Photo by Tom Stoddart/Getty Images
Artillery Row Books

Back door diplomacy

A fine history of Operation Chiffon

Easter for Irish Republicans is always a sacred and highly emotive affair. Annually, thousands attend parades across Northern Ireland in commemoration of the Easter Rising of April 1916, when members of the Irish Volunteers launched an armed insurrection aimed at ending British rule and establishing an independent Irish Republic. Yet for Catholic Republicans, as well as Protestant Loyalists, Easter 2023 was considerably more symbolic, for it also marked the 25th anniversary of the signing of the multilateral Belfast (“Good Friday”) Agreement and the lesser known international British-Irish Agreement. Both ostensibly ended nearly thirty years of violence, what was euphemistically referred to as “the Troubles”.

Operation Chiffon: The Secret Story of MI5 and MI6 and the Road to Peace in Ireland, Peter Taylor (London: Bloomsbury, £22)

What ultimately led to this historic peace settlement? The political, diplomatic and military paths that steered paramilitary groups to a permanent terrorist ceasefire in Northern Ireland are well documented and consequently universally known. So are the dramatis personae of Northern Irish politics, figures such as Adams, McGuinness, Hulme and Paisley, names hard-wired into the collective consciousness of those who lived with “the Troubles”. What has remained far more opaque is the role of the British secret state’s “hidden hand”, the UK Intelligence and Security Services, in convincing the Irish Republican Army (IRA) to end its “armed struggle and instead embrace a peaceful route to conflict resolution. 

In his new book, Operation Chiffon, veteran BBC reporter Peter Taylor reveals the full story of the pivotal role played by a triumvirate of intelligence officers from the Security Service, MI5, and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), popularly known as MI6, in preparing the way for peace in Ireland. They were Frank Steele, Michael Oatley (IRA codename “the mountain climber”), and “Robert”, the Christian name of the MI5 officer at the epicentre of Chiffon. For reasons of security and official secrecy, his full identity cannot be divulged, but the IRA codenamed him “Fred”. Taylor also discloses the tireless and courageous efforts of a Catholic Derry Businessman, Brendan Duddy (one-time codename “Soon”), to bring about a peaceful resolution to the sectarian conflict which blighted Ireland for a generation and cost over 3,600 lives.

From the early 1970s, Duddy operated a “clandestine back channel to the leadership of the IRA”, acting as an intermediary between British “spooks” and Republican terrorist leaders. Jonathan Powell, Chief of Staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair and a key figure in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, later affirmed that, “Brendan Duddy’s role was absolutely fundamental … If you hadn’t had that channel created by … Duddy there really would have been no way to get to the ceasefire. Yet, soberingly, all the chief protagonists in this story risked, in the words of the author, “the possibility of kidnap by the IRA, interrogation, torture and ‘execution’” as spies. Such were the realities of covert work in Northern Ireland at this time.

In light of how high the human and political stakes were, it is unsurprising to discover that Operation Chiffon is a compelling, exhilarating historical account. A significant journalistic “scoop” for the author, it is also an authoritative, scholarly, insightful and balanced treatment of one of the most extraordinary intelligence cases of modern times. Setting the operation and its antecedents in their proper historical context, Taylor supplies his readership with a kaleidoscope of detail, vignettes and personal recollections pertaining to the epoch in question. 

Taylor succeeded in gaining an entrée into each sectarian camp

Taylor is a master at juxtaposing scenes of high-level decision-making in No. 10 Downing Street, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and the HQs of MI5 and SIS with the every-day, pedestrian realities of terrorists’ domestic lives. In one instance, readers are treated to the image of a hardened IRA man assisting Brendan Duddy carry buckets of peat for the fire in his “wee room”, whilst secret negotiations between “the mountain climber” and a delegation from the IRA take place elsewhere in Duddy’s house. Stranger still is the faintly Alan Bennettesque aftermath of an aborted meeting in March 1993 between “Robert”, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly. Compelled to seek out McGuinness at the home of his aged mother in the Bogside neighbourhood of Derry, “Robert” is begrudgingly admitted into the house and ushered into a sitting room. There a “white haired Mrs McGuinness”, surrounded by “school photos of family and grandchildren”, is watching “a repeat of the long-running” BBC TV programme Your Life in Their Hands. It is these small but significant details that not only draw in Taylor’s audience but ultimately bring to life his magnum opus

