By David Burke.
The letter from the Garda officer who had served in C3.
In 1973 a former Garda intelligence officer, Patrick Crinnion, wrote a letter which he addressed to three politicians: Garret FitzGerald, Conor Cruise O’Brien and Richie Ryan. All three were prominent government ministers at the time.
Crinnion had served with the overarching Garda intelligence directorate known as C3 until the end of 1972.
The letter refers to Seán MacStíofáin, the former Chief of staff of the Provisional IRA, as having misled the Garda into believing he was a bona fide informer during the 1960s and early 1970s.
I have written about MacStiofáin’s machinations in my book, ‘Deception and Lies: the Hidden History of the Arms Crisis’. During my research I was able to speak to a number of former senior Gardaí about MacStíofáin’s masquerade as an informer. The letter from Crinnion emerged from a separate avenue of research and has no connection whatsoever to these former Gardaí. The letter merely adds to what they have said.
It also shows that 47 years ago revelations about MacStíofáin’s role as an informer/double agent were circulating in Irish government circles. If this was part of an MI6 plot to destabilise the Provisional IRA as a sceptic might suggest, why did the story not surface until many decades later?
In the letter Crinnion wrote that:
Mac STIOPHAIN had until July 1972 conducted a brilliant masquerade as a Garda informant and been well paid to boot. His status would in all probability have continued but for documents found in the home of a retired Irish/American and a former Clann na Gael Treasurer, James CONATY, Drumshirk, Stradone. These documents were such that they were brought to the Minister for Justice for his personal perusal. That MacSTIOPHAIN should have been in receipt of State funds and regarded as an Informant must, to any sane objective person, appear the height of improbability but it is a fact. MacSTIOPHAIN was recruited in good faith in approximately 1961 but the justification of his later role must surely bewilder men of goodwill. You know how the PROVOS were formed, how SAOR EIRE acted as their Financial agents in the Republic so as not to incur the disapproval of the State against the Provos and until disenchantment about MacSTIOPHAIN occurred in July 1972 his immunity was at a reasonable level.
Crinnion is a controversial figure. He was arrested at the end of 1972 for allegedly having attempted to pass certain highly sensitive documents to John Wyman, an acknowledged MI6 agent. Both men were convicted on lesser charges and released from custody in 1973.
Crinnion knew Wyman but has always denied that he passed him State secrets.
The more serious charge against Crinnion of having passed highly sensitive Garda documents to Wyman was dropped. The traditional appreciation of what happened is that this was done purely because the documents were too sensitive to produce in court, even behind closed doors (in camera).
There are reasons to believe that the documents were planted in Crinnion’s car on the orders of certain security officials who were actually responsible for passing secrets to the British Secret Service, MI6, and that Crinnion served as their scapegoat. Ultimately, the cabal may have pulled the strings in the background to ensure that the more serious charges were dropped because they knew Crinnion was innocent.
The real culprits proceeded to co-operate with the British Secret Service for decades.
Crinnion’s life was destroyed. He had to go into exile.
False evidence was furnished against Crinnion during his trial on the lesser charges but that is a story for another day.
Further evidence of a high-level informer.
The existence of a high-level informer has been known for five decades. The former Head of the Special Branch, John Fleming, spoke about him at the Public Accounts Committee in 1971. This means that British Intelligence knew about the existence of a high-level informer at the very latest at this stage.
In addition, Peter Berry, who was Secretary General at the Department of Justice at the time of the Arms Crisis, confirmed the existence of an informer in his diaries which were published by Magill magazine in 1980.
In his memoirs former Minister for Justice, Des O’Malley, stated that the Garda had received a “tip-off” about the pending arms flight from the Continent to Dublin Airport which sparked the Arms Crisis.
Other gardaí who knew about MacStíofáin’s role as an informer
The revelation that MacStíofáin had this strange relationship with the Special Branch was based on information provided by a number of Gardai.
Since the publication of my book another retired Garda with knowledge of the MacStíofáin case has confirmed that he was once considered an ‘informer’ by the Gardai.
