Working in the dark? Willie Carlin and British intelligence

617mSsgDHYLThatcher's Spy: My Life as an MI5 agent inside Sinn Féin, by Willie Carlin. Merrion Press, 2019. Amazon/Bookshop/Hive

This autobiography of Willie Carlin, a former British intelligence agent inside Sinn Fein, garnered significant press attention on publication last year. That's not surprising given that Carlin's career crossed paths with key figures from Martin McGuinness to future MI5 head Stella Rimington.

His most fateful encounter proved to be with Michael Bettaney, an MI5 agent-handler who later attempted to defect to the Soviet Union. Bettaney's imprisonment caused the end of Carlin's spying career, after his identity leaked to an IRA prisoner in England.
The story of such a figure is bound to be intriguing, but the spy memoir is a difficult genre to interpret. Spies, after all, survive by deception, and their autobiographies are classic vehicles for propaganda.

In this respect, it's troubling that some of Carlin's past statements, such as the claim that UDA killer Torrens Knight was an informer, are not dealt with in the book. Carlin states that some claims made in his name were posted by another former agent, Kevin Fulton, but it's not clear that this accounts for all such inconsistencies.

The most the reader can do is check the claims of such books against the other available evidence. Applying this test to Carlin leads to a natural enough conclusion

He appears somewhat credible when talking about his own experience as an agent, which tallies well with the picture of British intelligence in Derry provided by the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. He seems less reliable on the wider political agendas at work, though its not surprising that such matters would be opaque to an ordinary agent on the ground.

Carlin was born in 1948 into a Catholic family in the Waterside of Derry. His father had recently returned from wartime army service to a civilian job with the navy. The younger Carlin himself joined the army in the mid-1960s, several years before the Troubles gave such a decision a new and much more difficult significance.

In 1974, he was tapped by British intelligence to infiltrate Sinn Féin in his hometown, a task at which he worked until 1980. From 1981 until his exposure he worked for the British Army's Force Research Unit.

The timing fits well with the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, which revealed a number of agents active in Derry in the early 70s, most of whom were out of the picture by the time of Carlin's appearance. Like them, Carlin was handled by intelligence officers who were not resident in Northern Ireland, but travelled over occasionally from London. By the mid 70s, such officers would have come from the MI5/MI6 Irish Joint Section.

Carlin's poor relationship with the errant Bettaney completes an unimpressive picture of British intelligence during this period. If anything, it underlines why the one force Carlin refused to work with, the RUC Special Branch, was viewed as indispensible in Whitehall for so long.

It is jarring to realise that, having been sent to infiltrate Derry Sinn Féin in 1974, Carlin was still a local Waterside activist when he was questioned by the future high-flyer Stella Rimington on Martin McGuinness's thinking in 1980, and had yet to meet Mitchel McLaughlin at that point.

Ironically, after he began working for the army, Carlin started to gain access to the kind of political information the intelligence services were after. Riding the wave of mobilization prompted by the 1981 hunger strikes, he began to play a significant role in Sinn Féin's electoral and financing operations in Derry.

Carlin is very likely right about the influence of his reporting on British officials during this period, as the archives demonstrate their preoccupation with the growth of Sinn Fein in the early 1980s.

He is on murkier ground with his claim that British officials were working to push the republican movement towards politics. He recounts a meeting with a British official called 'Alec' who was keen to see Martin McGuinness elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, and represented 'a school of thought in London who differed from the main body of government.'

There certainly were intelligence officers who were sympathetic to a political opening to Sinn Féin, such as Michael Oatley of MI6, but during the period covered by Carlin's career, MI6 gradually gave up its role in Northern Ireland agent-running, and there's no evidence of similar thinking within MI5 until much later.

Martin McGuinness was a key player in Oatley's back-channel contacts with the IRA and Carlin claims to have seen McGuinness outside a British intelligence safe house. Local sources have questioned Carlin's account of the relevant geography, and it would be surprising if the same facilities were being used for agent-running and back channel diplomacy with the IRA. Nevertheless, stranger things have happened, and it would certainly explain Michael Bettaney's reported preference for meeting Carlin in hotels.

One could be forgiven for thinking that another explanation is intended. Over the years, some of McGuinness's critics have promoted the suggestion that the late deputy first minister was himself an informer, and this theme contributed to some of the interest in Carlin's book.

Carlin himself disavows the informer claim, suggesting that his own sightings related to the back-channel. Yet his own theories about British manipulation of republicans are just as difficult to credit.

On the basis of his interaction with Alec, Carlin concluded that the Force Research Unit was actively working to promote the political growth of Sinn Féin. This is an explosive claim in its own right, given the role of FRU agents like Brian Nelson in setting up republicans for assassination.

This, however, is where Carlin fails the independent evidence test. Northern Ireland Office files show that all of the top intelligence officers during this period, the Directors and Co-ordinators of Intelligence (DCIs), were hostile to the growth of Sinn Féin. They were actively seeking ways to counter the activities on which Carlin was reporting, and one of them, Harold Doyne-Ditmas, argued for banning Sinn Féin outright.

Archival references to Doyne-Ditmas place him in Northern Ireland from January 1982 to December 1984. It's even possible that he was a victim of the same Bettaney leak as Carlin, as he had to flee his own home due to a security warning.

Crucially, he would have been in place at the time of Carlin's conversation with Alec, shortly before the 1982 Assembly elections. It's difficult to believe that the FRU could have been tasked to implement a political strategy without Doyne-Ditmas' involvement, given his place in the Northern Ireland intelligence hierarchy.

Even during the periods when Michael Oatley was talking to republicans in the mid-1970s and again, briefly, during the hunger strikes, the evidence suggests that MI5 agent-runners were not sympathetic to his approach. The first-known exception is John Deverell, who worked with Oatley on Middle East terrorism and became DCI in the late 1980s, at a time when the peace process was just beginning.

Deverell is probably the 'John' who Carlin met when he was resettled in Wales in 1986. Although, he was already a senior MI5 officer during Carlin's active career, there is no evidence he had adopted the Oatley approach at that point.

None of this means that Carlin was lying about his conversation with Alec, or that Alec was lying when he told him about a dissenting view within British intelligence.

However, Carlin's account makes clear it was his own inference that the dissenters were in control of FRU strategy. That conclusion was mistaken, but it was not necessarily in his handlers' interests to disabuse him of the error.

Those handlers apparently viewed Carlin as being dangerously republican-minded. His own self-portrayal suggests a moderate nationalist with an ambivalent attitude towards his work with Sinn Féin. Would a competent agent-runner have disabused their agent of a belief that reinforced his motivations, even if that belief was false?

After all, if we are to consider the hidden hand of intelligence capable of controlling the peace process before the fact, mustn't we also concede the simpler hypothesis that it is capable of manipulating its own agents?

Carlin was undoubtedly a significant piece of the intelligence jigsaw in the early 1980s, but it would be unwise to infer too much about the bigger picture from his story.






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