Taylor is the doyen of authorities on Northern Ireland, having spent fifty years reporting on the Province. Trusted by all sides in the conflict as an objective journalist, Taylor succeeded in gaining an entrée into each sectarian camp, acquiring unique access to leading political and paramilitary figures. With such impeccable sources, Taylor’s oeuvre has been rich and unique. In addition to five works on Irish and international terrorism, Taylor is author of the critically acclaimed Ulster trilogy Brits, Provos and Loyalists. Notably, Operation Chiffon closes the circle on this series of monographs, concomitantly filling a lacuna in the history of Northern Irish affairs. The role of secret intelligence, as Sir Alexander Cadogan (one-time Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office) complained, was the “missing dimension of most diplomatic history”. Tellingly, it was the absence of official documentation, interviews or public disclosure surrounding Operation Chiffon that compelled “Robert”, despite the restraints of the Official Secrets Act, to tell his story. As he confessed to the author, “I’d like what I did to be remembered.

Despite breaking the Omerta of the UK Intelligence community, namely that former “spooks” should never reveal operational details to third parties, “Robert” has generated a “good news” story for Britain’s secret servants. Castigated for alleged murder plots, “dirty tricks” and collusion with Loyalist paramilitary organisations, MI5 and SIS, along with a host of other intelligence organisations who operated in the six counties of the North, regularly received bad press. In many quarters, they were perceived as part of the problem, not the solution. 

Yet, as Taylor demonstrates throughout his book, it was their ability to operate covertly and act as the British state’s “hidden hand” that ensured the existence of a disavowed back channel to Irish Republican paramilitaries. As Jonathan Powell observed, “If you look around the world it’s nearly always the intelligence services that do open up these channels because it’s dangerous, it has to be deniable and can’t be official. This modus operandi was a natural extension of a wider official culture within Whitehall. In the words of Rory Cormac, author of Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces, and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy, its history emphasised the importance of “maximizing plausible deniability, and shielding politicians and the most senior civil servants from making direct orders”. In statecraft terms, the UK’s intelligence and security services were very necessary and extremely useful tools for policymakers.

The publication of Operation Chiffon serves not only to spotlight the hitherto underappreciated clandestine work of Britain’s secret servants, but also casts an interesting sidelight on other British institutions involved in the conflict. Working from an implicit acknowledgement that the British state never fully understood the “Northern Irish Question”, Taylor demonstrates how maladroit, rigid and obtuse the NIO, the British Army and successive British Governments were. Drawing heavily upon “Robert’s” recollections, Taylor depicts the NIO as suffering from “status quo bias” — “a preference for the current state of affairs, where any change is perceived as an unwelcome loss” — as well as being risk-averse, unimaginative and only too keen to echo the political mood music emanating from London. Disappointingly, the highly respected Sir John Chilcot, chairman of the Iraq War Inquiry, who at the time of Chiffon was Permanent Under-Secretary (PUS) at the NIO, is portrayed as wary, evasive and career-conscious — in fact the archetypal Whitehall mandarin. 

The UK’s Armed Forces are also not exempt from censure. Whilst the British Army in particular “held the ring” for politicians, facilitated “police primacy” in the Province, and materially dialled down sectarian and paramilitary violence, there existed a fallacious belief within its ranks that the IRA could be defeated militarily. Only a few enlightened senior officers such as Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Tuzo and Brigadier James Glover, one-time head of Army Intelligence, believed this to be a misguided notion. Aside from a few specialist agencies, little appears to have been done within the UK military-intelligence machine to fundamentally comprehend the “Northern Irish Question. Nor indeed did they follow the advice of the ancient Chinese military thinker, Sun Tzu, who in his treatise The Art of War urged his readership to “know your enemy”. As evidenced in Iraq and Afghanistan, failure on the part of NATO and the West to fully comprehend their operating environments, as well as the psychology, atmospherics and religious, political and socio-economic dynamics of these regions, contributed significantly to strategic defeat. 

