Willie Carlin, Margaret Thatcher’s spy inside Sinn Fein…

Review of Willie Carlin’s book: Thatcher’s Spy: My Life As An MI5 Agent Inside Sinn Fein…

Any book on Northern Ireland’s secret war should be read with caution, not least because undercover operatives are so well-practised in the art of deceit. And yet, the secrecy that still lingers within NI’s political process can make what they belatedly have to say compelling.

What sets Thatcher’s Spy apart from other such testimonies I’ve read (like William Matchett’s Secret Victory) is that Carlin was a political mole rather than a military spy. Thus the reference to the British PM. He was operative in two periods between 1974 and 1985.

He wasn’t ‘turned’ – like Denis Donaldson, because of some incriminating evidence about a part of his life he couldn’t bear to have made public. He was happily married at the time he was recruited just as he was giving up a promising career in the military to come home.

Carlin had not been unusual in Derry as a young working-class Catholic joining the British army. His father had worked at the local Royal Navy base and was stationed overseas during the war. In 1965, he joined the Queens Royal Irish Hussars with his older brother.

His close recall of key moments from his life, such as the loss of his first daughter to cot death syndrome, to when he was recruited by the intelligence service in the car park outside Lawrence of Arabia’s hideaway cottage in rural south Dorset makes for an absorbing read.

He has a novelist’s command of dialogue, recalling minute detail and conversations from heightened moments – like the killing of 29-year-old census taker Joanne Mathers by what he calls “the IRA’s f*** up squad” in Gobnascale – from many years earlier.

This is a “show” rather than a purely “tell” account of his time, first as a community activist then latterly as a rising star within Derry Sinn Féin. Refreshingly, for any book on Northern Ireland, he doesn’t bully the reader into believing what he wants them to think.

His visits home from Germany and then England after the Troubles explode indicate a man troubled by the actions of the British security forces. He also seems to have nursed an almost undying animosity towards the old RUC right up to the present day.

During a return in early 1972 Carlin found himself and his wife caught up in a riot. He writes “I ran out and was almost hit by a petrol bomb that exploded at my feet. I pulled Mary by the hand towards two soldiers who were standing on the corner near The Diamond.”

“I shouted at the corporal and complained about his colleague’s abuse of [a] young couple who now lay bloodied and battered outside Austin’s store. He told me to ‘fuck off’ and when I produced my MOD90 card, his colleague drew a baton and smashed me over the head.”

He surmises this as “a ‘Brit’ beating a fellow Brit because he assumed I was a Republican rioter”. This experience of the chaos in Derry and the drip-feed of death and injury to friends, neighbours and family may have lent a crucial authenticity to his later efforts for Sinn Féin.

Which is, of course, the centre piece of the book. For the time he was there he seems to have been devoted to the cause of Sinn Féin. But on the basis that in lengthening the stride of those on the political side of the movement, the genuine Provisionals would become less powerful.

As head of finance in Derry Sinn Féin there are a few nuggets. For example how the 1983 elections had a cool price tag of £300,000 and the network of advice centres in NI at £200,000. He also details the strain of early vote stealing and personation operations.

He picks up on early fears of the unpredictability of electoral politics. Of McGuinness’s refusal to stand in 1983 he notes, “he and Adams suffered from the same illness, ‘fear of failure’, and he didn’t fancy another defeat at the hands of Blessed John Hume”.

Above the smaller detail, you also get a sense of British strategy. Carlin (whilst planting one particular nugget of doubt) is adamant that he was merely encouraging the political branch of Provisional movement to shift more quickly in a direction it already wanted to go in.

In McGuinness he saw someone with a cautious, fly fisherman’s instinct “who obviously loved the chase and the tactics needed to win”. He refutes the idea that McGuinness himself was working with the British, and insists on giving him the benefit of any doubt.

He gives the impression that he regretted having to be extracted at very short notice when his handlers got word the lads were on their way from Belfast. Although he escaped death himself the forced removal of his wife and children presaged a longer tragedy of exile.

There are missed funerals, and family graves hidden from the casual desecration at the hand of a paramilitary group mind betrayed. But also, a soldier’s sense that he had done the right thing in the cause of turning his own community from a life of war to one of peace.

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