British spooks’ story sheds light on key aspects of modern Irish history

Perhaps inevitably, Andrew’s account of MI5’s activities in relation to the Provisionals is not a full one, although interesting new details emerge.

For instance, Harold Wilson made a secret personal offer in the 1970s to pay Libyan leader Col Gaddafi the equivalent of €550m on condition he stopped supplying arms to the IRA

THE term ‘G2’ means different things to different people. More and more, it’s the name being ascribed to the world’s two biggest powers, the United States and China. On the other hand, ‘G2’ might make you think of The Guardian newspaper’s lifestyle and culture section. What you might not necessarily know is that G2 is the name sometimes given to the Irish intelligence service which works alongside the special detective and national surveillance units of the gardaí to counter espionage and, more often, republican, loyalist and Islamic terrorism.

And if you’ve never heard of G2, there is a reason: very little information about its activities, apart from during the Emergency period when it kept tabs on German spies, is in the public domain. There is no website where you can read all about it, although it briefly made the news when it was deployed to assist in securing the release of journalist Rory Carroll who was abducted in Iraq in October 2005.

But if G2 keeps a low profile, everyone in Ireland has heard of Britain’s domestic intelligence service, MI5 — and not always for the right reasons. The brilliant BBC drama series Spooks — due to start again very soon — has only heightened its public profile. For that reason, a massive 1,000-page new "authorised history" is being pored over by would-be terrorists and will, no doubt, be finding its way into plenty of Christmas stockings.

And with good reason: it’s a fascinating dive into Irish and world — not just British — history. Although the book has been commercially published and the author, Christopher Andrew, is a Cambridge historian, it was commissioned by MI5, in part as an exercise in transparency, in part to mark the centenary of the intelligence agency’s foundation in 1909 before it was split into what are commonly known as MI5 and MI6, the latter the even more secret (and secretive) service dealing with international counter-espionage and counter-terrorism.

Andrew charts MI5’s fascinating evolution from its very modest beginnings through two world wars, the Cold War and now the war against Islamism, not forgetting the ‘war’ against the IRA and other Irish terrorists.

In a sense, the very fact that the book exists is remarkable: MI5’s existence wasn’t officially acknowledged until 1979 when Margaret Thatcher unmasked Anthony Blunt, for nearly 30 years the surveyor of the royal art collection, as a Soviet spy.

Previously, the official line from British prime ministers was that "it is dangerous and bad for our national interest to discuss these matters". In 1931, a new employee was give a firm instruction: "No one, not even our own families, should be told where we worked or for whom."

Veiled from view, MI5 has had some remarkable achievements, notably the double cross system during the Second World War which fed disinformation to the Nazis about where the Allies would land on D-Day.

The book also reveals that Mussolini was, briefly, a paid British agent. And Andrew relates how MI5 apparently urged British prime minister Neville Chamberlain to stand up to the Nazis rather than appease them. In order to ensure its reports attracted his attention, Capt Vernon Kell, MI5’s first director-general, even included Hitler’s insulting references to Chamberlain as an "arsehole".

There have been operational shortcomings, too. It is incredible, for instance, how late MI5 woke up to the Islamist threat. As late as 1996, Stella Rimington, MI5’s first female head, had never heard of al-Qaida, even though Osama Bin Laden’s group had been well established for several years.

Perhaps inevitably, Andrew’s account of MI5’s activities in relation to the Provisionals is not a full one, although interesting new details emerge. For instance, British prime minister Harold Wilson made a secret personal offer in the 1970s to pay Libyan leader Col Gaddafi the equivalent of €550 million on condition he stoppedsupplying arms to the IRA. There is much else: MI5’s contribution to Operation Airlines, the frustration of an IRA plot to destroy London’s electricity supply, for instance.

It is easy to forget the scale of the threat the IRA posed with its repeated (and very nearly successful) attempts to wipe out the entire British cabinet, first in Brighton in 1984 and then again with its mortar attack on Downing Street in 1991.

It was only the next year that MI5 was charged directly with taking on the IRA. According to Andrew, both the British and Irish intelligence agencies knew next to nothing about the North before the start of the Troubles.

One of the most controversial episodes during the Troubles is discussed at some length: the killing of three IRA personnel in Gibraltar in 1988. MI5 discovered the IRA plot to attack the garrison in Gibraltar at an early stage, it seems. Andrew concludes that the SAS genuinely believed (wrongly) that they were not just planning a car bomb attack but were carrying the means to cause an explosion when they were gunned down. Andrew makes a strong case that, while Gibraltar was a mistake — in that the IRA members should have been arrested — there was no shoot-to-kill policy in operation that day.

Later, the ‘securocrats’, far from attempting to block political progress, were actively involved in persuading the Provisional IRA leadership to enter into negotiations, paving the way for the Good Friday Agreement. Perhaps republicans were right to be wary, though: MI5 carried out secret surveillance of the colonial delegations which went to London to discuss terms for independence in the 1950s and 1960s. From their point of view, if only the IRA had focused earlier on targeting big economic targets in Britain, instead of slaughtering their fellow Irishmen and women, Andrew concludes.

Andrew has managed to turn over 400,000 files into a fascinating read, packed with engaging anecdotes and surprising revelations. Sinn Féin would argue the book cannot be taken seriously. An official history can only do so much, especially of an organisation that is inherently secret. Andrew’s work was subject to admitted censorship before publication, meaning the last chapters on the most recent events are rather thin.

It’s a difficult balancing act. MI5 needs to be secret to protect parliamentary democracy, but is under pressure to be as transparent as possible without endangering British national security. Andrew’s book is, therefore, a compromise. If he can’t share his key sources, he must ask his readers to take his analysis on trust. Likewise, it is difficult to measure MI5’s success, since it can only be judged by things that do not happen. As the chilling IRA statement after Brighton stated: "Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always."

How much do intelligence services matter anyway? Conspiracy theorists think they hold the key to everything. But there is an opposite delusion, namely that everything is cock-up. Spies and terrorists do indeed exist. They conspire to blow up people or to subvert democracy. Any country wishing to remain free must stop them and it will sometimes have to ignore its prevailing principles of openness to do so. Nevertheless, a proper history of G2 and the other Irish intelligence agencies — which do cooperate with MI5 — would be a fascinating read. Why do I have a feeling, though, that we won’t see it in the bookshops anytime soon?