William Matchett is a former Detective Inspector in the old RUC Special Branch, who stayed on for a bit with the PSNI, then wrote a thesis for a PhD which he has turned into a book, published recently, called ‘Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat The IRA’.
The two videos below are derived from his appearance at a recent seminar organised by the Conservative Party think tank, Policy Exchange in London at which Dr. Matchett gave a talk and then answered questions from the audience.
I don’t know how the audience felt at the end of his contribution but if it was anything like myself, most of them probably wished they had stayed at home and watched a movie on Netflix.
My gripe with him was not that he was a bad speaker, which I’m afraid he is, nor that he has, at Policy Exchange and elsewhere, trotted out all the old familiar RUC kvetches about events since 1994: it was the Special Branch which beat the Provos and obliged them to embrace the peace process, nothing to do with Tony Blair or Bertie Ahern or Redemptorist priests; there was no such thing as collusion with Loyalists; the intelligence war was played like cricket, according to a rule book which most everyone followed; there were some ‘bad apples’ but far fewer than in the Gardai or the London Met and the legal authorities should lay off investigating old soldiers and cops for things they probably never did. And so on.
No, these are all familiar gripes from RUC veterans of a certain type.
My problem with Dr Matchett is that the Troubles he describe are almost entirely devoid of a political context and therefore unrecognisable. In fact there is not even a hint of a concession in his various expositions, especially this one delivered to Policy Exchange, that the Provos had roots in the political slum that was Northern Ireland between 1921 and 1968.
He regards the Provos as a criminal conspiracy, a terrorist group no different than Baader-Meinhof, who could be bested by good detective work and professional undercover operatives.
The possibility that the IRA had organic roots that reached deep into their community, wholly unlike Baader-Meinhof type groups, seems not to occur to him.
Nor that the grievances of which Nationalists complained and which encouraged many of them to take up the gun, were in no small way related to the behaviour of the force, and the particular unit of the force of which he was a member.
I do not disagree with his claim that by the end the intelligence war had been almost entirely lost by the IRA, or that the Special Branch, MI5 and Military Intelligence had thoroughly infiltrated the organisation.
But the truth is that is took the British, with all their experience and power, the best part of a quarter century to overwhelm a group whose major recruitment pool had a population equivalent to the Bronx in New York where I now live.
The only possible explanation for this failure – and it was a monumental failure – is that the IRA was a self-replicating group nurtured in a factory of grievances. The rest of the world arrived at that conclusion a long time ago but not, seemingly, the RUC Special Branch, if Dr Matchett is at all representative.
His analysis, as deficient in its way as ‘Blair-Ahern brought the Provos to peace’ theory of the peace process, entirely leaves out of consideration the reality that the terrorism which he describes had a political foundation and that it could not be brought to an end solely or even mostly by security methods.
It is no accident that Dr Matchett was invited by Policy Exchange to explain his views. Policy Exchange is a leading, some say the leading Tory think tank in Britain and these days it is headed by Dean Godson, best known in Ireland for his acclaimed biography of David Trimble, ‘Himself Alone’.
Although we probably disagree about every important subject, Dean is a friend of mine and I know him well enough to know that he is an unashamed, indeed unreconstructed neoconservative and that this political stance has deeply affected his view of Ireland and the peace process.
Like his friends and counterparts in Israel’s Likud party, Dean believes that terrorist groups should never, ever be engaged with politically, only militarily. The IRA, to Dean’s mind, is the European version of the PLO or Hamas.
Unsurprisingly he, like others in the British Tory party, disagreed with my view, expressed implicitly in the pages of ‘A Secret History of the IRA’, that Gerry Adams was sincere in his pursuit of the peace process.
Like other neocons with whom I clashed rhetorical swords, Dean believed that Adams’ peace process expedition was a journey steeped in trickery that would culminate in the IRA’s return to violence when Britain’s political will had been sufficiently sapped.
The passage of time, and the course of events have obliged them to modify that view – but only a little bit.
And so, like Dr Matchett, his preferred approach when dealing with the Gerry Adams’ of this world is extirpation. A pity for him then, that in William Matchett, he has such a poor champion.
I was going to enjoin my readers to enjoy the videos below. But in all honesty I could not do that.