On the singular problem of penetration…

One of the key campaigns of Sinn Fein has been collusion. Indeed there are a number of cases in train where there is strong suspicion of collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and British security forces. The murder of Pat Finucane, Seamus Ludlow and the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. However, Anthony McIntyre argues that, from a Republican point of view, British penetration of the IRA may have been even more damaging to its cause.

…agent infiltration is par for the course. Just over five years ago, the late journalist Jack Holland sat in my living room while he and I conversed on his book Hope Against History. I expressed the view that his was one of the few narratives to puncture the peace process myth that the Provisional IRA had settled for an honourable compromise. Without equivocation, he had written that the organisation had been defeated. Even if the template intellectually underpinning the Good Friday Agreement had always been considered a victory for the British and a defeat for republicans, it was easier to pretend in 2000 that the achievement of an all-island Republic remained a work in progress. By 2006 no amount of shifting goalposts can conceal the paucity of such suggestions.

Interested to know why I agreed with his assessment, Holland pressed me to detail my thoughts on the reasons behind the IRA defeat. I explained that the array of forces ranged against it was too strong and the leadership was forced to settle up on terms devised by the British state as far back as 1973. It had more of the failure about it than a sell-out. He demurred.

Some time earlier he had co-authored the book Phoenix. It was a biographical account of Ian Phoenix, a RUC superintendent killed in the 1994 Mull of Kintyre helicopter crash. Having accessed the personal notebook of Ian Phoenix, Holland rapidly immersed himself in the detail of IRA susceptibility to penetration. It quickly emerged that a central player in Belfast who met at least one or another senior republican leader on a daily basis was in the pay of Ian Phoenix. The RUC had extensive knowledge in advance of the bulk of the IRA’s Belfast operations. Those they decided not to thwart, they allowed proceed in order to protect their agent. In Holland’s view it was impossible for the IRA to avoid defeat if penetrated at that level.

Ostensibly, the IRA sussed out many agents in its ranks. But few seem to have occupied positions of leadership. Who today would say with certainty that any of those foot soldiers put to death for informing were in fact guilty? The IRA’s word on the matter can no longer mean anything, the lie having come to define republicanism in its current form. The families of those ‘executed’ for alleged informing carried the mark of Cain within republican communities. Yet their loved ones may have been sent to walk the plank by senior figures who hoisted the Jolly Roger rather than the tricolour.