The Good Friday Agreement and Britain’s ‘Deep State’: Britain’s long goodbye and speedy return

The Good Friday Agreement and Britain’s ‘Deep State’: Britain’s long goodbye and its speedy return

Paul Stewart and Tommy McKearney


Britain’s disengagement from Northern Ireland is not quite what it seems.  In conjunction with its deep state, in the age of neoliberal imperialism where control is seemingly less dependent on territorial subordination, it has developed institutions that will allow it to ‘remain’ even in the midst of departure. These institutions mobilize soft and hard power repressive practices developed over the period of the insurgency (1969-98).  They comprise(d) the army, MI5, police, loyalist paramilitaries and agents influents within all political parties and the Republican movement.  We term this nexus of repression the continuity state repressive apparatuses.


If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you […] through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country…  (James Connolly, 1897)


Introduction: the continuity state repressive apparatuses of imperialism’s deep state

This is the story behind the story of Britain’s long good-bye from the island of Ireland.  It reveals the UK’s broader political concerns, the concerns of the new imperialism.  These are often deeply hidden to ensure that withdrawal will take place in such a manner as to ensure that departure will be minimised.  In fact, it is a departure to end departure.  The chapter considers how this story can be told by exploring the continuities in the exercise of state power during the long insurgency from 1969-98.  A mixture of hard and soft power (force plus consent) has been mobilised to manage the anticipated unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland sometime in the coming decades.

While the theme of the use of soft power is considered, the majority of the chapter is concerned with the development of apparatuses and institutions of hard power into what we term the continuity state repressive apparatuses (CSRA).  While not unusual in aspects of their development as understood by imperial powers elsewhere, the chapter describes their evolution during the period of the long insurgency in the north.  The argument is that these apparatuses were constituted by, and represented, the practices of the deep state.  The deep state is present in all capitalist societies and in the case described here has an essential role in shaping, or preparing, political and civil society, for outcomes which are congruent with the interests of the ‘departing’ imperial state.


The chapter delineates three periods in the development of the continuity state repressive apparatuses: 1969-1981 (from the start of the insurgency until the Hunger Strikes); 1981-1998 (from the Hunger Strikes until the Good Friday Agreement, GFA); 1998 to the present.

When Britain eventually leaves the North it will not do so in any commonly understood sense. Just as in 1922, when Britain conceded independence to Southern Ireland it did so while retaining overall influence. What can be said though about the kind of political, social and economic changes attendant on a perceived British withdrawal?  Clearly, Britain will not simply let the North go if by this is meant, ‘let go’ without the protection of the political, economic, and other strategic interests central to British imperialism. In this respect, and notwithstanding its current relationship with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), given the febrile nature of Northern Irish politics, the British government will be happier dealing primarily with the republic of Ireland. How to remain while appearing to leave – that is the question?  Attending this question is the issue of the way Britain seeks to exit the North and the kinds of state apparatuses – repressive and consensus building – that it is endeavoring to fashion.

We concentrate on key features of state practice couched within Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, i.e., state rule premised upon force plus consent.  The concept allows us to account for the changing balance between the use of force – the police, army and other repressive institutions in liberal democracy - and consent, including consensus forming bodies and notably the liberal democratic institutions of parliamentary democracy, education and the media.  These also are sometimes described as soft power institutions operating within soft power networks while the former can be labelled as hard power, operating within hard power networks.

Within this framework it is argued that Britain has been preparing for a range of so-called soft power and hard power institutions which in a number of aspects meld with re-formed state repressive, or hard power, apparatuses that include the Northern Ireland police service and Britain’s deep state repressive apparatus, MI5 in the period up to and including the signing of the GFA in 1998.  This CSRA network included an assemblage of deep and extra state forces organised within, or in proximity to, loyalist para military groups.  One of the deep state forces included the Force Research Unit created in 1982.  CSRAs have been developing since the beginning of the long insurgency.


