UNDERCOVER British agents masqueraded as bar staff in Irish pubs across Britain to gather information during the Troubles, security sources have suggested.
Former officers on both sides of the water claim in some cases the spies went ‘deep undercover’, penetrating Irish communities in emigrant heartlands throughout the 1970s and 80s.
Their objective was to acquire information and leads deemed vital in the battle against the IRA and paramilitary groups, a retired British Army senior information officer told The Irish Post this week.
“Anywhere where there was an opportunity to interface with the Irish community we were looking for [information on] paramilitaries on both sides,” said the source.
He confirmed that intelligence services would place agents in targeted Irish public houses in a bid to gather information on people living in Britain who might have been sympathetic to the IRA and may have had knowledge of IRA cells operating in and out of Britain’s key cities.
“We were trying to get close to any group [that was involved] and the best place to be was on the inside, sitting in with the Irish community, not sitting on the outside,” he explained.
“When the bombings started in London there was a lot of effort to prevent cells from building-up,” he added.
However former IRA operative, turned informer, Sean O’Callaghan, claims their returns would have been ‘little’, as the IRA were aware of the infiltration.
“I came to England in ‘83 and not a chance would we go to a pub or into these communities to meet. It would be the last place you would go,” he told The Irish Post.
“Coming from Ireland to take part in IRA stuff you want to get away under cover, not let the Irish police see you leave. But when you get to England you know the pub is under surveillance and that they are trying to pick up stories.”
The assertions have been backed up by an Irish security source, who claimed: “The best place in London to pick up stories was Irish bars; it’s where you could get into the community.”
He added that the same counter-terrorism tactic was ‘probably going on in Ireland too’.
“You had British agents passing information, agents masquerading as staff [in some cases] It was probably going on in Ireland too, in the Republic, agents working as travelling salesmen, whatever.”
The British security source, who hails from the North of Ireland, claims pubs and bars were of particular appeal to undercover agents trying to infiltrate the Irish community in Britain.
“If you were behind the bar you had reason to make contact and Irish people are good talkers,” he said, “particularly if you are meeting someone else with an Irish accent — you both came from Ireland.”
“Quite often there was information coming in from organisations like MI5 and MI6 related to pubs and clubs which needed to be targeted,” he added.
“Information that there might be individuals or groups of people there who might be sympathetic to the IRA, or something that might indicate a level of support. We then moved in to observe these people.”
In respect of his experience, the source claimed agents with Irish accents were specifically planted in bars, liaising with colleagues who were conducting surveillance outside.
“The UK operatives did a lot of observation; people were needed that knew areas well so they could move around without causing any suspicion. Others guys had roles to try and recruit informers, Irish people who were just arrested on criminal charges — pressure would be applied to them [to make them become informants]. “
However, O’Callaghan claims that much of the undercover efforts by British agents were misguided.
“There was an enormous amount of resources put into it and I reckon 95 per cent of it was for nothing,” he said.
“You’d meet a guy in WHSmith, parks, shops, libraries. You would be watching to see if you were compromised and the other person would be doing the same. I remember meeting [another IRA operative] in WHSmith. He walked in, stuck a book on the shelf and then walked away. I then went and took the book off the shelf — there was information on a slip of paper inside.”
Regarding the success of such undercover operations, the British security source added: “I am only aware of one case throughout my service period where information garnered led to some other people who were acquiring buildings and storing materials to create bombs.”