Jonah Bennett

Palladium Magazine editor/entrepreneur/graduate student

Jonah Bennett

The Troubles: How Intelligence Coordination Is Downstream Of State Agreement


The Troubles refers to a conflict in Northern Ireland that spanned the greater part of 30 years, beginning in the late 1960s and formally ending with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Ethnic and sectarian strife had erupted between the Catholic working class and Protestant Unionists, who had formally won the creation of Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act in 1920. As a minority group, the Catholic working class had been subjected to what it considered political and economic marginalization, and so embraced nationalist ideology. The Unionists, on the other hand, were opposed to any independence efforts in favor of keeping Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. In broad strokes, this clash of interests led to an eruption of violence and the formation of paramilitary groups on both sides, most notably the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), which fought on behalf of the Catholics. The British government in turn deployed intelligence as part of its counter-terrorism campaign to restore law and order, and later to achieve a political settlement.

In examining how the British conducted intelligence operations in Northern Ireland during the 1970s and ‘80s, one of the first elements to stand out is the absence of a single, effective intelligence authority capable of running a coherent strategy and ensuring coordination among all organizations. But I argue that the failure to establish a capable intelligence authority was actually downstream of a lack of trust between the British Army and police in Northern Ireland, which was further downstream of the vastly divergent political interests and policies of Westminster (British government) and Stormont (Northern Ireland government). The key lesson for contemporary domestic counter-terrorism is that attempts to establish a unified intelligence authority are contingent on underlying factors, namely trust and convergence of policies and political interests.

As conflict broke out in 1969, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force in Northern Ireland, was most immediately responsible for intelligence work, but found itself unable to either keep execute that responsibility (Charters, 2013, p. 207) or maintain law and order (Bamford, 2005, p. 582). On the intelligence front, RUC was utterly outdated and incapable of handling rapid communication networks and modern transportation. The resulting intelligence vacuum prompted the British Army to move in and take center stage, though from 1969 to 1972 the focus was maintaining basic law and order, as opposed to combatting terrorism; the initial approach was mostly “hands-off” (Tuck, 2007, p. 166-167).  Still, British intelligence also suffered from deficiencies, namely that it operated based on models better suited to colonial conflicts in far-flung places like Malaya and Aden (Kirk-Smith & Dingley, 2009, p. 553). Once the door had been opened, however, more arms of the British state followed (MI5, MI6, the Security Service, and the Secret Intelligence Service) (Maguire, 1990, p. 150), creating a cacophony of competing organizations and attendant coordination problems. As Keith Jeffery put it, “there was an intelligence ‘gold rush’” (Jeffery, 1987, p. 126), evidence by upwards of 20 units operating in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1983 (Jackson, 2008, p. 76).

British authorities were by no means blind to the chaos and lack of coordination. As early as 1970, British General Officer Commanding Lieutenant-General Ian Freeland pointed out the problem of poor coordination in a staff college lecture, noting that MI5 and British intelligence answered to Westminster, while the RUC’s Special Branch answered to Stormont (Charters, 2013, p. 212). In fact, Freeland’s explicit task was to prevent Stormont from exerting any control over the British Army (Craig, 2018, p. 215). But since the problem had been recognized, the next step in the Army’s mind was the formation of a central, coordinating organization (Charters, 2013, p. 208). However, the plan to create such an organization was not actually implemented until it was far too late, though there were attempts in that direction. The Joint Security Committee (JSC) established the Intelligence Sub-Committee (ISC) in August 1969, which consisted of the RUC Special Branch, the MI5’s Security Liaison Officer (SLO), and the British military’s Military Intelligence Liaison Officer (MILO). But the JSC did not specify intelligence requirements, and members of the ISC failed to cooperate, leading to the ISC’s demise in 1970. This prompted concern. Attempts at reigniting the ISC were superseded by the development of the Director of Operations Intelligence Committee. The second and somewhat more successful attempt was the appointment of a Director of Intelligence (D/INT), an MI5 officer, who arrived in Northern Ireland in September 1969.

But despite clearer responsibilities, the authority to set “intelligence requirement priorities,” and ability to implement reforms, there was no real procedure on how the D/INT was supposed to operate. Moreover, effective coordination presupposed a level of trust between the British Army and RUC that simply did not exist (Charters, 2013, p. 209). In fact, cooperation between Army and police was “at best dysfunctional” (Finegan, 2016, p. 501), which in practice meant that serious intelligence successes would not come until the late 1970s (Bamford, 2005, p. 581); (Maguire, 1990, p. 151). In such a scenario, formal goals, procedures, and central organizations amount to very little if the necessary underlying factors are absent. Although cooperation existed between top Special Branch officials and the D/INT, this relationship emphatically did not extend to Branch personnel, who persisted in stonewalling the Army’s access to information (Charters, 2013, p. 212).

Sour intelligence relations between Army and the RUC, which broke the trust necessary for an effective central intelligence authority, were in large part a product of divergent political interests and policies between Protestant-dominated Stormont and Westminster. Stormont was interested in deploying harsh security measures to put down the Catholic revolt and block moves towards independence, while Westminster was more intent on forwarding a political settlement and ceding ground to moderate nationalists; unsurprisingly, the British Army came to despise Stormont for this approach (Tuck, 2007, p. 167). Eventually, dissatisfaction with Stormont’s repeated refusal to cede ground to Westminster through informal means led to frustration and the imposition of direct rule in 1972 (Birrell, 1973, p. 490-491). But direct rule did not cause divergent political interests to simply vanish; numerous proposed political solutions suffered from the basic problem that one policy would benefit one constituency, while de-benefiting another, further inflaming tensions. British policies were also inconsistent. They were repressive on some level, but not enough to fully defeat the IRA, which had the effect of driving more Catholics into the group’s arms (Newsinger, 1995, p. 93). 

Direct rule, the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973, and the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which were intended to support moderate nationalists while taking the wind out of the sails of more violent Catholic groups, caused a violent Protestant response at each turn. Opposition to Westminster and distrust trickled down to RUC personnel on the ground. Special Branch blocked the Army from infiltrating loyalist paramilitary organizations. In turn, the Army and MI5 attempted to block the Branch from controlling informants, as the British viewed the Branch as too sympathetic to informants embedded in loyalist paramilitary organizations (Moran, 2010, p. 5). Sometimes this policy of not sharing information was even institutionalized; the British Army would occasionally classify material and restrict its access to ‘UK eyes only,’ which blocked the RUC from viewing any documents bearing that mark. Blocking access to intelligence led to failed operations, perhaps the most notable being the internment policy. The British Army executed interment as part of Operation Demetrius on August 9, 1971, and it did so based on extremely flawed intelligence—partly a product of stonewalling from Special Branch personnel (Charters, 2013, p. 213). Many of those arrested (total of around 2,000) had done nothing wrong, which unsurprisingly had the effect of increasing IRA recruitment (Sanders, 2011, p. 242). There are numerous additional examples of intelligence conflict and low cooperation leading to failures, but the general categories below cover much of that ground.

1. Lack of single effective organization responsible for coherent strategy and ensuring coordination on operations among organizations
2. Failure to share information among organizations (e.g. IRA bomb designs), sometimes on purpose (classifications scheme), which led to disastrous operations
3. Single sources were able to sell information to more than one intelligence organization
4. Failure to coordinate could result in the accidental compromise of sources
5. Lack of trust that information shared among intelligence organizations would not leak

In the case of Northern Ireland, a confluence of political conflicts between Westminster and Stormont, the effects of which rippled down to the British Army and RUC, obstructed the establishment of an effective central intelligence organization that likely could have prevented intelligence failures responsible for extending the conflict. Recognition and harmonization of political interests, then, is the key lesson for contemporary domestic counter-terrorism, as those interests are upstream of effective intelligence organization, collection, and application. It is beyond the scope here to suggest clear methods of political interest harmonization or to delve further into specific intelligence collection and application failures during the Troubles. Instead, it is important to focus attention primarily on the more upstream and salient factors responsible for overall domestic counter-terrorism intelligence success.


Bamford, B. (2005). The role and effectiveness of intelligence in Northern Ireland. Intelligence and National Security. 20(4): 581-607.

Birrell, W. (1973). The Stormont-Westminster relationship. Parliamentary Affairs. 26(1973): 471-491.

Charters, D. (2013). ‘Have a go’: British Army/MI5 agent-running operations in Northern Ireland, 1970-72. Intelligence and National Security. 28(2): 202-229.

Craig, T. (2018). ‘You will be responsible to the GOC’. Stovepiping and the problem of divergent intelligence gathering networks in Northern Ireland, 1969–1975. Intelligence and National Security. 33(2): 211-226.

Finegan, R. (2016). Shadowboxing in the dark: intelligence and counter-terrorism in Northern Ireland. Terrorism and Political Violence. 28(3): 497-519.

Jackson, B. (2007). Counterinsurgency intelligence in a “long war”: The British experience in Northern Ireland. Military Review. 87(1): 74-85.

Jeffery, K. (1987). Intelligence and counter‐insurgency operations: Some reflections on the British experience. Intelligence and National Security. 2(1): 118-149.

Kirk-Smith, M., & Dingley, J. (2009). Small Wars & Insurgencies. 20(3-4): 551-573.

Maguire, K. (1990). The intelligence war in Northern Ireland. International Journal of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence. 4(2): 145-165.

Moran, J. (2010). Evaluating Special Branch and the use of informant intelligence in Northern Ireland. Intelligence and National Security. 25(1): 1-23.

Newsinger, J. (1995). From counter‐insurgency to internal security: Northern Ireland 1969–1992. Small Wars & Insurgencies. 6(1): 88-111.

Sanders, A. (2011). Northern Ireland: the intelligence war 1969-75. The British Journal of Politics and International Relations. 13(2): 230-248.

Tuck, C. (2007). Northern Ireland and the British approach to counter-insurgency. Defense & Security Analysis. 23(2): 165-183.