Reviews

AGENTS OF INFLUENCE: BRITAIN’S SECRET INTELLIGENCE WAR AGAINST THE IRA (MERRION PRESS, 2021)

‘[W]ow, this book is very very clever… Whether you have served in an intelligence role in Northern Ireland or not, one thing is certain, as an intelligence officer you will have heard the stories… Agents of Influence is one of the most cleverly put together telling of those stories, with the detail carefully weaved around other accounts already in the public domain, but much of it is new and the research behind it is exceptional… His book gives a very clear understanding of the ways the different intelligence organisations worked and the often-differing priorities and the seeming lack of coordination in many cases, that I know is accurate… What is very clear from his detailed research, not just with those who ran the agents, the handlers, but many agents themselves, is the level of penetration there was across the republican movement both within their paramilitary units and their political structures… This is a fantastic read with excellent insights!’ – Colonel (Ret’d) Philip Ingram MBE, former Commanding Officer of 1 Military Intelligence Battalion, British Army, Grey Hare Media Blog

‘Edwards… believes secret intelligence acted as a lever to subtly push the Republican leadership towards peace. He details how intelligence operations supported the UK’s overall political strategy through the use of “agents of influence.” The book’s major contribution is its description of the human aspects of intelligence operations… As to the question of their effectiveness, like Edwards, I believe that agents of influence made valuable contributions to, if not resolving the conflict, at least bringing it to the peace table. If, as some say, the war was at an impasse and both sides were open to negotiations, undercover operatives working behind the scenes were still important to strengthen the hand of IRA leaders who saw that a political resolution was preferable to continued conflict… This book highlights a difficult and contentious period of UK history. With great detail and accuracy, Edwards has given us an important account with deep insights into how a coordinated intelligence program was key to containing the IRA. One wonders if UK policy-makers have continued such operations to forestall future violence. If not, they should’ – former senior CIA case officer and author James Stejskal, Small Wars Journal

‘In his latest work Agents of Influence, [Aaron Edwards] brings a ‘gimlet eye’ to one of the most contested and still emerging issues of the internecine conflict that blighted these Islands, namely the role of Informers, the so-called agents of influence and what role they played in helping bringing about the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement (1998) that brought peace to this Island… Edwards in this seminal work has done much to shine a light into this clandestine and often unsavory world of conflicted loyalties. What Edwards highlights in this forensic analysis that while a honed academic piece reads more like a John le Carré thriller, is to show that the number of senior republicans who became informers, the agents of influence of the title; demonstrated that penetration was successful up to and including the highest echelons of PIRA and Sinn Féin. He also highlights that despite how the Security Forces developed an almost Orwellian technical surveillance capacity, their most valued resources throughout the conflict remained human intelligence (Humint), provided from within PIRA/Sinn Féin’s own ranks. Edwards is also careful to guide the reader through the often-convoluted evolution and development of the British Intelligence effort and highlights how one of the biggest impediments in this “War in the Shadows” was inter- service rivalry that took years de-conflict and hone into an integrated and coordinated system that critically was key to the containment of PIRA. The agents of influence were one of the keys that allowed the social and political stars to be aligned that made it possible for PIRA to engage in dialogue that would ultimately lead to a negotiated political settlement of the ‘Troubles” – Dr Rory Finegan (Commandant Ret’d, Irish Army), An Cosantóir

‘Aaron Edwards’ latest book Agents of Influence provides a new contribution to this key debate… Agents of Influence contributes some enjoyable key features to the debate. Firstly, it provides a detailed explanation of the UK state’s intelligence mechanics during the Northern Ireland conflict, highlighting the subtle differences between agencies. The in- depth understanding demonstrated is a welcome contribution to the field, and complements the work of Christopher Andrew. Edwards, like others before him, shines a light on the difficulties in coordination between different UK intelligence agencies from 1979 onwards. Moreover, he indicates that these issues were partly due to institutional competitiveness and different outlooks. Secondly, the book successfully showcases the challenges the intelligence agencies faced regarding the running of informers and agents. It highlights the ethical questions and debates surrounding informers and agents, and the challenges of balancing those concerns within the conflict. Indeed, the book implies that further guidance from politicians was needed in this field. Finally, Edwards’ range of new interview material used throughout the book is a standout feature… Regardless of whether readers agree with Agents of Influence’s overall view of the impact of intelligence on the IRA, the book is a useful contribution to the field. It provides a nuanced understanding of how UK intelligence agencies operated, contributes to the debate surround- ing the role of intelligence during the Troubles and provides a wealth of new material, particularly that provided by former UK intelligence operators and self-confessed IRA agents’ – Eleanor Leah Williams, Journal of Intelligence History

‘Willie Carlin, Freddie Scappaticci, and other less well-documented informers – and what they did from 1980 through to the peace process – are examined here. Most interestingly, Edwards asks why they would do it… One of the more interesting assertions made by Aaron Edwards is that as well as using the information to try to find arms dumps or to foil planned bombings and shootings, they also used the information to prevent two assassination attempts on Gerry Adams and to keep close tabs on Martin McGuinness… Edwards contends that the British saw from long before the peace process that Adams and McGuinness were gravitating towards the political and away from the armed struggle… An interesting, keenly researched, and at times extraordinary insight – that some will undoubtedly find contentious – into deeply troubled and all-too-recent times’ – Liam Heylin, Irish Examiner

