Former British intelligence spy inside Sinn Féin, Willie Carlin, talks to Cormac O’Keeffe about Martin McGuinness, the IRA ‘Nutting Squad’ and his fears over possible trials
Willie Carlin may soon have to testify against the man who supposedly saved his life. If the trial happens — and it is still a big ‘if’ — it will be 35 years since Carlin’s 11-year-stint as a British intelligence mole inside Sinn Féin, in Derry, ended suddenly.
He was about to be killed by the notorious IRA ‘Nutting Squad,’ its internal assassination team. Carlin was saved by a tip-off from another agent, known as ‘Stakeknife’, who was the head of the infamous squad and who now faces prosecution, following a major police inquiry.
This dramatic story begins and ends Carlin’s book, Thatcher’s Spy — My Life as an MI5 agent inside Sinn Féin. Carlin came from a republican, working-class family in Derry, but he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the British Army in the mid-1960s.
Posted abroad, he returned to Derry in the early 1970s and got caught up in the turmoil engulfing the city and engulfing the lives of his family and friends. After the devastating loss of his first child, shortly after birth, and his wife’s need to return to her family in Derry, Carlin left the army in 1974.
But as he did so, he was recruited by MI5, the British domestic security agency, which wanted political intelligence from the republican movement. It proved to be a long game, with little to show in the first year. Carlin and his wife, Mary, were further devastated by the loss of twin babies, again shortly after birth.
He got involved in Sinn Féin and brought his organisational and personal skills with him. As the years passed, he slowly got to know Martin McGuinness.
In his time there, Carlin was seriously impressed with Mitchel McLaughlin: “He, more than any one person, politicised Martin McGuinness.”
Carlin said McLaughlin was the brains behind Sinn Féin. Carlin details the slow evolution of McGuinness, from an IRA man to one willing to walk both sides of the emerging joint strategy of the gun and the ballot.
“Martin, during the years 1974 up to 1977, was the hard man,” Carlin told the Irish Examiner.
He said McGuinness was a towering figure within the IRA and Sinn Féin and ordered that no-one from Derry was to take part in the hunger strikes of 1981, which, Carlin says, McGuinness was against.
A major turning point, Carlin believes, in the trajectory of McGuinness and the IRA, was the decision, in 1981, to put Gerry Adams and McGuinness forward on an abstentionist ticket to the Assembly elections of 1982.
He said McGuinness was reluctant to stand, but McLaughlin and Adams worked on him. Carlin said that the IRA “considered McGuinness their man” and that McGuinness worked hard to keep them on side, including the more hardline elements.
A key part in Sinn Féin’s election success was down to “personating”, or stealing votes, and Carlin worked hard on securing this electoral fraud, but his reports to his British intelligence handlers eventually resulted in new legislation to combat the problem.
Carlin has the most unusual of records in working for not just one British security service, but two: firstly MI5; then British army intelligence. He had a number of handlers in MI5, but one, named Ben, would play a hugely important role in his life.
On one occasion, Carlin saw McGuinness coming out of an MI5 safe house, where Carlin had previously met his handler, Ben. On a second occasion, he saw Ben sitting in a car outside McGuinness’s house. Carlin was obviously worried about his own safety, given the behaviour of his handler, who was ‘fond of the drink’.
In December 1980, Carlin left MI5. In relation to McGuinness and the meetings, Carlin is still not 100% sure what to make of it. As he states in Thatcher’s Spy, MI6, the British Secret Service, which was responsible for foreign threats, had a secure line of communication with the IRA.
Carlin points out that both agencies, or at least elements within them, wanted to push the move within the IRA and within Sinn Féin to give up violence and engage in political talks.
Soon after he left MI5, Carlin started working for the British military again, this time as an agent for its secretive, and controversial, intelligence section, the FRU (Force Research Unit). This coincided with Carlin’s rise within Sinn Féin in Derry and his closer relationship with McGuinness.
His book details one road trip to Omagh, where McGuinness opened up and, at one point, the talk turned to Scotland. McGuiness said it would “go against the grain” for any action by the movement there.
While Carlin thought little of this nugget, it went all the way up the military chain and across the water and to police in Scotland, and was considered hugely important. In March 1985, Carlin was told by his handlers that his life was in danger. It turned out that his former MI5 handler, Ben, or Michael Bettaney, had told an IRA man about him.
This information had been given over to the IRA internal assassination unit. The head of that unit was an agent of the FRU. ‘Stakeknife’ had told his handler that his unit was coming for Carlin. He and his family had to flee Derry that very night and were soon flown to Britain, living, with new identities, in Brighton, Kent, Cardiff, and, later, Scotland.
All the time, Carlin feared the IRA would come knocking on his door and he would suffer the same fate as Denis Donaldson, who was outed by Sinn Féin in 2005 as an informant and subsequently shot dead, in a Donegal cottage, in April 2006.
Carlin’s past has already caught up with him. In 2001, he gave evidence to members of the Saville Inquiry, set up to investigate Bloody Sunday, in Derry, in January 1972.
An alleged informer had claimed that McGuinness had admitted to firing the first shots on the day. Carlin’s former MI5 handler contacted him about giving evidence, as he had previously told them that McGuinness denied he was armed or had any involvement in shooting that day.
Carlin claims his evidence was heavily redacted and that Lord Saville, the chair, wasn’t cleared to read all his evidence, but said he punctured holes in the allegation. A later investigation, set up in 2016, has now catapulted Carlin back into the game, and possibly into the public spotlight.
Operation Kenova was set up to investigate activities involving ‘Stakeknife’, including claims that British intelligence allowed up to 40 people to be killed by his unit in order to protect his cover. Back in 2003, the media alleged that Stakeknife was Alfredo ‘Freddie’ Scappaticci, who publicly denied the claims.
Operation Kenova met with Carlin last April and they have also spoken to his handlers.
"However, that would mean flying against the established narrative of Stakeknife as an angel of death, instead of the saviour of life that he had been in my case.”
If a prosecution goes ahead, the question he said, for him, is: “Do I give evidence against the man who saved my life?” Just last week, it emerged that the Kenova team had sent files to the Crown Prosecution Service in relation to murder, torture, malfeasance in a public office, and perverting the course of justice.
But Carlin is not sure if prosecutions will ever happen, given the possible implications for various people — particularly Sinn Féin and the IRA, as well as for the British Army and the political establishment.
He said there is “great credibility” to allegations that Stakeknife has an “insurance policy”, in the form of recordings detailing his actions and those around him, including “some of them holding very senior leadership positions in the republican movement”.
He fears multiple arrests and the prosecution of former Sinn Féin party and IRA members could severely affect the political standing of Sinn Féin, as Brexit hits the North and attempts are made to restore Stormont.
“If Stakeknife goes on trial, he will tell everything and implicate people. The fear I have is this is happening in the middle of Brexit,” Carlin said.
“And if Stakeknife goes up, they’ll have to put his handlers up on stand and what if they get Gordon Kerr [the former head of the FRU] to give evidence? Who did he tell inside the army? Does it lead to their political masters?”
Thatcher’s Spy is published by Merrion Press