could not. That, at least, is what supporters of Adams and McGuinness believe.

The alternative is that one or both of them were co-opted, even recruited, by the British state to subvert the IRA’s aims. If so, then some of those now condemning McGuinness as an unrepentant terrorist might have to revise their opinions. Irish republicans would regard him as a figure of infamy.

But the likelihood is that the paper in that dreamt-of envelope will always remain blank, or at least incomplete.

Asked about McGuinness’s death last week, Gillespie’s widow, Kathleen, said she had always wanted answers but she feared “the truth died” when the Sinn Fein leader took his final breath.

Truth was always an elusive concept during the Troubles, and McGuinness doubtless took many of its darkest secrets to his grave.

Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission.

Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.
This article originally appeared in The Sunday Times. It is reprinted here with permission.

7 responses to “Was Martin McGuinness A British Agent? – Toby Harnden Asks The Question

  1. Pingback: Was Martin McGuinness A British Agent? – Toby Harnden Asks The Question | seftonblog

  2. Pingback: Was Martin McGuinness A British Agent? – Toby Harnden Asks The Question | seachranaidhe1

  3. Ed, a cheeky question first, and a speculative question after.

    1. Do you have information on McGuinness, which may shed light on the accusation of him being an informer / agent, but for whatever reason cannot disclose that information just yet? Do you have any ‘watch this space’ info?

    2. If you were to attach a probability that McGuinness was a British informer / agent, what would that be?

  4. The McGuiness agent theory goes way back before Harden’s article, there have been rumblings before that & all previous outings such as Donaldson, Scap etc were done to protect their number 1 source, there are not a lot of PIRA old timers left, so the field has narrowed considerably, but we will no one way or another in the next 12 months, the true identity of the agent will no doubt be released at a time of Sinn Fein’s electoral successes in the South & whether they get involved in power sharing. Adam’s ham fisted attempts to force a change in the DUP’s leadership through the Stormont elections have appeared tO backfire, if another election follows the DUP will undoubtably win back their lost support, he has also been suspected of biggest our no 1 spy & has taken the queen’s shilling before, whether Marty or Gerry or both are in the pay of HMG will no doubt be revealed shortly. If we can infiltrate the loyalist dissendents in Antrim & the new UVF Portadown structures, it may be the end of paramilitarism in Ireland for good

    • Paul,

      Do you really think that Gerry Adams wants Arlene Foster to step aside? Arlene as the leader of the DUP was a Sinn Fein asset during the recent election and Gerry knows that too.

      It is my understanding that the DUP did in fact offer some offer on the Irish language act which was rejected by Sinn Fein. As ever I’m wondering what on earth Sinn Fein are scheming.

      It is my suspicion that Sinn Fein actually don’t know where they are heading yet and are happy to play politic brinkmanship until they figure out how they can in Gerry’s words ‘never waste a crisis’.

      Regarding Marty and Gerry, my suspicion is that some secrets might be too dark to reveal anytime soon.

  5. if this theory of British infiltration is as victorious as described, then the attrocities were British in origination, planning and execution. This is a case to bring to The Hague. It’s time we countered this slur campaign with outspoken accusations of false flag British acts upon their own population. Such would explain a lot about the absolute open door policy on Wahabi mosques all up and down the British and Irish islands.

  6. Pingback: Martin McGuinness, personification of republicanism | Sráid Marx

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