The Real Heroes of Ireland’s Dirty War

Secret Victory: The Intelligence War That Beat the IRA
by William Matchett
William Matchett, 2016, 272 pages, about $30

ira mask IISome might regard the title of this book as making a grandiose claim. Others may deride it, or ignore both title and book, choosing instead to believe that whatever fragile peace Northern Ireland enjoys today is a blessing bestowed by Tony Blair, Gerry Adams, Bill Clinton and an assortment of peaceniks, chancers and conflict resolution groupies. Many such people have lined their pockets by grossly inflating their influence in the “peace process” and exporting their inanities to gullible audiences worldwide.

In reality they reaped the harvest of peace that others had sown in a long intelligence war, and William Matchett’s book is the perfect antidote to their delusions. The author is a former senior officer in the Special Branch of the Royal Ulster Constabulary who fought the IRA (and their loyalist counterparts) for a quarter of a century and who has gone on to advise police forces across the world on counter-terrorism. He describes with the familiar understated practicality of the North’s Protestant-Unionist majority how he and his Special Branch colleagues were able to win a war of intelligence within the civil law.

This review appeared in Quadrant‘s March, 2017, edition.
It is reprised in honour of unsentimental truth and, of course, the saint who drove out the snakes.
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One experience of mine in Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast in 1989 confirmed for me—not that I needed much convincing—the absolutely central and critical role that RUC Special Branch played in degrading the Provisional IRA, and forcing it to end its campaign of murder and intimidation against the people of Northern Ireland. I was being led, in the company of seven IRA members, through the tunnel from the jail to the courthouse, each of us handcuffed to another prisoner. I happened to be handcuffed to a senior and long-standing member of the IRA from Dungannon, County Tyrone, named Henry Louis McNally. I knew him quite well from my days as an IRA operative in the mid-1970s in County Tyrone. He was once named, by Ken Maginnis, an Ulster Unionist MP in the House of Commons, as being directly responsible for the murders of seventeen members of the security forces. He had been arrested, charged, and later convicted of the attempted murder of British soldiers travelling by bus to their base in Antrim.

McNally was a very canny, experienced and long-term senior IRA man who followed his own timetable, operating in his native County Tyrone for going on sixteen years, interrupted only by one spell on remand. I was curious as to why this cautious man was operating far from his normal stomping ground. I asked him, and the answer I received in that tunnel was this: “Special Branch have us in a vice-like grip in Tyrone and it is just too difficult to operate, so like a fool I finished up going to Antrim to get some kills and ended up here.” Out of the mouths of babes and killers … McNally had no love for the Special Branch, but he had good reason to be realistic about them as formidable and professional enemies forged in a very unforgiving fire.

In the introduction to his book Matchett describes his first days as an eighteen-year-old recruit in the RUC, stationed in the IRA heartland of South Armagh:

At 18 it was a rude awakening to the reality of armed conflict. I was shot at, caught in roadside bombs and mortared. I lost some good friends. I would lie if I said I was not afraid. I knew the IRA men who were doing this, we all did, but we could not prove it.

This was Northern Ireland in 1982, not Beirut or Afghanistan, but a part of the UK situated on the island of Ireland. It is I think worth taking a moment to ponder those lines. The border was but a stone’s throw away and mostly the IRA simply scooted across the border into the Irish Republic where Matchett and his colleagues could not follow. And so it went on—year after bloody year. A police force that had been utterly demoralised and demonised by the events of 1969 took years to recover some sense of mission and purpose. It wasn’t until police primacy in law enforcement and intelligence gathering was restored in 1976 that a revamped and reinvigorated RUC really took on the slow and deadly task of taking back control of IRA-controlled areas of Belfast and Derry. Slowly but surely the rule of law began to assert itself. The centre of IRA activity began to retreat more and more to the rural heartlands bordering the Irish Republic. Eventually towards the end the IRA was on its knees, its last stronghold in South Armagh on the verge of collapse.

This review appeared in a recent edition of Quadrant.
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It would of course be wrong to downgrade the huge role and sacrifice undertaken by the British Army, particularly in the early 1970s. Without the Army holding the line in those difficult years the RUC, and Special Branch in particular, would almost certainly never have had the breathing space to re-organise. Matchett recognises the debt of gratitude to those soldiers who served and were injured or murdered when he writes simply, “The Army prevented Ulster from unravelling.” Of course one of the primary differences between the police and the Army was that police knew the ground where they were born, went to school, got married, had children and worked and socialised. They were of the soil, as their enemies in the IRA were, and they proved more resolute, determined and fearless in protecting their children, homeland and way of life than those who opposed them. They were often frustrated by having to observe the rule of law—but it proved the right way. They were determined to outwit and outlast the IRA—and they did. Matchett sets out in clear, precise words the operational strategies and tactics Special Branch adopted to defeat a well-armed and vicious terrorist group.

The IRA was far from being an unsophisticated enemy and yet it failed utterly to get any real handle on how Special Branch operated. Special Branch worked slowly and methodically, grinding through the vast amounts of information fed in by all branches of the security services and the general public. As the IRA’s vaunted “Long War” ground on with little sign of victory the jails began to fill up, marriages fell apart, petty jealousies were rampant. The IRA attempted to fight its “Long War” in the belly of the “beast”, in reality part of perhaps the most democratic country in the world, and the “beast” represented by Special Branch devoured it.

This was a war in which the state provided housing, welfare and education to the vast majority of its sworn enemies. Bizarre, one might say, but it allowed Special Branch an in-depth view of the IRA and its support base. The IRA believed its “Long War” would erode the will to resist its demands. In reality Special Branch were in a position to know who was pregnant, or visited the dentist, or was missing from their usual haunts, or in financial trouble, or having relationship problems, and so on. Also in pursuance of the “Long War” and to enforce control in their communities, the IRA murdered dozens, mutilated and tortured thousands. Many of those and their friends and families became more inclined to phone the confidential RUC number the longer the war continued, if they saw known IRA acting suspiciously, in the “wrong” place and so on. The IRA stupidly, sometimes to appease the worst instincts of their supporters, gave RUC Special Branch an army of observers and potential informers, particularly in the urban centres of Belfast and Derry.

Matchett’s book necessarily includes much technical, historical and operational detail. Indeed, that is one of its great strengths—it is, among other things, a manual of practical counter-terrorism. Many other police and intelligence services have since benefited from the lessons learned in the field by Matchett and his colleagues.

It was an unfair fight, of course. For the IRA it was a war to be fought and won by whatever means possible. Its terrorists could simply shoot people. RUC Special Branch, like all other branches of the security forces, had to operate under the rules of the civil law and in spite of all the provocation they behaved, mostly, with impeccable restraint.

Did they get every decision right? Hardly. Individual Special Branch officers had to make instant, terrifying and life-changing decisions in the middle of a ferocious terrorist onslaught. Yet no RUC officer ever gave an order to kidnap and force, at gunpoint, an innocent man into a car and instruct him to deliver that car, with a bomb on board, to an Army checkpoint, under the understanding that having done so he would shout a warning and be given time to escape, only for his torturers to blow him and five soldiers to pieces. That instruction was given by the IRA’s Army Council in which Adams and McGuinness were leading members.

Whatever accusations might be made against individual members of the RUC pale into insignificance when measured against the bestial thought processes that led to Enniskillen, Bloody Friday, Le Mon, Darkley, Kingsmill and hundreds of other bloodstained atrocities committed by the IRA in a degenerate attempt to enforce their will.

I write as someone who in August, 1974, murdered Detective Inspector Peter Flanagan of RUC Special Branch in a County Tyrone public house. I am deeply ashamed of that act. Like many young Irish republicans before me I thought I was fighting for Irish freedom. I was not. I was fighting for an ugly and perverted form of Irish nationalism which has periodically disfigured the name of Ireland throughout the world.

What struck me most about Matchett’s book on first reading was the sheer modesty and humility of the man. There is also a mainly suppressed rage and frustration at the calculated vitriol and lies, sometimes spurred on by unthinking ignorance, that he and his colleagues, living and murdered, have been subjected to by the terrorists’ fellow travellers in the media and the human rights industry. The British, Irish and US governments and their intelligence agencies are only too well aware of the superb, professional and extraordinarily courageous work undertaken by Special Branch day in, day out, year after year while all the time being prime targets for the IRA. Yet they remain mealy-mouthed, at best, in the face of an orchestrated campaign of lies and slander—led by Sinn Fein and its fellow travellers in the media and politics—against a force that won the peace by careful detective work.

I make absolutely no apology for saluting the brave men and women of RUC Special Branch. It was they who, more than any politician, forced the IRA to stop killing and bombing. They provided the opportunity for glory-hunting politicians to feel the hand of history on their shoulder and to conclude a squalid deal.

William Matchett has written a moving, brave and not uncritical testimony about how a band of largely unsung heroes defeated a brutal terrorist assault on democracy and the rule of law. We owe them and him huge gratitude. More than that, we owe it to them to speak out clearly and loudly in their defence when we hear them traduced. Yet Matchett could not find one publisher to accept his informative and brave account of how—in a world of crises and terrorism—one terrorist group was well and truly beaten. So he published it himself (it is available from internet booksellers). Shame on all those publishers, who inhabit a safe and comfortable world because of men and women like William Matchett yet who refuse to pay for their sacrifice when the bill falls due.

We may yet have to call men like Matchett into the field again. Bombs continue to explode near schools in Northern Ireland and the latest elections there suggest the Good Friday Agreement is fragile and the myth of an undefeated IRA may tempt more young fools to pick up the Armalite. Know your enemies. Spread the word. Read the book.

Sean O’Callaghan’s memoir The Informer: The True Life Story of One Man’s War on Terrorism was published in 1999.


14 thoughts on “The Real Heroes of Ireland’s Dirty War

  • Doc S says:

    One of the most remarkable reviews I’ve ever read. Thank you Sean O’Callaghan, you’ve certainly come a long way and I’d confidently wager that there are very few men of your calibre, self-awareness and integrity who would be able to write a such a review of a book written by a man who at one time would have been your mortal enemy. The work of most intelligence officers goes unheralded and if it does get publicised, its usually for all the wrong reasons. The sheer cold courage of those who grind away at this infinitely hazardous coalface day in, day out is rarely recognised as is the contribution they make to defeating terrorism, the essential component required to achieve peace of any kind. Many of us who work or have worked in the CT field, focusing as we do on the modern Islamic version of that horror, forget the historical lessons learned at such cost by brave men and women in Northern Ireland. Its an honour to thank you Sean Callaghan, and brave men like William Matchett, for reminding us.

  • Red Robbo says:

    I write as someone with 2 brothers still in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (previously known as the RUC – or “Round Up Catholics” in the argot of elements of the population!), and therefore subject to both the anxieties that entails, and maybe some knowledge of the situation. The review of this book, which I will now go and buy, seems to me an extraordinary acknowledgement of change and self-knowledge, and on its own presents a side of the terrible story that is very rarely heard. As Mr O’Callaghan writes, there is a continuing low-level campaign that flares at times and which is generally well hidden from public view and perception outside NI. Having emigrated to Australia when the conflict was still raging I was often appalled at the ignorant and green-tinged romanticism of many ordinary people I met here, who regarded the IRA and fellow-travellers, like Adams, as a bunch of likely lads simply having a go at those nasty Brits. Appalling things were done on all sides, but it is so very unusual to read such an account as in this review, which attempts to put things in a reasonable perspective of balance and humanity. I’ll now go and buy Sean O’Callaghan’s book too. The current attitude of many of our ‘elites’ towards an exponentially more dangerous threat to our society and values than even the IRA ever presented in Ireland bears some thinking about.
    Thank you for publishing this. It should be widely read.

    • gardner.peter.d says:

      Robbo, unfortunately, an ‘ignorant and green-tinged romanticism’ characterises much of political debate in Australia. I sometimes think it is not so much fact being stranger than fiction but fact being unacceptable. I recommend ‘The Fatal Shore” by Robert Hughes if you have not already read it.

    • gardner.peter.d says:

      An extraordinary review by Sean O’Callaghan. I am English, brought up in Ireland – Athy, Co. Kildare – and a dual British-Australian citizen. I served many years in the Royal Navy and worked in Defence Intelligence, liaising closely with Special Branch and for a time I also worked for the SIS. I knew many people involved in that conflict in Northern Ireland. Like many I was appalled at Blair’s sell-out just when we were on the cusp of victory. It has not ended. Even Mrs May continues to entertain the pursuit of honourable men and women who risked their lives in wars against terrorism and oppression, a pursuit that brings trauma also to the families of those men and women. Will it be the same in the face of Islam? Almost certainly.

  • Gordon says:

    Thank you.

  • says:

    An absolutely stunning review. My deepest gratitude and admiration to both Sean O’Callaghan and William Matchett.

  • says:

    I’ve already downloaded the book. Congratulations.

  • says:

    The thing about terrorists, is they try to make you feel afraid.
    If you can make them afraid, you have won.

  • says:

    Thank you, intelligent, honest people like you give me hope for civilisation and my grandkids.

  • Geoffrey Luck says:

    I was squatting by a wall in Bishop Street Londonderry in Augusst 1969 when the first rocks were thrown at the Apprentice Boys march. I didn’t know it then, but that mild violence marked the beginning of the Troubles. Within weeks I was spending the night – until two o’clock in the morning – watching petrol bombs being hurled at buildings in the Bogside, and charges at the throwers by officers of the RUC. Next year, the first shots were fired, in Belfast, the British Army marched in, the peace line was declared, and things went from bad to worse. Matchett’s book tells how the tide was turned, long after my time in Londonderry, Armagh and Dundalk, when there seemed no hope. It’s a valuable story of undercover work necessary to counter terrorism; the only regret is that the book is not well written to make the most of the story.

  • says:

    I read the book, and marvelled once again at the bloody-minded stupidity of the ordinary Irish people who allowed themselves to be led by the nose by those cowardly thugs such as McGuinness and Adams. It’s such a crying shame that those two, in particular, were not themselves knee-capped before having their necks stretched as they so thoroughly deserved. In the late 70s, I worked with a Northern Irishman who told me after he returned to work from a holiday with family in Belfast that, as a stranger, he had been stopped at gunpoint by one of the brave boyos and made to prove his bona fides. Having emigrated many years before and able to prove it, he was unharmed, but he said it frightened the wits out of him.

    By pure coincidence, in the late 1980s, our elder son being a First 15 Rugby player in a well-known Rugby powerhouse school, we billeted one of the members of the then touring Irish Schooboys team. A firm and lasting friendship arose from that visit, and some years later our son visited the boy’s family in Belfast. It turned out that the boy’s father was a senior officer in the RUC, a fact that we had not known until that visit. Our son was aghast at the security measures that officer and family were forced to endure. Travelling to and from work at random times and by random routes were just some of the precautions.

    I blessed my ancestors for getting as far away from the place more than 150 years ago, and I’ve never felt the slightest need to visit. It’s therefore more than somewhat ironic that I, a descendant of southern Irish Roman Catholics and my wife, of Northern Scots-Irish Protestant ancestry, celebate our 51st wedding anniversay next week. As they say, mixed marriages never work.

  • Tricone says:

    Stunning review. I hope the book’s even half as good.

  • says:

    An extraordinary review by an honest man able to admit publicly his past failings. Whilst this book may not be the best written, it contains much valuable information about the Irish ‘Troubles’ and the thinking and operations of the RUC and its Special Branch. As William Matchett says often in his book, the Sinn Fein were masters at propaganda and, to many of us in Australia, the atrocities in Northern Ireland appeared to be as much the fault of the RUC and the British Army as that of the IRA. Matchett clearly sets the record straight on this when he meticulously shows that the IRA were the killers and maimers whilst Sinn Fein, via propaganda, justified their behaviour. Definitely a book to be read by anyone with even a passing interest in the terrible era of the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein. Let us hope that weak politicians do not allow a return to those dark days.

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