Little did they know

British Spies and Irish Rebels: British Intelligence and Ireland, 1916-45 By Paul McMahon Boydell Brewer, 516pp

British Spies and Irish Rebels: British Intelligence and Ireland, 1916-45 By Paul McMahon Boydell Brewer, 516pp. £30A lucid and sensible treatment of the ineptitude of British intelligence in relation to the fledgling Irish Free State, writes Deidre McMahon

COL DAN BRYAN, the formidable head of Irish military intelligence during the second World War, observed wisely that "what frightens intelligence people is not what they know but what they don't know and what they suspect". Since the British intelligence services knew very little about Ireland in the three decades after the 1916 Rising, their fear, as Paul McMahon shows in his fascinating new study, was as great as their ignorance.

What does intelligence mean? McMahon writes that it's not just about spies and spying. It's also about necessary bureaucracy, the collection and processing of information, open and secret, relating to the security of the state. There were plenty of covert operations in Ireland between 1916 and 1945, but the information flowing in from other sources, especially private correspondents and the Tory press, was often more significant because it bolstered "the preconceptions, prejudices and political opinions that conditioned how the British perceived Ireland".

This powerful theme is at the heart of McMahon's book. Preconceptions about Ireland were pervasive because the country was so closely connected to Britain and had bitterly divided British politics for so long. The British political and intelligence elite had strong opinions on its people, its problems and the right solutions, although their familiarity with the country was often slight. The informality of so much British intelligence on Ireland, the stream of angry letters from family members, friends and acquaintances (the vast majority of whom had unionist sympathies) contacting people in high places in London about what was happening in Ireland, meant that these prejudices and assumptions were never systematically challenged. The main problem was not the acquisition of intelligence but how the policy-makers in London used it. Not for the first nor the last time, governments saw what they wanted to see. For two critical years, 1918-1920, the British cabinet's Irish policy was effectively run by Walter Long, a decrepit but determined southern unionist, who would regularly intone to colleagues that "I know Ireland" and that Sinn Féin would soon be brought to heel by a determined show of force.


In the 19th century, the authorities in Ireland and Britain had effortlessly crushed the various Irish revolutionary movements, but by 1916 the position had changed. The Irish police knew little about the new groups springing up before 1916. The intelligence system in Ireland was losing its effectiveness just as modern intelligence organisations such as MI5 and MI6 were being established in Britain. After 1916 they faced a better-organised Irish opposition that had learned hard lessons from previous failures, particularly regarding informers.

Any expectations that intelligence would improve after the signing of the 1921 Treaty were not fulfilled. As civil war approached, McMahon shows how damaging poor intelligence was. One naval intelligence officer at Queenstown (now Cobh) reported that the split between Collins and de Valera was all bluff, and there were similar warnings from Irish loyalists and diehard Tory MPs. One persistent prediction was that there would be a massacre of Protestants (shades of 1641 and 1798), which, according to one Tory MP, would be organised by the GAA and the Franciscans (in what was seen as an ominous portent, the Franciscans had apparently organised a pilgrimage to Multyfarnham Abbey for the first time in many years). British ministers were at the mercy of these reports, notably Winston Churchill, whom McMahon castigates for his susceptibility to "alarmist, politicised, partial intelligence that swung opinion towards a pessimistic interpretation of the Irish situation and led to desperate acts". Where Ireland was concerned, Churchill's actions in May to June 1921 demonstrated that "he was not always a safe pair of hands" - and that judgment was even more true in 1940.

McMahon charts how influential and persistent was the diehard unionist perspective. The loss of Ireland was traumatic and the alternative account of the Irish revolution was presented in the internal histories prepared by the British army and by the Castle intelligence branch in 1922 and in the later memoirs of ministers, officials and officers. These had a number of running themes: Sinn Féin's programme was delusional and unrepresentative. The elections of 1918 and 1921 were exercises in intimidation. The Catholic Irish were moral cowards and the rebels were dirty fighters. The greatest hostility was reserved for the British government because of the visceral belief that the IRA was on the verge of surrender when a lily-livered British administration surrendered to terror.

THESE FEELINGS OF resentment and humiliation persisted within the British ruling establishment for two decades and left their mark on intelligence assessments of the new state. McMahon describes the "deeply caustic and pessimistic attitude towards the Irish Free State". There was contempt for the new rulers and institutions of the Irish Free State and an exaggeration of the persecution of and discrimination against loyalists. Reports of impending social and economic anarchy had serious consequences when the new government was trying to raise financial loans in London. When German Siemens technicians arrived to work on the Shannon scheme, reports reached London that the Shannon Valley [sic] was "absolutely stiff with Bosche".

There were other, more optimistic voices who hoped that the Free State would settle down and become a model dominion like New Zealand. Those hopes were justified for most of the 1920s, but McMahon argues that the complacency this engendered led to the most egregious British intelligence failure of the inter-war period - the failure to track the resurgence of de Valera and his new party, Fianna Fáil.

The hysterical British reaction to de Valera's election in 1932 is wonderfully funny in retrospect, but the failure of British intelligence to compile even the most basic assessment of the new government contributed to the disruption of Anglo-Irish relations for most of the 1930s. By 1936, having successfully dispatched the Blueshirts and the IRA, de Valera was perceived as someone British ministers could do business with, and the results were seen in the 1938 agreements, which returned the naval ports retained by Britain in 1921. But as war approached, McMahon considers it striking that the question of whether Ireland would stay neutral was "rarely examined in any great depth". This facilitated the fuzzy thinking and uncritical optimism that turned to shock and a sense of betrayal when the Irish declared neutrality.

In the first two years of the war it looked as if British intelligence was making the same mistakes as it had after 1916: there was a flood of fantastic reports, too often taken at face value, about German submarines receiving succour along the west coast, and thousands of German Gauleiters and Quislings on the move. A series of inept covert operations was mounted, with amateur spies masquerading as fishermen or ornithologists, who attracted suspicion wherever they went and greatly irritated the Irish authorities. Even Churchill was again on the rampage about Ireland. The situation was transformed by two developments. The first was the appointment of the shrewd and level-headed Sir John Maffey as the first "British Representative in Ireland". The second was the close intelligence co-operation that gradually developed between Irish military intelligence and MI5.

McMahon's writes lucidly and sensibly on a subject that often attracts fevered treatment, and he makes excellent use of recently released intelligence material in both Irish and British archives.

• Deirdre McMahon lectures in history at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick