Editor's Viewpoint: Secret agents are our hidden heroes
Spies and double agents have had a chequered - and in many cases an unsavoury - history throughout the decades of terrorist activities in both parts of Ireland.
There are well documented cases where agents overstepped the mark during the most recent Troubles and engaged directly in terrorism up to, and including, murder. Yet, it has to be accepted that the often murky world of intelligence-gathering is vital to national security in every country.
This was amply demonstrated in the case of a Real IRA arms smuggling ring, which a Belfast court heard was smashed thanks to the work of covert intelligence operatives working for MI5. They brought to justice a man described as the second-in-command of the dissident terrorist organisation. The republican leader, Paul McCaugherty, was fooled into believing that two MI5 agents, named as Ali and Amir, could supply him with a deadly arsenal.
In an operation which would not have been out of place in a John le Carre novel, McCaugherty was recorded trying to set up arms deals in cities across Europe. But this was no simple spy thriller. The agents were risking their lives at every meeting. Indeed, McCaugherty had doubts about Amir. The agents were dealing with a ruthless organisation which the terrorist admitted had made the bomb responsible for the carnage in Omagh, the worst terrorist atrocity of the Troubles.
It is impossible for most of us to comprehend how undercover agents can lead a double life day after day, knowing that exposure could end in death. Yet it is those men and women who are in the front line of the fight against terrorism. Their roles can never be publicly acknowledged and the work of agents like Ali and Amir can only be peeked at very occasionally when cases come to court. It may not be fashionable to say thanks to agents of the state, but on this occasion the people of Northern Ireland owe a great debt of gratitude to these two brave men and their colleagues.