Since the publication of my book another retired Garda with knowledge of the MacStíofáin case has confirmed that he was once considered an ‘informer’ by the Gardai.
And there is more: Liam Clarke and Barry Penrose published an interview with Hugh McNeilis, a Special Branch officer in Meath, after MacStíofáin died. McNeilis told them that he and three other Garda officers had maintained contact with MacStíofáin – whom he stated had been an informer. This uneasy relationship was maintained during the mid-1970s. In other words, MacStíofáin continued to provide information which the Garda were prepared to accept from him even though he had concealed important intelligence from them in the past. Presumably, MacStíofáin was supplying details about his opponents inside the Provisional IRA who had blocked his return to a leadership role within the organisation.
MacStíofáin also remained a potential thorn in the side of the Marxist Official IRA which he despised. A group of Officials set up the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) in the mid-1970s. At one stage MacStíofáin offered himself as leader of the INLA.
At another point in the 1970s MacStíofáin had considered setting up his own paramilitary organisation.
Against this background, MacStíofáin possessed plenty of information which remained of interest to the Garda. One hopes that they were a little bit more discerning about what he was telling them this time around.
McNeilis also revealed that MacStíofáin gave a copy of his 1975 memoirs to the Garda before it was published.
McNeilis was of inferior rank to the Garda with whom I spoke. He did not know that MacStíofáin had been ‘informing’ since about 1961. He thought it had begun much later. He believed the hold the Branch had over MacStíofáin was information they had picked up about his role in the murder of a member of the Saor Éire paramilitary group but that killing took place years after MacStíofáin’s actual recruitment as an ‘informer’ in Cork in the early 1960s.
The RUC were told about Sean MacStíofáin.
McNeilis also told Clarke and Penrose that the RUC were aware of what was afoot with MacStíofáin. If this is true, it adds to the likelihood that the British Secret Service (MI6 – attached to the Foreign Office) and the British security service (MI5 – attached to the Home Office) came to learn about MacStíofáin’s machinations at some stage during the 1970s – if not long before – as they worked hand in glove with the RUC Special Branch
Philip McMahon, Head of the Special Branch and his colleagues in London
I suspect that Philip McMahon, who led the Special Branch in the 1960s, discussed MacStíofáin’s possible recruitment with his British Intelligence contacts in the early 1960s when he was considering whether or not he could rely upon him.
McMahon had forged good relations with London during the IRA’s Border Campaign of 1956-62.
MacStíofáin was born and bred in London. He had been arrested in England in 1953 after the Felsted arms raid and sentenced to seven years imprisonment. MI5 and Scotland Yard obviously had a lot of material about him that McMahon would have been interested in acquiring. If he had had his wits about him, McMahon would have consulted them while he was contemplating recruiting MacStíofáin as an informant.
The fact MacStíofáin had served a lengthy prison sentence in England made it quite likely that he dreaded the prospect of being put behind bars in in Ireland. McMahon would have been wise to have asked his London contacts if MacStíofáin had shown any sign of weakness or preparedness to co-operate with the authorities in Britain.
‘There is little doubt that MacStíofáin has attempted to ingratiate himself with the Dublin authorities.‘
At a minimum, London knew of the existence of a high level informer from 1971 after John Fleming’s testimony before the Public Accounts Committee.
After MacStíofáin was finally arrested by the Garda in 1972, charged with and convicted of membership of a proscribed organisation, he went on a hunger and thirst strike. During it, he caused much amusement among medical staff who noted he was taking a lot of showers and drinking the cascading water. He was also rumoured to have drunk water while shaving. He was released in 1973. A document has been brought to my attention by a source who worked with a branch of British Intelligence in the 1970s. It makes for fascinating reading. It refers to rumours that MacStíofáin had provided the Garda with information about Dathaí Ó Conaill. (aka Dave O’Connell). The document is reproduced below. (Again as it may be a little difficult to read it, the wording is also reproduced below.)