The latent, sometimes manifest, objective of the deep state’s CSRA is to ensure that Britain can both guide the final break from Ireland while remaining hegemonic.  Institutions are designed to allow for departure and re-entry: this is the work of the deep state.  Its activities mingle, at intervals, with the practices of regular state repressive apparatuses such as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC, now the Police Service Northern Ireland/PSNI) and the British army.  Worth noting is that while hard and soft power are ever present, the status of the institutions making up the network of the deep state are contextually specific.  While the state seeks to retain its agents influents within extra state institutions, over time, their import ebbs and flows.  We know this because prominent state actors have highlighted this, as evidenced many years ago in the secret memo of the discussion between the British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson’s and the Irish Taoiseach, Garret Fitzgerald.

Wilson Doc


Thus, the activities of the deep state can be detected principally in various network apparatuses some of which continued the intersection of soft and hard networks developed during the period of the anti-Orange state and anti-imperialist insurgency from 1969-1998.  While quite distinctive in their chief practices the boundary between the activities of the two aspects of state rule, i.e. force plus consent, are often more difficult to untangle as we shall see especially in the context of the use of deep state agents influents since 1998.


The evolution of the network of deep state institutions and actors, as a means to demonstrate Britain’s desire to play the critical role in the gradual evolution of the island of Ireland into a separate entity, is highly significant.  Whether a new country will take the form of an all-Ireland state or a semi-federal state (for example, one state-two-systems – the Hong Kong solution) is not of pressing concern to London.  The practices of hard power institutions, the state repressive apparatuses, link to the outworking of a range of soft power institutions that include, not so much the Northern Ireland Assembly as the activities, and more specifically the management, of the activities of the Orange and Green political class. (Stewart et al, 2018)

Ready to go while preparing to stay

Britain is as comfortable with the unification of Ireland as it is with its continued division because its principal concern is the strategic relationship with the island as a whole.  One needs to add an important caveat: Britain, as the major player, has conditioned the political class in the Republic as all the while it dominates the political class, and its significant ways of thinking, in the north (Stewart, et al 2018).  This is because of the wider political economy context, which now allows the UK to govern in the absence of territorial domination.  This is not to say that Britain would not prefer territorial integrity, merely to make the point that in the era of neoliberal financialisation, the driver of contemporary imperialism (“neoliberal imperialism”, Wilder, 2015), Britain can rule just as comfortably without territorial subordination.


Specifically, as the GFA became embedded after 1998 with the formation of the new cross sectarian political class, the older, repressive, forms of forceful subordination gave way to a new domestication of the state’s repressive apparatuses.  Whereas, during the period of the long insurgency, the state’s coercive agencies (the RUC, RUC special Branch, MI5, the British military) together with its extra state apparatuses within Loyalism, worked to repress the nationalist population as a way to undermine the insurgency, the role of these state repressive apparatuses has inevitably evolved since 1998 as circumstances and the balance of forces have changed.


With respect to the period since 1998, we consider the way in which the state sought, by means of soft power, to compromise, at intervals pour encourager les autres, a number of key political figures and movements and parties, to keep them on track with Britain’s wider prospectus of all-island political synchrony according to its reading of the GFA.  One feature of our argument is that, in contrast to the period of civil conflict, the institutions of hard power have now been domesticated, hidden as they are behind the face of democratic participation in the new North.  No longer hidden faces behind armoured cars, tanks and guns, the new face of hard power is as likely to wear the uniform of a civil servant.  Hard and soft have combined but now the fist that is raised is carefully hidden in a velvet glove.


Hard and soft networks of power: force plus consent in the new financialized world of Northern Ireland.

Neo-liberal financialisation has redefined the context of contemporary imperialism preferring the proliferation of soft power networks of subordination in Western Europe and North America and parts of Australasia, to its various national socio-political settlements.  The latter are increasingly characterised by patterns of conflicted consensual governance which has seen growing disaffection with the political class to an unprecedented degree as witnessed in the presidential elections in 2016 in the USA, France in 2017 and the Brexit vote in the UK in 2016.


