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Ex-MI6 chief Sir Maurice Oldfield: On Margaret's secret service

By Steven Taylor

He was one of Britain’s most successful spymasters, battling Nazi agents during the Second World War and the KGB in the Cold War. But, as a new biography reveals, nothing had prepared ex-MI6 chief Sir Maurice Oldfield for the most challenging and controversial assignment of his career ... appointed by Margaret Thatcher to tackle the IRA and vicious inter-service rivalry in Northern Ireland.

A few minutes before midday on Bank Holiday Monday, August 27, 1979, the tranquil calm of the Co Sligo fishing village of Mullaghmore was suddenly shattered when an explosion ripped apart a small fishing boat, the Shadow V. The blast, caused by a 50lb bomb that had been planted on the boat by the Provisional IRA and detonated by remote control, claimed the life of perhaps the most high-profile victim of the Troubles — the Queen’s cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten. Also killed in the explosion were the Dowager Lady Brabourne, Mountbatten’s grandson Nicholas Knatchbull and Paul Maxwell, a 15-year-old local boat boy.

Just four hours later, with the British and Irish authorities still reeling from Mountbatten’s assassination, 18 soldiers, including a Lieutenant-Colonel, were massacred in a double bomb blast near Warrenpoint, the Army’s heaviest casualties in a single incident during the Troubles.

The devastating attacks carried out by the Provisional IRA that day at Mullaghmore and Warrenpoint were a shattering blow and came at a time when the security forces were beginning to hope that they’d turned a corner in the fight against terrorism, with casualties steadily reducing year on year.

After the events of that bank holiday weekend, however, it was clear to both London and Dublin that they were now facing a reinvigorated, more deadly IRA.

In the Army’s secret 1978 report, Future Terrorist Trends, which was embarrassingly made public in 1979 after a copy fell into the Provisionals’ hands, the report’s author, Brigadier James Glover, prophetically warned that the threat from the IRA would increase as it adopted a ‘cell’ structure more resistant to penetration by informers and developed more sophisticated bomb-making technology.

“(The IRA) are continually learning from mistakes and developing their expertise,” Glover wrote. “We can, therefore, expect to see increasing professionalism and the greater exploitation of modern technology for terrorist purposes.”

On August 27, 1979 that prediction had come to pass in the most tragic way. Now, a shocked Margaret Thatcher, who had only been elected four months previously, was facing the first major crisis of her premiership.

At an emergency Cabinet meeting held the day after the attacks, it was decided that a new post of ‘Security Co-ordinator’ should be created, who would head up a Security Directorate based at Stormont, with a brief to “assist the Secretary of State in improving the co-ordination and effectiveness of the security effort in Northern Ireland”, according to a Government Press statement. Intelligence-gathering was divided between the Army’s Intelligence Corps, MI5 and the RUC’s Special Branch.

But there was seen to be little co-operation between the various agencies, with the counter-terrorism effort against the paramilitaries further hampered by fierce rivalries between the main players.

This was said to be epitomised in the reportedly strained relationship between the Army’s General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland, Lieutenant-General Timothy Creasey, and the Chief Constable of the RUC, Sir Kenneth Newman. The main cause of the tension being Creasey’s rumoured hostility towards the policy of “police primacy”.

Introduced three years before, this policy gave the RUC, rather than the Army, the leading role in the fight against terrorism.

Thatcher wanted the new Security Co-ordinator not only to enhance co-operation among the multiple intelligence agencies operating in the province, but also, some commentators believed, to smooth over relations between the two security forces’ supremos in the country.

But who to fill this important position? Thatcher eventually settled on Sir Maurice Oldfield, a legendary figure within the British Intelligence community.

Short and bespectacled, he looked more like a professor of medieval history than a dashing spy, which was, in fact, the subject for which he gained an honours degree from Manchester’s Victoria University shortly before the Second World War.

His long career in intelligence began in 1943, serving as a counter-intelligence operative at SIME (Security Intelligence Middle East) in Cairo, under Brigadier Douglas Roberts, where his job was to root out Axis spies operating throughout the Middle East.

Roberts thought highly of Oldfield, writing: “He is the best counter-intelligence officer, both from the theoretical and practical point of view, that it has been my privilege to meet. He is quite outstanding”, and, after the war, brought him over to join him at SIS, serving as his deputy.

Another spy whom Oldfield impressed was a certain Kim Philby, the notorious double agent, describing him as "an officer of high quality".

After Philby was unmasked as a Soviet agent, Oldfield replaced him as SIS liaison to the CIA in Washington DC, tasked with restoring American confidence in British Intelligence after the exposure of the Cambridge spy ring, and eventually rose to become deputy to the Chief of SIS, Sir Dick White.

Though missing out on the top job when White retired in 1968, Oldfield was finally appointed "C" five years later, and steered the organisation through some particularly turbulent times at the height of the Cold War, until he retired to All Souls College in 1978, to indulge his passion for medieval history.

And there he would've quietly lived out his remaining years - were it not for Warrenpoint.

