Agents of Influence by Dr Aaron Edwards – my view
by Philip Ingram MBE
I’m from Northern Ireland and grew up through the Troubles, I’m also a former senior officer in British Military Intelligence, who has never served in Northern Ireland formally in that role, I have served there in the mid 1980s in other roles. I think I know the place.
When I opened Dr Aaron Edwards book Agents of Influence, I was expecting lots of new stories and juicy insights exposing stories of agents in the republican movement that would leave me surprised and smiling, I started disappointed.
I was disappointed because my initial impression was that the book was a repetition of cases that had already been published elsewhere as I have read a lot of books about the Troubles and more are being published exposing the penetration of different terror groups by the Army, MI5, and the police on both sides of the border. Then it struck me, and I had one of those growing smiles inside that said to me, wow, this book is very very clever.
Whether you have served in an intelligence role in Northern Ireland or not, one thing is certain, as an intelligence officer you will have heard the stories. Stories shared furtively over a nod and a wink in the bar, or at a Regimental dinner, or whilst whiling away the hours wasted waiting for the RAF to deploy you on operations or bring you home, or in Land Rovers in operational theatres traveling long distances in complete discomfort, conversations between those who have been there in a HUMINT role, part of the unit referred to by letters only and oft confused with others, by those who want everyone to see them as a breed apart from other intelligence personnel, better, more warrior like, but they love to tell stories.
Over the years, little bits of the stories from different people add up to a better understanding of the picture, that is intelligence, and there were only a finite number of storied worth telling from Northern Ireland. The other thing about piecing the elements of the stories together, is you quickly recognise the embellished bullshit from the furtive reality. It is human nature, people like to talk and tell stories, even agent handlers.
Agents of Influence is one of the most cleverly put together telling of those stories, with the detail carefully weaved around other accounts already in the public domain, but much of it is new and the research behind it is exceptional. When that realisation hit me, this book took on a whole new meaning. Aaron Edwards has masterfully integrated stories about agents I only heard snippets of in the Bar and elsewhere, bringing them to life but without compromising them, as many are still in their communities either ‘stood down,’ effectively retired from crown service, or still active and reporting on activities, political, paramilitary and or criminal within their communities. The links between them remain strong.
His book gives a very clear understanding of the ways the different intelligence organisations worked and the often-differing priorities and the seeming lack of coordination in many cases, that I know is accurate. He describes the way those in the Republican movement who wanted a political settlement were encouraged, almost assisted and oft rewarded and how it was probable that elements of the Republican movement used the security forces, and relationships they had with them via agents of influence, to interdict those in the movement who wanted nothing but violence or refused to follow more moderate ambitions.
What is very clear from his detailed research, not just with those who ran the agents, the handlers, but many agents themselves, is the level of penetration there was across the republican movement both within their paramilitary units and their political structures. What he didn’t have to say but is clearly implied, is those individuals are still within their communities today.
There will always be a debate as to just how penetrated the republican movement was (and still is) with the Republican movement claiming much of what is in the public domain is an exaggeration. The reality is as Edwards suggests and I know, is what is in the public domain, including Edwards’s insights, is merely the tip of the iceberg. This is a fantastic read with excellent insights!
You can get the book thought Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1785373412/
Thatcher’s Spy by Willie Carlin
Review by Philip Ingram MBE
I bought this book with a degree of scepticism. There are an increasing number of accounts of “The Troubles” and an increasing number of people claiming links to the intelligence war in “The Troubles.” Why? Well their claims are virtually impossible to verify and with the continuing bigoted, historically focused political sectarianism that has paralysed progression in Northern Ireland combined with the over inflated influence the DUP had with the minority Conservative Government and the continuing clamour for and claims about what really happened in public enquiries, anniversary TV programmes and more, it is a marketing dream for publishers.
Using that as a baseline, combined with my own inside knowledge, I found this book difficult to put down. I grew up with much of what went on so do have a knowledge from that perspective. I have also talked to a huge number of people who have served in Northern Ireland in an Intelligence role but not about this book specifically.
The book is well written, an easy read, accurately describes many incidents from a perspective that can only be from someone who was there and has a logic thread to many of the things he described that made me realise that there was a lot more to this book than my scepticism wanted to admit. I really enjoyed it and found it thought provoking and informative.
He starts as a good Catholic boy from Derry joining an Irish Regiment in the British Army, something that the average casual observer of Northern Irish politics would initially scoff at , but the reality was the Irish regiments recruited from North and South of the border, Catholic and Protestant alike, it made for the regimental St Patricks Day parties to become interesting events, where sectarianism was defined by song but trumped by loyalty to the Regiment.
Carlin was ‘placed’ by MI5 and then had a career of being handled by them and then an organisation in the British Army with an infamy in Northern Irish history, the Force Research Unit or FRU. His description of their modus operandi broadly fits with the reality of how they worked and his description of some of their basic errors in drills fits perfectly with the arrogance many who served in that type of unit had. They often believed themselves to be ‘an elite’ amongst intelligencers and invincible.
Early in the text he introduces one of his dilemmas when he describes seeing Martin McGuinness coming out of an MI5 safe house and whilst he goes on later to say he didn’t believe McGuinness was working for MI5, he more than subtly explains a London derived plan to protect McGuinness, his move to politics and move away from the ‘armed struggle’ and to enable his election. On more than one occasion he introduces senior British officials who favoured a move to a united Ireland.
His text will likely worry unionists and perpetuates the question ‘What was McGuinness’s relationship with British Intelligence?’ as there clearly was one. This is never answered.
