Book Review – ‘Thatcher’s Spy: My Life as An MI5 Agent inside Sinn Fein’

Thatcher’s Spy; My Life as An MI5 Agent Inside Sinn Fein, by Willie Carlin: Published by Merrion Press, 2019; ISBN 9781785372858; Softback, 264 pages; Available for £15.00 from Merrion Press, 10 George’s Street, Newbridge, County Kildare, W12 PX39, Ireland or online from www.merrionpress.ie or www.amazon.com

For almost 140 years now – since the formation of Special Branch in 1883 – Britain’s political police and the security services (including MI5) have infiltrated radical political parties and movements (both left and right) that they deem a threat – or a potential threat – to the status quo.

Since the 1970s the security services have had operatives inside several ‘far-left’ groups, including the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), the Communist Party (CPGB) and their many offshoots. The state never really thought any of these groups would take over the country or even be of any real harm to them, but they could be troublesome and so it needed people on the inside to keep an eye on what they were up to and report back to their state handlers.

During the same period the security services had also infiltrated several of what they deemed ‘far-right’ parties, including the National Front (NF), National Party (NP) and British National Party (BNP – Mk. IV). However, these parties were deemed a much greater threat than the ‘far-left’, as the state worried that there was a very real chance of them gaining popular support and even getting into power, if circumstances went their way.

As with those who had infiltrated the ‘far-left’, those inside the ‘far-right’ also kept an eye on what these parties were up to and reported back to their handlers. However, the state also had skilled operatives on the inside whose job was not just to report back, but to actively destroy these parties from the inside – by whatever means possible (legal or illegal). The state successfully did this with first the National Front, then to a lesser extent the National Party in the 1970s, then the National Front again in the 1980s, and finally the British National Party in the 1990s-2000s, which proved a harder cookie to crack – but nevertheless they brought it down in the end.

Across the Irish sea in British Ulster, in the six counties of Northern Ireland, the security services had a much harder job, as not only did they have to infiltrate political parties and groups from both the Unionist/Loyalist and Nationalist/Republican sides, but also their paramilitary armed wings as well.

On the Loyalist side, the security services placed their agents inside both the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), as well as the smaller Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) and the Red Hand Commando (RHC). However, they encountered several problems, as many in the security services were Unionists themselves who sympathised with the Loyalist cause, sometimes quite openly.

On the Republican side, the security services found it much harder to infiltrate the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and almost impossible their smaller rival the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA),  But where there’s a will there’s a way, and of course they did get agents into both. On the political side, they found it almost as hard to get agents inside Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political wing (and the Irish Republican Socialist Party, the INLA’s political wing) but they did. One such agent was Willie Carlin, an ex-British soldier, who infiltrated Sinn Féin’s Londonderry (Derry) branch, which was led by Martin McGuinness. This book – Thatcher’s Spy; My Life as an MI5 Agent inside Sinn Féin – is Carlin’s story.

Willie Carlin (circled) at an IRA funeral during the time when he was reporting to MI5. Senior IRA commander Martin McGuinness is seen carrying the front of the coffin.

What role the British State and its agents played in the move of the Irish republican movement from the armed struggle to a political electoral movement is very unlikely to be revealed any time soon, if ever. However, Carlin’s book does go some way to explaining their strategy and how they successfully carried it out. So successful in fact that Sinn Féin could be in power in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic within this reviewer’s lifetime.

Any book on ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland should be read with caution, or a large pinch of salt, as my late Granma Hathaway would say, not least because undercover operatives are so well-practiced in the art of deceit. And yet, the secrecy that still lingers within British Ulster’s political process can make what they belatedly have to say compelling.

What sets Thatcher’s Spy apart from other such testimonies (like William Matchett’s Secret Victory) is that Carlin was a political mole inside a political party – Sinn Féin – rather than a military spy inside the IRA. He was operative in two periods between 1974 to 1980 and 1981 to 1985, during the height of ‘the Troubles’.

Carlin wasn’t ‘turned’, like Denis Donaldson, because of some incriminating evidence about a part of his life he couldn’t bear to have made public. He was happily married at the time he was recruited and had no strong political opinions one way or the other. He was just giving up a promising career in the military to come home to ‘Derry’ when he was ‘talent spotted’.

