Garda and military plan to reactivate paramilitary sources ahead of Brexit

Increase in the secret service vote to be used to fund sensitive operations amid UK’s exit

The military and the Garda's intelligence wing plan to use a large increase in the secret service budget to reactivate old paramilitary sources ahead of Brexit.

The secret service vote was increased by 60 per cent to €2 million, the largest increase in many years, in Budget 2020. This followed a 25 per cent increase in the previous budget.

Despite its name, the secret service vote is not used to fund a distinct intelligence agency. Instead it is an account that can be used by the Garda and military to fund sensitive operations, which in practice usually means paying sources for information.

Intelligence sources say the increase to the fund reflects the uncertain security situation surrounding Brexit, with republican and loyalist paramilitaries warning that it could lead to violence. The funding increase will be used to re-establish links with sources of information among and close to dissident groups and to cultivate new sources.


“The Government has all sorts of extra funding for Brexit. This is just another part of that,” a senior security official said.

The budget will also be used to fund the expected increase in demand for intelligence from the National Security Analysis Centre, which is in the process of being set up. The centre, which will operate under the Department of the Taoiseach, will analyse intelligence from the Garda, Defence Forces and other sources about risks to the State and present this to Government.

Few details

The centre will be headed by Dermot Woods, a former Department of Justice official recently appointed to the role of national security co-ordinator. Few details have been released about the centre, but it is understood that five Defence Forces personnel (two officers and three non-commissioned officers) will be seconded to its staff. These will be either current officers with the Directorate of Military Intelligence, known as J2, or officers who have served there in the past.

A similar number of gardaí will be seconded from the force’s security and intelligence branch and Revenue and the Department of Foreign Affairs will also be represented.

The secret service fund will not be used to establish the centre and the centre is unlikely to generate its own intelligence. Its budget will come from the Department of the Taoiseach, a spokesman confirmed.

The secret service budget is rarely used up and most years a significant proportion is returned to the exchequer. Since 2004 some €14 million has been assigned to the fund, with €8.7 million used.

However, in recent years, and particularly since the Brexit vote, the proportion of the fund actually used has gradually increased. Last year 70 per cent was spent, compared with 64 per cent in 2015 and 52 per cent in 2012.

The vast majority is spent on paying confidential informants for information but it can also be used for other purposes such as paying for safe houses for informants or for their upkeep.

In previous decades small portions of the fund were also used by the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Education for largely unknown purposes.

Liaison trips

During the second World War, the fund was used to pay for liaison trips by British intelligence officials to Ireland and by Irish officials to Britain which had to remain secret due to the State's neutrality, said Eunan O'Halpin, professor of contemporary Irish history at Trinity College.

The unusual nature of the fund is a holdover from British rule, said Prof O’Halpin, who has written extensively on Irish intelligence.

“It’s the one place where parliament gave money to the State without demanding receipts or that it be audited in the conventional way. It’s simply done on the word of the Ministers responsible for the money.”

Over the years ministers responsible for the fund have generally declined to answer questions about the fund in any detail. The fund is currently administered by the Department of Public Expenditure and is audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

However, the comptroller is limited to relying on annual certified statements from the Ministers for Defence and Justice on the expenditure, rather than detailed accounts. It is understood the Ministers themselves only receive limited information about this.

On occasion this limited oversight has led to abuses, said Prof O’Halpin. For example, during the Emergency the fund was used to buy 17 tonnes of coal and other fuel for the pope’s representative in Ireland.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times