21st century UK Joint doctrine counsels military leaders to overcome such cultural illiteracy through “cultural awareness” and “cultural expertise”. The former is defined as being “critical to understanding, requiring us to develop cultural expertise in areas where we are likely to operate, together with more general awareness of other cultures”. The latter “requires immersion in another’s culture and generally develops in concert with the ability to speak the language and to understand the mindset”. As the historiography of “the Troubles” makes clear, the British signally failed to observe these best practices between 1969 and 2007.

Operation Chiffon proved to be key in unlocking political deadlock

Cultural illiteracy in Northern Ireland later fed into similar errors committed in the Middle East and Central Asia, as illuminated by two seminal works on British participation in the Iraq-Afghanistan wars: Frank Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars and Simon Akam’s The Changing of the Guard. Each author alludes to the hubristic manner in which British officers lectured and patronised their American counterparts on how UK Armed Forces were the real experts on counter-insurgency, having had decades of experience in Northern Ireland. This institutional delusion that during Operation Banner the British mastered the art of counter-insurgency operations, or “war amongst the people”, is exposed by Toby Harnden’s path-breaking work, Bandit Country: The IRA and South Armagh. First published in 1999, two years before 9/11 and the “war on terror”, Bandit Country records that British security forces only began to attain the upper hand militarily against the IRA during the ceasefires of 1994 and 1997, a quarter of a century on from having first deployed to the Province. 

Politicians, unsurprisingly, fared little better. As Taylor highlights, successive British governments perpetuated the IRA’s ‘armed struggle’ by placing almost insurmountable obstacles in the way of peace. Her Majesty’s Government’s long-standing policy of “not talking to terrorists” was one such impediment, as was a demand for an IRA ceasefire as a prerequisite for peace talks. In March 1995, yet another stumbling block to successful conflict resolution emerged in the then Northern Ireland Secretary Sir Patrick Mayhew’s public call for the decommissioning of IRA weapons as a precondition to further negotiations, following the IRA ceasefire of 1994. Essentially, the irresistible force of Irish Republican terrorism met the immovable object of government intransigence, resulting in impasse and the consequent deaths of hundreds of innocent people. Operation Chiffon proved to be key in unlocking this political deadlock.

Against this stark background of cultural indifference, the efforts of Frank Steele, Michael Oatley, “Robert” and Brendan Duddy to fathom the depths of Irish terrorism truly stand out. As good Intelligence officers, Steele, Oatley and “Robert” were profoundly interested in the psychology, the dynamics, the powerbases and personalities of those involved in Irish Republican terrorism. Duddy was no less diligent in endeavouring to understand the “armed struggle” enveloping him and his fellow citizens. Not only could he view the conflict through the prism and focus of Irish Nationalist-Republicanism, Duddy could also do so from British-Unionist and Protestant-Unionist viewpoints. This was a remarkable accomplishment for a civilian “agent of influence” caught-up in a vortex of savage sectarian violence.

Following each terrorist atrocity by the IRA, successive British administrations doubled down on their public vow not to talk to terrorists. This made the existence of a covert back-channel to Irish gunmen extremely sensitive and politically explosive. There were periods of time in which Oatley, his anonymous successor and “Robert” were forbidden by their political and Civil Service masters from speaking to the enemy. As Taylor reveals throughout the book, this did not prevent these specific intelligence officers from maintaining contact with the Republican high command. 

Spy novels bulge with characters who, either out of necessity, a sense of moral integrity or for purely narcissistic reasons, “leave the reservation” and embark upon their own private enterprises. Such figures are considered “mavericks”, “loose cannons” or “rogue elephants” by risk-averse, process-driven bureaucrats. Before Oatley and “Robert” were selected as covert emissaries to the IRA, the personnel departments of both MI5 and SIS were at a loss as to what to do with them. It is unmistakable that these highly-experienced intelligence officers were proverbial square pegs, whose personalities resisted official efforts to fit them into bureaucratic round holes.

