The British state’s role in Northern Ireland

Operation Chiffon: The Secret Story of MI5 and MI6 and the Road to Peace in Ireland by Peter Taylor – a book and a BBC documentary – examines secret links between British governments and the Provisional IRA leading up to the so-called ‘peace process’ and the Good Friday Agreement.

In late November 1993, the Observer newspaper published a story that exposed the links between John Major’s Tory government and the IRA, which caused an outrage from right-wing politicians and sections of the British media. Previously, Major told MPs that it would “turn my stomach to sit down and talk” to the IRA. However, Peter Taylor, a veteran author and documentary maker on the Troubles, shows that secret communications, on and off, often through intermediaries, had taken place over decades.

The British referred to the secret talks leading up to the 1990s peace process as Operation Chiffon. “Ambiguous phrases were very much the currency to be involved with”, one of the MI6 officers, Michael Oatley, told Peter Taylor. The British told the IRA they were prepared to discuss “structures of disengagement”, without giving any timescale or details. Oatley’s MI5 successor, who Taylor identifies only as ‘Robert’, and interviews in the TV documentary, had an unauthorised face-to-face meeting with Martin McGuinness, a senior figure in the provisional IRA, in 1991.

Robert had been told not to see McGuinness by his superiors after the outrage caused by an IRA bomb that killed two boys and injured 56 people in Warrington, England. Robert, soon retiring, decided to disobey orders. Regarding the outcome of any formal negotiations with the British government, Robert says he told McGuinness: ‘‘The final solution is union. It is going to happen anyway. The historical train – Europe – determines that. We are committed to Europe… This island will be one”. After Robert’s meeting was discovered by his superiors, he was obliged to resign from MI5. By that time, however, it is claimed that McGuinness had already passed on a message in response to Robert’s comments: “The conflict is over, but we need your advice on how to bring it to a close”.

Much has been made of the supposed words used by Robert and McGuinness, and the issue is contested. Robert is credited with playing a brief but crucial role in unlocking the way to the peace process, ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement. As with much of the commentary on the latter’s 25th anniversary, the role of individuals in delivering peace – Gerry Adams, John Hume, Bill Clinton and David Trimble, for example – are given undue weight.

While individuals can play a key role in certain historical circumstances, this is dependent on the objective situation creating the necessary conditions. The 1998 Belfast agreement came on the back of a long process. In particular, this included major shifts by the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein over decades. (See Twenty-Five Years Since the Good Friday Agreement, in Socialism Today No.266, April 2023)

It may be the case that the Sinn Fein leadership seized on Robert’s comments alluding to the British government accepting a united Ireland to help win over the IRA rank and file towards a negotiated deal. In the 1970s and 1980s, the IRA conducted an armed campaign of bombings and shootings in pursuance of an immediate British withdrawal and a united Ireland. But the reality was that the British establishment had considered moves towards a united Ireland from the 1950s onwards – the better to exploit the Irish working class without costly subsidies to the Northern economy.

However, British imperialism’s hands were tied by the prospect of a huge Protestant backlash to a capitalist united Ireland – where Protestants feared being a persecuted minority – leading to civil war and repartition. British colonialism and imperialism fostered religious divisions over centuries to ‘divide and rule’ in Ireland and had created an out-of-control sectarian monster.

By the 1990s, a number of factors had led the Republican leadership to try to find a negotiated settlement. General war weariness on all sides; the inability of combatants on either side in the conflict to prevail; and profound changes in the international situation – the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the consequent shift to the right by former national liberation movements, like the ANC and PLO.

Attempted negotiated settlements led the Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness Republican leadership to bring the movement into talks with the British. This meant the Republican movement putting aside some of its cherished ideals. In this context, the comments by Robert, albeit unsanctioned by MI5, may have played a useful role in convincing sections of the Republican movement to move towards talks and ceasefires.

The reported response by McGuinness that the “conflict is over but we need your advice on how to bring it to a close” has been strongly disputed by Sinn Fein. It accused the British of duplicity and dishonesty, and seeking to deflect attention once they were publicly caught out communicating with the IRA. It does seem, on the face of it, an unlikely statement by McGuinness. The prominent IRA leader would have been only too aware of the sensitivities of the Republican base. Any notion IRA leaders were seeking advice from the British state about how to end their armed struggle, especially at this early stage of a peace process, would have been anathema to Republican activists.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the behind-the-scenes communications developing between the Republican leadership and the British state in the early 1990s was indicative of a significant change taking place. It led to formal meetings between British officials and Sinn Fein, ‘talks about talks’ between Sinn Fein and Unionists, and the long path to the Good Friday Agreement.

For the working class people of Northern Ireland, and the island as whole, the key issue is not who said what and when, but what have events meant for their class interests. Undoubtedly, Catholics are glad to see the back of most state institutionalised discrimination and the significant easing of state repression. The Protestant population generally feel that the peace process largely went against their interests. For both communities, the much promised ‘peace dividend’ of rising prosperity for all has failed to materialise, and sectarianism still bedevils society, as seen by the 21 miles of ‘peace walls’ in Belfast. However, the vast majority of people from both sides have welcomed the relative peace since the formal ending of the Troubles in 1998, which had caused the deaths of 3,700 people, tens of thousands of people injured, and a whole generation of youth passing through prisons.

It was a deep yearning for peace after decades of violence that led to a mass movement from below in the late 1980s and 1990s. Trade union councils, community organisations, and other organisations held mass protests following both paramilitary and state atrocities. This had a significant effect on the paramilitaries and the British state, cajoling them along the road towards ceasefires and demilitarisation. On several occasions, when it appeared that the tortuous peace process could collapse and there would be a return to wider violence, large protests called by the trade union movement played an important role in preventing a slide back to the Troubles.

The slogan, ‘No Going Back’, coined by Militant Labour (CWI in Ireland) became a popular demand on demonstrations. Unfortunately, this crucial factor – the working-class movement from below – in bringing about relative peace is largely absent from most of the official accounts of what led to the end of the Troubles.

Secret links between British intelligence and the IRA was not the only role played by the British intelligence services in what is referred to as the ‘dirty war’. On 11 April it was announced that a spy inside IRA ranks, code-named ‘Stakeknife’ by British intelligence, had died of natural causes some weeks previously. The state agent was named previously as West Belfast man, Freddie Scappaticci, who always denied the allegation.

Scappaticci fled Northern Ireland in 2003 when it was first publicly alleged that he was the highest-ranking British spy in the provisional IRA’s ranks. It is claimed that he played a key role in the IRA’s ‘Internal Security Unit’, locally known as the ‘the nutting squad’. The alleged activities of Stakeknife are currently under investigation by a former Bedfordshire chief constable. The investigation is due to look at murders and torture linked to Stakeknife and the role played by the security forces. Scappaticci had long been accused of being involved in the kidnap, murder and torture of potential ‘informants’ inside the IRA. It is alleged that Stakeknife was instructed by his British intelligence superiors to engineer murders to protect his position.

Unsurprisingly, the British government has said that it plans to legislate for a general amnesty for those accused of murders and other crimes during the Troubles. Most political parties in the north of Ireland have condemned this plan, as has the southern Irish government. It is widely regarded as an attempt by the British state to stop any more revelations of its collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, which carried out hundreds of sectarian killings, and to hide the role of the British state in directing informers within the Republican movement, at the cost of many lives.

The long ‘dirty war’ shows that working-class people, Catholic and Protestant, will find no solution in secret paramilitary armies. Nor can they have any faith in the state to act as some sort of independent arbiter. They must rely on their own strength and self-organisation to get rid of the scourge of sectarianism, poverty, state repression, and the whole capitalist system. Building a socialist party with united, mass working-class support is an important step towards achieving these gaols.

Niall Mulholland