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.