HARD LESSONS

Spies—Not Talks—Brought Peace to Northern Ireland

Bill Clinton and Tony Blair wanted to show the world they were blessed peacemakers. But it was spying and covert action that made the peace possible.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

LONDON—Britain’s former chief of Defense Intelligence and head of the navy has accused former Prime Minister Tony Blair of “airbrushing” the history of the Northern Ireland peace process to exaggerate the positive lessons of negotiating with terrorists.

The Good Friday Agreement, which was intimately supported by the Clinton administration, became a global model for resolving asymmetric warfare soon after it was signed in 1998, marking the end to decades of guerilla fighting in Northern Ireland.

Lord West (Former Admiral Alan West) told The Daily Beast that the mythology of the historic accord had played down the fact that the IRA had already been fatally diminished by the British security services.

“I think we’ve airbrushed out the fact that we’ve beaten them. By the time I was directing Naval intelligence in ’89-’90, we had them on the ropes, everything was infiltrated, we had informers everywhere, they were absolutely buggered—and that’s all forgotten,” he said.

Lord West was speaking at a book launch for Secret Victory by William Matchett at the Policy Exchange think tank in Westminster. The book, which was written by a former security officer in Northern Ireland, describes the decisive intelligence war against the IRA.

Lord West, who was appointed minister for security and counterterrorism by Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2007, said Republicans who negotiated the peace deal—like Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams—never admitted that the IRA had been brought to its knees by Britain’s relentless campaign to destroy the terror network.

“They will never admit it now—they say, ‘No, we were stepping up to help you.’ What people have forgotten is it’s no good just talking—these people aren’t interested in coming to discussions when they think they’re going to win,” he said.

When McGuinness died earlier this year, Blair, who went on to become a peace envoy in the Middle East, described the former IRA commander as “a formidable peacemaker” whose involvement in the peace process should be seen as an “inspiration.”

“I think [Blair] has forgotten that the only reason it ever started was that we had stabilized it and because there was a rule of law and effectively they knew they could not win,” said Lord West. “We were reading intelligence, we were reading conversations they were having saying, ‘What the hell are we going to do about this?’ They were absolutely out, almost—why is it that is hardly recognized now?”

The thesis of Matchett’s ground-breaking account of “The Troubles” is that the inconvenient truth about what really happened in Northern Ireland became a casualty of the global political narrative.

That misconception, he contends, had a real human cost as the wrong lessons were learned all over the world as policy-makers and leaders in the security sector failed to build on the real success of the counterinsurgency policing operation in Northern Ireland, concentrating instead on premature efforts to negotiate peace with terror groups.

“It was a political angle that everyone was content to lurch along with,” he told The Daily Beast. “Nobody was looking beyond their nose, nobody was thinking, ‘Hold on, but there’s other countries suffering’—they’re just making all the same mistakes we did in the early days. Why don’t we go over there and say: ‘Dude, we made the same mistakes, this is what you’re doing wrong.’

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“If you look at al Qaeda, they started at the top of the IRA’s learning curve, but the police and everyone else didn’t. So everything we did wrong, they did wrong. No one was interested in what they really did in Northern Ireland, it was just, ‘Peace process—we can bring peace to the world.’ Name one place this famous peace process has worked. For me, that’s the tragedy.”

Matchett was an officer in Special Branch—the leading intelligence department involved in policing Northern Ireland at the time.

After the 9/11 attacks, the eyes of the international community turned to Britain—where a terrorist insurgency had been successfully silenced after decades of atrocities. Matchett says that was a missed opportunity.

“What has been perpetuated and promoted largely by the British government, but also by the Clinton administration, by Dublin and a lot of people who associate themselves with the peace process is that all it took to end the conflict was to talk to terrorists, and security just disappears completely off the radar,” he said at the London launch of his book.

After more than 30 years serving for the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Matchett was employed by the U.S. Defense Department and the European Union to help build police forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He says he witnessed police chiefs in post-conflict zones being handed bewildering translations of policy documents about overarching counterinsurgency strategies that did not encompass the essential lessons he and his colleagues had picked up through decades on the frontline of the battle against insurgents.

One of the fundamentals was the establishment of the rule of law and enforcing it through complex intelligence operations.

“What I saw in Iraq was there was no notion of what a permanent police presence looked like; there was no notion of how you protect police officers,” he said.

He was asked to advise in Haditha in Iraq, for example, where officers who were recruited from the villages and towns where they patrolled were slaughtered on a massive scale. “They were lined up on a football pitch—the whole village came out and they cut off their heads one by one.”

In Northern Ireland, they had learned that officers must be recruited from other areas—even the wives of police officers could not come from the county where they served for fear of reprisals.

Thanks to years of training from the Special Forces, the police forces in Northern Ireland also developed an approach to counterinsurgency that matched the agile and professional military tactics.

“Special Forces techniques revolutionized surveillance,” he said. “At one point in time it was like Starsky & Hutch where two guys in suits sat outside a suspect’s home eating burgers and cans of Coke—it was old school.”

Special Branch officers—supposedly on covert operations—would even attend student meetings in suits.

“It was a painful learning curve because quite a few of them were murdered,” he said.

That same learning curve was being climbed by law enforcement in Iraq two decades later. “No one was even talking to the Iraqi police about setting up patterns—they were being killed coming back from the Mosque for Friday prayers and no one was saying, ‘Do you think we should go every Friday to the same mosque? Should you change your route?’ No one was thinking like that. It was too complex.”