The political and historical character of the reconstitution of UK state hegemony in Northern Ireland in the period both before and after the signing of the GFA in 1998 is a unique example of this process of reformation of British state power.  Recent accounts of the character of imperialism from the point of view of imperial state power have, for good reason, focused on state repressive apparatuses, including the use of torture (see especially, Gott, 2012; Cobain, 2012; Cadwallader, 2013; Urwin, 2016; Campbell, 2017). Recently, Cobain (2016) assessed the significance of the institutions and practices of the bureaucracy of state secrecy in the maintenance of empire.  This is a highly significant account of a number of ways in which civil power colludes in the constitution of forms of coercive (hard) power and shines a light on a level of imperial state activity that requires attention in our context.  Arguably, less focus has been brought to bear on the way in which the British state has interacted, sometimes in partnership with, a range of social and political forces in order to retain a hegemonic role in the remaking of its relationship with Ireland after the end of the long period of civil conflict.


Our interest is not with the role of the UK in prosecuting the GFA but rather with the unscripted, hidden role played by Westminster together with its much wider association of social familiars (social and political class allies) and colonial satraps.  ‘Westminster’ includes both the formal liberal democratic state but also what is often referred to as the deep state. More than simply describing the state’s repressive apparatuses, deep state denotes the state’s alter ego.  Thus, we are referring not only to the level at which decisions are put into effect beyond legislative, democratic oversight.  This is not about the play of the executive, the government.  ‘Deep state’ characterises the evolving network of political and social affiliation beyond democratic control.  The deep state established the apparatus of collusion discussed here.


These networks of collusion were developed in the period between 1969 and 1998 and operated initially to undermine the insurgency in such a way as to steer it in a direction favourable to the British state.  This operation of hard power by the state’s repressive and consensual apparatuses, was crucial to the institutionalisation of the activities of the deep state in seeking to shepherd those leading the insurgency.  The consensual apparatuses included the shift towards legislation as a mode of incorporation that ran hand in hand with collusion networks involving the police service (RUC, which became the PSNI in November 2001), the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) the RUC Special Branch, MI5 and Loyalist para-military organisations, principally the UVF, UDA and the UFF[i].  Internal subversion of the republican movement necessitated finding and then running agents influents.


In this instance, the state used individuals in key internal institutions such as the Provisional’s internal security apparatus to garner information about individual volunteers, anticipate combat operations, and search for internal divisions.  Loyalist agents influents were used for two purposes, to act as proxy state assassins of republicans, especially those opposed to leadership’s parliamentary-road-to-a-settlement, and to intimidate nationalist communities through killing civilians and especially those with family ties to IRA volunteers.


Though fixing precise dates is problematical, we can delineate three overlapping phases in the development of Britain’s deep state agenda.  This comprised a set of CSRAs whose advance depended on particular conjunctures. We will concentrate on the evolution of the CSRAs over the period from 1969 beginning with the recent insurgency proper.  The first phase, 1969-1981 (the rising insurgency, internment without trial, 1971, until the Hunger Strikes ending in 1981; the second phase, the end Hunger Strikes 1981, until the GFA in 1998; the third phase, from the GFA, to the present.


1969-1981 - Phase One: gathering as much information as possible about the insurgents. We know from the Caskey Report (1984) that the deep state was finessing its techniques with a still under-developed CSRA network and was prepared to risk the lives of its operatives.  This was highlighted by the case of SAS officer Robert Nairac killed in 1977 (Campbell, 1984).


From the beginning of the insurgency until internment without trial in 1971, Britain’s intelligence agencies found themselves having to rely on outdated pre-insurgency information.  The character of the insurgency, initially one of mass community involvement (McKearney, 2011), had found Britain sleeping at the helm.  Britain’s response reflected a fact it would characteristically seek to hide from public view, which was that this was indeed a new form of uprising in the Irish context.  It was not one dependent solely upon an armed movement but one involving whole communities. It was a mass uprising to which Britain responded with tactics of wide-spread repression of entire communities including the use of curfews and flagrant disregard for civilian lives exemplified by the Ballymurphy killings by Paratroopers in 1971[ii].


To that extent, the state’s attack on the early mass movement, culminating in the murder of 14 unarmed civilians on Bloody Sunday, January 31st 1972, was important to the development of a strategy that sought to separate, through physical repression and fear, the mass movement from the armed struggle. (“Mass movement” is used both in its typically understood sense of campaigns, such as the rent and rates strikes in Belfast and elsewhere in the 1970s, but also as way of recognising that support for republicanism in its variant forms, was inherent within nationalist communities).  One outcome of the atrocity was that it accelerated the development of an armed movement that had only weakly existed before the bloody assault.  This hastened the evolution of the war into one that the British state was more comfortable with.  It mattered little to Britain that it might not win this war in the short term.


