Historian Aaron Edwards’ new book about double agents in the IRA lifts the lid on the Provos’ chief of staff.
'Londonderry PIRA have continued to be the most active group of terrorists in the Province... The threat of spectacular attacks by PIRA remains high, both in Northern Ireland and on the mainland.'
(Army Intelligence Summary, 1984)
Security Policy Meeting, Castle Buildings, Stormont, July 9, 1984
Jim Prior was in a good mood as he congratulated his top team for the way they had handled the security surrounding the European elections, stating that even though the RUC and Army continued to take casualties, "he had heard much remark on the achievements of the security forces from quite unexpected quarters recently".
RUC Chief Constable John Hermon had personally visited the families of several of his slain officers, but he, too, seemed upbeat, emphasising to those gathered around the top table that intelligence was now pointing to "strains in the Northern Command leadership of PIRA", whose "operations had been significantly inhibited by the extent to which they had suffered paranoia about informers".
Turning to a discussion of the IRA's military capability, Hermon commented that "individual PIRA members on the run continued to cause concern and there were particular worries about PIRA groups in the Armagh/Lurgan and East Tyrone areas". He also had reason to celebrate. Two high-ranking terrorists had been captured.
Dominic McGlinchey, the INLA's chief of staff, had been arrested by the Gardai, which "severely dislocated" the group and left it facing "continuing difficulties over leadership". In the United States, the FBI, working in conjunction with MI5, arrested Provisional Army Council (PAC) member Joe Cahill.
Cahill was the group's chief fundraiser and his arrest coincided with successful operations being mounted by the RUC's anti-racketeering unit, which slowed the flow of money into the IRA's coffers.
While this was positive news, Hermon warned that the Derry unit was "still the most threatening" and would need to be tackled by the security and intelligence officials gathered around the table.
Joining the top table for the first time was a senior civil servant, John Bourn, who had transferred from the MoD to the NIO. Bourn had been given lead responsibility for conducting a new security review, which was soon christened "Bourn Again".
Bourn was more familiar than anyone with the resources the Government had at its disposal in its war against the IRA. One report he received from a middle-ranking Army officer at HQNI estimated that some 4.6% of its deployed troops were dedicated to the secret intelligence war against the IRA:
Covert operations are the cutting edge of the attack against the terrorist. These operations include the acquisition of intelligence and the exploitation of this intelligence by covert action. Usually these two functions are intimately interconnected. Some 600 servicemen are involved in covert operations, ranging from the in-province SAS detachment to the regular battalion Close Observation Platoons (COPs). The main source of intelligence is from informers. Both the RUC and Army run these human sources: the Army does so through the Force Research Unit (FRU). The greater part of such intelligence is gained by the RUC agencies, who have the advantage of local knowledge and background.
Prior judged the Derry IRA to be the biggest security threat facing the British, so he turned to Hermon, the GOC, Lieutenant General Sir Robert Richardson, and Harold "Hal" Doyn-Ditmas, MI5 officer and Director and Coordinator of Intelligence at Stormont, in the hope of prompting a security response. All eyes now turned to Derry IRA chief and OC Northern Command, Martin McGuinness.
In Martin McGuinness, the PIRA had its very own enigma machine. McGuinness knew all of the organisation's secrets, from the number of weapons and explosives held in its arms dumps to the number of volunteers in each squad.
By 1972, he was second-in-command of the Derry Brigade of the IRA. McGuinness had witnessed British troops march up Shipquay Street first-hand and was present on January 30, 1972 when Parachute Regiment soldiers opened fire on protestors.
By the mid-1970s, he was sitting on the PAC. He stepped down in October 1982 to serve in an operational capacity as OC of Northern Command. Over the years, McGuinness had earned a reputation based on his personal participation in IRA operations, though not all IRA men were convinced that he risked his own life as much as he risked the lives of others.
It was believed by some that he held back "from the worst of the action". He was one of the first IRA leaders to engage in talks with British Intelligence and Government officials in the early years of the Troubles.
He accompanied Daithi O Conaill and Brian Keenan to meet Billy Mitchell and other senior members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) on the banks of Lough Sheelin in Co Cavan in 1974.
By the end of the decade, McGuinness had replaced both men on the PAC.
