TV Eye

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

A reconstruction from the series.

A reconstruction from the series.

Watch the beetles scuttle
Brathadóirí
Thursdays, 10pm, 21 May–25 June 2009, TG4
by Anthony McIntyre

Irish revolutionary history has been replete with the informer type. The degree to which they shaped it may have been exaggerated by their handlers, victims and journalists alike, but it is indisputable that their role has earned them no small amount of contempt and hostility. The tout assumes the persona of the bogeyman, to be kept both figuratively and literally at arm’s length. The scene from The Informer in which the blood money he received for setting up his IRA colleague, Frankie McPhilip, was pushed with a cane across the table to Gypo Nolan by his British Army paymaster conveys the depth and pervasiveness of the distancing and the contempt. Often ‘Brussels sprouts’ ended their days in a field or alleyway courtesy of a bullet summarily despatched without compunction into the region of their brains—the coup de grâce on occasion administered by fellow touts. The Provisional Movement is said to have killed around 70 informers, only a minority of those who functioned as agents and continue to do so today within its ranks. Their funerals were sparsely attended gatherings, poignantly underlined in the TG4 six-part documentary series Brathadóirí with footage of mourners shuffling along behind the coffin of Eamon Collins.

Pat Daly (right)—his role in burrowing into the INLA was explored in a way that raised serious questions about the British state intelligence services.

Pat Daly (right)—his role in burrowing into the INLA was explored in a way that raised serious questions about the British state intelligence services.

Yet for something so reviled, à la pederasts, there seems to have been no shortage of them. While it might be inflated to claim that the Provisional IRA was brought to its knees, weighed down by the burden of informers, the organisation’s defeat cannot be fully understood outside the part played by such people. They undermined military activities to such an extent that suing for peace looked an increasingly viable option for the Sinn Féin leadership to pursue, tasked as it was with the strategic management of the IRA. Then they helped to sideline opponents of the peace process in favour of others more favourably disposed towards the Adams leadership. That sidelining was the role attributed to Denis Donaldson by Davy Hyland and Martin Cunningham in their contributions to Brathadóirí.
Brathadóirí, as its title suggests, set out to examine the role of the informer in the political violence that beset the country for much of the last four decades. Whereas the role of the informer is inseparable from the Northern conflict, the series illustrated just how insidious the phenomenon had become in the Republic as well. Irony is added when it is considered that the programme is launched at a time when the former US State Department diplomat Kendall Myers, who had some involvement in Northern Irish politics, finds his lumbering frame in a US jail on warrant of allegations that he was an informer for the Cuban government. The seeming ubiquity of the phenomenon is enhanced.

Colin Wallace, a former British Army ‘black operations’ specialist (1968–75) turned whistle-blower, said that there were three motives for informing: duress, money and revenge.

Colin Wallace, a former British Army ‘black operations’ specialist (1968–75) turned whistle-blower, said that there were three motives for informing: duress, money and revenge.

The programme-makers certainly tried to avoid being superficial. They interviewed a wide range of people, including some who were serious figures and authorities either in or on the world of international espionage. This was accompanied by a serious degree of psychological profiling that was woven through the narrative. Being analytical rather than sensationalist, it had none of the drama that goes with an informer scandal in the making.
The series, despite starting strong, never dropped pace. It opened up thematically and then focused on case-studies as the narrative joined the dots between theme and evidence. For the average viewer the human story may have overshadowed the thematic. It was no less interesting for that.
Old favourites featured, such as Denis Donaldson and Freddie Scappaticci, with Donaldson getting a full programme when in fact a greater delving into Scappaticci might have proved more revealing. Less well-known, but hardly inconsequential, informers were also documented. Pat Daly’s role in burrowing into the INLA was explored in a way that raised serious questions about the British state intelligence services. The first episode clearly showed their role in supplying the weapons and car to allow Daly to commission a grave act of illegality so that other INLA members could be arrested in a Bristol sting operation.

Headlines relating to ‘the Badger’, an MI5 mole in the Gardaí.(All images: Scun Scan/TG4)

Headlines relating to ‘the Badger’, an MI5 mole in the Gardaí.
(All images: Scun Scan/TG4)

Much of the working assumption that guided the viewer through the six episodes was the less-than-salutary role of the authorities, both British and Irish. Officialdom turned two blind eyes to what agents were doing and undermined investigations into atrocities that might have exposed their cynicism and complicity. There was something particularly loathsome about the role of the Dublin government in that it always put the interests of the British state before those of its own citizens. This drew particular critical attention in Brathadóirí through its scrutiny of ‘the Badger’, a member of the Garda Síochána who had spent much of his Garda career in the pay of the British as one of their agents.
Motivation was another theme, and Colin Wallace, a former British Army ‘black operations’ specialist turned whistle-blower, said that there were three motives for informing: duress, money and revenge. What Brathadóirí did not tell us was that IRA internal security people routinely found from those they interrogated that duress was the strongest of the three. The determining motivation was the fear of jail, particularly heightened amongst those who had been there before and who had long since become disabused of any romantic illusions about doing time for the cause.
The RUC, no stranger to dirty tricks, had its perspective articulated by former Head Assistant Chief Constable Raymond White. Although White claimed that the use of informers is the only real alternative to retrospective investigation, the programme forces us to conclude that in some cases there would be nothing to investigate retrospectively were it not for informers having carried out the actions that later become the object of investigation. White’s demeanour betrayed a latent hostility towards human rights groups and others who may ask questions of those in the British state’s security services who, he claims, had to get their hands dirty.
Paradoxically, the most useful role an informer could play is in the post-conflict situation. Public understanding of the conflict would be enhanced immeasurably if current and former members of the Irish and British security services were to come forward and cast some light under the stones upon which the legitimacy of the respective states rests. Then watch the beetles scuttle. HI

Anthony McIntyre is a former IRA prisoner and the author of Good Friday: the death of Irish republicanism (http://thepensivequill.am).

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