Book review: An extraordinary insight into those living a life of duality in the Troubles

Willie Carlin, Freddie Scappaticci, and other less well-documented informers – and what they did from 1980 through to the peace process – are examined here. Most interestingly, Edwards asks why they would do it. 
Book review: An extraordinary insight into those living a life of duality in the Troubles

In the back of an old army vehicle on a visit back to Northern Ireland, former Provo informer Willie Carlin (55), (right) with another "Spook" who uses the pseudonym Kevin Fulton.

  • Agents of Influence: Britain’s Secret Intelligence War Against the IRA
  • Aaron Edwards 
  • Merrion Press pb, €19.95

BEFORE even thinking about the rights or wrongs of a Northern Irish man acting as an informer for the British army or the RUC, the risks and logistics are mind-boggling. Historian Aaron Edwards looks at the work of people – almost always men – working as agents for the British while living in their own Northern Irish communities, oftentimes playing an active role in Sinn Fein or the Provisional IRA.

Moments of IRA violence from around 1980 through to the peace process are examined in terms of the role played by informers. The term informer is not used here to any great extent as it is too generic and may describe someone coerced into passing information to get themselves out of a fix. 

Edwards looks more especially at those who have that classic life of duality, a God-fearing Republican (complete with the almost mandatory St. Joseph’s prayer card) working cheek by jowl with teams planning terrorist actions on the one hand and meeting regularly with a security handler giving up intel about upcoming plots.

Willie Carlin, Freddie Scappaticci, and other less well-documented figures – and what they did from 1980 through to the peace process – are examined here. Most interestingly, Edwards asks why they would do it. 

In Willie Carlin’s case, his decision stemmed from the shooting dead of a Protestant student, Joanne Mathers, who was going door to door at Gobnascale in Derry in April 1981 collecting census forms. 

But of course, the gathering of any official information was seen in some quarters as an extended action of the British government. She called to Willie Carlin’s door. He was a central figure in Sinn Fein at the time. Recognising she was in danger, he told her it was mainly a “don’t-go-there” street with several active IRA people living there. 

He directed her to a few houses where she would be welcome. They chatted and she smiled and she waved and walked to the first of the houses. But as she stood at the door someone rounded the corner and shot her in the head. 

In that moment Willie Carlin decided that he would use his position deep in the Republican movement to pass information to MI5.

One of the more interesting assertions made by Aaron Edwards is that as well as using the information to try to find arms dumps or to foil planned bombings and shootings, they also used the information to prevent two assassination attempts on Gerry Adams and to keep close tabs on Martin McGuinness. 

Edwards contends that the British saw from long before the peace process that Adams and McGuinness were gravitating towards the political and away from the armed struggle. Edwards writes: “By ambushing several IRA volunteers in McGuinness’ own personal power base, the British were opting to box him in so he would place more emphasis on the IRA’s political ambitions.” 

Many key atrocities from the 1980s and 1990s are detailed against the particular context of information gathering – successes and failures. 

But time and again we are reminded of the extraordinary risks taken by the most despised among Republicans, whatever you choose to call them – touts, informers or agents of influence. 

Their actions were watched with forensic details by the IRA who weeded them out, not least through the actions of the notorious Nutting Squad who identified suspected touts, abducted, tortured and killed them before dumping their mutilated bodies on the side of a country road as an unmistakable message.

An interesting, keenly researched, and at times extraordinary insight – that some will undoubtedly find contentious - into deeply troubled and all-too-recent times.

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