British intelligence did not force IRA to make peace
My new book argues the peace process emerged from a political and military stalemate
December 2005: Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin head of administration Denis Donaldson and party leader Gerry Adams in Stormont. Donaldson was also an informer and was murdered by republicans in 2006. Photograph: Paul Faith / PA
British intelligence did disrupt various IRA operations during the Troubles. But current evidence suggests they did not force the IRA into peace to any significant extent.
In 2003, a suspected IRA spy-hunter was alleged by multiple conflict participants to be senior British agent codenamed Stakeknife. In 2005, Denis Donaldson, a veteran republican, publicly admitted informing. Alongside other factors, these and other revelations have encouraged various authors to conclude that British intelligence helped force the Provisional IRA into peace.
In my book, I detail how available evidence suggests British intelligence did not force the IRA into peace. Instead, the peace process emerged from a political and military stalemate.
After the IRA ceasefire ended in 1975, British government strategy returned to trying to reduce IRA activity and Sinn Féin support. It was hoped the IRA would eventually give up or become politically irrelevant once an “acceptable level” of IRA activity was reached and normal political, socio-economic life emerged in Northern Ireland. By 1989, however, the British state altered their strategy against republicans in order to facilitate peace.
Accounts from back-channel contacts with the IRA, UK state papers and republicans suggest IRA leaders sought to persist and force the British government back to negotiations via an armed campaign and political pressure from at least the early 1980s. Whilst not gaining as much political support as desired, IRA leaders did achieve a return to negotiations by the 1990s.
Various republicans and UK security personnel estimate British intelligence prevented eight out of every 10 Belfast IRA operations by the 1990s. They believe Stakeknife and other intelligence operations contained and reduced Belfast IRA activity. Elsewhere, in Derry city, Raymond Gilmour became an RUC Special Branch informer in the early 1980s. He set up the arrests of more than 30 alleged IRA members and sympathisers after turning supergrass.
Nonetheless, existing evidence suggests the Belfast and Derry city IRA did not face terminal decline by the 1990s. With only four to eight members, the Belfast and Derry IRA’s cell structure after 1975 assisted the IRA in removing some suspected informers through a process of elimination. One consequence was the IRA recommencing bombing Belfast city between 1991 and 1993. Neither Stakeknife nor others seemed to have had unlimited access to Belfast cells and operations.
Various republicans and British security personnel believe political pressure partly explains the decline in intensity of urban IRA campaigns by the 1990s. Large-scale operations in compact cities decreased in part to prevent multiple civilian casualties, which could harm Sinn Féin’s electoral support.
With Sinn Féin becoming the largest nationalist party in Belfast city council in 1993, the IRA and Sinn Féin had not been made irrelevant in Belfast politics by the 1990s.
South Armagh was one of the most heavily monitored parts of the world following the construction of British watchtowers in the 1980s. Nonetheless, British and Irish security personnel agree that south Armagh remained the IRA’s strongest unit by 1998. The south Armagh IRA forced British forces to take helicopter flights in and out of security bases there following roadside vehicle bombs in the 1970s. They also persisted in attacking military bases in the 1990s. So secure were the south Armagh IRA from infiltration that they exported some high-profile attacks to England during the 1990s.
Gathering intelligence in south Armagh was difficult. UK archival documents suggest the south Armagh IRA acquired local obedience partly through fear. But archival papers and interviewees also say the south Armagh IRA had at least a sizeable minority of support. One reason was the anti-partition sentiment amongst the predominately Irish nationalist community living there. British security checkpoints in south Armagh also angered some nationalists by disrupting cross-border economic, social and family life. A post-conflict report by the British army accepted the watchtowers were particularly unpopular. The IRA attacked them, and protesters demanded their removal in 2001.
Former British and Irish security force members believe the south Armagh IRA’s emphasis on risk aversion meant republican operations occurred there following extensive intelligence. The result was fewer arrests and opportunities to turn south Armagh IRA members. The south Armagh IRA even discovered ground not covered by the watchtowers for sniper attacks in the 1990s.
Whilst security forces arrested some south Armagh republicans in 1997, republican leaders were already engaged in peace talks with British officials from 1990. The arrests were not a prerequisite to republican leaders accepting a negotiated political settlement in 1998. In addition, many south Armagh IRA volunteers were not apprehended by 1998. The south Armagh IRA sustained a persistent threat to British security services throughout the conflict.
Between 1987 and 1992, the east Tyrone IRA faced various SAS ambushes. The standout example is the SAS targeting eight east Tyrone IRA volunteers at Loughgall police barracks in 1987. Having a small collection of family and friends in rural IRA units made them difficult to infiltrate. But if infiltrated, the damage could be extensive. Nevertheless, in other rural areas and small towns in parts of Fermanagh, north and mid-Armagh, the IRA persisted. East Tyrone appears an outlier in rural areas by the 1990s.
Interviewees suggest the vast countryside made rural IRA units particularly dangerous. They could kill many British security force members in single attacks without risking extensive civilian casualties and political repercussions. Furthermore, the IRA permitted a large amount of regional autonomy. Former British security personnel and republicans explained how outsiders such as Stakeknife had limited access to rural IRA units. The British army’s post-conflict report accepts rural units were critical to IRA persistence.
Various IRA attacks in England and Libyan weapons shipments suggest the IRA leadership was not infiltrated to any significant extent, since the leadership sanctioned these operations. Sometimes informers slipped through. Sean O’Callaghan, a self-confessed Garda informer, disrupted some IRA operations in England in the early 1980s. A sizeable weapons shipment from Libya was also intercepted near France in 1987.
Nonetheless, the IRA continued various high-profile attacks in England. Examples include the Brighton bombing (1984), the Downing Street attack (1991) and Manchester bombing (1996). They also imported significant quantities of weapons from Libya by the late 1980s. British security services concluded the IRA had enough weapons to persist for the foreseeable future.
The IRA leadership’s isolation from grassroots volunteers made infiltration challenging. Army Council members also generally did not assist operations after 1975. Opportunities for arrests and subsequent pressure to inform appear scarce. The IRA in England was hard to infiltrate for other reasons. One factor is that the IRA rotated operators in England following failed attacks to prevent informers consistently disrupting activities.
Evidence points towards a political and military stalemate leading to peace by 1998. By the 1990s, Sinn Féin had acquired a sizeable minority of the Irish nationalist vote in Northern Ireland (approximately 30 per cent according to British civil servants). The IRA’s campaign also persisted. Both factors contributed to the British government, Irish government and other conflict participants deciding to engage in peace talks with republicans. The IRA agreed to peace partly because of the armed stalemate. They also lacked the majority of Irish nationalist political support north and south needed to achieve unification by 1998.
British intelligence operations did prevent specific IRA activities, with notable successes. Further IRA informers might also emerge. But available evidence does not suggest British intelligence pressurised the IRA into peace to any considerable extent.
Thomas Leahy is the author of The Intelligence War Against the IRA published by Cambridge University Press.