‘The descriptive detail is impressive and the narrative compelling, illuminating
the human dimension tremendously well… This is a highly readable book which paints a detailed picture of human intelligence. It could go further in demonstrating its key point – although proving causation in such matters is notoriously difficult. Perhaps most importantly, this latest addition to the debate shows the vibrant state of academic research on this difficult and sensitive topic’ – Rory Cormac, International Affairs

‘Agents of Influence is a forensically detailed account of Britain’s intelligence operation in Northern Ireland, from 1979 when prime minister Margaret Thatcher made it a top priority to 1997 when the fighting effectively stopped. Edwards, a Belfast-born historian, has made excellent use of recently declassified British government files on the subject. Most impressively, he has also got personal testimony from three MI5 moles… Agents of Influence skilfully untangles the complex web of spooks who flitted between British security, the Northern Ireland Office, the army and the RUC… Did this kind of espionage persuade Sinn Féin to give up violence? Commentators are still arguing, but Edwards makes a strong case that republican leaders eventually realised they could not plug all leaks… In a strange sense, however, Sinn Féin also had reason to be grateful for perfidious Albion’s spy ring’ – Connolly Books

‘Like Edwards’ other books the greatest strength lies in the painstaking attention to detail & the piecing together of complicated, often confusing, & sometimes very long, threads of evidence… [A] fascinating & rewarding read’ – Alex Kane, Belfast Newsletter

‘Having previously penned UVF: Behind the Mask – one of the definitive books about loyalist paramilitaries during the troubles – Aaron Edwards’ latest book takes a look at the British intelligence war against republican paramilitaries in the late ’70s and ’80s.

Agents of Influence is an incredibly well-researched tome. Featuring interviews with informers within republican paramilitaries, as well as former RUC and Army officers, Edwards sheds new light on how the IRA was coaxed towards peace, as well as how the Army sometimes got things disastrously wrong in their NI operations.

With plenty of books covering the events of the troubles – the bombings, the political moves, the peace process – Agents of Influence takes a greater look at the hows and whys, giving us plenty of new revelations’ – Belfast Live

‘Mainstream republicans and some academics have disputed what impact agents and informers actually had on the IRA’s capacity to carry on its campaign. Edwards’s valuable research does reveal important intelligence failures, and the turf wars between Special Branch, the army and MI5… Edwards’s thesis is not that the IRA was infiltrated and betrayed into defeat; its campaign could have continued with diminishing effects for some years. Rather it is that the intelligence war played a decisive role in strengthening those in the IRA leadership who wanted a ceasefire’ – Professor Henry Patterson, The Sunday Times

‘Edwards sheds some new light on the activities of “agents of influence” – individuals described by MI5 as “unsung heroes… subject to control and direction”. He describes in some detail activities and claims of prominent IRA individuals, including members of the IRA’s internal security unit, its “nutting squad”, and the relationship between Willie Carlin, MI5’s spy within Sinn Fein, and Martin McGuinness as the former IRA commander made his journey to his election as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister. The author rightly points to the destructive rivalry between the different intelligence-gathering agencies of the British security state — the RUC’s special branch, the army’s Force Research Unit (FRU) and MI5′ – Richard Norton-Taylor, Declassified

Agents of Influence is a forensically detailed account of Britain’s intelligence operation in Northern Ireland, from 1979 when prime minister Margaret Thatcher made it a top priority to 1997 when the fighting effectively stopped. Edwards, a Belfast-born historian, has made excellent use of recently declassified British government files on the subject. Most impressively, he has also got personal testimony from three MI5 moles… Agents of Influence skilfully untangles the complex web of spooks who flitted between British security, the Northern Ireland Office, the army and the RUC… Did this kind of espionage persuade Sinn Féin to give up violence? Commentators are still arguing, but Edwards makes a strong case that republican leaders eventually realised they could not plug all leaks… In a strange sense, however, Sinn Féin also had reason to be grateful for perfidious Albion’s spy ring. One of Edwards’s most striking discoveries is that on at least two occasions, Special Branch actually saved Gerry Adams from being assassinated by loyalist gunmen. The British were apparently afraid that Adams would be replaced by someone more extreme and less receptive to a democratic solution… Until recently, it was possible to buy a T-shirt from Sinn Féin’s online shop with the slogan “IRA – Undefeated Army”. This coolly factual and important piece of research suggests that the truth is much more complex’ – Sunday Business Post

UVF: Behind the Mask (MERRION PRESS, 2017)

‘Great historians are good storytellers and Aaron Edwards belongs in this class. His account of the modern UVF’s history is told without embellishment. Facts are carefully woven into the troubles’ historical tapestry … UVF: Behind The Mask is an excellent addition to the written history of the troubles’ – Martin Dillon, veteran journalist and author of the Northern Ireland Troubles, from his Foreword to UVF: Behind the Mask

