Piecing the intelligence together

Sat, May 6, 2006, 01:00

Irish History: Anyone attempting to write a fresh account of the battle between the IRA and British intelligence faces two major problems.

Firstly, a lot of patient work is required to excavate scattered and often fragmentary evidence from the many relevant archival collections, and secondly, the pieces must be fitted together into a coherent story when their meaning and reliability is often difficult to judge.

Michael Foy therefore deserves much credit for doing both in his new book. He has put in a lot of research time and has unearthed a really impressive amount of new material. He has benefited from recent declassifications - not least of the now ubiquitous Bureau of Military History - but he has not neglected older material either, and seems to have found things others have missed.

He is particularly good with British sources and has discovered a reportedly high-level spy, who he identifies as Molly Childers, wife of Erskine. This has caused some controversy, but his theory does seem to fit the facts as presented. The problem is that all the other facts we know about thoroughly republican Molly suggest that it simply cannot have been true, and there are other good reasons to be cautious. For example, she appears to argue that peace negotiations would be a waste of time, thus telling Scotland Yard supremo Basil Thomson and his fellow hardliners just what they wanted to hear. That sounds more like Ahmed Chalabi than Mata Hari. Still, it's an intriguing mystery that should run and run.

Foy integrates both sides of the story into a clear narrative of decisions and events, and tells his set-piece stories well. The hunt for Sean Treacy and Dan Breen, the attack on the Custom House and, of course, Bloody Sunday, are all told with energy and insight: readers should have a good time with it. Foy is able to flesh out some notorious but elusive characters, notably Sgt Igoe of the RIC and Capt Hardy of the Auxiliaries. Both are featured in the photo collection: a triumph of research in itself.

Nevertheless, while the book has much that is new, his interpretation of events is still largely the familiar one of boy genius Michael Collins running rings around the clumsy Brits. Again and again, Collins is given credit for something where others had at least an equal part, such as de Valera's escape from Lincoln Jail. Foy rightly restores Dublin Brigadier Dick McKee to the centre of the story but accuses him of incompetence when, in fact, Collins could have done nothing without him. It was McKee's 2nd Battalion which did most of the fighting, and it was he who organised the squad in the first place. Criticism is similarly selective. When others, like Richard Mulcahy, lose their papers to British raiders, they are mocked, but Collins was the worst such sinner.

The book certainly provides the material for a radical reassessment, as in the terrific chapter on Bloody Sunday. Here, what is usually depicted as Collins's masterstroke is shown to have been planned by McKee, and something of a shambles on the day. Many of the assigned men never showed up, most of the targets were missed, and perhaps as many as half of those killed were not really intelligence agents at all. Rather than British intelligence being crippled, it was finally unleashed - to great effect - in the weeks following.Despite all this, Foy still argues that the attacks were "the tipping point" of the struggle. The fact that many Volunteers repeatedly refused to kill in cold blood similarly suggests a different picture of the IRA's war, but this is not followed up either.

FOY IS GENUINELY fair-minded. Few come out of the struggle looking good - apart from He Who Must Be Named - and they would look even worse in the light of the killings he doesn't mention, such as the IRA's campaign against ex-soldiers in 1921. However, to truly understand the role of "intelligence" in the Irish revolution, it is necessary to follow the post-Treaty adventures of Collins's men, and their ultimate transformation into anti- republican death squads in the Civil War. The conventional narrative that stops neatly at the Truce to allow a simple Anglo-Irish storyline, and which explains violence in the killers' terms rather than the victims', is wearing very thin.

• Peter Hart is the author of Mick: the Real Michael Collins and is currently working on a collection of Collins's letters.

• Michael Collins's Intelligence War: The Struggle Between the British and the IRA 1919-1921 By Michael T Foy Sutton Publishing, 281pp. £20