Willie (not William or Billy mind you, which are more commonly used in Protestant families) Carlin had not been unusual in Derry as a young working-class Catholic boy joining the British army, although at one time he wanted the holy orders of priesthood, rather than the battle orders of the army! His father had been in the British Army too and had fought in Burma during the Second World War against the Japanese and ended up working at the local Royal Navy base after the war. In 1965, almost four years before ‘the Troubles’ started, young Willie joined the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars with his older brother Robert. He left the island of Ireland for the very first time and did his basic training in Catterick in Yorkshire.

The Duke of Edinburgh (above left) in 1980 with Maj. Gen. John Strawson, who commanded the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars when Willie Carlin signed up in 1965. Both the Duke and Gen. Stawson are wearing the Regiment’s traditional “tent hat”.

Willie and Robert were the only Irish Catholics in that intake 65-9 (the ninth intake of the year 1965 at Catterick barracks). However, up to 1970 it was far from uncommon for Irish Catholics to join an Irish Regiment in the British Army, something that the average Guardian reader would initially scoff at, but the reality was the Irish regiments recruited from both north and south of the border, Catholic and Protestant alike, which made for the regimental St Patrick’s Day parties to become interesting events, where sectarianism was defined only by their songs at the end of an evening of heavy drinking, but trumped by loyalty to the Regiment.

After basic training Willie like most squaddies was sent over to Germany, stationed in Wolfenbüttel, near Hanover for the second phase of the ‘Cold War’. Having survived what was called “an international cold war incident” along the River Elbe, when the crew of an East German survey ship had mutinied, on ‘our’ (West) side of the river and threatened  to blow the ship up if their demands were not met, Willie returned to England with his regiment in the summer of 1968.

He was stationed at Bovington in Dorset, where the Royal Armoured Corps had its headquarters. At the time the centre was mainly staffed by civilians, but a recent change in emphasis by the Ministry of Defence meant that a regiment would be in charge. The Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars were the first armoured corps regiment to run Bovington.

Of course, being stationed in England meant it was a lot easier to return home to Derry to see his family and girlfriend Mary. Willie was now a Lance Corporal, and on better wages, so he and Mary got engaged and planned to get married by the summer of 1969.

Being able to phone Mary each night kept Willie up to date with developments back in British Ulster in general, and Derry in particular. He learnt that Mary had joined a left-wing group called the ‘Civil Rights Association’, based on the Black civil rights groups in America’s deep south. She told Willie she had gone on marches in the Creggan and Bogside and had been charged and batoned by the ‘B Specials’, whom he had never heard of, but later found out were the modern equivalent of the ‘Black ‘n Tans’. She sent him copies of the Derry Journal so he could also read for himself what was going on back in his home city.

With enough money banked, Willie asked the Colonel for permission to marry Mary (all squaddies under twenty-one had to get such permission, along with a document from the British Army to give to the priest.) This was granted and on 19th July 1969 he married Mary, fully dressed in army ‘blues’ with lanyards, chainmail and spurs at St Columb’s Chapel on the Waterside. A couple of years later it would have been almost impossible for an off-duty Catholic British soldier to wear his army uniform openly around the streets of Derry.

Ivan Cooper (above centre) bloodied during the 1969 battle with the RUC and ‘B Specials’

As Willie and Mary celebrated at their wedding reception, held later that afternoon at the Woodleigh Hotel on the Derry side, the RUC and ‘B Specials’ were battling it out with civil rights protesters led by Ivan Cooper (a Protestant republican who later became an Independent Socialist NI-MP for Mid-Londonderry and died in June 2019) and John Hume (who later became an MP for Foyle and leader of the SDLP, and died on August 3rd 2020). Rumours had already started to circulate amongst the guests that British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, was about to send in the British Army to defend and save Catholics from not only Loyalist mobs, who were starting to ‘ethnically cleanse’ parts of Belfast and Derry, street by street, but the ‘bigoted and sectarian’ B Specials, who were a law unto themselves!

Willie’s visits home from Dorset back to Derry after ‘the Troubles’ explode indicate a man troubled by the actions of the British security forces. He also seems to have nursed an almost undying animosity towards the old RUC (now renamed the more politically correct Police Service of Northern Ireland – PSNI) right up to the present day.

During a visit to Derry in early 1972 Willie found himself and his wife Mary caught up in a riot. He writes “I ran out and was almost hit by a petrol bomb that exploded at my feet. I pulled Mary by the hand towards two soldiers who were standing on the corner near The Diamond” (an area in Derry city centre).

