Book Review: “Secret Victory”

Northern Ireland and violence, whether criminal or political, remains a public issue. Dr William Matchett served with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) for 30 years. He mainly worked in Special Branch, the RUC’s intelligence department. Matchett then became a police adviser in Afghanistan and Iraq, among other places. He adapted his doctoral thesis to write Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat the IRA. It is available via the Secret Victory website as well as all good outlets.

This article was written by David Page, who has retired from policing and teaches an intelligence module for a Masters in a very different field, fraud investigation, at Coventry University. He is an observer of insurgency, intelligence, terrorism and strategy. David is a long-serving member of the IISS and RUSI. He is a forum moderator at Small Wars Journal.

Northern Ireland and violence, whether criminal or political, remains a public issue. Dr William Matchett served with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) for 30 years. He mainly worked in Special Branch, the RUC’s intelligence department. Matchett then became a police adviser in Afghanistan and Iraq, among other places. He adapted his doctoral thesis to write Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat the IRA. It is available via the Secret Victory website as well as through all good outlets.

As the title of his work suggests, Matchett’s book is about intelligence, the missing dimension of The Troubles in Northern Ireland (1969-1999). He argues that without considering the role of intelligence we have an incomplete picture of events and the factors involved. The book addresses the history of The Troubles and advances the theory that the ‘neglected cure’ to the Irish insurgency was intelligence.

For many politicians, and notably for the Provisional Sinn Fein, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (which led to a peace settlement in 1999) was a successfully negotiated compromise between the paramilitaries, Ulster political parties and the British and Irish governments. Matchett argues strongly that this was not the case. Instead, by the early 1990s, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) had ‘run out of road’ and needed a face-saving exit. Half the IRA was in jail and most of the rest were fugitives living in the Irish Republic (p. 8).

Matchett’s argument is that a rule of law approach was an important factor in eventually bringing the insurgency in Ireland to a close. This approach saw strict enforcement of criminal law (not internment without trial and not a ‘shoot to kill’ policy for suspected terrorists). Convictions led to long periods of imprisonment for many terrorists and others. This is not to neglect the role of the British Army, who had primacy over the police for seven years (1969-1976). 30,000 soldiers served in 1972, and this figure had only dropped to 15,000 by 1998. The police service, meanwhile, grew from 3,000 to 13,000 over the same period, reflecting the strategy of criminalising terrorism (p. 146). In 1986, Special Branch had 640 officers or 5 per cent of the force (p. 206).

The best weapon in the counterterrorism armoury, however, was the intelligence war conducted by Special Branch. The beginning of the end was the PIRA attack on Loughall police station on 8 May 1987. The PIRA attack was identified long before it occurred, thanks to a Special Branch intelligence operation. The Special Air Service (SAS) ambushed the hostiles, killing eight hardened active terrorists. The PIRA remained totally unaware of the fact that Special Branch had extensive intelligence about the attack. The book’s description of the event is missing many key details, but this is inevitable given the nature of intelligence work. Thanks to the work of Special Branch, although attacks still happened, 85 per cent of mainland UK attacks were prevented (p. 219).

There is a mass of detail in the book. I would draw your attention to the fact that 60 per cent of gathered intelligence came from agents, 20 per cent from technical sources (covert cameras and listening devices to name two known options), 15 per cent from surveillance activities and 5 per cent from routine policing and open sources (pp. 22, 98). It is extremely rare in counterterrorism campaigns to see the contribution of the various methods available being broken down and publicly quantified in this way.

The extensive intelligence gathering techniques employed meant that arrests occurred 96 per cent of the time (p. 23). The specialist uniformed support unit known as E4 Headquarters Mobile Support Unit (HMSU) had an impressive record: 99.5 per cent of covert operations confronting armed terrorists resulted in arrests (p. 220). PIRA volunteers knew in a year’s time they would behind bars or dead.

The SAS, who dominated covert operations along the Irish border from 1986 to 1992, killed 21 of PIRA’s top operators during that period (p. 231). In 1997, in South Armagh – the heart of ‘bandit country’ – the SAS and E4 HMSU arrested a PIRA sniper team, who were ‘hands on’ a .50 calibre rifle. Matchett argues cogently that ‘agents [and the intelligence they provided] were the decisive factor’ in ending the insurgency. Eventually surveillance, armed response and tactical coordination were added to these human intelligence resources – a combination that forced the PIRA to capitulate (p. 112).

Much has been written on ‘suspect communities’. Today, the phrase is often applied to Muslim communities in the UK. Matchett argues that what emerged in Ireland, under the leadership and strategy of the PIRA, were ‘counter-societies’ that harnessed subversion and political militancy to accompany and support terrorism (pp. 69-71). The aim was to make Irish Nationalist areas hostile to policing and therefore ungovernable.

The criminalisation policy – convicting terrorists under the rule of law – was supported by a policy known as Ulsterisation.  This policy aimed to expand locally recruited security forces, providing Northern Ireland with a local Army unit, the Ulster Defence Regiment (part-time and full-time), civilian search teams at city centre entry controls and a larger RUC (including part-time and full-time reservists).

Eventually the criminalisation policy led to the PIRA recognising the criminal justice system and having to defend their actions under public scrutiny in criminal courts – minus juries, due to the potential for jury intimidation (p. 157). Behind the scenes, seven reports were made by senior British Security Service (MI5) authors on the strategy and tactics used in the intelligence operation against the PIRA. The importance of these reports may be judged by the fact that, even today, they remain secret (p. 163).

There are chunks of the book which are controversial, such as the alleged ‘shoot to kill’ period in the early 1980s when it was strongly suspected that terrorist suspects were being shot on sight by the British Army and the RUC. The criminal investigations that followed this period were officially obstructed.

The book concludes in the late 1990s, as peace was being negotiated. In my view, the lack of information this book offers about the later years of the insurgency reflects the dominant public narrative and the official British government version of events – that the PIRA came to the negotiating table as they changed their strategy, not because they were forced to the table by the intelligence war. Of course, many of the tactics used against the PIRA remain relevant – alas – both in Northern Ireland (against those who still use terrorism) and further afield. Therefore, it is too early even today to place more information in the public domain.

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