What mattered was that the outcome would be favourable to British interests.  Britain, like any imperial state, develops apparatuses of repression precisely so it can seek to manage opposition though fragmentation, isolation and, eventually, dissolution.  It would now have a security apparatus, built up since internment in 1971 with its assemblage of agents influents in the republican movement, within Loyalist organisations and within parliamentary parties and civic society as well.  In its favour of course it also had the state ideological apparatuses, including the media, very much on-message (Mclaughlin and Baker, 2015).


If Bloody Sunday was important in the development of the state’s repressive apparatuses during Phase One now it became essential to embark on a ruthless campaign of repression of nationalist communities.  Renewed vigour was put into defeating the republican movement and it was here that the prisons became a focal point of contestation from the mid to late 1970s and up until 1981.


If the war was also a war of definitions it was imperative that the conflict should not be seen as a war.  To be a normal society subjected to terrorism, Britain would have to convince the world that those fighting it were not revolutionaries.  This would necessitate a soft power-hard power agenda, which became known as Ulsterisation.  Ulsterisation, a creation of the British military, MI5 and the RUC, began under the Labour government and was outlined in an unpublished British strategy paper in 1975, The Way Ahead.  The idea, similar to the Vietnamization strategy adopted by the US in Indonesia, was to make the locally recruited RUC the main state agent.  This required ‘normalisation’ whose key feature was to remove British troops from the front line to demonstrate that the war was not a war at all but rather an issue requiring conventional policing.  The other prong to the strategy of Ulsterisation was ‘criminalisation’.  If it wasn’t a war against insurgents, still less revolutionaries, it must be a campaign against criminals.  This was the political basis of the refusal of Republicans to accept criminal status leading to the Hunger Strikes.


1981-1998 - Phase Two in the development of the CSRA marks the response to the political impact of the Hunger Strikes.  Force before consent in the dog days of the ‘dirty war’ might be the best way to sum up this period.  The wider social and political response was unexpected by the British and others, including some within the Republican movement, because of the effect it had on the creation of forms of mass civil disobedience not seen since the early civil rights movement. This time however, the state was better prepared.  In contrast to 1969, as a result of its intelligence assets and networks of collusion, the British were clearer about divisions amongst those opposed to its rule.  The changed context of the mass popular fight against Ulsterisation forced the deep state to re-energise its prospectus.  Now we would see, with greater urgency, the use loyalist terror gangs, the SAS, and other proxy deep state agents. It became essential to undermine the new mass movement by intimidating the communities from which it emerged.


If Bloody Sunday had been the catalyst to try to break the civil rights movement, Loyalist terror gangs, agents influents within the republican movement, and the SAS, would be necessary to push back the newly energised mass movement that was coalescing around a campaign that demonstrated the limited legitimacy of Ulsterisation.  Why were the British adopting a strategy of greater (largely convert) repression when it might seem that the republican movement was embracing a ‘republican parliamentary road to a united Ireland - eventually’.  How was state terror going to win hearts and minds?  The reason was that because of its agents influents the deep stare could now identify with reasonable certainty who was opposed to this political process.  Terror is often, and especially in the context of insurgency, a precondition of incorporation: defeated, demoralised communities eventually can be forced by attrition to sue for peace.


The British were aware that absence of mass participation on the streets is not the same as absence of mass support in the communities and it would come as no surprise that the communities providing sustenance to IRA volunteers had to be disciplined.  The reign of terror in nationalist communities, the ‘dirty war’, lasted until the GFA in 1998.


Had it recognised the mass civil campaign beginning in 1968 for what it was it could have sought an early political solution.  Britain’s imperialist perspective privileged mass repression as a means of responding to mass civil disobedience.  The Ulsterisation agenda that had sought to individualise the conflict as a means of normalising repression, depended on the use of a criminal justice system that functioned, seemingly ironically, to jeopardise the necessary social consensus which is everywhere a condition for the rule of law.  Yet, it was indifferent to the inherent contradictions of its strategy.


Pushing the fiction that society was becoming normal ironically could only work where juries were abolished via no-jury Diplock courts.  This perversion of one of the institutions of soft power was organically tied to the deep state’s hard power CSRA network.  The fantasy of normality required that state repression be hidden and in practice hiding required that it be outsourced.


Westminster’s propaganda attempts to depoliticise the conflict were taking place against a backdrop of increasing state repression.  The policy of Ulsterisation, seen as a means to solve the government’s media image while absolving it of responsibility, wrought great suffering for many communities.  This second stage of Ulsterisation would witness the increasing dependency on extra state forces.  Whereas Ulsterisation Phase One was characterised as RUC and UDR led – the role of agents influents, if still relatively under developed, was ever present, naturally – the next phase witnessed a deepening of Ulsterisation.


Now, not only could the main visual presence of the state be seen in the shape of the RUC and the UDR, but the actual conflict would be fought increasingly by the state’s proxies under the coordination of Britain’s deep state.  Ironically, while Ulsterisation continued to be pedalled for public consumption, behind the face of the RUC, the British military, notably the SAS and other military state agents were given considerable autonomy to run the war as they thought fit.


Agents influents and the role of the Force Research Unit[iii]


For the imperial state, the mobilisation of intelligence has to focus on intervention for orchestration. It has to be concerned with more than finding out what the enemy is doing.  The enemy, after all, contains the population of the country needed in the context of a new imperial dispensation.  The purpose is not to eliminate the enemy per se, but rather to change it.  This is the background and purpose of the use, in Phase Two, of proxies, agents influents and terror gangs. The state necessitated an array of institutions bringing together expertise from across its armed forces including the RUC.  Their modus vivendi was necessarily that of semi-autonomous operations. (See Moloney and Mitchell, 2013.  For an extended account of collusion between the British state and Loyalist paramilitaries see Urwin, 2017)


Research by the latter allows us to shine light on several institutions set up to orchestrate the repression.  It is commonly acknowledged that these were essential in attacks upon both civilians and IRA volunteers.  State directed IRA actions included the manipulation of volunteers by agents influents in the republican movement.  In addition, Loyalists gangs, either directly, or under the direction of the deep state’s CSRA (Force Research Unit, SAS, MI5, RUC/Special Branch) were used to intimate and/or assassinate republicans and members of their families whether or not they were themselves sympathetic to republicanism and anti-imperialist politics.  The killings of Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson are the most well-known in which the Force Research Unit (FRU) was embroiled. Brian Nelson, a former British soldier and senior intelligence gatherer with the UDA was a central figure in the killing of Pat Finucane.


Interdiction and assassination were widespread state sponsored, and state-led, tactics of repression as revealed most recently in the case of the infamous Glenanne Gang, arguably the most ‘successful’ of the deep state’s CSRA.  Moloney and Mitchell unearthed important documents from 1974 on government commitment to the development of the CSRA,


“[…] a Northern Ireland Office briefing paper […] April 1974 [for] British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his Irish counterpart, Garret Fitzgerald […] explains in some detail the origins of the Military Reaction Force [MRF] and its replacement by a much larger, better trained outfit called the Special Reconnaissance Unit  Simply[SRU]…” (NIO 1974)


According to the paper.

“The SRU had the task of putting terrorist suspects under covert surveillance as well as recruiting and running informers.  Former SAS soldiers served with the SRU which liaised closely with the RUC Special Branch.” (NIO 1974)


Moloney and Mitchell make the point that the MRF, set up in 1970/71, which preceded the FRU, was the brain child of Frank Kitson, a British commander at the start of the insurgency and British hero in the war against the Mau Mau in Kenya,


“The MRF consisted partly of regular soldiers drawn from a variety of regiments and partly members of the Official and Provisional IRA’s who had been turned […].  Known as ‘Freds’, these double agents both provided intelligence on their organisations and were available for undercover operations”.


The conflict saw the continuation of a set of bureaucratic links that began to be instituted during Kitson’s regime.  He was supported by a police and state bureaucratic apparatus connecting key figures and offices of state (Pat Finucane Review, 2012)[iv].  The MRF was professional and lethal,


“The MRF became publicly known about when its members were involved in a number of drive by shootings in Belfast. […] on September 26th 1972 … 18 year old Daniel Rooney was shot dead and 18-year old Brendan Brennan wounded when they were fired upon by […] an MRF unit.”