Sean MacStíofáin was released from prison yesterday and we need to consider what likely impact, if any, that will have on the current PIRA campaign. There is clearly a growing rift between the PIRA membership in the North and the organisation’s Dublin leadership. During a recent conversation between [redacted] and [redacted] from the Markets area of Belfast [redacted] described MacStíofáin as a “music hall Republican who was born a Protestant”.
There is growing evidence that Rory and Sean O’Brady, plus David O’Connell are also at odds with Sean MacStíofáin and may not welcome him with open arms. It is even being seriously suggested in Republican circles that MacStíofáin may have informed the Irish Authorities of O’Connell’s planned arms smuggling trip to Holland at the time of internment. There is little doubt that MacStíofáin has attempted to ingratiate himself with the Dublin authorities but his alleged role in compromising David O’Connell is probably false. It is more likely that the allegation is a symptom of his apparent loss of credibility with Republicans in general – especially after his theatrical hunger strike in prison where he allegedly drank his shaving water.
Rory O’Brady and Dave O’Connell are generally being given credit for the creation of the Eire Nua strategy which emerged about two years ago but MacStíofáin’s attitude to that political initiative was believed to be negative. What is particularly significant is Cathal Goulding’s increasingly hostile attitude to MacStíofáin. The full reasons for that are unknown but there is little doubt that MacStíofáin played a significant part in [the] split within the IRA in 1969. The current divisive nature of MacStíofáin’s presence at the top of the PIRA should be seen as particularly helpful to the security situation but it is believed that his days in the PIRA Army Council are probably numbered.
Garda-MI5/6 and Dublin-London Political Co-operation.
Overall, such was the level of co-operation between Garda Special Branch and London that it makes it highly likely that London was kept in the loop about MacStíofáin’s apparent recruitment as an ‘informer’.
As indicated above, Philip McMahon may have discussed the matter with them.
Second, Patrick Crinnion may have relayed this information to them during one of his assignations with Wyman or any other MI6 individual with whom he was in contact. The Garda arrested MacStíofáin in November 1972. Crinnion was not arrested until the following month.
Third, there is the 1973 document quoted above which stated, inter alia, that, ‘There is little doubt that MacStíofáin has attempt to ingratiate himself with the Dublin authorities…”.
Fourth, Conor Cruise O’Brien supplied information to the British Embassy in 1969 about an Irish military intelligence (G2) base in Monaghan. I have described details of this in my book for anyone interested in further reading. Hence, it is not fanciful to speculate that he may have passed this information (which he received in 1973 from Crinnion) onto them as well.
Fifth, Garret FitzGerald was also a friend of the British Embassy. After the acquittal of the defendants at the Arms Trial, FitzGerald provided the British ambassador with details about a forthcoming Public Accounts Committee enquiry into the funds connected to the attempt to purchase the arms that sparked the Arms Crisis. Again, further details about this can be found in my book. If FitzGerald was prepared to divulge details about the forthcoming Public Accounts Committee enquiry to a foreign power, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that he discussed the content of the letter he had received from Crinnion in 1973 with the British Embassy too.
Both O’Brien and FitzGerald were also attendees at the British-Irish Association (BIA) which MI5 and MI6 used to make contacts with and extract information from Irish politicians. Charles Haughey forbade his ministers from attending it. O’Brien and FitzGerald were close to David Astor who was a leading BIA light and an asset of MI6. He later gave O’Brien a job as editor at The Observer.
The odds must be extremely high that London had a shrewd idea about MacStíofáin’s career as an ostensible informer.
Indeed, if the RUC knew about it as McNeilis revealed, it is a certainty that British Intelligence would have learnt quite a lot about what had been going on from them.
But there is more smoke.
MacStíofáin covers his tail
There is yet more to consider: MacStíofáin told the Limerick-born journalist Kevin O’Connor, who interviewed him in the early 1970s, that he was under surveillance by the Special Branch. He made the comment during a break in the interview. He explained that he sometimes conversed with the Branch officers who followed him. This may have been raised by him to provide a plausible excuse should anyone spot him with Philip McMahon. I described this bizarre event in my book in more detail.
Since its publication another witness has come forward with a similar story. The second witness knew MacStíofáin a little from Irish language circles. My suspicion is that if MacStíofáin had been spotted by a colleague from the IRA, he planned to protest that he was merely talking to his tail about irrelevant matters and that he had never made any bones about this fact and had mentioned it to a variety of people.
O’Connor’s interview with MacStíofáin was one of a number he gave to journalists. If journalists were able to gain access to him with relative ease – and O’Connor was based in London – is it credible that the Garda did not know where he was? Yet, he was given the run of the country until the Garda discovered the cache of documents in James Conaty’s house.
Disregarding a golden black propaganda opportunity in 1973.
It is surprising that British propaganda agents did not seek to exploit the rumours which were already circulating in Republican circles that MacStíofáin had betrayed Ó Conaill. (In the murky world occupied by these spies and paramilitaries, the truth was not what mattered rather what might be believed.)
I have been informed by a source with first hand knowledge of black propaganda operations in Northern Ireland in the 1970s that:
A key function of the Army Psy Ops unit was to target, primarily, the leaders of those organisations which where causing death and destruction, but it is also important to stress that we did not engage in such activities against leaders when their organisations were observing a ceasefire. I cannot recall any Psy Ops activity being directed by the Army specifically at Seán Mac Stíofáin at any time, nor am I aware of any such activity directed at him by another Government agency.’
It was not like the Information Research Department (IRD) of the Foreign Office to miss a golden opportunity like this. The IRD acted as Britain’s black propaganda machine during the early 1970s. Hugh Mooney, a Trinity College Dublin graduate and ex-Irish Times employee, pumped out lie after lie on its behalf. Mooney and the IRD tried to link a variety of targets – including the British Labour Party – to the the Soviet Union and the IRA. Bank statements were forged to smear John Hume and Edward Short, the Deputy Leader of the British Labour Party.
Charles Haughey became another target.
See also: British Secret Service Smear sheet: the document that proves Charles Haughey was the target of MI6 vilification after the Arms Trial.
See also Her Majesty’s Smearmeisters: how MI5 and MI6 vilified Haughey, Hume and Paisley
See also: Traduced (updated version): John Hume was the victim of a campaign of character assassination perpetrated by the British Secret Service, MI6, and was placed under MI5 surveillance in Dublin with the assistance of the Gardaí.
It is astonishing that MI6 and the IRD did not try to exploit the fact that MacStiofain had been a Garda informer, a story which had so much potential for a deceitful mind such as that of Hugh Mooney. He could have used it to undermine the morale of the Provisionals, e.g., by pretending MacStiofain had been feeding genuine information about an array of the organisation’s members – not merely Ó Connail – and their activities to the Gardai all along. The impact of this could have been quite shattering for the Provisionals.
The mystery deepens as there is no doubt that the IRD was busy sowing dissent within the Provisional IRA at this time. One smear they put into circulation was that IRA leaders were embezzling funds. Obit(ch)uary [Updated]: RUC Special Branch and MI5’s friend in the media passes away. Journalist who cast doubt on the truth about the Kincora Boys’ Home scandal has died. He once described the brutal abuse at it as ‘homosexual high-jinks’.
Alternatively, Mooney could have twisted the Garda-MacStiofain relationship to advance the IRD’s smear campaign against Haughey. He could, for example, have circulated stories that a rogue element in the Gardai which was loyal to the Haughey faction in Fianna Fail had controlled the Provisional IRA through MacStiofain. Since there was a tiny trace of the truth to this (i.e. that MacStiofain had supplied information to the Gardai) the smear might have been believed. Even now, some 50 years later, some Unionist politicians are trying to bang this nasty little drum.
Yet nothing remotely along these lines occurred.
The Garda’s array of Informers, Contacts and ‘Useful Idiots‘.
Why didn’t MI6/IRD exploit this information at any stage in the 1970s or beyond?
The answer, it seems, is that a far more Machiavellian scheme was afoot, one being run by the Garda Special Branch in the Republic. It was one which nobody in the wider British Intelligence community (MI5, MI6, IRD and military intelligence) would have dared to disrupt without provoking the wrath of the key players in Garda Special Branch. The overall manager of Her Majesty’s machinations involving Ireland at the time was Sir Maurice Oldfield who was serving as Deputy Chief of MI6 in 1972. He rose to become Chief the following year. Richard Deacon, Oldfield’s friend and biographer, pointed out in 1984 that Oldfield prized his Garda contacts.
An allegation has circulated for decades that two members of the IRA Army Council of the 1960s were informers; moreover, that they were among the Marxist faction of the IRA.
If the stories about two Marxist informers were true, it would mean that three of the seven members of the Army Council were Garda informants.
This does not seem credible to me.
Moreover, a knowledgeable Garda source has informed me that this was a “wobbler”. By this he means that MacStíofáin was the high-level informer and that false trails were laid out to distract attention from this fact, trails that led to the Official IRA.
Some proponents of the Marxist informer theory have pointed to the fact that after the IRA split in December 1969, the Gardai received little information about the Provisional IRA. Bizarrely, this has been seen as proof that the alleged informants were Marxist/Officials (i.e. the opponents of what later emerged as the Provisionals). Is it not at least as likely that the Gardai received little or no information about the Provisional IRA because MacStíofáin withheld what he knew from them? It is clear that the Gardai finally lost faith in MacStíofáin because they discovered he had been concealing information from them after they found a cache of documents in the home of James Conaty, the Irish-American mentioned in Patrick Crinnion’s letter, something also relayed to me independently by other gardai.
The three Marxists in the pre-split IRA Army Council of 1969 were Cathal Goulding, Sean Garland and Tomas Mac Giolla. None of these men were Garda informants according to my sources.
Overall, there is no proof to substantiate these rumours. I will proceed, therefore, on the basis that they are false and examine the implications of such a ruse.
It may have suited the purposes of the Gardai who handled MacStíofáin to spread this sort of disinformation amongst their low level informants and other gullible parties to protect MacStíofáin from suspicion and cover up the egregious mistake they had made in recruiting and running him as an apparent ‘informer’.
The Garda Special Branch motive to conceal MacStíofáin’s role indefinitely.
The position would hardly have changed after the Gardai discovered that MacStíofáin had been lying to them all along. The motive after this realisation – July 1972 or thereabouts – would have been to conceal their negligence from those in power, especially Lynch and others in Fianna Fail. A lot of political blood had been spilt as a result of MacStíofáin’s precipitation of the Arms Crisis. Lynch had lost three senior and one junior minister while his party had split and then entered a protracted phase of internecine feuding. Lynch served as taoiseach until early in 1973. He swept back to power in 1977. Hence, during this period it suited the Gardai (and their allies in the RUC Special Branch, MI5 and MI6) to point the finger at the Marxists. It is not difficult to imagine how Special Branch officers in An Garda Siochana and the RUC – not to mention MI5 and MI6 officers – might have let it apparently ‘slip’ to their contacts and informers inside the Provisional IRA that key Official IRA leaders were informers when they were not. Most if not all Special Branch officers in the Republic had low-level informants who supplied crumbs of information, for example, about who was in Sinn Féin or was selling Republican newspapers. This network stretched across the 26 counties. It was also used to monitor the movement of more senior Republican figures.
Another avenue open to them was to talk to what the KGB used to call ‘useful idiots’. In this instance the ‘useful idiots’ would have been sincere supporters of the Provisional Republican Movement who were fed the information by devious means and who did not realise they were being manipulated.
It is not difficult to imagine how special branch officers in An Garda Siochana and the RUC – not to mention MI5 and MI6 officers – might have let it apparently ‘slip’ to their contacts and low-level informers inside the Provisional IRA that leading Official IRA leaders were informers when they were not. Most if not all Special Branch officers in the Republic had low-level informants who supplied crumbs of information, for example, about who was in Sinn Féin or was selling Republican newspapers. This network stretched across the 26 counties. It was also used to monitor the movement of more senior Republican figures.
