From the outset one can only imagine the hurdles and obstacles to be overcome and deciphered to carry out proper research into a murky world that abhors clarity and light. The reticence from all sides to reveal their roles and insights possesses a poisoned parallel, because in this realm there is only redemption for Plato’s dead.
Even the comfort lines of being an enemy are viciously blurred. The myriad of conflicting agendas would prove challenging even to Machiavelli wherein the advice from the Prince could well be to leave well enough alone. It has become a strange irony that dedication to prosecuting the struggle is now a struggle to understanding it. All credit must go to O’Rawe in his endeavour to untangle the many knots tied by the British Security Services and the many entanglements an IRA leadership would rather remain in place.
What motivates a wife beater to join the IRA? What motivates the IRA to recruit one? What motivates the British Security Services to exploit them? In an exploration of the labyrinthine world of agents and informers cogent questions must be the order of the day. There is a fine line between emotive speculation and rational discourse, particularly when political conclusions are wanting to be drawn.
I choose the word motivation deliberately because it’s a word the British Security Services used themselves when it came to dealing with Irish republicans. (Agents Of Influence @ Aaron Edwards) It underscores the carefully crafted strategy required for that motivation to bear fruit, irrespective of the cost in human life and political concession, the basis of which was used by both sides to justify the taking of those lives in the first place.
There is an inherent distraction in dealing with the exposure of agents and informants wherein the who has more intrigue than the why. And in the aftermath of a political settlement reached, to end a war which was fought for a completely different outcome, the temptation to finger point, label and blame as a means of explanation will ultimately founder.
O’Rawe’s approach to this depressingly dark aspect of the war contains an impartial moral hue, which is equally applied to killings on both sides in this saga, which from the outset demonstrates to the reader that howling hyperbole will be thankfully absent from the narrative.
There is also an unmistakeable personal journey on behalf of the author, which no doubt would gain empathy from his peers, because the characters on the republican side are personally known to him, even from pre-involvement days. These are people whom he grew up with; people who were confronted with a violent onslaught on their existence in their formative years and whose lives, undoubtedly, were shaped and manipulated by those very circumstances.
The book recognises this as an important contributor in tracing the central character’s passage from working class nationalist to republican activist to Brtish Agent. It’s not an excuse, by no means, but all facets need to be explored for a balanced assessment to emerge and the author should be credited for this structured approach.
Throughout the text is an understandable emotional content to the narrative concerning the grotesque scenario of the IRA’s Internal Security Department’s methods, almost psychotic in and of themselves, and then to be allied to the even more grotesque plot that the department itself was completely infiltrated and driven by the British Security Services.
The moniker ‘The Nutting Squad’ was always viewed as a defamation by a hostile media, a mafiaesque comparison to drain away any semblance of political acumen, but what O’Rawe outlines in the book aptly demonstrates that the moniker was self-inflicted.
At times republicans, agents or not, engaged in de-humanising activities against accused volunteers which makes for difficult reading, as it should. Informers were always viewed as the lowest of the low but they were also casualties of war, and as the book demonstrates, the British manipulated the republican side to shoot those whom the British themselves wanted shot. If the British had shot them they would be martyrs but seen as their fate befell to the IRA their legacy is completely different. In essence those shooting the alleged informers were doing more damage to republicanism than the alleged informers themselves.
Any semblance of due process, or indeed accountable regulation, simply did not exist; which flies in the face of republican opposition to Diplock Courts, the Heavy Gang, Castlereagh and the Special Criminal Court. This cannot be dismissed as a naive approach to the realities of war because it represented a convenient blindness, which itself was later manipulated, to secure a political settlement that the war wasn’t fighting for.
The book makes a case that military decisions made by the IRA leadership that Northern Command operations be vetted via the Security Department greatly enhanced the value of the British agent now acting as its head. Whilst specifics of any operation would be absent in the vetting procedure even a general outline of an operation would be of immense value to the British as its own local intelligence would allow it to identify local volunteers who were capable of carrying it out.
This calls to mind the charge of military illiteracy made against the then OC of Northern Command in John Crawley’s book The Yank. It stood on its head the whole concept of the Active Service Unit format which shunned centralised foreknowledge of IRA operations in favour of more local autonomy and, therefore, more secure operational abilities.
An alternative explanation to the illiteracy argument is an argument of complicity from a separate, and more senior agent, with the specific aim of funnelling a general army direction down a much narrower channel which was controlled by the British. This would represent a considerable coup on behalf of the British Security Services because, whilst not giving date time and place of Northern Command operations, it would give them a valuable schematic of operations planned wherein local intelligence could be directed to fill in the gaps.
This scenario is far from convincing, yet its plausibility warrants more investigation but not at the expense of other practical explanations.
And this represents the sub-plot of the book; how did British infiltration of the IRA’s Security Department directly impact on the ending of the armed struggle on ostensibly British terms? O’Rawe does not reach any definitive conclusions on this, the book is not written to do so, but there is that inevitable inference, the unavoidable questions that republicans must ask to resolve what can be called ‘Powell’s Equation’ (Jonathon Powell, Blair’s Chief of Staff) Why did republicans give away so much in return for so little from the British?
In fairness to O’Rawe he does demand that those questions themselves must contain a cogent structure lest wild accusations lead to impotent moon howling. He cites a very good example of this regarding accusations against a senior republican by asking a prudent question himself which has a very disarming effect. This represents responsible inquiry and is best understood by any reader recognising it in the context of the book itself.
A cautionary note to any reader is to take their time. The author does his best to break it down to achieve a degree of fluidity, but given the nature of what’s been written about, confusion and subterfuge were deliberate tools, and it requires a specific attention to join the proverbial dots.
Stakeknife’s Dirty War, like John Crawley’s The Yank, is a step in the right direction, not simply for the information and exposés they provide but because they provoke the asking of better questions, and only those questions can hope to resolve Powell’s Equation.
⏩ The Fenian Way was a full time activist during the IRA's war against the British.