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By Jason Michael
Hoping to put together an article on the likely activity of the British secret services in Scotland I went to speak with a man who had first-hand experience of the work of Britain’s shady operations. This was coffee with the IRA.
Other than Scholars Townhouse, a favourite getaway of mine these past few years, Drogheda is unknown territory to me. Pretty much everything north of Balbriggan is. So the Brown House Bakery was something of a new discovery. Sitting on a line of fairly nondescript local shops off the Dublin Road, the Bakery seems a tad out of place; an upmarket café and cakery in what has all the appearance of a Celtic Tiger housing development. Carrie tells me the place sprang up during the recession; “an inexpensive little treat when people have had to give up on bigger things.”
The coffee was alright, but, then, I’m no connoisseur. The carrot cake, on the other hand, was exquisite, but I felt unable to express this to the company I was in. How does one have a Rajesh Koothrappali moment over dainties when you are interviewing a former member of the IRA, a man who from the age of 14 was engaged in an armed insurgency against the British Army on the streets of Belfast, and who had spent 18 years locked-up in the infamous H-Block for murder? Well – I thought to myself – be cool. Mirror the body language, maintain eye contact, and don’t – whatever you do – go soft over the delicious pastries.
Anthony McIntyre was not at all what I had expected. He had generously agreed to an interview for a piece I am writing for iScot on British deep state activity in Ireland during the Troubles. I’m attempting to construct a picture of what these security and spook agencies are likely to be doing in Scotland in light of the growth of the independence movement – so make sure to pick up a copy.
He’s sporting a hefty greying beard, oddly squared in shape; more at home I thought in a monastic setting like Glenstal Abbey. Proper Benedictine altogether. Denims are a given. Everyone wears jeans. Open loose shirt, exposing a t-shirt underneath, and a rubber AC-DC wristband. I’d imagined it different, maybe more Patriot Games with the tweed and the hint of Bostonian Irish-American trad music. Check me with my stereotypes.
This was real life, and I was being taken on a narrated journey through a past I could only relate to through fiction and on a tour of the lived retirement – if retirement is what you call it – of two people for whom ordinary is utterly bizarre. It’s Carrie who opens up the discussion. She’s an American of about my age with a healthy and impressive distrust of the state – every state. Now and again she finds queer looking electronic devises around her home, her mobile “clicks” during certain conversations, and her family in the States are aware that her calls are being “rerouted.” When it becomes obvious – or at least obvious to them – that the house has been bugged she calls the Gards. The Gardaí drop in and give the gaff the once over, but everyone in the know knows they just use it as an opportunity to plant some stuff of their own.
Here’s the thing – everyone is listening in on them; the Gards, Special Branch, MI5 and GCHQ – or both, and the IRA. Anthony’s a Provo, well, a former Provisional Irish Republican Army Volunteer; not a dissident, but a dissenter. We didn’t get into it. We could have been there all day, but since Good Friday he has had disagreements with Sinn Féin and many of those from his ranks who went into politics. I haven’t seen it, but I assume his relationship status on Facebook reads, “It’s complicated.”
Carrie, who, as the discussion developed, began to emerge as some sort of manager-cum-special envoy. She represents him in the Belfast court as the PSNI continues to seek access to the Boston College tapes, an oral history of the Troubles kept for safe keeping by the college in Massachusetts. I can’t go into any more details on their contents. On the record Anthony would neither confirm nor deny if these records amounted to a “little black book of activities.” In fairness, I think there’s too much at stake – like the entire peace process – if the people who want them think they are as important as they may or may not be.
Anthony McIntyre, when he begins to talk, is way too calm for a man who has dodged a few bullets and at least one bombing. He can’t go to Belfast for fear of another stretch in somewhere like Long Kesh. He can’t even take a beach holiday on the Costas because of a European Arrest Warrant. You could say that, while he’s technically a free man, he is living under state arrest.
We slip back to the 70s, to the details of the war; the logistics and complexities of moving munitions and explosives, the rooting out and recruitment of spies, agents, and assets, and avoiding the RUC and the “Brits” at the time of Britain’s shoot-to-kill policy. “It wasn’t torture,” he explains, “they never tortured you when they arrested you. They just gave you a good hiding and kept you in stress positions until you can’t take any more.” I began to think that torture has a bit of a sliding definition.
What I wasn’t prepared for was his take on the Troubles. It was all related to the differences he has now with Sinn Féin, but he was firm on the point that the IRA too had committed war crimes. I was disarmed and taken aback. During the 80s and 90s the BBC had us convinced the IRA was a terrorist organisation of mindless, heartless thugs and murderers. No doubt this is a truth for many who were on the receiving end, as it is for those who suffered at the hands of loyalists, the security services, and the army – but here was an IRA man acknowledging the totality of the conflict. It was a war, it was a dirty war, and things happened that shouldn’t’ve.
The full vista of his account, of which I hope to be writing more in next month’s iScot, is a vision of violent, organised chaos. On the surface there was the war; soldiers, police, paramilitaries, and the IRA all playing a lethal game of cat and mouse in the six counties. But under the surface was another unreal reality of intelligence and counter-intelligence gathering, infiltrations, agents, recruited agents, double agents, informants, and “girls who’d tickle their balls to get them to talk in bed.” Every faction was at it, and even your most trusted friends could be “turned” if they were not already. Sure, even the Russians were in on it – organising trips for volunteers to Moscow to chat with the KGB.
It was a lengthy interview over a few coffees, a few smokes, and some more carrot cake. I found out everything I wanted to know, and found, when I left, that I wanted to ask more. Each answer snowballed into more questions, and, aye, I was aware there might have been things that if I had been told someone may have had to deal with me, but – and honestly – it was an eye opener. As the journo, it wasn’t my place to judge, but heading home I took another IRA and another Troubles away with me. Carrie and Anthony had, in a couple of hours, become ordinary. These were peoples’ neighbours and friends. No balaclavas or AR-18 rifles. There was certainly a whole load of the past, sure, but Fika with the IRA ended up being strangely jovial, even a bit of craic. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but it definitely wasn’t what I expected.
Anthony McIntyre on the Arrest of Gerry Adams