Moving the IRA to peace: limitations of the agents of influence theory…

There’s a fine line to be walked in judging the influence of largely unaccountable state actors and historic corollaries. Both Mark Devenport and Jen O’Leary today ask the question of whether state agents of influence were critical factors in moving the IRA to peace.

The question is easier to ask than to answer. Devenport cites two conflicting academic sources which take opposite views on the matter. He quotes Bew and Frampton and Gurruchaga saying “the role of state actors, intelligence agencies, hard power and the wider democratic process”.

He then quotes another academic source…

“…the majority of evidence … suggests that informers and agents did not influence the IRA or Sinn Féin towards ceasefires to any great extent during the conflict”.

Both views contain some truth. From what we know of the use of informers (which is not a huge amount) most of the focus on was on containing the military efforts of both insurgents and counter-insurgents. That may have created political pressure, but likely only in a secondary sense.

There were already political pressures acting upon the Provisionals, beyond their simple ability to effectively prosecute their war. These pressures came both externally and internally. Adams’ move towards a peace settlement pre-dated the ceasefires by a number of years.

The Donaldson story as relayed to O’Leary shows too that even a high-level informer wasn’t telling their handlers everything. Something that’s rarely taken into account within those fake public narratives I mentioned yesterday.

Running informants does not, as so often claimed by some very high ups within NI’s new establishment, amount to full on state collusion. The idea of the Provisionals as uber-marionettes of British Military intelligence doesn’t stack up, because they had to be working part of the daily machine.

As also noted yesterday, the half-light in which these matters come to arise makes it very difficult to see what actually happened. The assertion, widely reported, that Gerry Adams ordered the killing is not supported by the material in the documentary.

It may be that the leadership of the Provisionals sanctioned it as suggested (rather than asserted) by ‘Martin’, but there are too many loose ends around the story to be clear that anyone at the top themselves initiated or ordered the operation.

I doubt Gerry will sue anyone in this regard (he once told Father Des Wilson that people like him do not sue), but he might have a decent case for taking take a complaint to the Press Council, should he so wish to do so.

But it should not be forgotten that the price of this peace process of ours was the forgiveness of murder. On the scale things, Donaldson was just one of many victims who’s killers will likely never be brought to justice for the sake of that same peace process.

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

  • Brian Walker

    Mick, Does Gerry have cause for formal complaint or legal action? I doubt it. Allegations of this kind should normally be put to the accused in advance but his reply in all such cases is well known. While he continually denies an IRA role it is not believed even among his own supporters so the charge retains plausibility. This weakens his standing as a complainant. The PSNI gave enough credence to the McConville charges to hold and interview him. That is a helpful precedent for the BBC who would have cleared the programme with the lawyers. We heard enough about the protected source to give him some credibility in an area where absolute proof is rarely available. Any complaint would not go to the IPSO but to the BBC Trust.

  • chrisjones2

    I think it would be a mistake to consider the peace process on just one channel. Yes the public mood was changing and undoubtedly the British Government was doing all it could to shove that / encourage it in the right direction. Equally it would be very odd if they didn’t have agents of influence in all the organisations trying to move them in the way they wanted them to go.

    In the programme i seem to recall someone – I cant remember who – suggesting that half the Army Council was compromised in one way or another. In that situation just one or two credible voices nudging the movement in a different direction could be enough when they were stymied militarily

    My money is on Bew and Fampton that, in effect, both lines of attack worked together but the degree of impact of each still cannot be determined.

    That’s also not inconsistent with Leahey who alleges “it was the Irish people who gradually encouraged the Provisional republican movement towards peace”.

    Yes, I agree, but who helped move the Irish people to that point and who then convinced the Republican Movement to follow them?

    And who helped give the military cover to that within the movement and how many of them were working for the Brits – its gradually looking like a lot of them were

    Perfidious Albion doing everything possible to make the peace process work

  • chrisjones2

    But would he win? There would be two tests in court

    1 is the allegation true or was it fair comment?

    2 if it is true was his character damaged and defamed?

    I seem to remember a past case where a ‘good republican’ sued and an Irish Jury took just an hour to determine that

    “the article published on June 30th, 1985, meant Mr Murphy was “a prominent member” of the IRA, that he “planned murder and the bombing of property” and that those words were true “in substance or in fact”.

    The costs in that – 20 years ago – were over €1m so it would be very high risks poker

  • eamoncorbett

    If half the army council was compromised are we to believe that these British agents took no part in any killings that occurred from the late seventies to the early nineties . Were they passive in attitude and if so how did they get away with it . The IRA was a killing machine , everyone played their part otherwise they would have been destroyed as early ’79 . If any of these agents took part in any killings , kidnappings or rackets then they are equally guilty along with their counterparts .
    Adams can never be brought to trial for anything because any barrister worth his salt would summon a bunch of these touts to the witness stand knowing full well that none of them could give evidence because of the “public interest” . The propaganda war rages on long after the war has ended , but no one’s sure who the biggest liars are.

