Willie Carlin. THATCHER’S SPY. My Life as an MI5 Agent Inside Sinn Fein. Merrion Press, 2019. 264 pp.
RRP: €13.95, $34.25
Review by Mairtin Mag Uidhir
The title of Willie Carlin’s book instils in the reader an anticipation that excitement, intrigue and adventure will follow in his recounting of a double life as a spy and political activist in Sinn Féin. Unfortunately, it does not. The fact that MI5 recruited him at the former cottage of Lawrence of Arabia, the end of his agent ID number was 007, and the incidence of a car chase in the book are about the only moments to have any echo of the high-octane action, the enthral, or the glamour of his big screen number-sake. Nor is there much in the way of a relationship with Thatcher.
Carlin spends much of the book supporting the narrative of clever British strategists driving militant Irish republicanism towards political, democratic participation. The approach is described as ‘push and pull’ in Secret Victory, William Matchett’s book of doubtful rigour and balance. That is, that the British were cleverly using the likes of Carlin as tools to ‘pull’ Sinn Féin, and the IRA by proxy, into politics and away from militarism. The ‘push’ being shoot-to-kill policies, other nefarious collusion actions with loyalist paramilitaries and presumably mass internment and the abominable treatment of political prisoners.
Carlin assigns himself a pivotal role in the pull of the strategy, which seems reasonable, given the closeness he reports to key thinkers and leaders in the republican movement at the time, including Mitchel McLaughlin and Martin McGuinness. He does not seem to see any personal connection to the ‘push’ of the strategy as his role was allegedly confined to reporting on the activities and strategies of Sinn Féin and not the IRA.
Carlin adds his voice to claims that Lord Chief Justice Lowry was influenced by the British government of the day in his handling of the IRA/INLA trials in Derry in the 80s. This large-scale trial was expected to put a lot of IRA volunteers behind bars, but saw them walk free, perhaps ironically on the unreliable testimony of an informer. He also gives some detail on electoral spend by Sinn Féin at this pivotal time, which is interesting, but the main thread of intrigue and hint of new information about Britain’s ‘dirty war’ in Ireland comes in a thread he weaves through the book suggesting that Martin McGuinness was involved with British intelligence services in some way. He finally concludes that McGuinness was not likely to have been an informer.
Throughout the book, the reader encounters a growing sense of a man afflicted with an addiction to adrenalin, relevance and attention. Interrogation of the ethics of, or motivations for, his actions makes way for grandstanding and moral relativism. The title of the book is one example. No substantive connection to Thatcher is revealed. There is little new information about ‘the dirty war’ in the North of Ireland and Carlin utterly sidesteps the fact that he was working with the same people running the ignominious Force Research Unit (FRU). This was the group known for its involvement in egregious crimes, including the brutal murder of criminal defence and human rights lawyer Pat Finucane in front of his wife and three children. Bizarrely he frequently references his utter disdain for the RUC in the book.
Thatcher’s Spy fails to provide any deep reflection on Carlin’s ethical or moral reasoning for choosing the life that he chose. And he did choose the life. He was not blackmailed, entrapped or intimidated as others were. Post-colonial Stockholm Syndrome may be one explanation, which also informs his hierarchy of virtue and vice where the local RUC are ‘bad’, but the British MI5 are ‘good’.
Carlin does, however, have an easy, free-flowing writing style which gives the reader the feeling of sitting and listening to a yarn. One gets an understanding of how he was able to talk his way into the confidence of many of the highest ranking Irish republican leaders of the time, including Martin M Guinness and Mitchel McLaughlin. It becomes clear that he also had an undoubted talent for community work and political organising. It also seems somewhat defensible to state that he did play a role in the changing landscape of politics in the Six Counties in a formative period for modern Sinn Féin, although we may wonder how much of the word of a self-identified professional liar can we really put stock in.
This reviewer, however, is an Irish Republican, and one-time activist. It was impossible therefore, not to start the reading of this book from a position of contempt for the writer. Growing up in West Belfast in the eighties inculcated most with a special level of loathing and contempt for informers. Indeed, the gable walls you walked past to school, the GAA club, Mass or the shops were frequently painted with warnings that ‘touts will be shot’. Most schoolkids would remember a time when they took ‘six of the best’ with their classmates to avoid the ignominy of being labelled a ‘tout’, ‘stoolie’ or ‘grass’.
Carlin’s emergence into the public eye, a follow-up book in the writing and his activism for ‘agents wronged by British intelligence’ seem further evidence of his narcissism and propensity for putting himself in precarious situations to maintain relevance. There is a lot to his story that would make compelling reading, and it is inextricably linked to the Stakeknife story, but it does not appear in this book, and probably is still to be written, hopefully by an experienced investigative journalist. This reader will be keen to follow the Stakeknife, FRU, and other threads over the coming years. No doubt Carlin will have more to add, and indeed he is writing a follow-up book titled Thatcher’s Spy: The Afterlife. He also hints that he may yet provide testimony against Stakeknife who was allegedly responsible for saving his life, but his accounts will not make essential reading for this reviewer.
Máirtín Mag Uidhir was born and grew up in West Belfast and was active in grassroots political and cultural activism there. He now lives and works in Newcastle NSW with his wife, raising two children through Irish. He is an active member of Newcastle’s Irish community.
Review by Frank O’Shea
The trouble with a book like this is that you are always conscious that you are being told only so much: the writer will present himself as without blame and acting from high motives. That said, however, there is enough here to give an idea of the dangerous life the author lived and to suggest that, even if you have an inbuilt dislike of people we would once have called turncoats, he did indeed act from commendable motives.
It is in no way controversial to state as fact that nationalists in mid-century Ulster were badly treated. Gerrymandering was an accepted part of how electoral boundaries were drawn; housing and public facilities were poorer in nationalist than in unionist areas; certain factories and jobs were effectively closed to Catholics; the RUC and the UDR were notorious for the discriminatory way they dealt with the minority community. Add the Burntollet Bridge ambush of civil rights marchers and the events of Bloody Sunday in Derry and you have an explanation of why small numbers of nationalists armed themselves to form the Provisional IRA. Once they had guns and became organised, murder followed: that it was in the name of righting wrongs was of little consequence to the hundreds of victims from both communities.
This was the background that caused Derry-born Willie Carlin, a former member of the British army to offer his help to the authorities. His role was to let them know what was happening within Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA; they were concerned, he said, that the nationalist community should follow a way of rectifying their complaints through democratic means. He claimed that this tactic came from the very top, the British PM Margaret Thatcher. Put like that, he is able to present his actions as aiming to help end murder and prepare Ulster for democracy.
For some years, Carlin worked, first as a volunteer and then in a paid capacity, to help Sinn Fein win seats in local councils and in Stormont – Westminster and Europe were after his time. In particular, as a Derry native, he worked closely with the late Martin McGuinness and there is much in this book to explain the role played by the latter in squaring the circle between militarism and democracy. His success was slower than that of Gerry Adams, but the two worked well together and history may one day have high praise for both.
All this time, Carlin was letting the authorities know what was going on within Sinn Fein. He admits that he was successful in that role, as he also was in his work as a personator and organiser of others to do the same in local and other elections. The result is that today, personating is much more difficult in Northern Ireland, though how the British authorities managed to curb it is not obvious from what we read here. Another thing that is not clear is the ineptitude of the IRA in not noticing the many times and places where Carlin met his handlers.
Today, although he is living under an assumed identity and can never return to Derry, he continues to cooperate with groups like those trying to bring closure to events such as Bloody Sunday and the Omagh bombs. He was unable to attend the funerals of his mother or of his daughter (after a motorcar accident) or his son (after cancer), a big price to pay.
The book could benefit from a map that shows the various regions of Derry and indeed of Northern Ireland in general. It is likely that a more severe editor would have urged the author to cut down on the large cast of characters, especially among the author’s handlers; it is accepted that accuracy is important in a book like this, but if it leaves a reader confused, it takes from the writing.