Informers' fate: don't come home or you're dead
The IRA is long gone, but the death threats to double agents still remain, says Henry McDonald
Last Friday night the BBC screened Fifty Dead Men Walking which was the first network outing for the biopic depicting the life and near death experiences of Martin McGartland.
Although the movie takes some poetic license it still contains the same kind of nerve-wrecking derring-do, morally ambiguous exploits as the real story of one of the most important agents ever to infiltrate the IRA.
In more ways than one McGartland is the exception to the rule when it comes to agents and informers in Northern Ireland. Indeed when you meet the west Belfast man he is at pains to stress he was never an informer at all, an assertion likely to be disputed by almost every republican on this island. Instead McGartland stresses that he was a willing agent who rather than being recruited from inside the organisation actually infiltrated it from the outside.
Another critical difference between McGartland and the other agents is that his life after he hurled himself out of the upstairs window of a flat on the Twinbrook estate in order to escape torture and two bullets in the head was almost as exciting as the one inside the IRA.
He continued to be a moving target while in exile in England and again almost lost his life when an IRA hit squad arrived in the north east to assassinate him.
His account, both in his sequel book Dead Man Running and in a series of interviews I have conducted with him over the years, reveals enough material for the subject of a follow-up movie, TV film, radio or stage play.
His own description of putting his hand over the gun barrel of his would-be assassin and wrestling with his potential killers is as dramatic and shocking as any thriller writer could conjure up.
His battles with police and the security services over his physical protection and mental well-being are as psychologically interesting in terms of the complex relations between spy and spymaster as any Cold War agent novel.
Yet for most of the former "pentiti" of the republican movement life after wartime is prosaic, often poverty stricken and dislocating.
Take the example of the IRA informer from Derry Raymond Gilmour. In both his account of his time as an agent and in the book Shadows by Alan Barker (the memoir of a Special Branch agent) it became clear Gilmour inflicted serious damage on the IRA's Derry Brigade in the late 1970s and 80s.
However, today Gilmour claims he has been cut off from his handlers and the state that recruited him, that he is virtually broke, in ill-health and isolated. From the testimony of others who worked in the shadows during the "war" risking arrest, torture and an OBE (one-behind-the-ear) life after they are either unmasked or have to run follows a similar pattern.
Again being the exception to the rule McGartland risked everything during the late 90s by stealing home to his native west Belfast for a few hours, even at one stage driving to his mother's house for a quick hello, then hastily leaving before he was spotted, captured and killed.
But even he knows he can never come home properly even at a time when the IRA has long left the stage. Old grudges by old comrades against traitors never die as Eamon Collins and later Denis Donaldson found out. The fate of this pair only reinforces that life-long death sentence. Moreover a Real IRA threat to the agents and informers, which was issued in 2008 remains in place. For the dissidents to kill a "tout", especially a high profile one, would be as prestigious for them as the targeting of Catholic police officers or off-duty British soldiers.
The post-conflict status of the agents and informers who survived and fled is not just relevant in terms of those fictionalising the Troubles past.
Today it has become once more highly apposite especially since the reintroduction of the supergrass system.
At present up to a dozen loyalists await to see if two brothers' evidence will be enough to convict of a huge number of crimes up to and including murder. The Stewarts' testimony is the hinge on which the entire case against the Mount Vernon UVF depends on.
But even if the judge rejected the validity of their evidence against former partners in loyalist crime there is an even more significant supergrass about to testify against senior members of the UVF.
No one knows what kind of deals beyond reduced sentences the state has promised the Stewarts or indeed the next supergrass Gary Haggarty.
Have they been offered a new life and a new identity on the other side of the Irish Sea or even further afield?
Will they be confident they will not be cut adrift from their handlers and the security forces in general once they too become "disposable agents"?
Or will they end up, as one senior UDA man suggested to this author when a former colleague in the organisation who was once a member of Combined Loyalist Military Command disappeared, living in some squalid housing estate in Swindon?