On September 25, 1979, Thatcher met Oldfield to offer him the post of Security Co-ordinator, which he accepted after a day's consideration, his appointment being publicly announced a week later.

Although Press briefing notes issued to the Northern Ireland Office advised officials to describe Oldfield simply as "a distinguished former public servant" and make no mention of his MI6 career, the Press was well aware of Oldfield's intelligence background, as was the IRA, who dubbed him "Maurice the Mole" when his appointment was made public.

His powers, however, were to be fairly limited, as an NIO spokesman made clear: "His job will be to make the (Intelligence) machine run smoothly - but he won't be in a position to give orders."

Oldfield arrived at Stormont on October 8 and was assisted in his new duties by a six-strong planning staff, which included Brigadier Robert Pascoe and the RUC's Assistant Chief Constable, John Whiteside, along with several senior civil servants from the Northern Ireland Office.

In a paper he submitted to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Humphrey Atkins, Oldfield set out what he envisaged the new Security Directorate's role to be. "It should," he wrote, "produce independent advice on the planning, management and command problems relevant to security operations. It should act as a think-tank and also as a ginger group."

Overcoming strained RUC-Army relations was seen to be the biggest challenge facing Oldfield. But much of this problem resolved itself just two months after his arrival, when Creasey retired in December 1979 and was replaced by Lt-Gen Richard Lawson, who was reported to be fully committed to police primacy and enjoyed good relations with his RUC counterparts.

By April 1980, Oldfield was able to report back to the PM that there was now a "remarkable unanimity of approach and appreciation between the police and the Army". In the same, optimistic vein, he went on to declare that there was "a new atmosphere of co-operation, rather than competition, and also, equally important, a sense of direction in that the people on the ground see some progress. That this progress may be more in improving our own machinery than in tangible successes against terrorists in the area does not belittle its importance."

No 10 was highly satisfied with Oldfield's achievements, the PM's principal private secretary, Clive Whitmore, writing the following month: "He (Oldfield) had done an excellent job in setting up arrangements for co-ordination between the security forces in Northern Ireland and he had won the complete confidence of the Army and RUC."

Having successfully overseen the reorganisation of intelligence-gathering in Northern Ireland, Oldfield left the province in June 1980, resuming his quiet retirement at All Souls College, and was succeeded as Security Co-ordinator by Sir Brooks Richards, an experienced diplomat.

At the time, Oldfield's health was cited as the reason for him stepping down. "He has had a recurrence of some minor ailments," an NIO Press spokesman explained. "There is nothing seriously wrong with him, but he doesn't feel 100% fit at present." In fact, Oldfield was suffering from terminal stomach cancer.

On June 17, Thatcher wrote thanking him for his service, to which he replied by pointing out that "there remains a lot to be achieved" in improving the intelligence picture in Northern Ireland, and adding, modestly: "I only wish I could have done more myself". Eleven months later, on May 11, 1981, Maurice Oldfield passed away in London at the age of 65. But that wasn't the end of the story of Maurice Oldfield's tenure as Ulster's intelligence fixer.

In April 1987, the Sunday Times published allegations that, towards the end of his term as Security Co-ordinator, Oldfield was involved in a "homosexual incident" in a pub in Comber, Co Down. It was also revealed that this led to a review by a security commission, intended to establish whether or not national security had been compromised as a result of his sexual indiscretions.

Amid the controversy that followed the revelations, Thatcher was forced to make a statement to Parliament on April 23, 1987.

"In March 1980, in the course of that review, he (Oldfield) made an admission that he had, from time to time, engaged in homosexual activities. His positive vetting clearance was withdrawn," she revealed.

"There was a lengthy and thorough investigation by the Security Service, which included many interviews with Sir Maurice Oldfield himself, to examine whether there was any reason to suppose that he himself, or the interests of the country, might have been compromised.

"The conclusion was that, although his conduct had been a potential risk to security, there was no evidence, or reason, whatsoever to suggest that security had ever been compromised."

There have long been suspicions that Oldfield was the victim of a "dirty tricks" campaign waged by MI5, who allegedly orchestrated his removal as Security Co-ordinator because he was said to be critical of what many regarded as the underhand tactics employed by MI5 in the intelligence war in the province.

"MI5 saw him as a threat to their activities in Northern Ireland," claimed Colin Wallace, who served in the Army's Intelligence Corps here in the 1970s.

But how much of an impact did Oldfield really make to the intelligence war? Some have suggested his contribution was negligible; that the reforms he proposed to intelligence-gathering were about to be implemented anyway.

Margaret Thatcher, however, was in no doubt as to the value of Oldfield's work in the province, telling parliament that "he had contributed notably to a number of security and intelligence successes".

A lasting peace in Northern Ireland remained a long way off, but the veteran spook's brief, controversial spell in the province may well have marked an important turning-point in the shadowy secret war against the paramilitaries.

Spy Master: The Life of Britain's Most Decorated Cold War Spy and Head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield, by Martin Pearce (Bantam Press, £19.99)

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