British spy who took a deep interest in Ireland

Brian Stewart: April 27th, 1922 - August 16th, 2015

Brian Stewart with Prince Charles at a ceremony in June this year honouring D-Day veterans. Photograph: Chris Jackson - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Brian Stewart, who has died aged 93, was a British spy who took a deep interest in Ireland and in his later years became known to history enthusiasts through his participation in several events at Trinity College, Dublin.

Despite the erstwhile secret nature of much of his life’s work, Stewart was generous with his time and relaxed about being questioned on his career.

His enthusiastic recollection of events in which he played a part betrayed the impression that even in his late 80s, he was mildly surprised by his earlier self.

Brian Stewart was born in Edinburgh in 1922, the son of a jute merchant based in India whom he saw only twice in 16 years. After boarding school he went to Worcester College, Oxford and at the outbreak of the second World War enlisted with the Black Watch.


By the time of the Normandy landing in 1944 (D-Day), he was a captain in an anti-tank platoon that scored 12 hits against German Panzers in the Battle of Rauray on July 1st, 1944, taking out more enemy machines than any other unit.

Colonial service

After the war, he joined the British colonial service in Malaya, where he became an expert in counter-terrorism, resulting in his recruitment, in 1957, into


, the organisation which, then and now, specialised in gathering foreign intelligence for Britain.

As MI6 station chief in Hong Kong, Stewart was to become indispensible to British diplomatic and clandestine activities in China as well as in Burma, Borneo and Malaysia. In 1967-1968, when he was the only British representative in North Vietnam, he predicted, in a diplomatic cable, the eventual American defeat in the war.

Stewart spent more than 50 years with MI6, rising to the very top: for a time, he was acting head, or “C” as the post has always been known, following the retirement in 1978 of Sir Maurice Oldfield.

His experience in Malaysia and Britain's efforts, ultimately successful, to staunch a communist insurgency there stimulated an interest in Northern Ireland ( otherwise the preserve of MI5, Britain's internal intelligence-gathering service).

Stewart became secretary of the Joint Intelligence Committee, the first MI6 officer to hold the position. He is reported to have irked others on the committee by comparing the Malay and Northern Irish situations.

According to Trinity history professor Eunan O’Halpin, Stewart was “very keen on strengthening the RUC Special Branch, believing from his time in Malaya that the local police were the best people to collect and assess local intelligence”.

In later life, he was very open to talking about intelligence issues, according to O'Halpin. He co-operated with TCD PhD graduate Samantha Newbery on her recent book Interrogation, intelligence and security: controversial British techniques (Manchester University Press), her very different views notwithstanding.

Nationalist response

Says O’Halpin: “He had the utmost admiration for the Chinese people, languages and cultures and ... a clear and not unsympathetic understanding of communism in Asia as an essentially nationalist response to a century of humiliation by outside powers.

“Wherever he went in the world, he sought out the eating places of ordinary people – lorry drivers, market workers, labourers, believing this the best way of understanding the places he found himself in.”

Stewart's son by his second marriage, Rory, is a Conservative MP and junior minister. A former British diplomat in Iraq and Afghanistan, he inherited his father's sense of adventure, walking across Afghanistan and writing a memorable book, The Places In Between.

Brian Stewart retired to Perthshire where he became a keen gardener, planting more than 2,000 trees, and a painter in watercolour. Among his other interests were chinoiserie, skiing and chamber music.

His books included a slim volume of English and Chinese aphorisms, another on Fiji and a memoir, 80 Years around Asia: The Scrapbook of a Roving Highlander.

Earlier this year he published a guide to understanding Chinese art and Why Spy?, a lucid discussion of the practice and ethics of intelligence, which was written with Samantha Newbery .