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How lure of money defeated Provos' armed campaign


Denis Donaldson

Denis Donaldson

PA Archive/Press Association Images

Denis Donaldson

Never mind the armoured cars and tanks and guns, it was money that ultimately defeated the Provisional IRA's armed campaign.

And it will be money that has and will continue to grind down the paramilitary violence of the PIRA’s successors in the alphabet soup groups of dissident republicanism. Leave aside the morality (or immorality) of paying cash to people involved in terrorism, including murder.

It is now clear that the expenditure of millions upon millions on informers clearly played a central role in blunting “armed struggle” and in turn convincing the leadership of insurgent organisations to take the purely political path.

The Belfast Telegraph’s revelation today that nearly £2m has been paid out to agents in the last five years is probably a conservative estimate of the “treasure” the British state spends on its informer bill.

It probably doesn’t include the largesse MI5 has lavished on its agents in the same period. In reality we are talking, over the length of the Troubles and beyond possibly, up to a billion pounds expended on informers across a range of organisations from the extreme loyalists to today’s die-hard republicans.

The evidence of the efficacy of a policy that effectively bribes members of paramilitary organisations to provide insider information is all around us. Think of Stakeknife — the “jewel in the crown”, according to a former Army GOC in the province — the IRA’s spy catcher who was himself a spy for Britain. Or consider the case of Denis Donaldson, one of Gerry Adams’ closest allies who was entrusted to do IRA and Sinn Fein business from Fermanagh to New York, Stormont to Lebanon for more than 30 years while briefing his Special Branch and MI5 handlers about the inner goings-on within the movement.

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There were other motives in people deciding “to turn” and betray their comrades, such as sexual jealousy, blackmail or even alienation from the violence, as was the case with the likes of Sean O’Callaghan, for instance.

Yet many of the most famous informers on the state’s books were tempted across the line through money.

Technological progress has certainly enabled the state to carry out vastly more sophisticated spying operations against insurgents compared to the early years of the Troubles.

Nonetheless, it is only human intelligence that gives the spymasters the greatest insight into the secret armies they faced and continue to battle against.

Of course, the flip side of this policy was the morally questionable strategy of, as in some notorious cases such as the North Belfast UVF, allowing agents to build up a reputation inside these organisations by committing crimes up to and including murder, even while they were in the state’s pay.  This practice did not only take place in Northern Ireland but in other theatres of conflict. John Le Carre’s early Cold War masterpieces are full of moral contradictions, cynical manipulations and even agents thrown to the wolves. 

In his novel The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, a British agent is sent into East Germany in an operation to convict the wrong man in a GDR court for being a traitor in Britain’s pay. Meanwhile, the real British agent inside the Stasi, an avaricious former Nazi, is protected.

Money and moral doublethink — they go hand in hand when it comes to spycraft everywhere.

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