Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2020), Reviews, Volume 28

Cambridge University Press
£18.99 pb

Reviewed by Patrick Mulroe

Patrick Mulroe is the author of Bombs, bullets and the border. Policing Ireland’s frontier: Irish security policy, 1969–1978 (Irish Academic Press, 2017).

In The intelligence war against the IRA, Cardiff University politics lecturer Thomas Leahy deals with some of the big questions related to the Northern Ireland Troubles. Was the IRA defeated? Should governments talk to ‘terrorists’? Why did violence end? Although these questions are obviously interesting for an Irish audience, there is a broader significance, as the answers are important in terms of approaches to conflict resolution internationally. That Professor John Bew was recently appointed foreign affairs adviser to Boris Johnson emphasises this point. As we will see, Bew co-authored a work on the peace process covering much of the same ground as Leahy but came to a starkly different conclusion.

Leahy has three main findings. Firstly, he claims that actions by British intelligence did not significantly influence republican strategy. Secondly, he argues that the conflict ended in a stalemate. Finally, he contends that it was the unwillingness of the Irish public to politically support the IRA campaign that prompted the group to move away from ‘armed struggle’. The implication of these findings, for Leahy at least, is that ‘talking to terrorists’ worked. Somewhat perversely, had the book been written in the years immediately after the conflict ended these conclusions would have been pretty conventional. At that time the standard narrative was of a military ‘stalemate’ overcome by ‘talking’. Indeed, key actors in the peace process, such as Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, travelled the world repeating a variant of that story. Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff, even published a book entitled It’s good to talk. Talking to terrorists: how to end armed conflict.

In the opening chapter, Leahy details how the ‘stalemate’ conclusion has since become a minority view. Pointing to the significance of the outing of IRA informers Denis Donaldson and Freddie Scappaticci (Stakeknife), Leahy accepts that most commentaries now conclude that the republican campaign was fundamentally compromised by State agents. One of the most influential contributions identified in this regard is Talking to terrorists: making peace in Northern Ireland and the Basque Country by the aforementioned John Bew, Martyn Frampton and Inigo Gurruchage. Unlike Leahy, Bew and his co-authors do not look at the nitty-gritty of intelligence-gathering but still conclude that peace talks only succeeded because the IRA was heavily infiltrated. Their overall thesis is that talks with paramilitary groups are not the panacea that Powell and others maintain. Leahy’s book can probably be best understood as a rejoinder to Bew et al. and at several points in the text that direct comparison is made.

The issue of infiltration of the IRA is addressed by Leahy. He argues that ‘the importance of Stakeknife and other alleged agents and informers against the IRA in Belfast and Derry City in the 1990s has been overestimated’. The reduced level of violence in these two cities is explained by reference not to intelligence successes but rather to factors internal to the republican movement. The desire to avoid civilian casualties and the adoption of a cell structure are the specific reasons cited. It is not in terms of the situation in Belfast or Derry, however, that Leahy is at his most convincing. Rather, the analysis of rural districts is innovative and compelling. He accepts that the IRA seems to have been significantly penetrated in parts of east Tyrone and south Down, but he also looks at the situation in Fermanagh, south Armagh, north Armagh and other rural border areas. His conclusion that these areas were important to the IRA and less vulnerable to infiltration rings true.

Although this is very much an academic work, it is still an easy read. It is not, however, a page-turner in the sense that journalistic offerings on the same topic are. The academic’s tendency to resist sensationalising detracts from the drama but adds to the credibility of the work. The argument at times can also drift away from strictly intelligence matters to a discussion of diplomacy relating to ceasefire negotiations in 1972, 1975 and the 1990s. These digressions are still interesting and there is much that can be agreed and disagreed on within the analysis. For example, in relation to the failed 1972 talks, Leahy controversially apportions much of the blame to the British government. Most commentators would disagree with this, arguing that the then IRA leadership were simply not at the stage where they were ready to compromise. In relation to the 1975 IRA ceasefire, Leahy makes a convincing argument that a British withdrawal was a real possibility. An independent Northern Ireland was among the potential scenarios that might have emerged as a result, and fascinating details are revealed on republican attitudes to that prospect.

Overall, Leahy is partially constructing an argument based on ‘known unknowns’ and ‘unknown unknowns’, to borrow Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase. If the truth be told, we will probably never know the full extent of security force infiltration of the republican movement, but this should not preclude academic investigation. It is in this context that this work should be recognised as a valuable contribution to our understanding of the Northern Ireland conflict and a timely disruption of a potentially dangerous consensus.


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