The Castlereagh Enigma

The Irish News (25.1.2016) has claimed that it has seen information that the IRA commander who planned the 1993 Shankill bombing was a State agent who provided prior knowledge of the attack to his British handlers. Alison Morris says in her accompanying “Analysis” column:

“Retaliation for the IRA bombing (of the Shankill) was swift and brutal… with the north on the brink of all out civil war there was a push toward a political settlement. Both sides were as a result forced back to the negotiating table with a war weary public ready to embrace a deal that may otherwise have been unthinkable… But what if all that we once thought we knew about that time and the events that followed was wrong? What if the dark hand of British intelligence was playing both sides of the chess board at one time and the innocents standing in Frizzell’s fish shop on the Shankill Road on October 23 1993 were considered collateral damage? The Irish News has seen evidence that shows the man who was the Ardoyne ‘commander’ of the IRA from 1991 until 2001 was in fact a top level informant… Was a botched attack allowed to go ahead and did the state allow civilians to die to shame republicans into a ceasefire?”

Whilst, the Irish News revelations are interesting, journalists don’t do political context, and they tend toward seeing things in the way the British State likes to portray the conflict – “When two tribes go to war…” etc.

The hidden hand of Britain in all sorts of activities is very much regarded as a given by people in the North and to see it as some form of revelation has the unfortunate effect of turning a journalist into well… Ed Moloney. And we are sure that is the last thing Alison Morris would aim to be.

According to Morris the Republican Army discovered this information themselves in 2002 when their intelligence department broke the codes in documents that were procured from Castlereagh holding centre in a celebrated break-in. No enigma machine or Bletchley Park set-up of gifted mathematicians was needed to do this, apparently. According to Alison Morris:

“Most of the stolen documents were encrypted, however, The Irish News understands a small and trusted circle of IRA members were recruited to embark on the painstaking process of decoding the information by linking dates, times, areas and information with possible agents to reveal their identity.”

On the 18th March 2002 the PSNI revealed that there had been a break in at the Special Branch offices of Castlereagh Police Station in Belfast. The break in, at one of the most secure police stations in the world, shocked security analysts, who immediately speculated about it being an inside job and another incident in the long line of incidents related to the Stevens Inquiry into Collusion by which the security services caused vital documents to disappear. It was generally assumed, even outside the Catholic community, that the robbery was a security operation designed to remove documents which would be embarrassing if they fell into the hands of those who were investigating police conduct with regard to the Omagh bombing and the allegations of collusion with Loyalist paramilitaries. There had already been two publicised occasions in which documents required by investigators were found to have been destroyed by accidental fires in high security installations. The robbery was carried out by a group of men without masks, who seemed to know all the security requirements needed to walk right into the heart of the building and immediately find what they were looking for. The cameras which were supposed to keep a permanent watch had been switched off.

Separate investigations were launched by the police and the NIO. On 24th March, the PSNI chief constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan said he would be “most surprised” if paramilitaries or civilians were responsible for the break-in at the Special Branch’s office at Castlereagh. Despite this statement, a week later, hundreds of his police officers were involved in the raiding of Republican homes. The police swoops directed against Republicans were obviously meant to convey the impression that Republicans were responsible for the break-in at Castlereagh. A leak by Sir John Chilcot, the MI6 man brought in by the Secretary of State to investigate the incident, was then taken as fact that the IRA had done it.

Although many senior Republicans were arrested for the Castlereagh break-in only one person, a cook working in Castlereagh who was living in America when the charge was laid, was ever charged with the offence. The charges were then dropped on the pretext that evidence of his guilt would damage security if presented in Court. That would have spoken volumes about the nature of the State’s interest in the break-in, if the media had shown any interest. A recent Irish News editorial noted when the incident was sent to the Ombudsman, a decade after the event: “… within a short time different theories began to emerge including the suggestion that the raid was actually an in-side job, possibly involving rogue Special Branch officers and IRA officers.” And it was disclosed, “that a former Special Branch officer whose details were stolen has come forward to claim the police allowed the break-in to take place. This astonishing allegation now forms the basis of an official investigation” by the Police Ombudsman. (7.11.15)

However, it now appears, according to the same paper, that the IRA did, in fact, do the Castlereagh job. Which shows that a reliance on security sources is a very dangerous game for security correspondents and their editors to play.