By the early 1980s, McGuinness' reputation as a militant IRA man drew a lot of younger men into the ranks of the IRA. In Willie Carlin's view:
These guys would have went anywhere with him to be truthful. Martin himself would have come in and sat in meetings and sometimes you'd wonder why he was there because he never spoke. Then he got up and left. He was a listener. He listened to everything. He said very little sometimes and then sometimes he would speak. And what he would say would be quite profound, you know. But all I can tell you is that when he was in the room, people didn't free up. They weren't as forthcoming as they would have been if he wasn't there. But it's hard to explain. These guys loved McGuinness. They knew he had power. They knew he wouldn't let them down.
For McGuinness's opponents in Special Branch, he was a "psychopath" - "cold", "unemotional" and "ruthless". McGuinness's ruthlessness would soon manifest itself in the wake of the capture of the Marita Ann, which was intercepted by the Irish Navy on September 29, 1984. After boarding the ship, sailors detained five crew.
A search of the ship yielded some 70,000 rounds of ammunition, 91 rifles, eight sub-machine guns, rocket warheads and police-issue bulletproof vests. It was the largest illegal arms shipment seized since 1973, when the Irish Navy intercepted the Claudia.
Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald issued an angry Press statement in which he made it clear that the weapons were destined for Ireland to "murder Irish people, north or south".
One of those arrested on-board the Marita Ann was 34-year-old Martin Ferris, OC of the IRA's Southern Command. He later gave a defiant interview to An Phoblacht:
We tried to get the Marita Ann away but the navy vessels opened up with gunfire. Members of the navy, Gardai and detectives boarded us and we were arrested and towed to the naval base at Cobh. We were later driven to the Bridewell in Cork. It was obviously a setback for the IRA - not that we were apprehended but because the arms and ammunition were badly needed to counteract the British occupation of our country. Three of us got 10 years.
It would later transpire that information about the shipment had been leaked by IRA Southern Command officer Sean O'Callaghan. Despite American Press speculation that US Intelligence had been involved, MI5 claimed the "Americans were not involved at any stage and, indeed, are rather annoyed at the Press speculation that they were".
Shortly after news of the Marita Ann broke, Willie Carlin drove Martin McGuinness to the Killyhevlin Hotel in Enniskillen, where he allegedly met with two high-ranking members of the IRA from South Armagh.
This was Carlin's third visit to the hotel; his first had been when he played a gig there in the 1970s and his second had been when he met his handlers from MI5 in the closing months of 1980.
During the return journey, McGuinness revealed something cryptic to Carlin:
And he said, "You've no idea, the challenge." He says, "You cast off. You've got this fly bobbing on the top of the water. It attracts the trout. The trout will look at it a couple of times and then it will take a bite. As soon as it does, you start reeling it in. Then it stops struggling, and then when it stops struggling, you let it go again. Let it out, let it go. And it'll swim away, and it'll stop, still caught, but it doesn't know that. And just when it feels safe, you bring it in again. Only closer this time. And it'll start struggling again and then you let it go again. And eventually you bring it in. And you've now got it because this thing will never give up. And you take the hook out and you put it back in the water for another day." And I said, "That sounds a bit like the boys, attracting foot patrols and, you know." And he says, "Aye, I know, except for one thing, we are the trout and we are not letting go."
Carlin relayed the conversation to his handlers in a debrief a few days later, during what Carlin called "The McGuinness Half Hour".
This was a specially allotted time when intelligence officers talked to Carlin in great detail about the IRA's Northern Commander. The next time Carlin visited Ebrington Barracks, he noticed that soup, coffee, tea and sandwiches had been laid out. He was also surprised by the presence of a "very nice, well-dressed woman who introduced herself as a psychologist". The woman was there to talk to him about the fishing story:
Somewhere along the line, in the back room somewhere, people must have been thinking, they are about to do peace. And then we have the chief of staff saying, "We aren't giving up." It was odd... The only thing is, Martin was a fisherman and the FRU's mantra was "Fishers of Men". You couldn't make it up.
Based on Carlin's report, the British may have surmised that McGuinness was unlikely to take the capture of the Marita Ann lying down.
Adapted from Agents of Influence: Britain's Secret Intelligence War Against the IRA by Aaron Edwards, published by Merrion Press, priced £19.99. Available now