Some thoughts on agent Brocolli – with a postscript on Albert Baker

Ed Moloney and James Kinchin-White have tonight published a new document from the National Archives featuring some interesting discussions about intelligence between senior Army officers in 1973. However, the evidence for their conclusion, that it points to a high-level army source inside the IRA, seems to me to be flawed.

The relevant document is an account of a meeting on 24 May 1973 between the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland (GOC NI) Frank King and the Vice Chief of the General Staff Sir David Fraser. 

The final item in the record states:

h. Brocolli. VCGS brought the GOC up to date and discussed the problem of protection of the source.

It is this single cryptic reference that Moloney and Kinchin-White interpret as evidence of an agent in the IRA, raising the obvious alternative possibilities only to dismiss them:

There is no clue about “Brocolli’s” identity, not even that it is a person rather than a thing, and nor is it at all clear whether “Brocolli” is associated with Republican paramilitaries rather than Loyalists. However the paper makes an earlier reference to the fact that the Army now has “good intelligence” on the UDA and the absence of a reference to “Brocolli” at this point in the discussion suggests it was not a Loyalist source. That points to a Republican connection and, since the Provisional IRA was the British Army’s principal foe in 1973, that “Brocolli” was somehow associated with that camp.

However, there is an obvious reason why Brocolli might not have been mentioned in the earlier discussion of intelligence in Item B of the document. In that item, as in most of the document, the discussion was led by the GOC, Frank King, and largely concerned operations with which he would have been involved at Headquarters Northern Ireland (HQNI). For example, it mentions the Special Reconnaissance Unit, which was under the direct command of HQNI. It also discusses liaison with the Director and Co-ordinator of Intelligence (DCI), Fred Rowley, who was also based in Belfast. (Incidentally, while Moloney and Kinchin-White suggest Rowley was MI5, his recent Times obituary confirms he was an MI6 officer.)

The briefing on Brocolli, however, did not come from King, but from Fraser, the Whitehall-based VCGS. That implies that Brocolli, who or whatever it was, was unlikely to have referred to an army agent in Northern Ireland. All of the relevant agent-handling units would have reported to King, and Item B implies that he had a pretty good handle on them. So why would Fraser have briefed King on his own operations?

That suggests Brocolli was associated with either another agency or another theatre of operations. One might think of MI5's extensive operations against loyalists in Scotland, or of the numerous strands connecting the British Army of the Rhine to various phases of the Troubles. Such suggestions are speculative of course, but no more so than Moloney & Kinchin-White's. 

Even the conclusion that Brocolli was a human source is open to doubt. Fans of the extensive literature on wartime Ultra operations will understand why Moloney and Kinchin-White's argument, that the need for source protection 'points to a human source', does not hold. All intelligence operations, technical or human, require security, and some technical operations have been among the most sensitive.

Of course, it is quite likely that the IRA was penetrated to some extent during the Troubles. Nevertheless, there are dangers in over-stating the significance of such counterintelligence games. Elements of western intelligence were paralysed by fear of moles during the Cold War, to an extent that blinded them to the real weakness of the Soviet Union, and to the opportunity that eventually emerged in the form of perestroika.

The counterintelligence mindset tends towards an inherently conservative idealism, seeking explanations in the will to power of enemy actors, and not in the wider realities that constrain all sides. The hunt for a mole who will provide the key to the secret history of the peace process risks giving succour to the extremists on all sides who see compromise as betrayal.

Moles there may have been, and a full accounting of the Troubles will have to examine the intelligence war scrupulously, but the conspiracy theory of the peace process is one we should reject.


It occurs to me that Brocolli could be a reference to Albert Baker, a former soldier and UDA member who claimed to have been an agent of the Military Reaction Force, the precursor of the Special Reconnaissance Unit. According to Martin Dillon's The Dirty War, Baker fled to England in 1973 after the UDA began to suspect he was an Army agent. According to the Barron Report, he rejoined the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Rangers at Warminster. He then gave himself up at Warminster County Police Station on 31 May 1973, exactly a week after the meeting between King and Fraser. 

If Baker was Brocolli it would account for a number of the known facts:

  1. His flight to England would explain why the VCGS was briefing the GOC and not the other way round.
  2. His flight from the UDA would explain the need for source protection.
  3. According to Dillon's The Dirty War, Baker had been a bodyguard for the UDA's Tommy Herron. This might be a factor in the 'good intelligence on Herron' mentioned early in the document in item B. Indeed, that coincidence might be one of a number of aspects of the document which support the long-standing suggestion that Baker was under Army control during his time in Belfast.
  4. His name would account for the Brocolli designation in a most apposite way, since he shared a first name and initials with James Bond producer Albert 'Cubby' Broccoli.







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