The process of spreading this yarn could have continued during Haughey’s tenure as leader of Fianna Fail. He succeeded Lynch and became taoiseach in 1979. With the exception of the latter half of 1981 and early 1982, and four years in the mid-1980s, he served as taoiseach until 1992.
Hence, there was a strong motive for the Gardai and their allies to perpetuate the myth about the Marxists informers until 1992.
They may even have continued the fiction further into the 1990s as Haughey’s successor Albert Reynolds had taken a huge interest in the Arms Trials and would not have been impressed by the negligence surrounding the recruitment and handling of Sean MacStíofáin.
A Party with denial embedded in its DNA.
MacStíofáin was a man with a conservative outlook on the world. Yet, he is still revered by many in the Sinn Fein of the modern era who also reject the notion he was a Garda informant – even one who fed them disinformation.
In September 1959 MacStíofáin was offered a job with Gael Linn, the organisation which promotes the Irish language, in Cork City, something he found “much closer to my heart than the motor industry”.
Cathal Goulding had taught MacStíofáin his first few words of Irish after which he had mastered the language in prison. One of his goals now was to promote the language through the Gaelic League. He believed that in a United Ireland, it would have to be “promoted first by an intensive period of preparing the people’s mind, through the mass media, RTE, films, newspapers, etc”. He also favoured the expansion of the Gaeltacht, “through economic” aid. “I don’t see this Irish-speaking provoking a reaction from Northern Protestants. What they lack is a cultural identity, this is one of their problems. Adopting the Irish language would show them the real difference between being Irish and being English”. [Rosita Sweetman, ‘On Our Knees’, pp. 207/8.]
MacStíofáin saw himself as a family man. He neither drank alcohol nor smoked, and was a practicing Catholic. ‘Throughout our years of imprisonment, we were also sustained by our belief in God and in the practice of our religion, which I have always found to be a great consolation any time I have been in a tight spot.’ [MacStíofáin p. 62]
On another occasion during the 1960s he refused to sell the United Irishman because it had published an article by Roy Johnson which criticised the recital of the rosary at IRA commemorations. Johnson had described the practice as ‘sectarian’.
At one stage he would only attend mass if it was held in Irish. He told Rosita Sweetman in 1972 that in a United Ireland he could see the Catholic Church ‘playing a very important role’. ‘I don’t see why the educational control should be taken from the Catholic Church. I think people like the Christian Brothers have done great work in promoting the Irish language and Irish games. What I do think though, is that the same educational facilities should be offered to other non-Catholic people to educate their children.’ [Sweetman p. 159] He would eventually move to live in a Gaeltacht in Meath and place a mat at his doorway injuncting visitors: ‘Labhair Gaeilge answeo.’ (Speak Irish here).
MacStíofáin had conservative views about divorce and contraception. ‘I don’t think these things should be [contained in the] written or unwritten laws of any country. They’re a matter of conscience. I do think family planning clinics should be set up to help young married couples, but there are other ways of planning a family you know than these artificial contraceptives. I don’t agree with divorce, I think it undermines the foundation of marriage, and I wouldn’t agree with contraceptives in slot machines on the street like you have in London and America. But I’ve never had any problems like this myself.’ [On Our Knees p. 159]
The rejection of MacStiofain’s role as a ‘misinformer’ by his admirers inside Sinn Fein is not unique: some of them also resist the evidence that Freddie Scappatici was a British agent.
But then Sinn Fein is a party which is addicted to denial. It was led for decades by Gerry Adams, an IRA leader who still maintains he was never a volunteer.
The late Martin McGuinness claimed he left the IRA in 1974, another absurd lie.
I cannot recall anyone in Sinn Fein or its propaganda mouthpiece, An Phoblacht, who has ever challenged the lies of these men.
The IRA campaigned for the freedom of Irish men and women by bombing ordinary people in pubs such as those in Birmingham and then let six innocent men rot in prison for 16 years for that atrocity during which time they were beaten up, isolated and abused.
I do not remember anyone in Sinn Fein ever having had the objectivity, honesty or moral courage to denounce and name the IRA murderers responsible for that particular blow for Irish freedom either.