How MI5 Operated During The Troubles

For as long as I can remember I have advised fellow reporters to fully read the reports of government inquiries, especially those dealing with security issues thrown up by the Troubles.

I do that because invariably there are little, and sometimes, sizeable and valuable diamonds of information hidden in interminable pages of dull text. But you have to read it all to find them. I usually take my own advice but here I must admit to one occasion when I ignored my own counsel.

When LVF leader Billy Wright was shot dead in 1997 in the Maze prison, there was suspicion about how a killing like this, by the INLA, in one of the most secure prisons in Europe was possible. Amid allegations of collusion and suggestions that Wright’s death conveniently removed one of the most effective Loyalist critics of the peace process, controversy dogged the killing.

An LVF guard of honour at Billy Wright’s wake

Eventually, in 2005 the British government agreed to set up an inquiry into the incident, headed by Lord MacLean, a Scottish judge; Andrew Coyle, an English academic and expert on prisons and a retired Anglican Bishop, John Oliver.

The report was published in 2010 and I must admit I did not read it. Recently, while researching another topic I rectified that mistake and came across the most detailed account of how MI5 – and the other security agencies – went about their business during the Troubles.

I thought my readers might find it informative and instructive. It is likely that some of this structure has since been dismantled or at the very least scaled down since 2010 (alert readers will note the widespread use of the past tense in descriptions of MI5 structures and activity). Nonetheless something very similar is possibly still in place.

One point worthy of note. It is clear from the MacLean inquiry that MI5, not the RUC Special Branch or military intelligence, had prime responsibility for monitoring the intentions of the leaderships in various violent groups. As far the Provos go, this means that MI5 would have been responsible for dealing with the peace process. Interesting.

This is what the MacLean report says in this regard:

The Service’s agent-running operation was small compared with those of the SB and the Army, and was primarily concerned with strategic issues, such as the plans and intentions of the leadership of paramilitary organisations, whereas the RUC and the Army concentrated on tactical intelligence to protect the public and their own forces on the ground.


The Security Service

5.143 The Security Service’s primary statutory function is to protect national security, and in particular to deal with threats from terrorism. This was the case in 1997 as it is today, but there was a fundamental difference between the manner in which the Service fulfilled this role in relation to terrorism in Northern Ireland in 1997 and the manner in which it operated in the rest of the UK. Outside Northern Ireland the Service had the lead responsibility for gathering intelligence about all threats to national security, including threats from republican and loyalist paramilitary groups, and for directing intelligence operations to counter those threats. Within Northern Ireland, on the other hand, this lead responsibility rested with the RUC, and in particular SB.

T2 and T5

5.144 The role and structure of the Security Service in Northern Ireland is discussed later in this section, but it is first necessary to summarise certain aspects of the wider structure and functioning of the Service and its relationship with the Security Service operations in Northern Ireland. The role of investigating and countering threats from Irish paramilitary groups, whether republican or loyalist, rested with T Branch based in London. Desk Officers of the section known as T2 dealt with Irish terrorist activity threatening Great Britain, and Desk Officers of section T5 handled threats with an overseas connection. None of these officers had any responsibility for investigating terrorist activity within Northern Ireland. The organisation was hierarchical, with teams, groups, sections and a directorate. Much routine work was carried out at team level, but sensitive or difficult decisions were referred upwards, in some cases to the Director General.

5.145 Intelligence was received from sources, both human and technical, from surveillance and from external partners such as SB in police forces in Great Britain and foreign security services. All available intelligence was drawn together and analysed as part of a continuous dynamic process, and, since the Service had no executive powers, the prevention or disruption of terrorist activity took place with substantial operational support and assistance from external partners, in particular the law enforcement agencies. Desk Officers produced regular summaries of their investigations and conclusions, which were shared with partner organisations on a ‘need to know’ basis, with particular care taken to ensure source protection. T2 and T5 depended very considerably on intelligence from the RUC and from the Service AsGp in Northern Ireland. Desk Officers in London liaised regularly with RUC SB E3, but sometimes also with officers in the SB Regions in Northern Ireland. Records were kept primarily in hard copy filing systems, but there were also electronic databases.


5.146 Sources or agents were recruited and run in order to meet the Service’s intelligence requirements. As far as Northern Ireland was concerned, the Service’s priorities and intelligence requirements were set out by T2 and T5 and by the AsGp in Northern Ireland, and the agent-running section was known as T8. This section recruited agents, handled them and provided ongoing support. The work was based in London, but there was also an agent-running outstation in Northern Ireland. The Service’s agent-running operation was small compared with those of the SB and the Army, and was primarily concerned with strategic issues, such as the plans and intentions of the leadership of paramilitary organisations, whereas the RUC and the Army concentrated on tactical intelligence to protect the public and their own forces on the ground. T8 sought the authorisation of SB whenever it planned to recruit and run agents based in Northern Ireland, in recognition of the lead role of the RUC. On some occasions joint recruitment and source handling arrangements were put in place.