“I shouted at the corporal and complained about his colleague’s abuse of [a] young couple who now lay bloodied and battered outside Austin’s store. He told me to ‘fuck off’ and when I produced my MOD90 [military ID] card, his colleague drew a baton and smashed me over the head.” He surmises this as “a ‘Brit’ beating a fellow Brit because he assumed, I was a Republican rioter”. This experience of chaos in Derry and the drip-feed of death and injury to friends, neighbours and family may have lent a crucial authenticity to his later efforts for Sinn Féin.

Willie was taken to hospital and needed six stitches to his head. The RUC, who were at the hospital, arrested him and charged him with rioting!  As Willie was a serving soldier, he was also reported to the military police at nearby Ebrington Barracks, who in turn passed on the report to his commanding officer back at Bovington in Dorset.

Thankfully for Willie his commanding officer, Colonel Green from the Royal Tank Regiment, was very understanding of his situation. He told him to just forget about it as he “would have a word” with someone higher up the chain. It worked, and all charges against Willie were dropped. After that Colonel Green took Willie under his wing and mentored him for the rest of his army career at Bovington.

Although things were going well at work, tragedy struck at home on the morning of 16th December 1972, just before the family were due to set off for Christmas in Derry, with the death of his first baby daughter Sharon, from cot death syndrome. Willie’s wife Mary was so upset by the death that she could not even bring herself to attend Sharon’s funeral. Their whole life had been turned upside down, and their days in England, and Willie’s days as a soldier were now numbered.

IRA commander, later ‘peacemaker’ (and possible British intelligence asset) Martin McGuinness

Both Willie and Mary now wanted to call it a day in England and return to a civilian life in Derry. However, with ‘the Troubles’ now at their height, the Creggan estate in Derry did not really look like the sort of place an ex-British squaddie would be made welcome!

Willie’s father, although not an active republican himself, knew the right people back in Derry to ask if it would be OK for Willie to return. A friend had got word from Paul Fleming, a well-known republican from the Waterside area, who said he had heard about Sharon’s death and could not see any problem with the family returning – if all ties with the British army had been cut.

With his family’s safe return to Derry assured Willie was now under great pressure to leave the army as quickly as possible, so he approached Colonel Green and explained his predicament. “You would be mad to leave at this point in your career,” was Green’s response. “Besides, you’ll be in great danger if you return to Ireland.” However, after further discussions Green agreed he would check out the real security situation for ex-squaddies returning home to Derry, through a friend of his in the Intelligence Corps. As it turned out this friend of Green’s would change Willie’s and ultimately his family’s life forever.

Colonel Green’s ‘friend’ passed Willie’s file onto the Security Service in London, who to cut a long story short were looking for a man with Willie’s background to be their eyes and ears in republican Derry in general and Sinn Féin in particular. They already had one or more agents inside the IRA’s Derry Brigade, but as yet they had nobody inside the political side.

Ironically, Willie was recruited by the intelligence service in the car park outside T. E. Lawrence’s (aka Lawrence of Arabia’s) hideaway cottage in rural south Dorset, as it is now widely thought that the security services murdered Lawrence (to stop his planned meeting with Adolf Hitler, which had been arranged by Henry Williamson) in 1935. H&D will cover the Lawrence murder in a later issue.

Willie first met up with a Captain Thorpe, ostensibly to discuss what to do with the rest of his life once he had left the army. However, after meeting Thorpe he was introduced to a guy called ‘Alan’ who was probably from MI5. ‘Alan’ explained to Willie, that his organization had trawled the Officer Training College at Sandhurst looking for ‘the right person with the right credentials’ without success. Then Willie’s file had ended up in his office, and after carefully checking through it with other agents they agreed that he might be the right ‘fit’!

At first Willie was very reluctant to get involved with the security services, however ‘Alan’ eventually persuaded him to take ‘the job’. Alan was remarkably well informed about who was who and the rising stars of the republican movement in Derry. Nonetheless, he went on to describe how bad the intelligence was in the area, particularly political intelligence. “Despite what you might read in the papers or hear in the mess, the republican movement in Londonderry is not Communist or Marxist. There is no ‘Danny the Red’.”

‘Alan’ was referring to Danny Morrison, who was associated with a grouping of young, left-wing Belfast based republicans, led by Gerry Adams, who wanted to change the strategy, tactics and leadership of the IRA and Sinn Féin. Morrison believed Sinn Féin should be an openly Marxist party (as opposed to Adams who always stated he was “a Socialist with Marxist friends!”).

