Opinion: despite the revelations of many IRA informers, evidence suggests political factors played a greater role in producing peace

By Thomas Leahy, Cardiff University

The Provisional IRA had an internal security unit to help find and remove British agents and informers in areas such as Belfast. In 2003, one of its suspected members was publicly alleged to be a high-level informer code-named Stakeknife. While the accused rejected the allegations, various republicans and British security sources say the accusations are true. In December 2005, Denis Donaldson, one-time republican prisoner and Sinn Féin administrator, admitted that he had been informing since the 1980s.

Based on these and other known intelligence successes against the IRA, various commentators have suggested that the IRA lost the intelligence war and was forced into peace alongside other factors. In contrast, in my new book The Intelligence War Against the IRA, I explain how the evidence suggests that the IRA was not forced to any significant extent into peace by British intelligence.  

There are three main reasons. First, the IRA's small cell-structure in Belfast and Derry city provided additional security after 1975. Second, most rural IRA units remained elusive and difficult to infiltrate. Finally, the IRA leadership remained isolated from the rest of the movement, limiting infiltration opportunities.  

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, RTÉ Northern Editor Tommie Gorman on the 2018 arrest of Freddie Scappaticci and the ongoing police investigation into Stakeknife

The IRA’s persistent campaign helped convince the British government to include Irish republicans in peace talks. The evidence suggests political factors played a greater role in producing peace than the intelligence conflict.

"An acceptable level of violence"

To judge whether the IRA lost the intelligence conflict, it is important to be clear on what the British government and IRA were trying to achieve by the 1990s. From the mid-1970s, the British state wanted to contain IRA activity and Sinn Féin support to such an extent that republicans would be unable to significantly impact normal political and socio-economic life. The British sought an "acceptable level of violence", where the IRA would either give up or join a peace settlement over which they had little influence.

Growing evidence suggests that, from at least the early 1980s, Irish republican leaders sought to combine armed and political pressure to bring the British government and other conflict participants back to the negotiating table. Thereafter, republicans would try to maximise concessions towards their objectives.

Agents and informers such as Stakeknife did disrupt day-to-day IRA operations in certain areas at certain times

The Belfast and Derry IRA

For various reasons, including some difficulties with infiltration in Belfast, the IRA altered its units in Belfast and Derry city into smaller cells by the mid-1970s. Cells would consist typically of between four to eight members. They also mixed IRA personnel from different parts of their respective cities to improve security.  

There were some British intelligence successes against the Belfast and Derry IRA. Various British security and republican personnel say Stakeknife and other intelligence sources prevented 8 out of every 10 Belfast IRA attacks by the 1990s. In Derry city, self-confessed agent Raymond Gilmour set up weapons seizures and failed operations. He also gave evidence against over 30 people arrested by the mid-1980s during a supergrass trial, evidence which was later found by the judge to be unreliable.

Nevertheless, the Belfast IRA persisted with its armed campaign into the 1990s, disrupting normal socio-economic and political life. IRA bombings targeted Belfast city centre once again between 1991 to 1993, with attacks damaging the Europa Hotel, Crown Bar and Grand Opera House. Stakeknife and other intelligence sources did not have unlimited access to all Belfast IRA plans.

From RTÉ Archives, Brendan Wright reports for RTÉ News in 1994 on the restoration of the Grand Opera House in Belfast after it was damaged by an IRA car bomb in May 1993

Danny Morrison, former Sinn Féin Director of Publicity and republican prisoner, explained one advantage of the cell-structure: "the more information the informer gave, it became easier for the IRA to work out who was the common denominator". With only a few members in each cell, the Belfast and Derry IRA could often gradually work out who they believed was informing.

One alternative reason provided by conflict participants on all sides to explain the decreasing intensity of urban IRA attacks by the 1990s was that the Belfast and Derry IRA could not politically afford to regularly use heavy weaponry and risk multiple civilian casualties in compact cities.