In the context of the “secret war” in Northern Ireland, Operation Chiffon is further proof that “fact” is indeed “stranger than fiction”. On multiple occasions, Oatley and “Robert” bent the rules or blatantly disobeyed orders so as to continue to talk to terrorists. These unauthorised actions were neither reckless, nor acts of mindless defiance. Instead, they were born out of a keen sense of duty, a stubborn optimism and a burning desire to achieve a lasting peace on the island of Ireland. The people of Ireland and the UK should rejoice that such “rogue elephants” existed within Britain’s secret state.

Notably, Taylor decided not to contextualise Operation Chiffon with regards to wider contemporary developments within the UK Intelligence Community. In November 1993, eight months after his unauthorised meeting with McGuinness and Kelly, “Robert” was obliged to resign from MI5. As Taylor reveals, “Robert” was unmasked as the mystery official who had met the two terrorists by Stephen Lander, the then head of MI5’s Irish Section and future Director-General of the Security Service. The timing of “Robert’s” censure is therefore curious, for on 26 May 1994 an Intelligence and Security Act was granted Royal Assent and subsequently placed on the statute books. Not only did this Act publicly acknowledge, for the first time, the existence of SIS and GCHQ, it also established the Intelligence and Security Committee, ISC, a Parliamentary watchdog whose remit was to “examine the policies, expenditure, administration and operations” of Britain’s “spooks”.

Such a seismic cultural, political and legislative step-change for the UK’s Intelligence Services would, however, have been foreshadowed by a long bureaucratic gestation period. It has to be remembered that public pressure to place the intelligence and security services on a statutory footing, following years of scandal, controversy and conspiracy theories, had been considerable. In 1989, Mrs Thatcher’s government was obliged to avow the official existence of MI5 by means of the 1989 Security Service Act. “Robert’s” rogue elephant actions in Ulster the previous year would therefore have come at a very delicate time for British Intelligence, along with those from the Civil Service and government indoctrinated into the magic circle of the secret state. Leaving the shadows of the “secret world” was, understandably, a traumatic event for Britain’s spies. More startling still for “Cold War warriors” and old Ulster “sweats” would have been the new levels of oversight and accountability demanded by the ISC. 

Stark evidence that belies the claim of permanent peace in the six counties of the North

Whitehall has always been, in security terms, an extremely “leaky” place where secrets very rarely remain secret for long. Consequently, the existence of such high-level and politically risky operations, such as Chiffon, would soon have reached the ears of the “good and the great” who sat on the ISC. What the tidy, overly-cautious bureaucratic mind perceived as free-wheeling, cavalier activities, the agents of the state actually on the ground would regard as operational imperatives vital to conflict resolution. The cruxes of the matter, ones Taylor sadly fails to address, are these: Firstly, did the advent of this new era of openness and official accountability ultimately play a role in condemning “Robert”? Secondly, in light of the ISC’s existence, its remit, ability to “set its own agenda and power to concentrate on “current events and issues of concern” (specifically “operational and policy matters’), could “free play” clandestine enterprises such as Operation Chiffon ever again be conducted by UK intelligence and security agencies? The respective answers to these provocative questions are a likely “yes” and a categorical “no”.

A further set of omissions from this book are even more serious and indeed troubling. In his epilogue, Taylor quite rightly focuses on the twenty-five years of “peace” Operation Chiffon and the Good Friday Agreement brought to the people of Northern Ireland and the UK. A pressing question remains, however: did “the Troubles” ever really end? Whilst Taylor raises the existential threats posed to the Belfast Agreement by the “hard” versus “soft” border controversy, the periodic breakdown of political power-sharing at Stormont; and Northern Ireland’s changing demographics — which for the first time in the Province’s history favours the Catholic community — he omits a myriad of inconvenient truths about the real state of affairs in Northern Ireland. 

Violence continues to plague Northern Ireland, be it sectarian, political or criminal in character. Whilst the Good Friday Agreement put an end to indiscriminate bombing campaigns, systematic shootings and substantial numbers of British troops on the streets, it nevertheless failed in ending punishment beatings, intimidation, racketeering and a raft of other criminal activities associated with dissident terrorist groups. Moreover, if MI5’s official website is consulted, it becomes apparent just how many dissident Republican organisations remain active in Ulster. The four main factions are the “New IRA”, the “Continuity IRA” or CIRA, the Óglaigh na hÉireann (split into two factions, the ONH and IRB) and the Arm na Poblacht or ANP. As the Security Service makes clear, “All oppose the peace process and regard violence as a legitimate means of achieving a united Ireland.

Aside from excluding the fact that Operation Banner — the longest continuous deployment in British military history —  did not officially finish until 2007, nine years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Taylor also fails to declare the ongoing presence in Northern Ireland of MI5 officers, Army Ammunition Technical Officers and UK Special Forces personnel. He airbrushes from history the Massereene barracks attack of 7 March 2009 when gunmen from the “Real IRA” shot dead two off-duty British soldiers, wounded two more and in the process injured two passing civilians. So is the fact that just two days later, the “Continuity IRA” shot dead a police officer, the first such fatality since 1998.

Regrettably, there are other events and statistics that do not sit easily with the Fukuyamaesque “end of history” impression engendered by the signing of the Belfast Agreement. In 2008, there were at least three separate “security-related” incidents centring on the attempted murder of serving policemen. In late January 2009, a 300Ib car bomb, intended for the nearby Army base in Ballykinler, was defused in Castlewellan. In 2017, MI5 recorded five “national security” attacks by dissident Republican terrorists. In April 2019, the young journalist Lyra Mckee was fatally shot by the “New IRA” whilst reporting on rioting in Derry. These are just some of the many “security-related” incidents that constitute a low-level armed campaign waged against the Police Service of Northern Ireland and British security forces, by splinter groups of dissident Republican terrorists post the Good Friday Agreement. 

Ironically, shortly before the publication of Operation Chiffon on 30 March 2023, two seismic events occurred in Northern Ireland. On 22 February, off-duty Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell was shot multiple times by two masked members of the “New IRA” whilst he coached an under-15 football team in Omagh. Fortunately, Caldwell survived but nevertheless suffered “life changing” injuries. Then on 28 March, MI5 raised the terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland from “Substantial” to “Severe”, meaning a terrorist attack was “highly likely”. The latest figures from the NIO show that between 1998 and 2022, there occurred 170 “security-related” deaths in the Province, stark evidence that belies the claim of permanent peace in the six counties of the North.

The Irish have an old saying that “When the big man falls in battle, the fight rarely continues.” As the IRA was never defeated militarily, it is perhaps unsurprising that the peace and stability of Northern Ireland are still threatened by dissident republicans determined to achieve a united Ireland through force of arms. Pivotal to the story of Operation Chiffon was the promise “Robert” made to the IRA’s high command: “The final solution [to your ‘armed struggle’] is union. It is going to happen anyway. The historical train — Europe — determines that. We are committed to Europe. Unionists will have to change. This island will be as one. Ireland is still divided, and Brexit derailed the “historical train” of European integration with the UK, ensuring that the Belfast Agreement can be viewed, twenty-five years on, not as a denouement to “the Troubles”, but rather as a crucial punctuation mark in the history of contemporary Ireland.

Thanks to Peter Taylor and his long association with Northern Ireland, one that (to paraphrase Tony Blair) placed the “heavy hand of history” upon his shoulders, the general public is now fully conscious of the key roles played by Steele, Oatley, “Robert” and Duddy in striving to facilitate a peace process that culminated in the Good Friday Agreement. All displayed astonishing levels of courage, both moral and physical, as well as determination, patience and faith. Disgracefully, “Robert” and Brendan Duddy never received official recognition for their considerable services to the people of Ireland and the UK. Operation Chiffon, a book that is a worthy addition to the historiography of “the Troubles”, must therefore serve as their lasting epitaph.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover