Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


British intelligence, the IRA and the Northern Ireland Peace Process

Thomas Leahy

British intelligence, the IRA and the Northern Ireland Peace Process
After 29 years and over 3,700 deaths, the Good Friday Agreement ended the Northern Ireland conflict in 1998. Commentators and academics initially concluded a stalemate situation explained why peace emerged. Revelations of senior Irish Republican Army (IRA) informers by 2005 encouraged various authors to revise their view. In 2003, various conflict participants claimed an alleged senior IRA spy-hunter was top British agent, codenamed Stakeknife. In 2005, Denis Donaldson, one-time republican prisoner and senior Sinn Féin official, admitted informing.

Thereafter, many authors suggested that alongside other factors British intelligence helped force the IRA into peace. But despite growing evidence emerging about British intelligence successes and failures against the IRA, there was no extensive study of the intelligence war against the IRA.

My new book The Intelligence War Against the IRA evaluates available interview, memoir, statistical, archival and other sources. I detail various British intelligence successes against the IRA. Standout examples include the SAS killing of eight East Tyrone IRA members at Loughgall police station in 1987. But I explain why the IRA’s campaign persisted in parts of Belfast, Derry city, south Armagh, north and mid-Armagh, counties Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone, and in England by the 1990s. Evidence suggests British intelligence did not force the IRA into peace to any significant extent.

The intelligence war had not reduced the IRA’s campaign to an ineffective, nuisance level by IRA ceasefires in the 1970s nor 1990s. IRA bombings returned to Belfast city centre between 1991 and 1993. These and other incidents suggest neither Stakeknife nor other intelligence operations pushed the Belfast IRA campaign into terminal decline. By the 1990s, persistent IRA activity in south Armagh by the border included sniper and watchtower attacks. Various high-profile IRA attacks in England also continued into the 1990s. Examples include in 1991, the IRA fired mortars at Downing Street; in 1993, the IRA detonated another substantial bomb at Bishopsgate in London; and in February 1996, the IRA ended their August 1994 ceasefire with the Docklands bombing. There were many other IRA operations in England that were not intercepted.

I outline four specific reasons why the IRA was not pushed into peace by British intelligence. First, from the mid-1970s the IRA introduced a small cell structure in Belfast and Derry city. The cells did seem to help them detect some suspected agents and informers. The second reason is the small and tight-knit nature of rural republican communities making Infiltration difficult. The IRA leadership’s isolation from the rest of the movement made infiltrating them challenging. The fourth factor is certain British security and intelligence operations antagonising some Irish nationalists in specific areas. Any indiscriminate security or intelligence operations helped maintain the sizeable minority of Irish nationalist support for the IRA in particular localities. This support enabled the IRA to persist.

Available evidence suggests a political and military stalemate led to peace in Northern Ireland. The IRA’s campaign persisted. Sinn Féin also sustained a sizeable minority of the northern nationalist vote. Both factors helped influence the British government and other conflict participants to involve republicans in peace talks by the 1990s. But the armed stalemate alongside Sinn Féin not acquiring the majority of Irish nationalist electoral support across the island convinced IRA leaders to end their campaign by 1998.

What is the contemporary relevance of this research to conflict resolution? It is crucial to be cautious on this question. Factors encouraging peace in Northern Ireland are not always applicable to other conflicts. Nonetheless, my book concurs with much of Jonathan Powell’s analysis on this theme. Powell is a former Chief of Staff and negotiator involved in the Northern Ireland peace process from Tony Blair’s government. The armed stalemate, private and public dialogue, alongside political mandates helped encourage a peace settlement in Northern Ireland. How much each side conceded in talks depended primarily on their electoral support.

Thomas Leahy, Author of The Intelligence War Against the IRA (Cambridge University Press, 2020).

The Intelligence War against the IRA by Thomas Leahy

About The Author

Thomas Leahy

Thomas Leahy is a Lecturer in British and Irish politics and contemporary history in the Politics and International Relations department at Cardiff University....

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!