Sinn Fein's Stormont Culture Minister Caral Ni Chuilin owes her life to a high-ranking informant inside the IRA.
The 48-year-old MLA avoided being gunned down during a Provo bombing mission because of a tip-off from Special Branch agent James McGarrigle.
Mrs Ni Chuilin (then Caroline Cullen) was instead arrested and sentenced to nine years in jail for trying to blow up an RUC station in the village of Crumlin, Co Antrim.
When asked whether Mrs Ni Chuilin believed she had been set-up, a Sinn Fein spokesman said: “We have been aware for many years that James McGarrigle was an informant.”
The Crumlin RUC station attack occurred in 1989 when Caral Ni Chuilin, now a Stormont high-flyer, was a member of the IRA in north Belfast.
When she was sent on the bombing mission the then 25-year-old had no idea that cops had prior knowledge of the plan.
This was because James McGarrigle, the man who organised the botched bombing, was working for Special Branch. The republican double agent warned his handlers about the plot.
Determined not to blow his cover they set up an elaborate ploy to maintain his role as a key IRA informant.
In the hours before the Crumlin attack Special Branch chiefs arranged for the RUC station to be cleared of regular cops.
Three trained police marksmen were put in their place with orders to fire on the bombers as they escaped but not to inflict any injuries.
This was to ensure the McGarrigle's safety and to prevent IRA suspicion about his double role.
When Mrs Ni Chuilin and Sandy Lynch — another Special Branch informant — tried to place a booby-trap device under the station gates they were shot at by one of the specialist cops. Dozens of machine-gun rounds blasted the ground around the bombers but not a single bullet struck either IRA member.
Minutes later the future Culture Minister was arrested “screaming hysterically” on the footpath.
Lynch, who fled Northern Ireland in 1990 after being rescued from an IRA interrogation by the army, managed to clamber into a getaway car driven by McGarrigle who also escaped the hail of bullets.
The vehicle in which Mrs Ni Chuilin was transporting the bomb could have been stopped much earlier.
But that would have aroused IRA suspicion about an informant in the ranks.
Instead the botched bombing bid was allowed to take place, along with the staged machine-gun fire, to maintain both McGarrigle and Lynch’s cover.
“It was all an elaborate ploy to maintain the agents’ roles within the IRA,” a security insider told Sunday Life.
“All three bombers could have been arrested much earlier, but then the Provos would have started asking questions about touts.
“It was decided to fake the gun battle in order to avert suspicion.”
Our source believes the Special Branch ploy was not supposed to have resulted in the arrest of Mrs Ni Chuilin.
“She was only caught because she froze and started screaming as the bullets were being fired,” he said.
“If she had run away she would have escaped.”
McGarrigle — the agent whose information led to Caral Ni Chuilin's arrest and also saved her life — continued to tip-off Special Branch about IRA |operations.
In a case that has striking similarities with that of UVF super-tout Mark Haddock he was able to take part in numerous acts of terror while passing on information to his handlers.
These include two separate bomb attacks on Girdwood Army barracks in 1989 and a gun attack at the north Belfast military facility later that year.
McGarrigle was eventually jailed for 14 years in the early 1990s after being caught with a gun in north Belfast.
But his double role, which is only emerging in full now, was rumbled by Provo chiefs in the Maze.
Afetr his arrest McGarrigle pleaded guilty to a series of IRA attempted murders and bombings, including those at Crumlin and Girdwood and, in a bid to prevent his murky life as a Special Branch agent emerging in court.
He even insisted on legal documents that would have revealed this dual role being held back from defence lawyers.
But IRA bosses caught on when forensic tests on his statements showed indentations on police notepads of McGarrigle’s admissions.
With his life under threat he was moved off the Provo wing and held in a secure jail unit.
McGarrigle fled to England after his release in the mid 1990s.
He is rumoured to have returned to his native Belfast in recent times.
A security source who knew McGarrigle said: “He once described himself as ‘the runt of the litter'.
“He was a very meek individual and joining the IRA was his way of being a big lad.
“When he was eventually arrested after getting caught witha gun he confessed to everything, including bombings, shootings and attempted murders,” added our source. “He wanted to go to jail. It was his way of leaving the life of an agent behind.”