The South Armagh IRA

Despite British watchtowers with sophisticated surveillance equipment across south Armagh from the mid-1980s, various ex-Irish and British security personnel agree that the South Armagh IRA remained the most effective IRA unit. Security forces were helicoptered in and out of bases there following IRA landmine attacks in the 1970s. Regular sniper operations and attacks on security bases including at Crossmaglen also occurred by the 1990s. The South Armagh IRA seemed so resistant to infiltration that it allegedly helped export attacks elsewhere, including high-profile attacks in London during the 1990s.

From RTÉ Archives, Sean Duignan reports for Seven Days in 1973 about how the British Parachute presence in Crossmaglen is resented by the local population

British archival and security sources comment that the South Armagh IRA were difficult to infiltrate because they had significant support or tacit acceptance in this predominately Irish nationalist area. Some British Army tactics against the South Armagh IRA including the disruption of cross-border trade via roadblocks, the building of watchtowers and constant helicopter flights also made many local people hostile to British forces.

Other rural units

Some rural IRA units suffered intelligence setbacks. The East Tyrone IRA saw its activities decline by the 1990s following repeated SAS ambushes. In May 1987, for instance, the SAS shot eight East Tyrone IRA volunteers whilst they attacked Loughgall police barracks.  

But in other rural areas and small towns including in Fermanagh, north and mid-Armagh, the IRA maintained a persistent low-level campaign, despite occasional setbacks. Explanations for the persistence or decline of different IRA units in the intelligence conflict are provided in the book.

From RTÉ News Archive, Gary Honeyford reports on an interview with a Loughgall ambush survivor with local newspaper The Democrat in 1987 

Rural IRA units were crucial in helping the republican armed campaign to persist into the 1990s. Alongside other factors, they provided the IRA with wider terrain to target various security force members in single attacks, limiting the risk of civilian casualties that might damage Sinn Féin’s electoral prospects. Various factors made many rural IRA units difficult to infiltrate. Factors include that the rural IRA often reflected small and tight-knit communities. Conflict participants from all sides also commented that Stakeknife and other alleged Belfast informers had little access to rural IRA units. Rural units were semi-autonomous and somewhat immune from outside interference.

The IRA leadership

Persistent high-profile IRA operations in England by the 1990s, alongside the landing of most Libyan weapons shipments in the late 1980s, suggests the IRA leadership was not infiltrated to any significant extent. The leadership was detached from the rest of the organisation by not regularly participating in operations, a security measure which made them difficult to gather information from, arrest, convict and infiltrate.  

The IRA leadership helped select volunteers for English operations and weapons shipments, though some informers did slip through the process. For example, Sean O'Callaghan allegedly prevented some IRA attacks in England and weapons shipments landing from America during the 1980s. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Sunday with Miriam, a show on the 30th anniversary of the Brighton bombing featuring guests directly affected by the bombings

Nonetheless, lessons were learnt following failed operations, including by rotating volunteers. These and other security measures led to the IRA conducting various high-profile attacks in England from the 1980s. Attacks included the Brighton bombing of the Conservative Party conference in 1984, the mortar attack on Downing Street in 1991 and the Docklands bomb in 1996.  While the final Libyan weapons shipment was stopped in 1987 for reasons that remain disputed, other weapon shipments were not. The other shipments provided the IRA with the equipment needed to keep its low-level campaign going indefinitely by the 1990s.

Political factors and the peace process

Evidence suggests that it was primarily political factors that influenced the peace process to occur. As argued by Niall Ó Dochartaigh, the persistence of the IRA’s campaign alongside Sinn Féin’s sizeable minority of the Northern nationalist electoral mandate meant that the British and Irish governments, unionists and the SDLP had to involve republicans in the peace process if they wanted political stability. The IRA and Sinn Féin leadership agreed to a peace settlement because whilst the IRA could continue causing a persistent and disruptive level of armed activity, they lacked the political support necessary to achieve all their objectives by 1998.  

Agents and informers such as Stakeknife did disrupt day-to-day IRA operations in certain areas at certain times. But the IRA adapted across its various geographical units to ensure that the intelligence war did not reduce its campaign to a mere nuisance level. Political factors best explain why Irish republicans opted for peace.

Dr Thomas Leahy is a lecturer in British and Irish politics and contemporary History at Cardiff University. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Intelligence War Against the IRA (Cambridge University Press) and a former Irish Research Council awardee


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