The revelations by Alison Morris suggest that the IRA pulled off the Castlereagh job on St. Patrick’s Day 2002, deciphered the encrypted codes on the documents obtained and this led them to agents working for the State within Republican ranks, both military and political. One of the agents turned out to be the IRA commander who planned the Shankill bomb of 1993, who provided the State with advance warning of the attack, which it did nothing to avert. Another of the agents’ codenames broken by Republicans was that of Special Adviser, Denis Donaldson. (Irish News 25.1.16)

The other event in the security offensive against Republicans, in which Donaldson featured prominently, has been called ‘Stormontgate’. The Sinn Fein offices at Stormont were raided by the new Chief Constable of the new Police Service with the approval of the Secretary of State, for the purpose of providing a big media event to undermine Sinn Fein. This event, in October 2002, was political policing at its most vulgar.

Following other raids in private houses the police charged a Sinn Fein official with being in possession of political information (which he took to be so dangerous that he kept it in a rucksack!) The Police spin on this was that political information could be of use to ‘terrorists’. Sinn Fein stood accused of trying to find out what its political opponents were intending, which seems to be what all responsible political parties aim to do in a normal democracy. It was doubly ironic that the sort of information gathered was the kind of thing that was routinely leaked to the media in Great Britain, a process which had been turned into a normal process of government by the New Labour Government and its spin doctors. But in ‘Northern Ireland’ it was used to suspend the institutions of government.

At the same time the British government was overseeing communications by Sinn Fein and other parties in Northern Ireland in every way it could – for example, through the use of spies and by planting listening devices in the cars of elected MLAs and expanding the role of the security services that specialised in such activities in the province. Whitehall had failed to reconstruct the ‘Northern Ireland’ security apparatus long after its reform had been pledged at the inception of the Agreement. Security force/Loyalist collusion continued unabated after the IRA had called a halt to war and resulted in the deaths of a number of prominent non-Republicans who sought to expose it, including the solicitor, Rosemary Nelson in March 1999, and the journalist Martin O’Hagan in September 2000, as well as a number of individuals who were involved in, who met mysterious deaths along the way.

What was politically afoot was an attempt to stage-manage the withdrawal of the Unionist Party from the devolved government in such a way that somebody else could be blamed for it. To achieve this, the British government had one of its main agents within the Republican movement, Denis Donaldson, arrested and charged with espionage. It did not, of course, come to light until later that Donaldson was working for British intelligence in helping to bring down the institutions of government in ‘Northern Ireland’ – when he was supposed to be working for the Republican movement.

Alison Morris now alleges that the “Stormontgate” arrest of Donaldson was also orchestrated by the Intelligence services to protect their agent after Republicans had broken the codes from the documents they procured at Castlereagh.

The State case against their agent predictably collapsed in December 2005 and Donaldson made a dramatic public confession of being a British agent for a long number of years. What was interesting was the fact that Donaldson was a political rather than military spy for the State. He provided information from within the high levels of Sinn Fein during the negotiations about the Good Friday Agreement.

Donaldson was later killed by a person or persons unknown after a Sunday World ‘Exclusive’ pin-pointing his location in Donegal. The IRA, after identifying the State agents by breaking the codes in the Castlereagh files, decided to allow them to ‘retire’ quietly into private life or leave the country if they felt endangered from former comrades. That was proof positive that the War was over.

Donaldson was living among Republicans with little sign of molestation and he was only targeted when his presence was made known to the world. In an interview Donaldson told the journalist who had tracked him down, that the Stormont espionage event was staged and he was sacrificed by the British so that Republicans would take the blame for the suspension of the institutions.

Both the Castlereagh break-in and the political espionage which Republicans were supposedly engaged in had ended a whole year before the British government decided to take down the institutions at Stormont in ‘Stormontgate’. Seeing that Donaldson was working for the British government all along and his activities were known about by the Secretary of State for a whole year before he decided to act, the timing must have had some political significance. It, presumably, had to do with internal Unionist affairs – in helping the UUP hold onto its slender electoral lead over the DUP to save David Trimble from the wolves of the electorate.

David Morrison (IPR, December 2001 and January 2002) detailed the extraordinary measures, including the passing of an Act of Parliament, which were taken from 1998, to save David Trimble from having to face an election to the Assembly before 2003. These measures were taken because there was unlikely to be a majority in the Unionist bloc for the re-election of Trimble and Mallon, or any alternative combination after 2001. If six weeks elapsed without a First Minister and Deputy First Minister, the Northern Ireland Act 1998 required the Secretary of State to call an election – which it was generally thought would produce an unequivocal anti-Agreement Unionist bloc and make the re-election of Trimble and Mallon, or another acceptable alternative, absolutely impossible.

At all costs David Trimble had to be protected, first from his Assembly Members and, if that failed, from the electorate, to secure the government of the “moderate centre” which was designed to keep the “extremes” – Sinn Fein and the DUP – at bay. That was the objective of the Good Friday Agreement from the British and Dublin perspectives, after having secured the end of the Insurrection.

