Who Was Really Running The IRA?

John McDonagh (JM) interviews the award winning journalist and author Ed Moloney (EM) via telephone about recent news in Ireland that yet another IRA informer is being exposed. Thanks to TPQ transcriber who rushed this through in extra quick time.

Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
30 January 2016
(begins time stamp ~ 36:30)

JM: Now, the next topic we're going to cover: There's a story that was broke in the Irish News about IRA informers – because that's seems to be that's all there were toward the end when the British literally ran it - and the part that's particularly interesting to me – and we're going to get Ed Moloney on – is that of Denis Donaldson.

Denis Donaldson was sent out by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to work in the United States with Irish-Americans that supported the Republican Movement. They had always had someone out here even from 1916 and before to keep the relationship going. Prior to Denis it was Hugh Feeney, who was working at The Irish People office where I was the editor at The Irish People. One day a female student, or that's was what she told me, came up and she was looking around - she was doing a paper on the Republican Movement - I didn't know at the time she was an FBI agent. She went outside and I guess told her comrades that Hugh Feeney, who was arrested in London for blowing up the Old Bailey and was working with us here in New York, was up there. So as a knock came to the door and I said: Who is it? They said: FBI. I said: Do you have a warrant? That's when they kicked in the door and laughed at me like – yeah – we need warrants.

So they went and arrested Hugh Feeney and took him out. And his replacement was an MI5 agent sent over by Gerry Adams, Denis Donaldson, who worked with us. And I have to say he was a great guy – we used to go out drinking with him – he had stories about going to Lebanon and Syria and trying to get weapons for the IRA and just an unbelievable character. And it just seems that every time something breaks in The North a lot of it centres around trying to protect Denis Donaldson over there. And that was the story that was in this week's Irish News and Ed Moloney has been writing about it on The Broken Elbow - and I always recommend: Go there if you want to really know what's going on behind the scenes Ed has it - author of A Secret History of the IRA. Ed, are you there?

EM: Yes, I am, John.

JM: Yeah – I was just breaking it down about - a lot of this stuff just revolves around – whether it's MI5 (or the secret service over in Ireland) - it's protecting their assets, or their different agents, even to the extent they would allow bombs to go off and people to get killed in order protect a high up agent in the IRA.  

EM: Yes, although you know I think it's much more complicated than that and also much more chilling because they could have intercepted that bomb, they could have stopped the bombing operation in a dozen different ways and saved the lives of all those people who died. And don't forget they were just ordinary shoppers...

JM: ...Yeah, you're talking about a bombing on the Shankill Road...

EM: ...a bombing on the Shankill Road which is what this story is all about. The story that appeared in the Irish News this week is saying that intelligence that the IRA gleaned from raiding the Special Branch office in Castlereagh police station back in 2002, which is a story that Denis Donaldson, of course, is involved in, information from that was decrypted and revealed that this bombing was allowed to go ahead by the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) Special Branch; they had a very high-ranking agent inside the IRA in Ardoyne, which is where the bombing team came from.

And according to the story not only did they not do anything to stop the bombing operation from happening they actually suggested the modus operandi of the bombing team. In other words, they suggested the best way to try to bomb, plant the bomb on the Shankill Road. And the bomb was intended to wipe out the leadership of the UDA, the Ulster Defence Association, the largest Loyalist paramilitary group which, under the leadership of a character called Johnny Adair, had embarked on like a killing spree of Catholics, particularly in North and West Belfast, which would intimately affect the IRA in Ardoyne. And this was an attempt to try to stop those killings and kill the people who were largely responsible for it. 

The UDA was meeting, or supposed to be meeting, in rooms above a fishmonger's store called Frizzell's on the Shankill, Shankill Road – an office that many journalists would have been - I've been in that office many times meeting UDA people - so it would be very well-known as a meeting place for them. But that day the UDA weren't there. But anyway, getting back to the story, according to the Irish News report it was the agent who suggested a way of bombing the UDA which was to take the bomb into the fishmonger's store and attach it by a hook to the ceiling so it'd blow upwards and kill the UDA leaders as they were meeting upstairs in an upstairs room. Well, what actually happened, of course, was that bomb exploded prematurely. There are now suggestions being made in the media in Ireland that the RUC also sabotaged the bomb or, to use the correct terminology, 'jarked' the bomb, so that it would explode prematurely. 

Which meant that really, if all this is true, it means that what was happening here was that the RUC was intent on causing as many deaths as possible. 

Now, why did this happen? I don't think it was about protecting an agent at all because they could have protected that agent by not suggesting the bombing in the first place! But … I think myself that you have to look at the bombing in the context of what was happening at the time. And what was happening at the time, this was October, 1993, was that the peace process was moving into a sort of very critical stage. We were about to get the Downing Street Declaration. It would not have something that the IRA Army Council had been looking for and which most IRA grassroots people had been promised would appear in the Downing Street Declaration, which was a promise by the British that at some stage in the future, maybe ten or twenty years hence, they would, they would withdraw. The IRA was prepared to compromise on this demand for withdrawal by saying as long as we get a formal promise from the British that they're going to withdraw at some stage in the future then we will call a ceasefire and we can have interim arrangements.

Well, that wasn't going to happen. The Belfast IRA, brigade, the Belfast Brigade of the IRA, was moving very strongly against the peace process and didn't like which direction which that was going in. And I think myself at that stage the Gerry Adams leadership was really quite threatened because people were beginning to conspire against them. and we know that eventually that resulted in the attempt by people who went on to lead the Real IRA to overthrow the Adams' leadership. That was all percolating away. Well, the effect of this bomb, which was an outrage, I mean it was an atrocity – all these civilians were killed, little babies were killed, the building was collapsed into the middle of the street - was to weaken the militarists inside the IRA. And the other effect, of course, was that the Loyalists went on a killing rampage afterwards – something like fourteen or sixteen people were killed in the week or so afterwards including people in the famous incident in the Greysteel Bar where, Halloween night a gunman came in and said: Trick or Treat - and then opened up with a sub-machine gun and killed six people in that bar. 

And the atmosphere in Belfast at that time, I can tell you, was terrifying. People were very, very worried. The idea that this could really get out of control and could lead to goodness knows what sort of violence was very credible at that stage. And the yearning for an end to it, a peaceful end, was almost tangible. So the bombing served two things, it served two purposes: It weakened the militarists inside the Belfast Brigade in particularly because this was a stupid operation. You know, Saturday afternoon in the middle of a busy shopping street, planting a bomb in the ceiling of a fishmonger's shop and expecting not to kill civilians? You know like how stupid can you get? That was number one; so it weakened them.

And secondly, it strengthened the sort of sentiment, particularly in the Catholic population, for an end to the violence and for peace etc and in a sense strengthened the peace camp in Sinn Féin. So that I think, I don't know what the motivation was but if I was pressed, and I've written this so I'm not saying anything new, that you have to look at the context to understand a possible reason or a motive for the bombing. And saving, protecting an informer was the least of it. This was a classic example of using intelligence in a counter-intelligence way to weaken your adversary and push them in a direction that you wanted them to go to - and if that was the aim it succeeded.

JM: Ed, one of the other things that's coming out: Suzanne Breen also wrote during the week that based on the intelligence that the IRA got that there was over two dozen other IRA informers. And there's been no reaction from Sinn Féin. And then how these new informers that we just found out – how they're treated as compared to other people that were treated for far less than what's being reported right now.

EM: Well, the full story of the level of British penetration of the IRA, and penetration by all three branches of British intelligence – because you had the RUC Special Branch, you had MI5 and then you had military intelligence, the Force Research Unit (FRU), the people who brought us Brian Nelson and the death of Pat Finucane - the full story of that has not as yet been told. But I think when it is told it's going to curl some hairs in Ireland because I think it will reveal that the extent of penetration, the extent of informers working for the British towards the end was such it's legitimate to ask the question: Who was really running , who was really running the IRA at the end, you know?

JM: And also Ed, Sinn Féin's response to all of this - normally they hold press conferences or they'll denounce it and they'll talk about dark forces working behind the scenes and this is all nonsense...

EM: ...Securocrats would be the ...

JM: ...Yeah, that was McGuinness' thing: everything was securocrats. But there hasn't been much of a response and one of the people that's named in – well, he not actually named in the Irish News but everyone seems to know him – that he's living out in the open and he's working for Sinn Féin and he's attending the funerals and handing flags and everything over to the families – I mean it's just a... 

EM: ...Yeah, I mean everyone knows. This story apparently, this is not the first time that it's been told. I mean apparently a year ago almost exactly this guy's name was being painted on the walls in Ardoyne. People in that area knew the story very well apparently. Apparently, during, as a result of that bombing on the Shankill Road one of the IRA bombers was killed and apparently his father confronted this guy about a year or so ago. So it's like a matter of common gossip in Ardoyne and I'd presume within Republican circles generally.

But it's also very, very embarrassing for the Provo leadership because you see it does raise this question, a very fundamental question about who was running the IRA at this time? Was it the Army Council? Was it the Sinn Féin leadership together with the Army Council? Or was it the British Army, MI5 and RUC Special Branch? Or some combination of both? You know, it raises these very dark and for the IRA must be, for the Sinn Féin leadership, must be quite worrying questions to have debated. which I suspect is why, which is why they're keeping quiet about it. But at the same time the puzzling aspect of it in a sense is that this story bears all the hallmarks of an official leak from the Provo machine. In other words, that it's someone within their organisation has given the story to the Irish News with the approval of the usual people. and we know who the usual people are.

So why have they done this given that that it's potentially, not just potentially embarrassing, it is actually embarrassing for them. And the only explanation that I can possibly think of is that it may be a shot across the bows of the British by the Provos in the context of an argument that they're having with the British about how to deal with the past because this is the one issue that has not been resolved. I mean they got over the continued existence of the IRA, they got together another deal, they got their welfare cuts and so on and so forth but this issue of dealing with the past was not resolved. Is this the IRA saying to, or the Sinn Féin leadership saying to the British: This is just a sample of what we have against you. If you don't come to your senses and do a deal with us on the past then there's going to be more of this. Who knows? Your guess is as good as mine.

JM: Well Ed, one can only hope that at some stage somebody can write the companion to your book A Secret History of the IRA - something like The Secret History of MI5 in Ireland or the RUC Special Branch – and that they lay out exactly what their strategy was and how they brought Sinn Féin and the IRA to the peace table and how they infiltrated...

EM: ...Oh, I don't think there's any doubt, John, that the security forces actively intervened in the peace process in order to assist the side that they wanted to win which is the Sinn Féin side. I remembered a former, I won't give his rank, but a very, very senior member of the Special Branch in Belfast told me once that during this time the IRA was holding conventions, very critical conventions, one of which, for example, very nearly toppled the Adams' leadership. And there were other very critical conventions. And he said what we would do quite regularly, he said, we would find who were going to these conventions, who were the delegates and we would arrest those people who we thought were the hardliners and put them out of action so they missed it - in a sense rigging the convention by determining who would get to the convention and who would not. So if they did that then it's quite possible and indeed likely that they were intervening in other ways in order to assist the side that they wanted to win in the internal debate within the Provos.

JM: Well listen Ed, thanks for coming on and giving us the latest update on some of the unresolved issues that are going on in The Six Counties. 

(ends time stamp ~ 52:55)


  1. Interesting, but it should also be noted that a lot of 'agents' would have been blackmailed into working for spooks.

    Donaldson was rumoured to be the 'sinn fein' entry observed going into the illegal brothel were allegedly pederasts frequented.

    That alone would have been gold for Intelligence Agencies for leverage, and says a lot about the warped priorities the spooks have.

    Makes you wonder about any pressure put on Adams regarding his Father and Brother.

  2. It's certainly appears the Britts were controlling the
    movement for years.in my opinion it's just inconceivable
    that Adams an some of his close associates did not
    help them in their endeavours, if memory serves me
    right Johnthan Powell (great hatred little room) said
    he proof-read an wrote some of adams statements.
    What's also worth noting people like Am the dark and
    others where vilified by these parasites when they
    questioned the strategy, it's a small comfort but how
    right yous where.

  3. Sean

    Jonathan Powell is hardly a reliable source, he was the man who sat on Blair's shoulder and whispered into his ear when they stitched up the dodgy dossier which sent young British men and women to war on a wicked lie. Never mind the total mess he helped the middle east become.

    As Bonaparte said "you must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war." The Provos fought the Brits for three decades, so it is hardly surprising they managed to insert informers into their ranks.

    Whether the security services were all seeing and all doing only they know, although if they had the ability to direct the IRA this way and that why did they Brits keep the Brits war going? Surely if they were all powerful they would have simple crushed the IRA, that they were never able to do.

  4. Mick, he wrote part of the army council statement - even slagged the Shinners off in a bantering fashion that he would sue them for plagiarism when he saw the statement. He was not challenged on it. He is hardly a worse liar than Adams. The British won the war outright by deciding to include republicans and exclude republicanism. Their victory was substantial.

  5. I think Mick makes an interesting observation and has a legitimate point. If the British had it all sown up then why allow the like of Bishopsgate and the Baltic Exchange to proceed? It doesn't add up

  6. Mick,

    Don't forget that Britain is an old colonial power, simply 'crushing' the IRA they knew was not an option. Militarily, yes they could have done it but not with a very vocal and powerful Irish voice in the US.

    They also played the long war, eventually culminating in the absolute sickening of the people of conflict so much that 'it had to get worse before it got better'.

    As much hatred as some have for Stormont and all its failings I will happily take it over an Omagh, Shankill, Greysteel or a Sunday/Friday.

  7. Steve

    You have a point about how the British disengaged from their empire, they often picked people in the resistance whom they thought they could do business with. But this did not necessarily make them turncoats simple more pliable than some of their comrades.

    National liberation movements and an organisation like the Provies have people with differing political opinions, etc, so it is inevitable some would be more liable than others. For example McGuinness was picked out long ago, in the 1980s a senior member of the IRA did not have TV programmes made about them on English TV which included a positive spin. Unless that is someone in high places Oked it.

    Sean also makes a good point about the Bishopsgate and Baltic Exchange, I would not put anything passed the British ruling class, they are putrid to their core, but the scale of the destruction after this was a sight to behold, more like Beirut during the civil war than the center of the City of London's financial district. I find it hard to believe they would go that far to get Gerry on side, when they must have known with gerry they had for some time been pushing at an open door.

    I suppose the question which needs to be pondered is did the Provos war need to end, had it run its course and if so was a united Ireland a possibility at that time. Maybe, as hard as it is for some the answer is yes and no. If so then the main priority for the then leadership was surely saving something from the rubble, and getting volunteers out of jail.

    The one thing that nags away at me was why the Adams leadership colluded in shutting down the Boston college stuff, as it would have allowed them to get stuff like informers and bad opps on the public record without taking responsibility for it. Which is what they often do.

    I feel some former volunteers are using informers to eat away at them, understandably, but this war ended a long time ago, perhaps it is time for the Sinn Fein leadership to come clean about how the British security forces infiltrated their ranks and how big the problem was, or indeed is. If they do not this issue will continue to be a running sore. they do not have to name names if the people are still living, they could set out which departments and brigades they served in,etc. Although I will not be holding my breath, Just a thought or two.

  8. I suppose the end game for the brit ruling class was a troop withdrawal from the 6 counties. The only way it was 'sell-able' to the Republican community was that if it was dressed up as peace being an organic idea, and one coming from a position of strength. Buildings can be repaired, insurance companies would have paid out, and as casualties were minimal in Bishopsgate and the Baltic Exchange they were prepared to accept that.

    This bolstered Adams with the Hawks and I wonder if there is something in the Boston tapes he does not want out? But I am only speculating. The dogs in the street know what The Dark had to say about Adams, and Jean McConville.

    With the now apparent extensive penetration of the RM, and the vast increase in technological spying equipment that the State security forces had at their disposal, it would seem unlikely that any 'war' by the Provisionals would have been effective.

    But don't underestimate the effect that the World Trade Centre attacks had on international politics, the British would have used this as leverage with the US to say 'See? this is what we have been facing for years!' if the RM's war had been continuing then. They would have used this to put pressure on Washington to shut down arms and funding flowing from Irish America as a trade off to joining the illegal and unethical wars in the Middle East.

    I think for many different reasons the Republican movement knew that perpetual war of attrition was going nowhere, and I as coming from the 'PUL' community (but none of those things-I am a dissenter) can honestly say that the so-called 'loyalists' would have fought to the death had the British removed their troops. I'm sure the thought would have occurred to some republicans too.

    A British withdrawal without the consent of the population would have resulted in a very bloody civil war, lets not kid ourselves. The hatred spawned by sectarianism burns deep in both communities.

    This is why I am fearful of some attempts by others to create unaccountable groups to administer their form of justice in already deprived communities. It's bitterness that drives it, they want to insulate themselves even further and that is totally against the spirit of community that should be the esprit d'core to better EVERYONE regardless of creed.

    Otherwise we will have a North Irish version of the Sharia 'no-go' areas that plague England, and would you really want that? After 3000 dead and 30 years of fear?

    I wouldn't.

  9. "the Sharia 'no-go' areas that plague England" Steve where are these Sharia 'no-go' areas in England, they seem to have passed me by? Admittedly with the Tory toffs in power England has a lot of problems, but 'Sharia no go areas' are not one of them.

