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Story of intelligence war against terrorism - almost a century ago

PUBLISHED: 15:13 24 September 2008 | UPDATED: 15:25 07 September 2010

British Spies and Irish Rebels: British Intelligence and Ireland, 1916-1945 by Paul McMahon Boydell Press, £60 This insightful book chronicles the pre-war development of British intelligence, which was created to combat terrorism, and its impact on Iris

British Spies and Irish Rebels: British Intelligence and Ireland, 1916-1945

by Paul McMahon

Boydell Press, £60

This insightful book chronicles the pre-war development of British intelligence, which was created to combat terrorism, and its impact on Irish history, writes Nick Kochan

Britain developed its intelligence service in response to the Irish conflict because politicians believed it could help them negotiate the intransigent situation. But British Spies And Irish Rebels by Paul McMahon begs the question as to whether intelligence was more of a help or a hindrance.

The issue for this excellent historian is less whether the conflict would have had a different outcome with better intelligence and more that politicians in London believed that intelligence was key to their understanding it. Or rather, they did much of the time - political support for intelligence wavered in response to events in the field and in Dublin, and London turned the intelligence tap on and off in response to political change.

Belligerent activity by Irish republicans triggered tough responses in Whitehall and Westminster. After a particularly vicious bombing campaign of numerous English cities in the 1880s, the British Home Secretary of the day Sir William Vernon Harcourt wrote: "This is not a temporary emergency requiring a momentary remedy. Fenianism is a permanent conspiracy against English rule which will last far beyond the term of my life and must be met by a permanent organisation to detect and control it." We read here how Harcourt created a Special Irish Branch within Scotland Yard in March 1883.

The Irish Special Branch teamed up with the Irish police force, the Royal Irish Constabulary, to crack down on what the author calls the "global Fenian organisation". The counter-terrorist campaign that resulted was so successful that the government set up a new institution to deal with the Irish problem, namely the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police. This was given responsibility for monitoring all political crime in Britain. The author writes: "Thus it was the experience of Irish republic revolutionaries that led to the creation of the first British domestic political surveillance agency."

Winston Churchill later wrestled with the Irish issue, appointing his own intelligence officials. These were the days when intelligence officials were English military gentlemen with a curiosity about the world rather than the hardened technocrats of today. There are many colourful characters described here, men who pulled stunts that in today's technological world would be ridiculed.

British Spies And Irish Rebels provides a particular lens through which to look at Irish history between the wars. Once the South of Ireland had gleaned its independence, Britain regarded it as a troublesome child that had left home, and like all inter-family feuds it had periods of peacefulness and periods of hostility. The role of British intelligence was to take the political temperature of Eire. This was never more crucial than during the Second World War, when British intelligence was constantly seeking to interpret the meaning of Irish "neutrality".

The suspicion that the Germans would exploit this position to gain a back-door entry to Britain put great burden on British intelligence. "Britain sought benevolent neutrality," said one political report. Deputy Prime Minister Clement Atlee remarked that "at present, for the first time in history, Southern Ireland is being kept quiet, during a war, by an Irish government with no liability on British arms".

There was no unanimity of approach to the Allied effort. The Irish prime minister Eamon de Valera was willing to help the Allies in "any way so long as it was kept secret". But for all this, an analysis of the implications of Irish neutrality after the war concluded that innumerable British lives were lost as a result of the exclusion of British troops from Irish naval and air bases.

This is an engaging and important assessment of a relationship that has many lessons for observers of contemporary Anglo-Irish politics.

o For those interested in learning more, McMahon has set up a website at www.british spiesandirishrebels.com. The book is also available at a discounted price on the website.

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