Willie Carlin, MI5 agent-running and clandestine diplomacy in Northern Ireland

An intriguing new source on intelligence operations in Northern Ireland emerged this month with the publication of Thatcher's Spy by Willie Carlin, an MI5 agent who was active in Sinn Féin in Derry in the 1980s.

I haven't yet read the book, but Carlin's interview with Sam McBride of the News Letter provoked some thoughts which I will try to follow up when I can get hold of a copy. I was particularly struck by this passage on Carlin's role in Martin McGuinness's election to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 1982.

I relayed back to my new handlers how Martin had been reluctant to  stand, but Mitchel was working behind the scenes with Gerry Adams, Tom Hartley and others to bring McGuinness around and convince him.”

He  said that it became clear that the British agencies were keen to  facilitate – not stop – Mr McGuinness’s rise through the republican  ranks and then his move into politics. 

“A few days before the  election I had a routine meeting at Ebrington Barracks with my contact John. During the meeting he introduced me to a man named Alec from London (who was not military).

“He was very interested in how I  thought Sinn Féin would do at the election and was absolutely over the  moon when I told him of our plan to get Martin elected. Alec made it  clear to me that it was imperative that ‘Martin McGuinness gets elected  to the Northern Ireland Assembly’.

I have long been suspicious of suggestions that the political growth of Sinn Féin and hence the peace process was a result of intelligence manipulation, for reasons which I outlined in a 2012 openDemocracy article, The Conspiracy Theory of the Peace Process is a Dangerous Myth.

That article tried to show that the man I believe was the top intelligence official in Northern Ireland in 1981, David Ranson, argued explicitly against bringing Sinn Féin into the political process at the very moment when a window of opportunity had been opened up by the hunger strikes. 

Of course, this in itself suggests that there were other officials on the other side of the argument, and it's not impossible that a conversation of the kind Carlin describes took place.

There's no doubt that MI6 officers were involved in peace feelers at various stages of the Troubles. During the Hunger Strike back-channel contacts went through an MI6 officer known as P31/B, probably Michael Oatley.

Covert diplomacy of this kind is a distinct activity from clandestine agent-running because the former is known to both sides, although the details of who is privy to what leave scope for dangerous confusion between the two. 

It's unlikely that there were much in the way of Chinese walls between the two activities, but there is reason to think they were not as closely aligned as Carlin's account implies.  

The P31/B designation suggests that Oatley was part of MI6's normal reporting structure, for which Philip H.J. Davies' MI6 and the Machinery of Spying provides a useful diagram covering the period for 1981. The P sections were part of MI6's Directorate of Production, responsible for intelligence collection. Most sections covered national or regional areas, and collection would have covered the full range of intelligence relationships from liaison to clandestine agent-running.

P31 does not, however, appear to have been part of the main agent-running unit in Northern Ireland. From 1972 to 1984, this was the Irish Joint Section (IJS), which brought together MI5 and MI6 agent-runners. Evidence from the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry suggests the two agencies didn't always co-ordinate particularly closely within the IJS.

According to Davies, the MI6 side of the IJS came under the UK section, P20. This in itself suggests that Oatley's operations were distinct from those in which MI5 were involved.

The growing dominance of MI5 is the major reason for doubting that agent-running in Northern Ireland was closely co-ordinated with clandestine diplomacy. After the IJS was wound up in 1984, MI5 was the sole Whitehall agency responsible for agent-running in Northern Ireland. From the mid-1970s onwards, MI5 also controlled the position of Director and Co-ordinator of Intelligence, the Northern Ireland Secretary's main intelligence advisor.

Oatley is reported to have believed that the the first MI5 DCI, Denis Payne, was opposed to his back-channel contacts, and there is evidence that a number of later DCIs took a similar view. As noted above, David Ranson warned of the risks of encouraging a republican move towards politics in 1981.

Ranson's successor, Harold Doyne-Ditmas, argued for banning Sinn Féin outright in late 1983. This is an odd view for the senior intelligence officer in Northern Ireland to take if, as  Carlin claims, British intelligence was working behind the scenes to promote Sinn Fein's  prospects in the elections which took place a few months later.

As late as 1987, Doyne-Ditmas' successor, Alan Ferneyhough, was working with Belfast officials of the Northern Ireland Office on proposals 'to eradicate republican terrorism and erode political support for Sinn Fein', plans which were dismissed in London as too hardline.

It is not until John Deverell's tenure as DCI in the early 1990s that it is possible to identify any MI5 official sympathetic to the political initiative that became the peace process.

The repeated claims that the peace process was promoted not just by covert diplomacy but by penetration agents, risk undermining support for the Good Friday Agreement. That would be beside the point if those claims were true, but the reality is that they are profoundly at odds with the limited documentary record. We should be wary of allowing the unsupported testimony of former agents to draw the focus from the questions that might otherwise arise out of that record.

One such question might be this: What impact did MI5 officers' repeatedly stated concern about the electoral growth of Sinn Féin have on their agent-running activities during the 1980s?







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