Danny Morrison (above left) with his IRA colleague Gerry Adams

‘Alan’ went on: “In your city, ever since the Paras fucked up on Bloody Sunday, they’ve [the IRA] had more recruits join their ranks than the entire Infantry Corps of the British Army.” Alan suggested that the republican movement, including Sinn Féin was still open for infiltration, adding these chilling words, “Which is where you come in”.

For the first six years or so, Willie reported back to his MI5 handlers what he saw or heard about what was going on in Derry, regarding the republican movement, without ever joining Sinn Féin or really being actively involved in community politics, which struck this reviewer as rather odd. During one of his briefings with ‘Alan’ in London he got to meet a woman called ‘Paula’, whom he introduced as his secretary. She was particularly interested in Martin McGuinness. Willie later found out that ‘Paula’ was in fact Stella Rimington, who would go on to head MI5 in 1992.

However, by December 1980 Willie had got fed up with life as a spy, mainly due to one of his local handlers ‘Ben’, who was a dangerous alcoholic. He concluded that ‘Ben’ was going to get them both killed, due to his could-not-care-less, reckless attitude. He informed Alan that the relationship was just not going to work, and he had decided to terminate his arrangement with MI5. A final meeting was arranged with ‘Ben’, who handed him a plastic bag with £2,500 in it. Presumably this was his final pay-off from the UK taxpayer.

Willie – although still not a member of Sinn Féin – got involved in the infamous Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election (held on 9th April 1981), which was won by IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who stood as ‘Anti H Block candidate’, beating the Ulster Unionist candidate Harry West by 1,446 votes. Willie writes: “I was never sure if Sands would have won had we not stolen and personated on his behalf. However, I was jubilant, as were most nationalists – never mind republicans. Victory cavalcades went around Derry that night as it was clear there was a republican vote here in the North just for the taking.”

During this by-election campaign the 1981 UK census was under way. The IRA had instructed Catholics in ‘their areas’ not to fill in the forms and have nothing to do with the census. One of the Government census takers was twenty-nine-year-old Joanne Mathers, from Strabane who got paid £5 a day, to chase up all those who had not returned their census forms. Not really a great job to have if your patch includes hard-core republican areas of Derry! After being threatened a couple of times on the Gobnascale Estate, she happened to knock on Willie’s door.

Willie warned her what she was doing was very dangerous, and after calming her down, he suggested she move to the Irish Street Estate, which was safer (and less Republican) than his. Sadly, this was not to be the case, and after knocking on only one door, a masked man ran from the side of the house and tried to grab her clipboard. Joanne struggled to keep hold of it, so he shot her at point blank range. As she lay breeding to death on the floor, he tried again to take the clipboard from her, but with her dying grip she held onto it, so he shot her again in the head before fleeing the scene, leaving a dead Catholic girl and her blooded clipboard in the doorway.

Throughout the book Willie talks of the “fuck-up squad” who were IRA volunteers not quite under their leaders’ control, who seemed to do what they wanted, when they wanted, to whom they wanted. It was one of the said “fuck-up squad” who killed Joanne Mathers.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at first seemed to take on the IRA, but by the end of her premiership the Anglo-Irish Agreement had laid the foundations for later entry of the IRA’s political wing Sinn Fein into government.

What strikes this reviewer as rather odd is that on one hand Willie celebrates the election victory of a convicted IRA terrorist bomber, but on the other hand is saddened by the death of the young census collector, also at the hands of an IRA terrorist? So upset in fact, that he got on the phone to MI5 and asked to come back!

As it happens the number for his MI5 contact ‘Alan’ was dead, so Willie instead phoned the local Ebrington (British Army) Barracks and asked to speak to the Company Intelligence Officer. To cut a long story short Willie finally contacted the security services, but this time it was not MI5 pulling the strings, but a new mob called Force Research Unit (FRU).

The FRU were a secret unit of British soldiers exclusive to Northern Ireland, only formed a year or so earlier in the mid-1980s. The FRU did not appear anywhere on MOD directories and the entire operation was run behind the backs of most politicians. They had their own budget and the soldiers were officially posted (on paper) to the 14th Intelligence Unit, at Headquarters NI, often referred to as 14 Det. Their job was to collate the intelligence brought in by handlers, who in turn got information from their touts. Willie was set to become one such tout.