In 1982, the Force Research Unit[v] was set up by Brigadier Gordon Kerr a former Gordon Highlanders.  Kerr’s role was to run Loyalist assets, extending the CSRA,


“…many of the functions performed by the SRU were ultimately undertaken by the Force Research Unit […] [and] it is by no means certain that a straight line connects them.  Various other intelligence units […] followed the SRU’s wake.”


The FRU would operate as the decisive part of the CSRA that includedMI5 and the RUC.  The All-Source Intelligence Cell was set up in 1988 to coordinate intelligence between RUC Special Branch, MI5 and the FRU.


In 2007, as a result of the Stevens Inquiry into state and Loyalist paramilitary collusion in murder, the FRU’s name was changed to the Joint Support Group (JSG)[vi].  Special attention is paid to the FRU, not because it was the worst or most terrifying of CSRAs but because, as a result of the Stevens’ Inquiry, we now have greater knowledge of its activities.  The Stevens’ Inquiry demonstrated that from its inception the FRU and Loyalist paramilitaries colluded.  Neil Mackay, Sunday Herald, quotes a former British intelligence officer,


“My unit conspired in the murder of civilians in Ireland […].  There's no doubt about this. My unit was guilty of conspiring in the murder of civilians in Northern Ireland, on about 14 occasions.” (19 November 2000)


1998-present - Phase Three: The CSRA shift from hard to soft power. With the signing of the GFA, we now begin to see the shift in the character of the operations of the deep state. While never disappearing completely, egregious acts of state and extra state terror are increasingly substituted by the velvet glove.  Now, rather than deny state repression, concessions are made, excuses crafted, apologies given.  The most prominent was the apology by Cameron for the Bloody Sunday massacre.  Now that the guns are mostly silent, policing assumes the appearance of normality.  Proper politics has resumed; the GFA allows everyone to vote for parties which are paying heed only to the will of the people rather than the heel of the British.  If the SAS has returned to Hereford and the heirs to the FRU fortune are quiet, MI5, nevertheless, “hasn’t gone away you know”.  Its role has been to maintain constant vigil over its endowment in the northern part of Ireland.


Two facts about the role of MI5 in Northern Ireland should give rise to serious questioning.  The first is that, MI5’s budget is paid from the British government's ‘Single Intelligence Account’[vii] and is currently £1.8 billion a year, increasing to £2.3 billion by 2020.  Of that, almost a fifth is spent directly in Northern Ireland.  The second fact relates to the observation that around 1,000 MI5 operatives are employed at Loughside inside the Palace Barracks complex in Hollywood County Down, making it by far the largest MI5[viii] base outside London.


Think about that. One fifth of the UK intelligence budget spent on the largest MI5 base outside of London, and all for Northern Ireland.  To the casual observer this may not seem strange. After all, didn’t the IRA carry out a violent 25 year insurgency and doesn’t the Chief Constable of the PSNI and senior officials of British Intelligence frequently remind us of the ‘terrorist threat in Ulster’?


Yet by any reasonable standard, the level of politically motivated violence in Northern Ireland has dropped dramatically.  Over the past 15 years, 60 deaths can be attributed to politically motivated violence and of those only six have been fatal attacks on members of the state security services.  Of course there have been many failed attempts but whether this has been due to the work of MI5 or to routine police intelligence is difficult to ascertain.  What can be said is that the PSNI undoubtedly has inherited a very substantial and effective intelligence network from its predecessor in the RUC and it is difficult to see why this has to be supplemented by such a substantial input from MI5.


That is, unless MI5 has additional responsibilities that go beyond merely monitoring the activities of armed anti-state activists.  What if the County Down spooks spend much more of their resources on a form of political/social engineering?  What if their principal task is to steer Northern Ireland politically in the direction desired by London rather than only monitor, intercept and frustrate the weak, divided, faction ridden, police infiltrated and unsupported armed republican sects?  While it is almost always impossible to prove a direct link between political events and incidents and the hidden hand of an intelligence agency, it is reasonable to speculate.