Peter Robinson of the DUP took two legal actions seeking a judicial review of the Secretary of State’s failure to call an election before May 2003 and the other seeking to challenge the election of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, arguing that it should have been declared illegal on the grounds that it took place outside the six weeks time limit specified by the 1998 Act. Both actions failed in the High Court in December of 2001. Trimble was, therefore, successfully protected from the electorate until May 2003.

Trimble certainly needed protecting from the electorate. In the British General Election of June 2001 there were two dramatic movements of political support. Within the Protestant community there was a great swing away from Trimble’s UUP to Paisley’s DUP, and in the Catholic bloc Sinn Fein trounced the SDLP. The Agreement had been subverted by the democracy!

This was all part of the ‘Save Dave’ campaign involving an offensive by parts of the security services to discredit Sinn Fein’s commitment to the Peace Process and avert the deluge. It involved an intelligence war on Republicans waged by the Intelligence services and culminated in 3 main events: The Colombian Three affair, the Castlereagh break-in and the Stormont espionage. These events occurred because the British State continued its operations both against the IRA and Sinn Fein in a kind of ‘Cold War’ mode, forcing Republicans to counter these manoeuvres to demonstrate continued operational capacity.

Trimble was still seen by the British as indispensable to the Agreement and they proceeded to make a series of extraordinary efforts to save him. On Trimble’s part his power to obstruct the implementation of the Agreement largely depended on the threat of him being “finished” and the thought he projected: “Après moi le deluge.”

Trimble and the UUP had already committed itself to collapsing the structures established under the Good Friday Agreement unless Whitehall did what they wanted by some other means. An election was looming. It was taken to be a virtual certainty that the parties favoured by Whitehall, the UUP and SDLP, would lose their majority status to the DUP and Sinn Fein. Majority status within the common blocs was all-important in what went on at Stormont due to the confessional apartheid system that the British government had established under the Agreement and it would have been an entirely different ball game which Whitehall was unprepared to play at that stage to have dealt with Sinn Fein and the DUP. So when the Unionist leader and First Minister threatened to bring the house down as a way of rescuing his position against the DUP the Secretary of State, Reid, identified the interests of the State with Trimble’s interest and acted on his behalf, keeping Sinn Fein and the DUP away from the levers of power for then.

Whitehall came to Trimble’s aid by both ordering a police raid on the Sinn Fein offices at Stormont with the television cameras in attendance and launching the espionage propaganda against Sinn Fein along with suspending the power-sharing institutions. This kind of activity fell into a pattern. Republicans were arrested at critical points in the Peace Process and allegations were put into circulation by the chief constable. Unionists were appeased by the exclusion of Sinn Fein. And then, a few months later when the incident had served its purpose, those who had been arrested were released without charge and without publicity.

All the allegations (The Columbia Three, the Castlereagh ‘break-in’ and the Stormont espionage) which led to the collapse of the Executive and power-sharing arrangements were presented as established facts by the British State media (along with Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, at the time) despite the fact that they were not proved. It was not important that they ever were proved – just that they provided political cover for the British Government to do the thing they wanted – saving Dave for a later date to preserve the soft centre at Stormont. All three planks justifying the British Government’s actions in October 2002 turned out to be not what they seemed. All three were quickly and quietly forgotten without any official acknowledgement of the truth. They could be quietly forgotten about because the stories released to the media were not actually believed by those who used them to political effect and the media in ‘Northern Ireland’ being strictly controlled showed little interest after the events.

It was somehow expected that this pattern would result in the Catholic community deserting Sinn Fein in droves as it recoiled from such dishonourable and disreputable behaviour. And it was hoped that Republicans failure to do and say certain things, which the Agreement never required them to do in the first place would put them beyond the Pale with the media and in consequence with the electorate, which in Britain seems to be gullible in that way. Instead, it had precisely the opposite effect on the Catholic community and ended up in severely damaging the SDLP.

Ever since 1998 the British State had conducted war by other means against Republicans. Hot War had become Cold War. Britain could not rest easy until the Republican ceasefire had been developed into a political victory. The Republican scheme, on the other hand, was for a gradual withering away of the Republican Army over a couple of years in the context of the operation of power-sharing and North-South institutions, reform of the governing apparatus of the Six Counties, the police and British demilitarisation.

That there was British involvement in the Shankill disaster is interesting. But more significant is the fact that further information has come to light about how Britain attempted to turn the orderly retreat of the Republican Army from the battlefield into a rout through its Cold War style espionage. It now appears, if the Irish News is to be believed, that the Republican Army was just as successful in beating this off as it was all other things that the State threw at it.

(This article appears in the Irish Political Review, February 2016)

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