After checking out his story with his former employees at MI5 and delving deep into his colourful background, FRU eventually took him on as one of their Derry touts. However, they were warned to tread carefully by MI5 as Willie had shown republican sympathies in the past, and not least because he had told them he would work for them for nothing – something they had never encountered before. After all, their main recruiting method in British Ulster was blackmail, bribery and money. They had even considered that Willie might be a ‘plant’ intending to set them up!

Further into the book Willie talks about the battle between the IRA and their smaller more left-wing rival the INLA, who caused the Provos all sorts of problems, as they had no direct control over them or their actions. In the run-up to elections, the IRA would normally wind their activities down, so as to give Sinn Féin a better chance of picking up some of the more moderate Catholic voters. So, when the INLA blew up a pub just before election day, all that went up in smoke – if you pardon the pun.

Willie tells us about the tensions caused by republican funding (including large amounts from America) being constantly switched from the armed struggle to the political wing, as Sinn Féin started to grow. He details how much it really cost Sinn Féin to maintain its political presence across Northern Ireland. As head of finance in Derry Sinn Féin there are a few nuggets. For example, how the 1983 elections had a cool price tag of £300,000 and the network of advice centres in British Ulster cost the party at least £200,000.

He also details how Sinn Féin stole hundreds of votes in local council elections, and probably thousands in parliamentary and European elections, with their ‘vote early, and vote often’ campaign of stealing and personation operations, which won Sinn Féin many extra council seats which otherwise would gone to the SDLP. The rise of Sinn Féin in electoral terms signalled the demise of the more moderate SDLP.

The IRA benefited from left-wing sympathisers on the mainland including many of those who marched with the Troops Out Movement.

Willie tells us about the American visitors from NORAID to Derry, including Martin Galvin, to whom he took an instant dislike. “He (Galvin) bragged about how his fundraising was vital to the cause, as if we owed him something.” Willie does not mention if all the left-wing books had to be removed from the shelves of Sinn Féin’s Derry HQ (as they were in Belfast), before their American supporters, who were mainly right-wing conservatives, but who had a fanatical hatred of the English/British, arrived to look around.

We get to hear about the delegation of striking miners from the NUM, who came to Derry on a fund-raising mission in 1984. When the miners first arrived a lot of republicans could only identify with their accents and wanted to know why we were ‘hosting Englishmen’ in Derry. Willie organized some functions in local pubs, but they only raised a few hundred pounds, which hardly covered the cost of their trip let alone their drinking!

And in Derry city centre two whole days of rattling the white buckets only brought in £480. McGuinness was very embarrassed by this and dispatched Willie to the bank to withdraw £2,000, which he presented to the miners as a donation from the republican movement in Derry. This along with their donations from the Soviet Union, Colonel Gaddafi and the National Front, must have made the miners feel really proud!

Over in a pub on the Waterside, the miners met some of local IRA ‘fuck-up-squad’, including a guy known locally as ‘Curney’, who told the miners: “Listen to me, you’ve got to hit them in the balls. Stiff a couple of cops and you’ll tip the tables on them.”

Another IRA volunteer butted in: “He’s right, but if you get the weapons, don’t be shooting any cops on the picket line. What you have to do is send out scouts and find out where the fuckers live. Find out where their wives go and what school their weans go to, then turn up some morning and stiff two or three of the cops in their driveways. I promise you, Thatcher will shite herself and have a rethink.”

‘Curney’ later suggested to the miners that they talk to McGuinness about how to obtain weapons to kill the police back in England, which surprisingly one of them did. However, he was told by McGuinness that ‘industrial disputes’ were not the place for weapons, and the subject was dropped.

At least the striking miners got to stay in the homes of local republican families during their weekend visit to Derry, unlike the ‘English’ guests from London a year or so earlier to Belfast. A mainly black delegation from the ‘Brixton Defence Committee’ had been invited over by Gerry Adams to support a Troops Out/Anti-Internment march. At the end of the rally Adams asked for local republican families to put up their black comrades from Brixton in their homes for the night. As you can guess very few locals came forward to help, so a very embarrassed Adams had to hastily arrange for them to sleep on the floor at the Sinn Féin bookshop and advice centre!

One leading Belfast IRA gunman Ivor (‘Ding-A-Ling’) Bell, who later clashed with McGuinness over funds being diverted from the IRA to Sinn Féin, said he had nothing against the black comrades from Brixton, but could not possibly have them stay in his house as he had two teenage daughters there!