  • chrisjones2

    Who said they were Agents? The wording seemed carefully chosen

  • Gopher

    The most viable “theory” would in this specific case go something like this. Adams has become the Wayne Rooney of Irish Politics in that the whole world can see Rooney is shot as a top class footballer but he has that much latent backing from his external “brand” that Jose and Sam are too scared to make the obvious move and drop him from Utd and England. SF are in that position, the whole world can see Adams is a liability but SF are too scared to make the move. Compare and contrast with Pep and Yaya, the DUP and Peter. Perhaps Gerry is seen as the obstruction to progress holding Marty and the South back and the Brits are trying to help SF do the right thing and get into the 21st century. Shankly always said make sure your players legs go in someone else’s team.

  • tmitch57

    A very interesting program. The writers seem to agree with my conclusion at the time of Stormontgate that Denis Donaldson being a British agent did not also automatically preclude him from being a Sinn Fein spy. Individuals in Donaldson’s position have to carefully decide how much information to reveal to their handlers and how much to withhold–if for no other reason in order to preserve their credibility within the IRA. So Donaldson would spy on behalf of Sinn Fein on the UUP and other parties in the Assembly while also spying on behalf of his Special Branch handlers. At the time of Stormontgate the Assembly was close to collapse, the revelation of Donaldson’s spying was merely the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

    Incidentally I believe that Alan McQuillan, who was interviewed extensively for the Spotlight piece, was the senior Catholic officer in the RUC and a leading contender to be the new commander of the PSNI at one point.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Definitely Goph – I like the football team talk and can fully relate and agree with it ! Up the Wee Blues from Windsor Park !

  • Thomas Barber

    The same BBC Neil that received £289 million last year from the UK’s security and defense budget but apparently is not a state broadcaster with no particular agenda.

  • Granni Trixie

    No 2 hits the nail on the head:you have to be perceived as ‘of good character’ and reputation to have that character and reputation damaged.

    Also despite the costs and risks involved, surely most politicans in the face of such accusations would feel that they have no choice but to make some fist of sueing BBC? Or at least bluster that they are going to.
    It’s as if Adams is accepting it would be hopeless.

  • chrisjones2

    Yes ….but the cost downside when you lose is destroying

    There is politics and there is reality

  • chrisjones2

    That goes to pay for the World Service to provide impartial and trusted broadcasting in many different languages and often to states who have no other access to information

    But as always, if you dont like it there is an off switch

  • MainlandUlsterman

    It wasn’t Jeremy Corbyn then? 😉

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I doubt the IRA leaders themselves know why they gave up. That would require a level of self-insight I suspect not all of them have.

    This debate over whether agents planted ideas in the IRA’s heads misses the point by assuming such influence is a direct thing. That’s not how it works. One of the senior peelers referred to what really happens – we put them in there, he said, and we let them grow. And they grow like a cancer inside the organisation. It’s attritional; the demoralisation that infiltrated organisations suffer is when they become resigned to being permanently riddled with traitors. It’s not about controlling the organisation or “pulling the strings”. It’s a longer grind of sewing confusion and doubt.

  • AntrimGael

    The cops and spooks may have planted a cancer of self doubt within the Republican movement. Meanwhile in another laboratory they were creating a sectarian Loyalist Frankenstein’s monster killing machine which THEY controlled from start to finish. The Brits or their Unionist satellites can claim no higher morale ground or authority. Just ask the families of victims, BOTH Catholic and Protestant, who are being deliberately obstructed by Britain into even getting inquests opened.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Do you not see the inconsistency of your view on anti-terrorist infiltration and agent-running though? When it’s loyalists you regard the state as “controlling” it from start to finish and try to pretend loyalists were a state creation (umm … have you ever met any? Or read any studies of loyalism?). When it’s agent-running within republicanism, you don’t seem to confer ‘control’ onto the state. So which is it?

    The state let its informers inside the paramilitary groups carry on, knowing they were committing crimes. It is though how you get at big criminal gangs like ours in NI, or the Mafia or the drugs cartels or whoever – you have to play the long game. It’s messy and you get the apparent injustice of the state ‘knowing’ about a particular crime and apparently taking no action. They were taking action – it’s just that sometimes the call is to ‘stick’ not twist, so as not to give away the long term infiltration plan. It’s based on a judgement that that plan of leaving the informer in place will overall better save lives and protect the public than prosecuting every time. It’s not ideal but the state didn’t choose to have to police against organisations like the IRA and UVF.

    If you have any better ideas on how to frustrate terrorist groups, let’s hear them.

    (P.S. I rarely get any answers to that last question from critics of the security forces. It seems if you’re not actually that focussed on how to get more effective anti-terrorist policing, you can rule out all sorts of police actions with remarkable ease.)

  • Gopher

    Jose finally found his balls and UTD won at a canter.

  • chrisjones2

    Jeremy is never for anything …hes always against things, except his own election

  • Anglo-Irish

    Interesting letter in Saturdays Irish Times on the subject of British intelligence and the peace process.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Note to self – once again no reply to the simple ‘how would you have policed against the paramilitaries?’ question. A profound silence I think.