Danny Morrison does some fascinating digging in the past of Special Branch and recounts Peter Hain’s nasty brush with the South African Intelligence Services in the 1970’s.By Danny Morrison
Who’s next, has been the line adopted by gloating republican critics in the media and by Sinn Fein’s political opponents. As I look among them I’m thinking, well, that one’s probably in the Brits, that one is definitely a mouthpiece for the Brits, and that smartass former activist over there is probably an agent or a lunatic, given that his sole objective in life is to publicly undermine the republican struggle whereas Denis Donaldson’s objective was to do the same thing covertly.
I jest, of course. But wouldn’t I be justified in thinking that way? I mean, are agents only inside Sinn Fein or the IRA? I think not.
There is an old saying that all’s fair in love and war. However, the latter part of that proverb applies only to the extraordinary circumstances of war and conflict. In peacetime different standards are meant to apply. The open palm of a handshake is meant to show that you have no concealed weapon.
From around about 1992 I was of the private view that the republican leadership should consider a ceasefire but I was in jail and had no idea how the debate could begin (without debilitating the armed struggle) and how the transition could be smoothly made given how badly ceasefires had turned out in the past.
I was not a victim of subliminal suggestion by British intelligence. Like many others, inside and outside the jail, I reached that conclusion through my own reasoning and mainly because there was a military stalemate that conceivably could have lasted for twenty years or more without necessarily improving the negotiating muscle of the movement or the nationalist people. I was unaware – until 1993 when the Mayhew/Sinn Fein correspondence was revealed – that tentative contacts had been made between republicans and the British.
Since 1994 the peaceful moves of the Republican Movement have often divided its opponents. Albert Reynolds read the Sinn Fein position more accurately than most other leaders, next to John Hume. In the run-up to all-party talks David Trimble kept going on about Sinn Fein having “an exit strategy” when in fact Sinn Fein’s policy was one of engagement, negotiation and eventual compromise.
The continued existence of the IRA and actual or perceived IRA activity was used by opponents of the peace process to try and justify their scepticism or mask their outright opposition to a just settlement. For many reasons, but also because of the actions and tardiness of its opponents, it wasn’t easy for the IRA to reach the position it did earlier this year, announcing an end to armed struggle and a commitment to peaceful means of struggle.
A political agreement has not replaced conflict and is not within palpable reach. The only people to gain from this situation are those opposed to agreement – and they are not in the nationalist community.
The war, in fact, is still being fought, though on one side only.
From 1994 the frustration of the peace process by unionists and the Major government was aimed at undermining the leadership of Adams and McGuinness. The aim was to create a split in republicanism, provoke a reduced/divided IRA into a return to armed struggle and then smash it. Unfortunately for them the bulk of the Republican Movement did not join the Real IRA but stayed in the peace process.
There are those who doubt that British securocrats would have brought down the power-sharing executive.
This is what Martin McGuinness said: “It is now time for the British to answer questions about their agents, about their agencies, and about their approach to the process.”
This is what secretary of state Peter Hain had to say:
“If there were some giant political conspiracy, how would it have been that this political conspiracy would have robbed this office of its own information, of the most sensitive kind – this just beggars belief, it would be a complete fantasy.”
In 1974 Peter Hain was arrested and charged with a London bank robbery. He claimed that he had been set up by South African intelligence agents because of his anti-Apartheid work. His sceptics said that such a scenario beggared belief. He was imprisoned, the case went to trial in 1976 and he was acquitted because what sounded like a complete fantasy was actually true.
There are many things that seem complete fantasies and among the 2,083 pages of the unpublished Stephens Report into collusion there must be many things that beggar belief, including the probability of a paper trail leading to No 10 Downing Street.
What else once beggared belief when first mooted?
British agents re-organising, re-arming loyalists and directing them to kill nationalists and republicans and the solicitor Pat Finucane.
British involvement in the Dublin/Monaghan bombings.
British intelligence agents burning down the offices of the Stephens’ inquiry team.
British intelligence running an agent or agents inside the IRA’s internal security unit and directing its chief agent, in order to aggrandize himself within the IRA, to select for execution informers who had outlived their usefulness to the Brits.
The Special Branch allowing its agents within the IRA to maintain their cover by killing British soldiers and police men.
The same Special Branch allowing its informers within the UVF and UDA to kill other loyalists and fellow Protestants.
The same Special Branch which is still operating within the PSNI.
Does Denis Donaldson being at the heart of Stormontgate at the prompting of his handlers really beggar belief?
Republican morale has been shaken by the actions of a traitor. I do not know the detail of what damage Donaldson did or his selfish motivation. Often financial reward is not top of the list and most touts usually act chiefly out of self-preservation (after being compromised), become increasingly ensnared by each successive piece of information they give, and then become perversely addicted to the excitement of their secret life.
An informer only admits being ashamed after being caught; then, in the words of Maxim Gorky, he begins living “the life of a useless man”.
Undoubtedly, the detail will emerge; Donaldson’s story will come out.
If Sinn Fein has got it wrong and Stormontgate was not a malicious securocrat operation to bring down the institutions then what of the other explanation that has been proffered? Did the Public Prosecutions Office collapse the Stormontgate trial to protect an agent or agents? And to keep secret the embarrassing details of ‘Operation Torsion’? This operation allegedly involved the Special Branch and MI5, months before the arrests of Donaldson and others in October 2002, breaking into an IRA dump which they had under surveillance, removing and photocopying documents and then replacing these documents in the hope that they would later catch senior IRA figures with them.
According to PSNI Chief Constable, the documents in question contained the names and addresses of hundreds of prison officers and PSNI officers. But they were not informed at the time that it was the Special Branch who handed their details back to the IRA!
No one in the media has asked the Chief Constable or Peter Hain or Tony Blair if this is really what happened – even though it, like the Brian Nelson affair and the burning of Stephens’ offices, beggars belief and sounds like a complete fantasy.
Published in Daily Ireland, Wednesday 21 December 2005
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty