The historian of the Security Service ( MI5) Christopher Andrew threw out some intriguing comments about tackling the IRA at a lecture I went to last night, attended by a formidable line-up of academics and insiders. The main problem with the secret services he said, was that because they were so obsessed with secrecy, they didn’t learn from their own history – and nowhere more than in tackling Irish terrorism. The first problem was that Special Branch was set up in 1883 to deal with Fenian terrorism on the British “mainland” and kept that lead role until 1992. Everywhere else, responsibility was shared with the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and the Branch, and turf wars broke out from time to time.
In Ireland between 1916 and 1921, said Andrew, Irish intelligence defeated us, no doubt about it, it wasn’t all Michael Collins.
Exactly the same happened in the 70s. If only MI5 had read the history of the earlier campaign they wouldn’t have made the same mistakes.
Margaret Thatcher was “very reasonable about the attempt to kill her”, but John Major “got really cross” after the IRA mortar bomb narrowly failed to kill hiom and half the cabinet in 1991.
MI5 got the lead role in 1992 ( as explained by former MI5 DG Stella Rimington in 1994.) That made all the difference.
“Then we got around to tackling the IRA.”
Not brand new intelligence this by any means, but the tone was interesting and left me in no doubt that much of the British establishment believes MI5 spiked the IRA guns. Alas, it will at least another generation before all the threads of the story are pulled together.
and of course, MI5 are with us still, more visibly and in a new role.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London