Belfast Telegraph

When it comes to the dark arts of double-crossing, subterfuge and spying, the British are true masters of their craft

Henry McDonald

Brian Keenan, the late Provisional IRA veteran, is reported to have issued this warning to fellow republican prisoner and secret agent for the Irish state Sean O'Callaghan when both men were banged up in an English jail.

"Don't trust the English," Keenan advised O'Callaghan, "they invented cricket!"

O'Callaghan, the author of a new critical memoir-cum- biography of Irish republican socialist icon James Connolly, interpreted Keenan's advice as meaning what when it came to playing the long game the English were past masters.

The current England cricket team, of course, have just been humiliated in Pakistan and are currently rated at about sixth in the sport's world rankings. However, as even former East German and Soviet spy masters will attest, when it comes to the long game of intelligence gathering, spying and double-cross operations the English can still teach the world a thing or two.

Shining examples of this English or British adeptness in the black arts of spy craft can be read about in the works of John Le Carre, such as his classic The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, where a British agent is deliberately set up for a show trial in East Germany in order to set up a genuine communist and Jewish functionary while protecting the identity of MI6's agent, the ex-Nazi turned Stasi interrogator Mundt.

Yet some of the real life instances of double-dealing and dirty war black operations when it comes to Northern Ireland would stretch the imagination of a Le Carre or a Len Deighton. The story of Stakeknife - the IRA spy catcher supremo who turned out to be a spy himself for Britain - surely presents a challenge to the most creative minds in thriller writing or screenplays.

To this catalogue of true Northern Irish spy stories should be added the Castlereagh break-in, when, on St Patrick's Day 2002, IRA operatives raided the anti-terrorist nerve centre stealing away with files containing the code names of informants and the personal details of police officers.

Within weeks of the raid this journalist and others started to hear chatter from a variety of security sources, both serving and retired, that the break-in had been an 'inside job' all along.

In fact, by the summer of 2002 the line about the entire operation being set up as part of an elaborate ruse to protect a high-ranking IRA informer was doing the rounds.

Now the Police Ombudsman, 13 years on, is taking allegations from a retired Special Branch officer that this was the case very seriously.

Back in 2002 and in the years since then the whiff of something very unusual has clung to the Castlereagh break-in scandal.

In particular the allegation that the whole thing was concocted to promote and then protect the existence of an up-and-coming IRA agent working for the British state in Belfast, someone who subsequently made it all the way to the Provisionals Army Council.

This conspiracy theory is not so implausible when you consider the other things the British security state apparatus was up to in its 'long game' in the secret war.

From allowing its top agent in the IRA's internal security unit to have informers and even those innocent of treachery bumped off, to setting up Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane to be killed by an organisation absolutely riddled with 'touts'.

Perhaps, though, the cricket analogy first inadvertently raised by Provo icon Brian Keenan is not as apposite as another type of human contest involving much more of the brain than any brawn.

Sacrificing your pawns, whether they be the lives of serving police officers whose personal details were exposed in the Castlereagh raid or low level IRA volunteers exposed and killed to cover up a much bigger agent, are part of the classic amoral moves of state/spy craft. Chess is the name of this game.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph