Caoimhin O’Muraile reviews a book by a British agent who worked within Sinn Fein.
I chanced to pick up a copy of The Irish News Friday 4th October 2019 and was intrigued by the headline; which read: “INLA bomber set up for arrest by Provisional IRA says top MI5 agent”. As a former member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP) I ventured to read further. It turns out that Carlin, if all is to be believed, had been working for MI5 and later the FRU (Force Research Unit) inside Sinn Fein giving detailed reports on any political developments inside the party.
Carlin has written a book, Thatcher’s Spy: My Life as an MI5 Agent Inside Sinn Fein which I decided to read for myself rather than just the extracts in the paper. The book gives details about Carlin as a child, born into a devout Catholic family in Derry, 30 July 1948, who contemplated joining the priesthood at one stage. Instead, he enlisted in the British Army, The Queens Royal Irish Hussars, with whom he spent some time in Germany as part of the British Army’s NATO commitment.
I got the impression Carlin was either a liar, which I dismissed, a fantasiser or a terrible man for the propaganda. I came to the conclusion that he was a propagandist and a man perhaps prone to fantasising a little. He was not a liar because even propaganda of the worst type has to have a seed of truth to build the rest on, even if the rest is make-believe. The fact that the foundations are factual rules out Carlin being a compulsive liar. I did get the impression he considered himself far more important than he perhaps actually was. The way he portrays himself he was on first name terms with the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher; a woman even her husband was probably not on first name terms with!
There is no doubt at all Carlin served with the army in Germany but his recollection of an event which occurred while he was there would have us believing he alone prevented a third world war! He recalls being on duty along the River Elbe which formed the border, or frontier, between the former Soviet led Warsaw Pact territories and those of NATO. Apparently, a former GDR (East Germany) Navy vessel, Volksmarine, came alongside on the NATO bank of the Elbe. The captain had lost control of the ship to his crew – something unlikely if all the horror stories about the Warsaw Pact are to be believed – and the British Army were on full alert. Eventually the ship was taken, by who is not mentioned, given back to the Captain and the vessel left the NATO bank back into Soviet controlled waters. The question I ask is this; why would a GDR naval craft, unless seeking political asylum, come over to the western side asking assistance to retake the ship from the crew, who had set out a number of demands, unspecified, threatening to blow the ship up if their demands were not met, what did they think the West could do? Why would the West care if they blew up their own ship? As they were obviously not asking for asylum, why then was the ship not captured, checked out for spying equipment, the crew interrogated and kept prisoner for future use? Fishing trawlers came under more scrutiny than this Man O War from the GDR received!
I believe an incident did occur alright but whether it was of the severity Carlin would have us believe is open to question. Once the ship had been returned to the Captain it was free to sail back to its own shore unmolested. The British Army, including Carlin, was stood down and world war three averted! This was very early on in the book and had no relevance to the six counties or Derry, but it did suggest to me perhaps this master spy of Margaret Thatcher’s was possibly exaggerating the incident in Germany.
How many more exaggerations would crop up? Without delving into British Military documents, it is not possible to say with any certainty what exactly happened but during the Cold War, incidents did happen but usually kept top secret. Were we close to a third world war? In Carlin’s own words, “if we open fire on this ship, we could start World War Three” would suggest we were if his recollection of events are factual. Carlin then tells us how: “back in the squad room we were hailed as heroes and the Colonel himself came from headquarters to congratulate us personally”. This gives the impression the Colonel regarded these men of such importance he considered them worth leaving his large Scotch in the Officers Mess to congratulate them on fulfilling a task putting the Cuban Missile Crisis into the shadow!
The book reveals there is no doubt Willie Carlin was of importance to the British, handing over political information about Sinn Fein. The problem I have here is that in the early to mid-seventies Sinn Fein were a microcosm of what they are today. The only politics in the North of Ireland was the gun at that time, unless Adams and McGuinness were working for the crown from an early period, which is hard to believe. Some suggest they were all along, others imply they did so at a later date while more say never at all. It is not my intention to pass any opinion as to numerous claims and counterclaims validity regarding the authenticity of the Adams/McGuinness axis. The Sinn Fein political adventure had not really started so what information could Carlin hand over? Unless the British knew at this early stage the direction, they were trying to push the Provisional movement?
So, the question is, how important at that stage was Carlin? It has been broadly reported the British would often sacrifice life to protect an agent, as Martin Ingram – according to Carlin real name Ian Hurst – graphically details in his book written jointly with Gregg Harkin, Stakeknife. What strikes me is why would a man from Derry, from a devout Catholic family join the armed forces of a country’s government which had, for fifty years propped up a regime which openly discriminated against Roman Catholics in the North of Ireland? Then, on leaving the army, goes on to work for MI5 against the very organisation which, no matter what they may have done since, stopped the pogroms against his co-religionists in Belfast. By this I refer to the Provisional IRA defence of the isolated nationalist area of East Belfast, Short Strand and the stopping of loyalist and B Special attacks on Bombay Street at the Falls, Shankill interface to name two occurrences. Also, as Willie is a native of Derry, a city with a huge nationalist majority but for years had a unionist council imposed on them by the unionist dominated Stormont through gerrymandering would he join the prop this gerrymandering depended on? They got away with this because the parent government in London allowed them to. So why would a person whose family had been discriminated against for over fifty years join the armed forces of that government? It really does beggar belief but there you go. If Carlin’s accounts of matters are to be taken as gospel then many questions need asking!
Back in 1974 the Carlin family had a telephone which they allowed republicans to use. Carlin claims he recorded the conversations using a tape recorder supplied by MI5! Did the IRA of the day really discuss military operations, as implied in the book, or did Sinn Fein talk politics over a neighbour’s telephone? Especially when they were aware the neighbour was an ex British Soldier! Did no alarm bells ring? The IRA in the Waterside district were openly discussing the new “top secret” cell structures of the army moving away from the old brigade system. This change was to increase security within the IRA so why, as implied by Willie Carlin, was the subject discussed openly?
In Thatcher’s Spy it is more than suggested Martin McGuinness set up an INLA Volunteer for arrest by the RUC for one of that organisation’s operations. If this is the case, and I emphasise If, what he is saying is the Provisional movement from the top down was rotten. Grassing another republican armed group to the authorities was/is tantamount to treason! Or was this an attempt by the spy to create everlasting suspicion of the IRA by the INLA and vice versa? That sounds to me more likely. Disharmony within the broader republican family would serve the interests of Britain to a fine tune and is highly likely to have been the case. That is not to say Carlin’s claim holds no water whatsoever, anything is possible no matter how unlikely.
Another incident which must be open to question, among many, was Carlin’s claim his sister Doreen was a member of Cumann na mBan, the women’s auxiliary republican organisation founded in 1914. It is not the fact she was a member of this organisation which is not a bone of contention, I’ve no doubt she was, but what happened next does raise eyebrows. The British Army raided the Carlin’s house looking for ammo. They found none but then Doreen, according to Carlin, tells him she fooled them proceeding to tell her brother her hideaway! She had hidden the bullets in her talc powder container, which was a shrewd move but one which, as it was successful, she would want to keep secret. Why would she tell her brother, an ex-British soldier, one of her most cherished secrets and one which hitherto had worked? There are some things you tell nobody, not even, or perhaps especially, families. But if the member of the family you are telling is an ex-Brit then surely security would be doubled, for everybody’s sake, including his? On the other hand, is Wee Willie trying to create the impression of a rag-tag organisation, the “Provos”, while at the same time elevating his own perceived intelligence level and standing?
On page 151 Carlin suggests that people were afraid of going to the RUC because of being suspected of informing. On the surface this may sound at least feasible but I think it underestimates the working-class people of Derry. He implies they would, ordinarily, go to the RUC for help but were afraid of the IRA if they did so. Again, this raises at best questions, because it was the people of Derry who fought the RUC to a standstill not many years previous in what became known as “The Battle of the Bogside”. Is it not more likely, the people of Derry did not go to the RUC because they saw them as the enemy? Because they detested the force and not because they were afraid of the IRA, could this not be more likely? Why go to a police force you neither trust or like, in fact hate?
Willie Carlin moved through the ranks of Sinn Fein, this there is no denying, but he tells a tale on page 154 which once more raises eyebrows. The BBC wanted to interview Martin McGuinness in the Sinn Fein centre at Gobnascale which, on the night in question was unavailable.
So, I arranged for an empty flat in Mimosa Court to be dressed up to look like it. we put in a desk and chairs, a telephone that didn’t work, a tricolour, and hung a poster of Michael Collins on the wall.
Now, there can be no doubt at all that this method of building impersonation was used, but hanging a poster of Michael Collins on the wall? For those who are unaware, Michael Collins was the head of the Free State army after the truce – to become a treaty – was signed in 1921, and during the Civil War against the republicans until he was killed. Collins was executed by persons unknown in August 1922 during the Civil War, the treaty was enacted in December 1922 a year to the day after the signing. To republicans Collins sold out, he was a traitor hardly the man you would hang on the wall of a republican office! A poster of Liam Lynch perhaps, Padraig Pearse definitely but Mick Collins? Either the interviewer from the BBC had no knowledge of Irish history, which is unlikely, or Carlin is romanticising again. The BBC are not complete fools and any reporter worth their salt would, or should have spotted this flaw immediately.
The number of questionable incidents in Thatcher’s Spy are too numerous to mention them all. By now Carlin had moved over from MI5 to the FRU (Force Research Unit). However, I feel one more must be brought to the attention of the reader: on page 156 Mitchel McLaughlin claimed, before he promoted Carlin through the ranks of Sinn Fein, “I’m not sure of your politics but I do know you’re articulate, organised and you’re a bit of a leader.” Would a person’s politics and a knowledge of those politics not be paramount before that person be accepted as a member, let alone given a position of leadership in an organisation like Sinn Fein?
Having met Mitchel McLaughlin, admittedly very briefly, he never struck me as a man who would be incompetent but, if Willie Carlin’s version of events are to be believed, that is perhaps exactly what he was/is. The question is, are Carlin’s version of events factual? Or are they based on truth with a great dollop of exaggerations and even lies thrown on top? This would suit the British agenda of painting a picture of an organisation full of incompetents, fools, informers and murderers!
It cannot be argued: informers within the Provisional movement were numerous, which Willie Carlin was one. His level of importance may well have been exaggerated by him, right down to the code number, 007, he claims they gave him. Was this an attempt by agent Carlin to come close to Ian Flemings Agent 007, James Bond? Did Carlin see himself as the living embodiment of the fictitious spy? According to Martin Ingram – Ian Hurst real name according to Carlin – in his book Stakeknife a person fitting Carlin’s description was operating within Sinn Fein, it was Carlin, and his number was 3007. Throughout his book, until the later stages he maintained the number Agent 007 when at the end he adds the 3 making it 3007 which Ingram (Hurst) refers to him as. Writing of agent 3007 Ingram writes:
another valuable agent was 3007. Each agent inside paramilitary groups was given a number. The first two digits gave the location of the agent in Northern Ireland; the second two were the agents unique identifying number.
This would figure as the 30 would, according to Ingram, signify the agent was in the area controlled by the FRU’s western detachment. Willie makes no mention of this and maintains, when he finally gives the complete number, the 3007 number was related to his date of birth, 30,07,1948. Ingram’s description of how numbers in the FRU were issued makes more sense, with the 30 depicting which area the agent was attached to. The 007 bit was probably coincidental and not, as I’m sure Willie would wish, any reference to James Bond! Nice romantic thought though.
There is no doubt agent Willie Carlin, 3007, was of great assistance to the British, certainly if it was their intention all along to nudge the Republican Movement in the general direction of politics. It worked with the signing of the immortalised Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Having read that agreement, it has more contradictions than the Bible, and no self-respecting shop-steward would have signed it without much clarification of points. It is very unclear to say the least, open to many interpretations, ambiguous. Which begs the question had Carlin and his cohorts done sufficient damage putting Sinn Fein in a position of weakness, leaving them little choice but to sign? On the other hand, was/is the GFA a genuine attempt by the Provisional Republican Movement to bring about a peaceful settlement to the situation in the six counties? If this is the case a lot of young people met premature deaths fighting for a united Ireland to be, in real terms, sold well short.
According to Willie Carlin speaking of dead agents and informers, buried in secret, though not sinister locations, unlike the “disappeared”, he says:
I cannot and will not publicly disclose the locations of their resting places. After all, they could be the target of hate mongers and avengers for years to come.
This is probably very true, such is the nature of the work they undertook. Carlin also claims, probably with justification, if he were to return to Derry “a similar fate” awaits him, meaning he would be killed. He then goes on to tell us, at the end of the book, “so I exist to the end in the world of the unforgiven, even though I firmly believe that I did my bit to help bring peace to the land that I loved.” This being the case, which is very questionable, why did he join those who brought war?
When Willie Carlin was finally settled in England, using Thatcher’s private jet to escape, he met one of his previous drivers, one of a team of handlers, Ian Hurst. Hurst was an FRU man at the time – himself leaving the unit because he did not agree with murder be it by the IRA or the British state who allowed murder to continue in order to defend their agents – and much of what Hurst [Ingram] wrote supports Carlin’s versions of events. Did the two former FRU agents collude distorting events as they went along? They certainly met long before Carlin was resettled in England, and not, as Carlin initially suggests in Kent. They met much earlier recalls Hurst [Ingram] referring to Carlin’s wife; “This lady was fearless. Once maybe twice a year, she would accompany her husband to his meeting with us.” And this was long before Hurst became Carlin’s friend in England.
Collusion is still, at this stage doubtful, Ingram and Harkins book Stakeknife was written fifteen years prior to Carlin’s work, Thatcher’s Spy 2019. It’s interesting to note he had all that time, he was by then resettled, between Ingram’s work and the death of Martin McGuinness in 2017 to write his book when McGuinness was around to answer the allegations. Carlin claims McGuiness gave the order for an INLA man to be touted to the RUC but Martin McGuinness is not here to answer the charge! Carlin claims he did his “bit to help bring peace” to the land he loved. Yet, in his writings, Ingram states:
in time, 3007 became an expert at getting government funding for all types of schemes, such as the Action for Community Employment (ACE) schemes, which provided jobs for the long term unemployed.
This would certainly support the claim Carlin was a well-respected member of Sinn Fein, and was taken seriously by those in authority. Ingram says earlier on however:
3007 lived in Derry. He was a married man with three children, one of whom had learning difficulties. This agent was motivated almost exclusively by finance.
This description hardly fits with the picture Carlin paints of himself, trying to do his “bit to help bring peace to the land he loved.” Which version is correct, Ingram’s which suggests Willie was a man motivated by money, or Carlin’s image of himself as an almost patriot, a man who “did his bit” for the land he loved, which one is to be believed as authentic?
The first time Willie Carlin mentions meeting Ian Hurst in Thatcher’s Spy is on page 214.
We were still in Kent in September when Ian Hurst turned up. Ian was the van driver who would pick me up at various locations between Derry and Limavady and then transport me back to Ebrington Barracks for debriefings.
Ian Hurst [Martin Ingram] is not mentioned earlier when all other handlers were! Why? He goes on to tell us “we became friends and he advised me not to let my guard down because the IRA were all out to find me.” Obviously, Kent was not the first time these two had met, yet Carlin initially implies he hardly knew Ian Hurst despite Hurst once being one of his team of handlers, albeit his driver. Carlin’s friendship with Hurst blossomed and, in one conversation the FRU man told the other FRU man:
you see, Willie, British soldiers are not allowed to carry arms loaded with live rounds in the UK unless a special act is passed – civil disorder or some other state of emergency.
This, of course is not strictly true because “British soldiers” always carried loaded weapons in the six counties, part of the so-called UK! Or, was this area one of those in which a special act was passed? Carlin goes on:
Ian and I had many discussions during those weeks. I remember asking him, do you know of the soldier in Belfast who saved my life? But he didn’t saying he ‘had only been at the Derry end of things, Willie, and as far as I know that’s a well-guarded secret.
In his jointly written book, Stakeknife on page 56 Ingram claims, without mentioning names:
3007’s cover was blown when MI5 agent Michael Bethany, who was a Soviet spy revealed his name to republicans who were fellow inmates of his in Wormwood Scrubs prison. However, FRU got the information before it reached the IRA.
And this information came, it appears, from Scappaticci who was the man from the “Nutting Squad” assigned to kill Carlin. Willie Carlin would not see Ian Hurst again until the year 2000. They met in the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, where Hurst was now operating under the name Martin Ingram. This was only four years before Ingram and his co-writer, Gregg Harkin, published their book Stakeknife, much of which collaborates a lot of what Carlin claims in his book. Could it be that long after the relationship they had while working for the security forces ended, Hurst being the handler and Carlin the servant, they continued working together in the field of publishing? Could it be Ingram became an advisor – even ghost writer – for Willie Carlin when he wrote the book, Thatcher’s Spy? Could it have been Ingram’s job to ensure no contradictions involving events, including murder occurred? Could it also be, despite Ingram’s claims to have left forever the MOD – even turned against them in many respects – he was to ensure Carlin did not write anything he shouldn’t, didn’t drop anybody in the shit? Could his job have been to ensure the Provisional Republican Movement came out of this totally discredited, by whatever means necessary? Not for the first time the book leaves more questions to be asked than answered!
Then we have the two differing descriptions of Mary Carlin, Willies wife. According to her husband, James, one of the team assigned to look after the former agent, once gave Mary a dressing down for compromising security and the work he and his team were doing. Mary Carlin had committed the mortal sin of telling her mother, during a telephone conversation, unwittingly, where they were. James berated the woman shouting; “you have a lose mouth! You were warned not to say anything to your mother about where you and Willie are living.” James was shouting and appeared to be in an uncontrollable rage because Mary had told her mother she had been “shopping in Brighton” thus giving their location away. It transpired Martin McGuinness had paid Mary’s mother a visit and the worry was she’d tell him about the shopping trip. Mary Carlin broke down and cried at this shouting which Willie complained to James about.
Then we have another description of Mary Carlin, this time from Martin Ingram. He described the woman as a woman he had met accompanying her husband when he was meeting his handlers, Ingram [Hurst] being one of the team. She usually had:
in her hand there was always a cluster of unpaid bills – everything from electricity and telephone bills to the bill from Radio Rentals for the family television and video.
He then goes on to say; “the prospect of receiving a verbal battering from this lady was not what most handlers would consider a good afternoons sport.” This description from Ingram of Mary is not conducive with a woman who would break down in tears after somebody shouted at her! More like a woman who may carry a good right hook to the verbal abuser for insolence! Again, a minor detail, among many which contradicts the other description. Although Ingram backs up much of the important stuff Carlin had to say, on the sub-issues like this one, there are contradictions. Maybe this was done on purpose to create a smoke and mirrors scenario, casting doubt and diverting suspicion away from any collusion between the two former agents. Perhaps there was no collusion, but the fact still remains there may have been based on the evidence of two books.
Finally, it appears Freddie Scappaticci, known as the agent Stakeknife, saved Willie Carlin’s life. The agent inside Sinn Fein who had fooled everybody, was given away, apparently, by his former handler known as “Ben” – real name Michael Bethany – who was working for the Soviet Union. Could this be where the 007 bit comes in!? “Ben” was also apparently Scappaticci's handler and the agent told his handler he was to take Carlin out. This the information was passed by “Ben” to the FRU who got Carlin out just in time. This claim is supported by Ingram in his book. The Soviet spy revealed Carlin’s name to republicans while he was in Wormwood Scrubs. When this information reached the FRU, via Stakeknife the man assigned to kill Carlin, Willie was relocated, according to Ingram, “to Britain, with a new house and a new identity. His marriage subsequently collapsed and he is now penniless.” Is this the British looking after their own, leaving them destitute? Or was Willie Carlin not as important as he thought he was?
Thatcher’s Spy is a work of mixed messages, perhaps that was by design. For the important events Carlin is backed up by Ingram, suggesting there may have been collusion. Then, on details of less importance like the character of Mary Carlin the two descriptions differ, one saying Mary was a formidable woman who, “most handlers would not consider a good afternoons sport.” Then we have Willies description of his wife saying “she broke down and cried” after a man had shouted at her. These are two different accounts of the same woman. Then we have Ingram claiming agent 3007 was “motivated almost exclusively by finance.” This differed from Willies description of why he did what he did, “for the country he loved” not money! Were these contradictions on less important matters an attempt to mask possible collusion on more important issues? Collusion designed to belittle the republican movement? Who knows what goes on in these peoples heads, joining that crowd in the first place for a Catholic from Derry beggars belief in itself!
There is no doubt Willie Carlin was an agent inside Sinn Fein, this is supported by other former agents who never mention Carlin’s name, just his number 3007. The question is how valuable was he to his masters? If it was the British intention to push the Provisional movement towards “democracy” as they call it, then he certainly helped them. Or was Carlin one of many minor agents with an inflated ego? If this was the case why would the British help get him out of the six counties so quickly, hardly worth the expense for a minor player, let alone Thatcher’s private jet! Perhaps when Thatcher’s Spy has been read there remains more questions unanswered than before the first page was opened. The book is a catalogue of truths, half-truths, myths and propaganda creating, as I’m sure was the intention, confusion and uncertainty not least within the provisional movement, but also in the minds of many readers.
Willie Carlin, 2019, Thatcher’s Spy: My Life as an MI5 Agent Inside Sinn Fein. Merrion Press. ISBN-13: 978-1785372858