Willie tells us of the pride in the relationship he had with McGuinness, his fly-fishing analogy and that he got him to say the IRA had no weapons in Derry on Bloody Sunday (to his knowledge anyway). He got McGuinness to explain why the IRA’s mainland campaign did not include Scotland and Wales, who he viewed as fellow-Celts who were also under English/British occupation – although he criticised Scottish Republicans for not having the guts to fight back as the Irish were doing.

Willie also has a strange pride in his interactions with MI5 and later with FRU, and he has a pride in the achievements that were put down to his intelligence – and still more pride that Margaret Thatcher sent her ministerial jet to whisk him away from Northern Ireland and that she at a later date came to shake his hand.

The IRA’s main US fundraiser Martin Galvin (above left) with Martin McGuinness

Thatcher’s Spy is a ‘show’ rather than a purely ‘tell’ account of Willie’s time, first as a community activist then latterly as a rising star within Derry Sinn Féin. Refreshingly, for any book on ‘the Troubles’, he doesn’t bully the reader into believing what he wants them to think.

He picks up on early fears of the unpredictability of electoral politics and of McGuinness’s refusal to stand in the 1984 European election. He notes: “he and Adams suffered from the same illness, ‘fear of failure’, and he didn’t fancy another defeat at the hands of Blessed John Hume”, although Adams did stand for Sinn Féin in the Irish Republic and polled 4.9%, slightly ahead of the Workers Party (Official IRA) who polled 4.3%.

In McGuinness he saw someone with a cautious instinct “who obviously loved the chase and the tactics needed to win”. He takes issue with the idea that McGuinness himself was working with the British and insists on giving him the benefit of any doubt, even though he once spotted him coming out of an MI5 safe house – and whilst he goes on later to say he didn’t believe McGuinness was working for MI5, he more subtly explains a London-derived plan to protect McGuinness, his move to politics and move away from the ‘armed struggle’ and to enable his election.  Interestingly, on more than one occasion he introduces senior British officials who favoured a move to a united Ireland.

Reading Thatcher’s Spy will likely worry many Ulster unionists and British nationalists and perpetuates the question: “What really was McGuinness’s relationship with British Intelligence?” as there clearly was one. This is never answered, and will probably not be revealed in MI5 files for many years to come.

Extrapolating his Londonderry exposures province-wide would suggest the IRA and Sinn Féin were leaking like a sieve, and a good percentage of those with access to information were on the payroll of the state either working for the police, the army or MI5. That was at a time when Intelligence operations were immature: from the late 1990s on, operations became significantly more mature and probably remain that way even today.

Above the smaller detail, you also get a sense of British strategy. Willie (whilst planting one nugget of doubt) is adamant that he was merely encouraging the political branch of the Provisional movement to shift more quickly in a direction it already wanted to go in, i.e. electoral politics. McGuinness (and Adams) really did think – by the time of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 – that the armed struggle could not be won, but that by going down the electoral road Sinn Féin would be in power in British Ulster by 2021 – the 100th anniversary of the formation of Northern Ireland – as if nothing else demographics were on their side. They were damned nearly right.

Sadly for Gerry and co. this has not been the case, and Sinn Féin are still not in power in Northern Ireland, although they are the second largest party now. Although demographics are still on their side, the Catholic birth rate has slowed down since the early-1990s. Just as worrying for us, is that Sinn Féin are now also the second largest party in the Free State, having made significant gains in the February 2020 General Election; where they received the most first-preference votes, and won 37 seats (only one seat less than Fianna Fáil, who came first). It was the Sinn Féin’s best result since it took its current form in 1970.

Willie gives the impression that he regretted having to be extracted at very short notice when his handlers got word the IRA’s ‘nutting squad’ (who were also nick-named the ‘Headhunters’ – no relation to the Chelsea firm of the same name!) were on their way from Belfast to take him out. Although he escaped death himself the forced removal of his wife and children presaged a longer tragedy of exile, first in Sussex, then in Kent, before moving to Wales, and eventually ending up in Scotland (supporting the SNP!).

Thatcher’s Spy is well written, an easy read, accurately describing many incidents from a perspective that can only be from someone who was there and has a logical thread to many of the things he described that made me realise that there was a lot more to this book than my scepticism wanted to admit. I really enjoyed it and though I completely disagree with Willie’s politics I found it thought provoking and informative.

Reviewed by Mark Cotterill, Preston, Lancashire

This review was first published in Heritage and Destiny magazine, Issue #100, January-February 2021

  • Find By Category

  • Latest News

  • Follow us on Twitter