To what extent was IRA authority undermined within the wider republican movement when it emerged that one of its more spectacular operations, the breaking into the Castlereagh police station, was perhaps not all it was deemed to be?  Questions were raised when the police investigation into Castlereagh break-in led to a raid on Sinn Fein offices in Stormont in October 2002 with damaging consequences for the party’s intention’s vis-a-vis participating in the Northern Ireland Executive.  Worse was to follow when it emerged that Sinn Fein special advisor and long-time undercover British agent Denis Donaldson was a close acquaintance[ix] of the man believed to have facilitated the operation for the IRA.  Moreover, it had been Donaldson's idea to bring the man to Northern Ireland, set him up with a house in East Belfast and burrow his way into Special Branch headquarters in Castlereagh.


What on the other hand of the political demise of the House of Robinson[x]? In ways they resembled a Northern Irish version of Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards.  They were powerful, shrewd, hardline, apparently invulnerable and seemingly embedded in office for decades.  Yet how the mighty tumbled when a minor indiscretion was revealed to the BBC Spotlight programme by Mrs Robinson’s pastor and political adviser[xi], the former RAF officer Selwyn Black.  There is absolutely no evidence, and never has it been suggested, that Mr Black worked for the intelligence agencies yet some have suggested a possible connection resulting from his background in the armed services.  Whatever about possible conspiracy theories, the Robinson scandal damaged the DUP and undermined confidence in that particular leadership.  While the party has certainly recovered since then, the lesson has not been overlooked by others aspiring to the leadership.


These are just two possible examples of how a shadowy agency can potentially manipulate the political situation.  There are many other aspects of life in the six counties that would bear examination. Using discrete influence to persuade festival organisers to stage their events in Belfast or Derry and thus draw the participants ever closer to the normalisation process.  What about uncovering indiscretions and thereafter quietly and invisibly holding the sword of Damocles over the head of recalcitrant politicians in order to coax them into becoming more amenable to the planning of HGM?


The list is almost endless but the question remains unanswered, why do we need such a large and costly MI5 presence?  During the reign of the first Elizabeth, it was taken for granted that every diplomat was a spy.  Now perhaps we have the situation where every spy has a diplomat’s role of advancing central government’s policies.


Conclusion. They haven’t gone away you know

“For much of its early history, the British ruled their empire through terror. […] ‘Special’ courts and courts martial were set up to deal with dissidents, and handed out rough and speedy injustice.  Normal judicial procedures were replaced by rule through terror; resistance was crushed, rebellion suffocated.” (Gott, 2012)


The period after the Hunger Strikes in 1981 marked the renewal of the CSRA which would consolidate essential features of the deep state.  Britain saw its chance to push the major current in the republican movement, centred on the leadership, in a favoured direction.  With an emphasis on hard power this era, which lasted until 1998, perhaps more than any other, could claim the sobriquet ‘the dirty war’.  It was characterised by state sponsored, and in certain instances, direct state murder of both republicans and civilians from nationalist communities (Urwin, 2017).  Informants, the so-called “Freds”, and Loyalist terror gangs were important parts of the jigsaw.


Creating an informant network was both strategy and outcome of the operation of the deep state.  If it seems something of a paradox that the use of both republican informants and Loyalist terror gangs became more important as the Sinn Fein acquiesced in the strategic aims of London, it is only seemingly so.  Anyone objecting to the political direction of the leadership of the republican movement had to be challenged.  This is not about the leadership consciously answering to the needs of the British state. The point was that the state was able to identify at an early stage, particular ideological currents and utilise or disable them.  (We will consider this aspect of the deep state elsewhere)


A significant objective for the UK state, wherein a critical role is played by its deep state, is how to remain in Ireland when, it ‘leaves’.  This is contrary to much commentary and received wisdom, which has interpreted the GFA as a fix, ensuring that Britain would be able at long last to leave Ireland without having to return.  This is the story of Britain as civiliser, Britain as neutral – beyond Pax Britannica.  The view taken here has been that, on the contrary, Britain does not ‘want to leave Ireland’ in any straightforward fashion.  This is evident from the role and import played by the deep state that gives the lie to the anodyne view that it is seeking disengagement.


Our alternative interpretation sought to explain the significance of the deep state as the central driver for Britain and a range of institutions - legal, semi legal and ‘illegal’ - that have been fundamental to ensuring its successful departure-return.  The history of the CSRA is testament to this.  Arguably, it is characteristic of the withdrawal of empire in the era of neoliberal imperialism.



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Mackay, N (2000) “The Force Research Unit: 'My unit conspired in the murder of civilians in Ireland', Sunday Herald, Nov 19 2000


McKearney, T (2011) The Provisional IRA. From Insurrection to Parliament. London: Pluto.


Moloney, E and Mitchell, B (2013) The Force Research Unit – How It Began. The Broken elbow. January 4th

Stewart, P., McKearney, T, O Machail, G,. Campbell, P and B. Garvey (2018)


Urwin, M (2016) A State in Denial: The British Government and Loyalist Paramilitaries. Cork: Mercier Press.


Wilder, G (2015) Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonisation and the Future of the World. Duke, Durham-NC.


[i] UVF – Ulster Volunteer Force, UDA (Ulster Defence Association) and the UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters.

[ii]The killing of eleven civilians by the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment in Ballymurphy, Belfast, occurred between 9th and 11th August 1971 during Operation Demetrius.


[iii] We now have a range of excellent sources on the activites of the CSRAs inter alia: Security Service, The Intelligence Organisation in Northern Ireland, 30 September 2002 Rayment, Sean (4 February 2007). "Top secret army cell breaks terrorists". The Telegraph. Retrieved 1 July 2017.   Sharp, Aaron (9 March 2014). "Secret army unit credited with saving THOUSANDS of civilian lives facing chop". Mirror. Retrieved 1 July 2017.

The FRU was found to have colluded with British loyalist paramilitaries in the murder of civilians. "Stevens Inquiry: Key people". BBC News. 17 April 2003. Retrieved 27 September 2013.] This has been confirmed by some former members of the unit. Mackay, Neil (19 November 2000). "My unit conspired in the murder of civilians in Ireland". Sunday Herald. ]From 1987 to 1991, it was commanded by Gordon Kerr.


[iv]“The complex intelligence machinery in Northern Ireland was grown out of the history of security emergencies and the different, complementary and supportive roles played in them over the years by the intelligence agencies and security forces." Security Service, The Intelligence Organisation in Northern Ireland, 30 September 2002 3.3 Throughout the period of direct rule after 1972, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had constitutional responsibility for the administration of law and order in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) advised Government Ministers on security policy issues, including legal and resourcing issues and information strategy.

3.4 The Secretary of State was supported in his responsibilities by the NIO's Permanent Secretary and by three primary security advisers, namely: the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) the General Officer Commanding (GOC) Northern Ireland, who provided military support to meet the requests of the RUC,and the Director and Co-ordinator of Intelligence (DCI), a senior officer of the Security Service, who was the Secretary of State's principal intelligence adviser. "Volume 1 Chapter 3: Intelligence structures Report of the Patrick Finucane Review". Pat Finucane Review. An independent review into any state involvement in the murder of Pat Finucane Archived from the original on 16 December 2012.


[v]Volune 1 Chapter 3: Intelligence structures Report of the Pat Finucane Review. Archived from the original on 16 December 2012


[vi]Rayment, Sean (4 February 2007). "Top secret army cell breaks terrorists". The Telegraph. Retrieved 1 July 2017. and Sharp, Aaron (9 March 2014). "Secret army unit credited with saving THOUSANDS of civilian lives facing chop". Mirror. Retrieved 1 July 2017




b) Palace Barracks: Explosion at MI5 headquarters and Army base in Northern Ireland caused by device hidden in postal van … B. Telegraph (                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     ‘Soldiers from The Royal Scots Borderers The Royal Regiment of Scotland have been stationed at Palace Barracks since August 2014. Around 1,000 MI5 operatives are employed at Loughside inside the Palace Barracks complex making it by far the largest MI5 base outside London.’


[viii] (


[ix]20 years of treachery, Henry McDonald, the Observer 18/12/2005 (


[x] Peter Robinson, former First Minister of the NI Assembly and leader of the DUP, and his wife, Iris Robinson.


[xi]The Adviser: Selwyn Black's Role .. I. Times …  (


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