He also explains how he came to find out about, or uncover, a number of other agents in Sinn Fein and the IRA who were working for British Intelligence. His knowledge was in Derry and that wasn’t the number one priority for British Intelligence at any time.
Extrapolating his Derry exposures province wide would suggest the IRA and Sinn Fein were leaking like a sieve, and a good percentage of those with access to information were on the payroll of the state either working for the police, the army or MI5. That was at a time when Intelligence operations were immature; from the late 1990’s on, operations became significantly more mature and probably remain that way even today.
Carlin confirms McGuinness and Adams as IRA commanders and their links to ‘the Armalite and the Ballot Box’ campaign and talks about how Sinn Fein planned and executed election fraud by ‘personating’ votes. What he suggests is that the political path for McGuinness was watched over by MI5 who took opportunities to craft his progression away from the armed struggle when they could and when they couldn’t, they took action to reduce any obstacles that could have been in his way.
The role the British State played in the move of the republican movement from one of an armed struggle to a political movement is unlikely to be fully revealed in our lifetimes if ever. Is it now time that Gerry Adams come clean publicly about his role in the IRA?
Through the book Carlin talks of the “fuck-up squad” who were IRA volunteers not quite under control, the battle between the IRA and INLA, the tensions caused by republican funding being switched from the armed struggle to the political wing. He details how much it cost Sinn Fein to maintain its political presence across Northern Ireland, but his focus remains firmly in his home territory of Derry city with a couple of forays to Tyrone and Fermanagh.
He doesn’t bang an ideological drum and is matter of fact about his lack of respect for the RUC and, after he was extracted and resettled, how he nearly deliberately shot another informer! His personal tragedies come through having lost a child to cot death whilst he was still in the British Army and then later in life his daughter in a car accident and son to sepsis but tragedies aside there is a flicker of pride throughout the book in what he did.
He has a pride in the relationship he had with McGuinness, his fly-fishing analogy and that he got him to say the IRA had no weapons in Derry on Bloody Sunday. He has a pride in how he managed to personate votes in elections, he has a pride in his interactions with MI5 and the FRU and he has a pride in the achievements that were put down to his intelligence and he has pride that Margaret Thatcher sent her ministerial jet to whisk him away from Northern Ireland and that she at a later date came to shake his hand.
In all this is a thought-provoking book from a man in his 70’s who was there. Do I believe it? I do, will there be mistakes? Of course there will, as no one has complete recall over such a period of time and through such dramatic events but in all I highly recommend this account of a very troubled period.
The New IRA is believed to have been responsible for a number of attacks in Derry in recent years, including an attempt to kill a police officer by planting a bomb under his car outside his home in 2017. It claimed responsibility for firing shots and throwing grenades at police during nights of disturbances in Derry last summer.
In January 2019 a car bomb exploded outside Derry City Court House, luckily injuring no one and causing little damage. Two men in their twenties were detained hours after the explosion and two other men aged 34 and 42 were arrested in the city the next day. We have people in their nappies when the Good Friday agreement was signed at the front of this new terror wave.
In March 2019 five parcel bombs were sent from the Irish Republic to addresses in Great Britain, four were delivered, only one partially initiating when it was opened, and one was returned to a sorting office in the Republic of Ireland where it was discovered and dealt with. The New IRA were blamed.
Now, at the height of the Christian Calendar, the PSNI are blaming the New IRA for the death of Lyra McKee, a journalist covering nights of disturbance on the Creggan Estate in Derry, similar to what had happened last year. Two teenagers were arrested for the shooting, at 18 and 19 they weren’t born when the Good Friday Agreement was signed 21 years ago. Somehow in those intervening years they were groomed into thinking republican terror was the way forward. That is clearly a rot at the centre of elements of the community and that rot killed Lyra McKee.
Formed in 2012 following a merger between groups including the Real IRA and Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD), which was predominantly active in the northwest of Northern Ireland, it has been responsible for the murders of two prison officers.
David Black (52) was shot dead as he drove to work in Co Armagh in 2012, while Adrian Ismay died 11 days after a bomb exploded under his van in Belfast in 2016.
The Real IRA, emerged toward the end of 1997 and were blamed forthe 1998 Omagh bomb, which claimed the lives of 29 people and unborn twins, the worst atrocity of the Troubles.
It was also claimed that the Real IRA were responsible for the deaths of two British soldiers in 2009 outside the Massereene Barracks in Antrim and has been linked to other gun attacks, bombings and other criminality across the UK and Ireland.
In 2014 Forbes Israel carried out a study into the wealth of terror organisations across the globe. Most dissident republican groups, such as the Continuity IRA and all of the loyalist terror groups failed to make the Forbes list.
Forbes Israel top 10 of terror:
1 Isis £1.3bn
2 Hamas £638m
3 Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) £383m
4 Hezbollah £319m
5 Taliban £255m
6 Al-Qaeda and affiliates £96m
7 Lashkar e-Taiba £64m
8 Al-Shabaab £45m
9 Real IRA £32m
10 Boko Haram £16m
However, significantly the Real IRA came in at number 9 sandwiched between Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram with a £32 million annual turnover. This money comes from extortion, smuggling, drug running, robbery and other organised criminal activities. The link between serious and organised crime and terror couldn’t be clearer.
The New IRA have no cause, they have no political agenda, they are fed by the politics of ‘nay’ espoused by all of the main political parties in Northern Ireland. They are a serious and organised criminal; organisation who, for kicks, use terror tactics to maintain a presence in society. They are no more than little bullies with guns and bombs extorting the future of the children of Northern Ireland. It’s time to stop.