British undercover agents want in from the cold
LONDON, England (CNN) -- As the British government struggled in the 1970s to combat the Irish Republican Army's growing terror campaign, it had a secret tactic to undermine the IRA's efficiency, according to those interviewed for this report.
In the wake of the deaths of 234 people in 1972 alone, the British Army, according to the allegations, began recruiting Catholic Northern Irish soldiers to send home as deep cover agents.
In 1974, Willy Carlin says he was one such soldier.
"I served in the British army for nine years and was at the point where I needed to decide if I was leaving the army or signing on for the whole game, 22 years," says Carlin. "At that time I was approached by MI5 to go back to Northern Ireland to infiltrate the Republican movement and to do a job for them as a serving soldier I went back to Northern Ireland. It took a number of years to establish credibility within the Republican movement. Initially I just worked for Sinn Fein locally."
Carlin says he not only worked for Sinn Fein, the Republican political party believed to have links to the IRA, but for nine years also worked for MI5 and other parts of British military intelligence. In 1985 he says he fled Northern Ireland after his cover was blown. The British government, he says, relocated him, gave him and his family new identities and a house.
Another former British soldier, whom we were asked to call Kevin -- not his real name -- says he was able to stay hidden in the upper echelons of the IRA from the mid 1980s until last year. He saved lives, he says, by passing information, while at the same time helping to build bombs.
"I was a terrorist but I was a British agent," says Kevin. "You had to do things to stay there, otherwise, believe me, there would have been a lot more dead people. When I had to do my IRA job I had to do it. I'm not going to sit here and say that people lost lives at my hands, because basically the way the law works now is, I will go to jail for the rest of my life and I don't think I deserve that. I broke the law seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Everything I done broke the law. I helped to make bombs. Some of those bombs got caught. They were never used. Some of those bombs exploded and damaged property and that gave me credibility."
Kevin and other former agents and a former British intelligence handler interviewed for this report refused to discuss specific operations.
"You know and it's easy for people to say, 'Oh, he's tout and informer,'" says Kevin. "A tout and an informer is a real stigma in Ireland. And it follows the family for the rest of time. But the thing is, a lot of lives were saved, some were people who will throw stones and cast 'He's a tout. He's an informer.' I wasn't. I was a British soldier."
Shortly before Christmas last year, Kevin says his cover was blown. He says he received a letter from the IRA informing him of his violation of two IRA orders, for which the penalty is death. The death sentence, the letter went on, "will be carried out at our convenience."
Kevin asked Willy Carlin for help and appealed to the British government for protection. In its reply, the British Ministry of Defence said it was unclear on what grounds Kevin would qualify for help. Willy Carlin and Kevin then contacted Conservative opposition Member of Parliament Andrew Hunter. Hunter told CNN he has no reason to doubt Carlin and Kevin were agents. He has raised their case with the British government.
"Clearly, morally, the government is under obligation to ensure that the men who risked their lives in this form of service are looked after properly," says Hunter. "It doesn't seem to be happening. There is cause for concern."
Willy Carlin says others like Kevin have contacted him for help.
"The people I represent do not want medals," Carlin says. "They just want to get on with their lives I mean these guys saved people's lives, hundreds and hundreds of lives. A few lives might have been lost, but then there was a war on here."
Carlin's former handler was a man who asked to be called Martin Ingram, not his real name. Ingram says he served with the British Army's secretive Force Research Unit (FRU). The FRU's job, he says, was to spy on the IRA and disrupt IRA operations. Ingram believes Kevin and other agents have been abandoned by the government they served.
"They've been used, abused and they are of little more use to the British government and effectively they are of no consequence," says Ingram. "And I think it is disgraceful the way they have been treated, and they owe a debt of loyalty to these people who have served society."
In the meantime, the British government has sought to stop public disclosures about the activities of British undercover agents inside the IRA. Only this week, the government obtained an injunction banning the broadcast of an Ulster Television documentary. That documentary alleged the agents -- in order to maintain cover and ultimately save lives -- took part in the manufacture of bombs and assisted in the killings of soldiers and policemen. The government has also obtained an injunction banning publication against the Sunday Times newspaper.
The British government has been under pressure for several years by human rights groups and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges to investigate allegations the FRU also colluded with paramilitiaries opposed to a unified Ireland to commit murder.
"I think it looks very bad for a developed democracy, sanctioning, as it were, murder gangs and in particular to be covering up in retrospect what they were doing," says Jane Winter of British Irish Rights Watch. "Many newspapers have been gagged."
"There appears sufficient materials to begin an open inquiry and to lay to rest all these suspicions, all these concerns, all these frustrations," says U.N. Special Rapporteur Dato Param Cumaraswamy. "Until that is done, because there is no resolution to this concern, I think even any long-term peace process is, can be a problem for Northern Ireland."
The agents with whom CNN spoke say the lost lives amid the government campaign to defeat the IRA may cause the British government the most embarrassment.
"Some of the actions that the soldiers have been involved with need admitting by someone," says Willy Carlin. "To admit that, more or less, that -- shall we say -- the British government are guilty of allowing the murders to take place."
"The dangers posed by running agents in Northern Ireland is first and foremost if there is no rule book, which there wasn't in Northern Ireland," says Martin Ingram. "We miss the difference between right and wrong."
M.P. Andrew Hunter says he has no specific knowledge of incidents where agents contributed to deaths, but that "they had to endure certainly loneliness, certainly great personal danger, and obviously the uncertainty."
"I think in those circumstances," Hunter says, "people find it very hard to make the moral distinction between right and wrong."
The former agents interviewed for this report said they were recruited from the army, given early discharge papers, promised a secret paycheck, plus a savings account.
"So, they paid us to become terrorists, to fight the terrorists," says Kevin.
Kevin says he was 21 when he volunteered for what he thought would be exciting undercover James Bond type work. At the time he thought he could go back to his army regiment when it was all over.
Twenty years later, he says, he's wiser.
"We were a deniable commodity and now they are denying us," says Kevin. "The thing is we are an embarrassment A lot of those IRA men who are, were on the run, they can go home. I can't go home. I'm sentenced to death But I have certain things I can prove. It will be embarrassing for me at this stage. I'm dead, anyhow. I'm a dead man walking, so I really don't have anything to lose."
CNN asked several former secretaries of state for Northern Ireland and the British Ministry of Defence for comment about army infiltration of the IRA. CNN was told repeatedly that there would be no comment. The British government, a Defence Ministry spokesman said, "never discusses security matters."
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