5.147 Specialist officers in T8 had the responsibility for identifying and assessing possible candidates for recruitment as agents. The case officer in a section made proposals to a senior manager, bearing in mind in particular the likely intelligence dividend, and measures that could be taken to mitigate risk to the potential agent. If recruitment took place, the reliability of the agent had to be established before he or she was allocated an identification symbol on the authority of a senior manager. The Security Service database of agents was restricted to a very small number of staff.

5.148 Agents were tasked and met as frequently as the case demanded, and a written account of all meetings and telephone conversations was made, using a pre-printed form known as a contact note. Intelligence obtained from an agent was then issued as a Source Report, which concealed the identity of the agent, and differentiated between factual information received from the agent and any comment which the Agent Handler added. Agent intelligence was distributed to internal Security Service customers including AsGp in Northern Ireland, to RUC SB and to the Metropolitan Police SB as appropriate. Intelligence with major policy implications was issued to a wider readership in Whitehall and the NIO. There was a continuous process of reviewing the intelligence received from each agent, and assessing its usefulness and reliability. The risks and benefits of meeting an agent were evaluated, and the number of NIIRs issued as a result of the agent’s reporting was recorded.

‘A’ Branch

5.149 The planning and mounting of covert technical intelligence-gathering operations was undertaken by the department known as ‘A’ Branch, based in London. This Branch dealt with such operations throughout the UK, and carried out a detailed analysis of all applications for such work, ensuring that resources were allocated to the highest priorities. ‘A’ Branch also operated in Northern Ireland on behalf of the RUC.

The Security Service in Northern Ireland

5.150 Because of the lead role in Northern Ireland of the RUC SB for gathering and exploiting intelligence on republican and loyalist terrorist activity, the role of the Security Service was predominantly to provide strategic advice to Ministers on threats from paramilitary organisations. This meant that the structure of the Security Service in Northern Ireland differed from that of the Security Service in the rest of the UK.

Director and Co-ordinator of Intelligence

5.151 The most senior Security Service officer in Northern Ireland was the DCI. He was responsible, under the PS of the NIO, for delivering high-level policy direction and advice relating to intelligence activity in Northern Ireland, and for providing support on intelligence matters to the SOSNI, and to his/her two other principal security advisers, the Chief Constable of the RUC and the General Officer Commanding (GOC) Northern Ireland. The DCI had no operational responsibilities, but was concerned with the provision of an intelligence-reporting service to Ministers and officials in the NIO and in Whitehall, principally through reports prepared by his staff in the AsGp. He also gave advice on the authorisation of warrants under the Interception of Communications Act 1985 and the Intelligence Services Act 1994. He was himself a member of the key committees responsible for security policy and intelligence matters: the SPM, the PEC and the IRC, of which he was Chairman (see 5.88 to 5.90).

Director and Co-ordinator of Intelligence’s Representative at the Royal Ulster Constabulary

5.152 The DCI had a representative at RUC HQ (known to the Inquiry as DCI Rep Knock), whose primary responsibility was the processing of all applications for warrants for technical surveillance on behalf of the RUC. Most applications originated from the RUC, but there were some from other intelligence agencies, such as HM Customs & Excise. There were many kinds of intrusive surveillance, and the first question which DCI Rep Knock’s office would ask in response to a request was about the feasibility of the proposal, then about the proportionality and necessity of carrying it out. If a request was granted, the responsibility for installing the device rested with ‘A’ Branch operations staff. Some requests were not granted, on grounds of operational justification or failure to reach an appropriate threshold of necessity, and even if a warrant was granted, in some cases the operation did not proceed.

5.153 DCI Rep Knock also acted as a liaison officer between the Security Service and the RUC. In Northern Ireland this involved the circulation to the RUC of NIIRs produced by AsGp. This function and the way in which it was carried out comes in for particular and detailed scrutiny in Chapter 15 in relation to the conflicting evidence heard by the Inquiry about the NIIR which incorporated a warning of the INLA death threat to Billy Wright if he were moved to HMP Maze H Block 6, and if he and his supporters were co-located with the INLA prisoners. DCI Rep Knock’s liaison role between the Security Service and the RUC also worked in another, very different way: the Service Desk Officers in London were customers for RUC intelligence, looking for leads about terrorist activity in Great Britain. DCI Rep Knock facilitated exchanges between the Desk Officers of the Security Service and of the RUC, with contact made by secure telephone, telegram or face-to-face meetings.
Director and Co-ordinator of Intelligence’s Representative with the Army

5.154 The DCI also had a representative attached to Military Headquarters (HQ NI), to ensure that the DCI’s views were represented at HQ NI, and that he could be kept informed of developments in Army policy relating to intelligence gathering.