  10. "the Sharia 'no-go' areas that plague England" Steve where are these Sharia 'no-go' areas in England, ,they seem to have passed me by"

    Hardly the most accurate measure, from the most unimpeachable source though is it? Walk from Commercial Street to Globe Town (leaving out the Bethnal Green Rd / Whitehchapel Rd) on a Friday night, and you will usually find yourself in one.

  11. Castle Vale in Birmingham had a sign that said 'No whites after 830'.

    If they have really passed you by I am shocked, I have a friends there who feel intimidated enough not to venture in a lot of areas at night in several English cities, and try being a western woman dressed in summer clothing walking by Finsbury Park Mosque.

    Would that pass you by too?

  12. We clearly differ on what a no go area is, as I understand it it is where the police will not go, as far as i'm aware there are none of those in the UK. Tread with caution for sure, but no go no.

    There have always been bigots and nut jobs who put unsavory signs up, let alone nasty and stupid men who insult women on the street. I could name countless places in the UK were black people and muslims get a very frosty welcome, must are in the more leafy suburbs and parts of shire county towns. Although i'm sure such wretched behavior happens amongst all classes and races.

    None of this behavior is acceptable and should be dealt with by the law, unfortunately in the case of the barrage of insults some young women face daily, whether in sight of a mosque or not, if they were to report it they would almost live in a police station it happens so regularly. In some cities it has reached epidemic proportions, especially when pubs and clubs close, and if that is what you have both seen, before and after Prays at some mosques.

    It is a sad fact many men still do not believe they are behaving badly when they whistle and call out insults at women in the street.

  13. I should have said no nogo area in London not UK

  14. " We clearly differ on what a no go area is, as I understand it it is where the police will not go, as far as i'm aware there are none of those in the UK.

    Then whats you take when the NIPO said " it was too risky for staff to accompany the inmate to his grandmother's funeral at Holy Cross Parish Church in Ardoyne"

    And they came to that conclusion after a risk assessment was carried out leaving the then chairman of Stormont's justice committee. Paul Givan, to say...""This case puts to bed the myth that there are no no-go areas in Northern Ireland for members of the security services," and the North is very much part of the UK...


  15. Mick...

    "Tom Winsor, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, warned that there are “cities in the Midlands where the police never go” because local communities refuse to engage with law enforcement."

    Where there is a vacuum it will be filled.

    I have been reminded recently of a copper who mentioned that in Preston, the police have to contact local Muslim leaders before going into the community as it's that bad.

    I would imagine that if the local cops are unwilling to step foot in areas, they would not be most welcoming to ordinary Western dressed people? I agree totally that this is unacceptable from whatever quarter, which is entirely the reason I made the point about groups setting up their own unaccountable community justice groups in certain areas.

    The working class needs to be united, not divided.

  16. Mick you should at least cast your eye of this report....( European 'No-Go' Zones: Fact or Fiction? Part 2: Britain) published on 3rd Feb 2015...

    In the piece Islam expert Andrew C. McCarthy explains what a "no go area" is......

    "[N]o sensible person is saying that state authorities are prohibited from entering no-go zones as a matter of law. The point is that they are severely discouraged from entering as a matter of fact — and the degree of discouragement varies directly with the density of the Muslim population and its radical component. Ditto for non-Muslim lay people: It is not that they are not permitted to enter these enclaves; it is that they avoid entering because doing so is dangerous if they are flaunting Western modes of dress and conduct.....

    It (report) also goes on to say...

    A recent study by the think tank Demos found that native white Britons are increasingly abandoning parts of the country where Muslim immigrants have become the majority of the population. Demos wrote:

    "In these areas, departing white British are replaced by immigration or by the natural growth of the minority population. Over time, the end result of this process is a spiral of white British demographic decline."

    An example of this trend is Birmingham. In August 2007, researchers at Manchester University predicted that the number of native white Britons in Birmingham would drop by nearly one-fifth over the next 20 years, from 65% in 2006 to 48% in 2027. At the same time, the number of Pakistanis in the city would nearly quadruple, increasing from 13% in 2006 to 48% in 2027.....

    It makes for very interesting reading Mick...........

  17. In a new book exclusively serialised in the News Letter next week – Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat The IRA – former Special Branch detective William Matchett lays bare the facts around what he calls “the most widely misunderstood aspect of the Northern Ireland conflict”.