Cross-posted from Patreon.
Key people around the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were monitored by MI5 in the 1980s, according to remarks by former Director-General Stella Rimington, reported in several papers today.
This is hardly surprising given that as Labour's spokesman responded: "It is well-documented that a wide range of trade union and political activists, including future senior government ministers, were monitored in the 1980s by the security services."
The Mail has engaged in some rather tendentious speculation about which of Corbyn's inner circle might be involved. In the 1970s and 1980s, F Branch, the counter-subversion wing of MI5, headed at one time by Rimington, had whole sections dedicated to monitoring the CPGB and the major Trotskyist groups. However, at least one of those named by the Mail, Jon Lansman, is a long-standing member of the Bennite Labour left, with no known Leninist 'trace' to provide a figleaf of justification for MI5's interest. If MI5 were monitoring him, it implies direct political surveillance of the Labour Party. If they were not, then the Mail's story is a scurrilous innuendo bordering on defamatory.
Another of those named by the Mail, Seumas Milne, has a very particular history with Rimington, having documented her role during the 1984 Miners' Strike in his book The Enemy Within.
What should not be forgotten about MI5's counter-subversion activities during this period is that many of them were exposed by F Branch officers such as Cathy Massiter and Miranda Ingram, who were dismayed at the partisan nature of the actions they were being asked to undertake.
The most extreme response was that of Michael Bettaney, who made a failed attempt to defect the KGB. While in prison, he is said to have tipped off the National Union of Mineworkers' about a mole in its organisation on the eve of the strike.
As it happens, I have been going over the public sources on Bettaney's career for the next update of The Spotters' Guide to British Intelligence Officers in Ireland. Bettaney reportedly had a very rough time as an F Branch agent-runner in Northern Ireland in the late 1970s. This was the period when MI6/Foreign Office attempts to find a negotiated solution to the conflict were giving away to MI5's more hardline approach.
Bettaney might have been particularly well-placed to observe this process, if a Sunday Times report in 2000 was correct in claiming that he worked under Rimington in handling Willie Carlin, an agent involved in the IRA and Sinn Fein in Derry. Disillusionment with some aspects of MI5's role in Northern Ireland may have played a part in Bettaney's cynicism about the West at a time when detente was giving way to renewed Cold War.
It's worth noting that Jonathan Powell's Great Hatred, Little Room describes Rimington as sceptical of the MI6 contacts which were key to the emergence of the peace process in the early 1990s. She seems, however, to have been won over by MI5's senior officer in Northern Ireland who Powell does not name, but who was probably John Deverell.
Rimington's involvement in Ireland went back to the late 1960s, when she was a desk officer in an Irish section rapidly expanding in response to the Troubles.
All of which is to say that can of worms opened up by Rimington's comments leads to far more interesting questions about her past than about Corbyn's, if one chooses to pursue them.