The Assessments Group

5.155 AsGp consisted of Desk Officers in the Security Service who worked for the DCI. It was headed by an officer of the rank of Assistant Director (known to the Inquiry as Witness HAG), and comprised a small team of intelligence analysts. They received information from a number of different intelligence and security agencies, including RUC SB, and including intelligence from human sources and eavesdropping operations. AsGp was organised in a series of sections, and focused on different threats within Northern Ireland. The Republican Desk Officers (represented at the Inquiry by Witness DO2) focused on organisations such as the PIRA and the INLA, whereas the Loyalist Desk Officers (represented at the Inquiry by Witness DO1) focused on the various loyalist paramilitary groups. AsGp provided a wide range of strategic intelligence reports and assessments for government readership and policy-makers outside the intelligence community, including the SOSNI, Ministers and officials in the NIO, 10 Downing Street, the Cabinet Office, and recipients further afield, for example in the government’s embassies in Dublin and Washington.

5.156 AsGp acted as a focus for strategic intelligence and sought to ensure that the Northern Ireland intelligence community as a whole produced shared and agreed assessments for government. Its primary output was in the form of NIIRs which were generally designed for a political and/or security readership.

5.157 In the period 1996–98 there were three kinds of NIIR: a single-subject report, an assessment NIIR, and a monthly intelligence report. The first would deal with one particular subject, with interpretation and comment from the Security Service, based on intelligence which came from one particular source, or in some cases on two or three reports from a range of sources. Assessment NIIRs provided an overall assessment of a paramilitary group, of a threat or of particular issues or events. These were usually based on a wider range of sources. Monthly NIIRs reviewed the events and intelligence over the preceding month, and included an intelligence assessment and outlook. The main focus of AsGp’s concern was with strategic intelligence, for example in regard to ceasefires, breaches of ceasefires or involvement of different paramilitary groups in the political Peace Process. The Security Service was not involved in producing threat assessments, as this was the role of the RUC.

The Intelligence Management Group

5.158 The IMG was part of the structure of RUC SB, set up in response to the Warner Report, as has been set out in the section of this Chapter dealing with SB. Its relevance here is that it led to the establishment of ESSOs at RUC SB HQ, who helped with the analysis and distribution of RUC intelligence. It was originally intended that such embedded analysts should be appointed both to the SB HQ and to the Regions. In fact the Regional appointments did not take place. Witness HAG told the Inquiry that, following the secondment of Security Service staff to SB HQ, there was some increase in the flow of product, but more importantly an improvement in the quality of the reports that were issued and the nature of the assessment that the RUC was capable of achieving.

Agent Running

5.159 Agent running in Northern Ireland by the Security Service was conducted by an outstation of T8, working closely with RUC SB and with the Army. It reported directly to a senior manager at T8 in London. As in the case of T8’s activities in London, the outstation’s purpose was to obtain information to meet intelligence requirements for which the Service had the main responsibility, that is to say strategic intelligence. It was not intended that the Service’s intelligence gathering should be concerned with tactical matters, but if such tactical information was acquired as a by-product of the strategic operations, this was passed to the RUC for information or action.

The Security Service’s Relationship with Other Organisations and Committees in Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Office

5.160 The Service’s relationship with the NIO in Northern Ireland was principally as the supplier of assessed strategic intelligence, through the DCI, reporting directly to the SOSNI and the PS. Briefings were available for readers of NIIRs, to ensure that they understood the process of collection, investigation and assessment of intelligence which lay behind the reports. AsGp needed to understand the political context in Northern Ireland, and by 1997 liaison groups had been established to ensure that the intelligence relevant to the political and security situation was seen by key NIO officials, and that AsGp was aware of the thinking and requirements of the NIO.

The Northern Ireland Prison Service

5.161 The Security Service had very few dealings with the NIPS. Monthly and some other NIIRs produced by AsGp were delivered on a read-and-return basis to senior members of the NIPS. A member of AsGp sometimes represented the DCI at the PLG meetings.

The Security Policy Meeting

5.162 For details of the SPM see 5.88. The particular involvement of the Security Service in this meeting was that the DCI was invited to give his assessment of the security situation, having consulted previously with colleagues in the RUC and the Army.

Province Executive Committee

5.163 For details of the PEC see 5.89. The Security Service input at this meeting was that the DCI provided an update on political and security issues and there would be a briefing from the Army.

Intelligence Review Committee

5.164 For details of the IRC see 5.90. This was a meeting at which the lead role fell to the DCI. It set monthly Priority Intelligence Requirements (PIRs) and AsGp produced draft PIRs for consideration by the IRC, taking into account strategic requirements set by the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) (see 5.165) as well as the short- and medium-term requirements which were known to those operating in Northern Ireland.

Joint Intelligence Committee and Current Intelligence Groups

5.165 These were UK Government bodies. The JIC was based in the Cabinet Office, and was responsible for providing Ministers with regular intelligence assessments on a wide range of matters relating to security, defence and foreign affairs, including republican and loyalist paramilitary activity. The Current Intelligence Groups (CIG) was a preliminary meeting which helped set the agenda for the JIC. Both were attended by Security Service representatives. The Cabinet Office collated contributions from various sources, including the Service Desk Officers in London and AsGp in Northern Ireland. Following the CIG, the Service representative prepared a brief for the senior Service member who subsequently attended the JIC meeting, usually the Director General or his Deputy or the Director of T Branch. Irish-related JIC reports were then distributed to a restricted list of recipients, including Ministers.

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