‘This excellent new work from historian and author Aaron Edwards recounts the turmoil of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in Northern Ireland and the re-establishment of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force in 1965, and their reign of terror in the decades that followed… Belfast born Aaron Edwards who lectures at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst has written a number of books and is a very gifted individual as he, with this book and his others, has the ability to take a highly complicated, controversial and often overlooked subject and write a highly readable and authoritative study. This is an excellent addition to the written history of the troubles. Well worth getting’ – Paul O’Brien, An Cosantóir

‘The style of the narrative of the book may not be to everyone’s taste but there is no doubt that Edwards has had access to the UVF that other historians have not had in the past, and it serves a real purpose in charting the activities of an organisation that struck fear into the Catholic community’ – Andersonstown News

‘UVF: Behind the Mask offers a history of the loyalist paramilitary organisation… told largely through interviews with its members, [focusing]… instead on the often overlooked efforts of those loyalist leaders who worked to forge a peaceful future’ – Stephen McCafferty, Irish Times

‘This remains a very valuable contribution to Troubles literature: a well-written, thoughtful and occasionally uncomfortable look at what was once a key player within loyalism’ – Alex Kane, Belfast Newsletter

‘This book, a culmination of almost twenty years of research, provides a comprehensive new history of the Ulster Volunteer Force (U.V.F.), from its reincarnation in the mid-1960s to the present day. It is a necessary read for anyone interested in the Northern Ireland Troubles… Undoubtedly, the single greatest strength of this book lies in Dr Edwards’s ability to gain intimate access to leading figures within the U.V.F. and compile a substantial oral history… It is for this reason alone that Dr Edwards’s book is invaluable in helping to preserve of our recent history’ – Stephen Kelly, Irish Historical Studies

‘Edwards goes beyond the policy and rhetoric of the conflict, instead exposing the humanity of the hostilities through a cast of characters driven by pride and faulty logic; men and women who were more at home teaching schoolchildren or driving a cab than behind the barrel of a gun’ – Celtic International

‘This is a highly informative, authoritative and well-written account of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF)… from the 1960s to the current era in Northern Ireland’ – Joshua Sinai, Perspectives on Terrorism

‘I have no doubt that… this new book by Aaron Edwards will be seen as the definitive history of the loyalist paramilitary grouping known as the Ulster Volunteer Force’ – Hugh Jordan, Sunday World

‘Aaron Edwards’ work is easily the best account of this little known but possibly most successful terror group of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’’ – Jim Cusack, Irish Independent

MAD MITCH’S TRIBAL LAW: ADEN AND THE END OF EMPIRE (MAINSTREAM/TRANSWORLD BOOKS, 2014)

‘This book is not merely a much needed study of “Argyll Law”. It also seeks to place the “Mad Mitch” story within the wider context of events in Aden… The real strength lies in the vast array of new evidence collected for the first time. Through painstaking research, Edwards has pooled together many interviews with the veterans, and their relatives. We are presented with the views not only of military personnel, but also of colonial administrators, journalists and our former Arab allies, from the ruling sheikhs to soldiers who fought alongside the British… Edwards’s depth of research gives the reader a strong sense of the human element of the conflict. This is particularly the case regarding Mitchell himself, who is depicted as a much more complex individual than previously recognised by historians… It is a book for anyone interested in the history of imperialism, of Scotland and of a regiment engaged in its own war on terror’ – Scotsman

‘The research effort to create this is stupendous. Aaron Edwards has accessed a vast volume of material and an extensive range of direct informants… Edwards has produced a book that will be a treasure to military historians… This is a fascinating book on several levels. As a piece of thoroughly researched history, drawing mostly from army sources, it provides a valuable account of the political and military thinking during the last days of a colony’ – Malachi O’Doherty, Irish Times

‘Mad Mitch’s Tribal Law is an excellent account, with many avenues previously neglected given the attention they deserve’ – Colonel (Ret’d) David Benest OBE, Royal United Service Institute Journal

‘This is a book with a bit of everything – narrative and analysis, pace and detail, villainous politicians and heroic fighters… Strongly recommended…’ – James Spencer, The British Yemeni Society Journal

‘A masterly and evocative portrait of Mad Mitch, an unorthodox but revered and quintessentially British leader. Absorbing, vivid and grippingly written, this is a tale of the end of empire but also a story of fighting men battling on despite a lack of political strategy in London; as such it resonates and holds important lessons for today. With Yemen once again a hotbed of violence, this book could not be more timely’ – Toby Harnden, Washington bureau chief of the Sunday Times and author of Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and the Defining Story of Britain’s War in Afghanistan, winner of the Orwell Prize for Books

‘A vivid, balanced portrayal of the rise and fall of British imperialism in a fascinating part of the world’ – Ian Cobain, formerly at The Guardian and now at Middle East Eye, author of Cruel Britannia and The History Thieves and winner of the Martha Gellhorn Prize