Secrets and lies: Britain’s dirty war in Ireland
Rory Cormac, author of Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces, and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy, lifts the lid on the undercover war against the IRA
New archival documents show Edward Heath’s government took the dark arts of covert action from the Cold War and Empire to the streets of Northern Ireland
In the early 1970s, an MI6 officer drafted a menu of possible covert operations designed to take down the IRA. He was a veteran of British campaigns and revelled in his reputation as the last of the so-called robber barons.
The dramatic list – so eye-wateringly secret it has probably long been destroyed – caused a collective intake of breath among Whitehall’s civil servants. It included not only forging letters to incriminate terrorist leaders alongside sabotaging IRA weapons and ammunition, but it extended to assassination.
The face of Dick White, the UK Intelligence Co-ordinator and most senior secret servant in the land, turned ashen grey. But he dutifully passed the options up to the increasingly frustrated prime minister, Edward Heath, regardless.
The United Kingdom was, and remains, no stranger to covert action. Successive governments, hoping to advance national interests and stem decline, have used spies and propagandists to interfere in the affairs of other nations consistently since 1945.
Ireland unsurprisingly proved no exception. The Brits plotted a host of hair-raising schemes, many of which will never see the light of day.
And yet, being so close to home, the Troubles presented unique problems as violence erupted in Belfast and Derry. What was deemed appropriate against the mendacious Soviets or in some far-flung corner of the moribund British Empire appeared much less so on the streets of the United Kingdom.
Nonetheless, documents reveal that the Brits drew on Cold War and colonial counterinsurgency experience to wage their secret war against the IRA. What is more, this was not the activity of rogues and charlatans. Neither was it the activity of over-eager locals. Archival evidence now demonstrates that it came from the prime minister himself.
Heath felt under pressure. Like many prime ministers before and after, he turned to the secret world for answers. He looked to covert action as a silver bullet; a means of sorting things out quickly, quietly and efficiently.
The prime minister called for a propaganda battle, including what we might now call fake news. His staff briefed him that spies and diplomats alike were working to “overtly and covertly to blacken the IRA”. They aimed to exploit disagreements and divisions.
Still Heath wanted more. After Bloody Sunday in 1972, he demanded that more experienced propagandists be drafted in to discredit the IRA further. He even advocated using bribery to influence people.
Planted stories included tales of IRA embezzlement, fraud, and witchcraft; of Soviet rocket launchers arriving in Ireland; of how bomb-making causes cancer. On one occasion, not realising that the safety cap was still on, IRA fighters wondered why their bazooka shells had failed to explode. British propagandists deliberately concealed this explanation and instead issued a dummy army order stating that shells should be tested electronically. This, they hoped, would cause the shell to explode in the tester’s hands.
To justify their approach, British propagandists desperately tried to connect the violence to the Irish Republic. This would, in their heads at least, justify the controversial targeting – and subverting – of British citizens. They even tried to play up IRA connections with the Vatican City, as another foreign state, in order to legitimise foreign office propaganda.
This was a dangerous game; Ireland was a sovereign state and a supposed ally. London had earlier considered trying to influence Irish opinion and diplomats talked of expanding propaganda operations into Dublin. By 1973, however, the Foreign Office had scaled things back, acknowledging the inappropriateness of using the embassy there as an outlet for British propaganda. Instead, the Brits co-operated with the Irish government on countering international communism, including working stories outing Russian spies into the Irish press.
Many propaganda operations were outlandish and backfired. It was hard to keep black operations secret in such a small area. The army headquarters at Lisburn soon became known as the Lisburn Lie Machine. Any British stories lacked credibility; nobody believed a word the army said.
Propaganda, despite forming the backbone of British covert activity in Ireland and beyond, was comparatively small beer. Allegations of hit squads and assassinations proved far more controversial. The issue of extra-judicial killings continues to elicit strong reaction on all sides.
We now know that a top-secret unit known as the Military Reaction Force operated in 1972. It has proved deeply contentious ever since.
Few things that happened in the North are likely to shock anymore, given the decades of accusations, rumours, and witness testimonies. But seeing details written down – officially – in the British archives still sends shivers down the spine.
In late 1971, Britain’s most senior soldier called for more aggressive tactics to “mystify, mislead and destroy the terrorists”. This included small units operating undercover, echoing similar tactics used during colonial counterinsurgencies.
They disguised themselves as road sweepers – hiding machine guns inside dustcarts – and meth addicts lying on pavements with a pistol strapped to each leg. Some carried weapons which had been confiscated from the IRA. They gathered intelligence, looked for suspects, and hoped to instigate an incident which would result in an arrest or shooting. Or they would simply snatch a suspect off the street instead, bundling them into unmarked cars.
Assassination – as presented on the MI6 covert action menu – may have been greeted with horror. Indeed, the foreign secretary warned that after hundreds of years of the Irish problem, Britain did not need more blood on its hands now. However, MRF-style operations drew plaudits in Whitehall. Heath knew they existed. Senior soldiers explained to him the importance of this kind of work – and of using “covert forces”.
But the MRFs were far from the well-trained, efficient and discreet operators for which Heath hoped. It soon became apparent that cowboy amateurism on lawless streets risked inflaming the situation further. MRFs lacked the experience and expertise for such sensitive operations. They proved trigger-happy and made far too many mistakes, providing a propaganda gift to the Republicans in the process.
Heath agreed that the answer lay not in curbing such activity, but in professionalisation; in practice this meant bringing in the SAS. Yet the SAS – and in particularly the regiment’s fearsome reputation – brought new problems.
Heath rightly predicted uproar if the nationalists realised that SAS personnel operated in elite undercover units on the streets of the North. Accordingly, the military assured him that they would do everything in their power to hide SAS involvement.
They first used merely SAS instructors, then imposed a three-year embargo before SAS men could sign up to serve with the new units. This was reduced to two years before being abolished altogether. All the while, the Ministry of Defence rigidly stuck to the line – technically true – that no SAS unit was serving in Northern Ireland.
The early 1970s were a particularly brutal period in the Troubles. New archival documents demonstrate that Heath’s government was unafraid to transport the dark arts of covert action from the Cold War and Empire to the streets of Northern Ireland. It was willing to subvert domestic populations and to mislead the public. We know more about the dirty, secret war than ever before… but there is a long way to go before we know the full story.
Rory Cormac is an associate professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, specialising in secret intelligence and covert action. He is the author of Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces, and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy out now with Oxford University Press