MI5 knew 'more about Nairobi than Belfast at start of Troubles'

An authorised history paints a new picture of MI5 in the North, writes Mark Hennessy , London Editor

An authorised history paints a new picture of MI5 in the North, writes Mark Hennessy, London Editor

IN THE history of the 30 years of the Northern Ireland conflict, the catalogue of IRA bombings is long and bloody: the Poppy Day attack in Enniskillen, Warrenpoint, the attack on Lord Louis Mountbatten and dozens more.

In the eyes of Christopher Andrew, the Cambridge historian who has pored over 400,000 MI5 files before writing its authorised history, the most important one is seldom remembered: Sullom Voe.

Queen Elizabeth II and the King of Norway were at the inauguration of the Sullom Voe oil terminal in the Shetland Islands in May 1981 when a bomb exploded in an electricity power station 500 yards away.

The explosion was initially believed to have been caused by an electrical fault, so the ceremony continued. It was only later that the authorities discovered that two bombs would have gone off if an IRA plot had gone as planned.

The second bomb was sent in the post to the bomber, a worker on the site. When it was delayed, he panicked, planted the first and left. The second, bizarrely, was eventually posted back to his address in Northern Ireland.

“The great trick missed by the IRA was not to go early for economic targets on the British mainland,” says Andrew, who has spent decades writing about British intelligence.

Sullom Voe ''was a damn close thing''. The IRA did not turn their attention to economic targets for another decade, he said. "This was just two years after Mountbatten and Warrenpoint, remember," says Andrew, whose book Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5is published by Penguin.

In the eyes of republicans and others, MI5 was involved in “a dirty war” during the Troubles, involved in shoot-to-kill, assassinations and blackmail.

In Andrew’s eyes, the MI5 files tell a different story. But do they tell the full story?

He believes so: “They never expected them to be read by a historian, and published. Why would they be so frank in them about refusing to hire Jews after the second World War? And they are. Because it never occurred to them that anyone would look.”

Under a division of responsibilities dating back to the Fenian Dynamite War in the mid-1880s, the lead role against nationalist/republican Irish terrorism in Britain was taken by the Metropolitan Police. The security services had responsibility for dealing with loyalist paramilitaries. It was not until 1992 that the full role passed to MI5.

“The first thing that I’m convinced of is that they had much less to do with Northern Ireland for two decades than has been realised,” he said, while MI5’s “institutional memory” of Ireland was practically nil.

“I have yet to come across any reference in the files to the previous Troubles. If ever there was an example of those who do not understand the past repeating itself, it was this,” he commented.

MI5 knew “more about Nairobi than it did about Belfast at the start of the Troubles. It was an imperial intelligence agency. People looked forward to nice postings, with a nice social set. Belfast was alien territory,” says Andrew.

So unwelcome was Belfast to MI5 officers in the 1970s and 80s, that postings there “had to be written into their contracts”, he says. Though he accepts his arguments will not change those of a fixed mind, he insists that the security service was not involved in a shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland. “I am entirely convinced of that, but I don’t expect to be particularly persuasive.”

MI5's role was most public during the shootings of three IRA members, Seán Savage, Daniel McCann and Mairéad Farrell in Gibraltar in 1988, which led to the well-known documentary, Death on the Rock.

Andrew again argues that the three were not shot before they had the chance to surrender, and says the operation was marked by gaps in surveillance and knowledge rather than by murderous intent.

He insists MI5 did not play a role behind loyalist terrorists in the Dublin/Monaghan bombings – something long suspected by many. “I know of no example anywhere in the world where MI5 acted as an agent provocateur. The idea that Dublin was the only place is incredibly improbable.”

In 1992, MI5 took over the lead intelligence role, shortly before the IRA embarked on its bombing campaign against the city of London and infrastructure targets.

“This was the point that the IRA came closest to winning,” says Andrew, pointing to the Baltic Exchange and Nat West bombings in 1992 and 1993, along with warnings to international banks to quit their bases in London.

The attacks did major damage, but it could have been even worse: more than 30 attacks were foiled. The IRA returned to the campaign in 1996, after it ended its 17-month ceasefire. There were attacks on Manchester and Canary Wharf. It was by then planning an attack on London’s electricity system, which MI5 and other agencies foiled with Operation Airlines after a suspected IRA bomber was spotted taking up residence in Tooting Broadway in the city.

The peace process was aided during this time, he believes, by MI5’s “calculation that the people they were dealing with” in the IRA and Sinn Féin “had not had their judgment completely brutalised.

“One of the things that make possible the end of the Troubles is that the principals, or, at least, some of the principals, were not corrupted by violence. Usually, it corrupts people in ways that make it impossible to build things like the Good Friday agreement.”