One of the best placed British agents inside the Provisional Republican Movement is dead.
Willie Carlin died of complications arising from a Covid-19 infection on Monday 6th February. He is survived by his wife and child from a second marriage.
I first met Willie in 2018 when I interviewed him for my critically acclaimed book, Agents of Influence: Britain’s Secret Intelligence War Against the IRA, published by Merrion Press in 2021.
Willie impressed me.
We connected on a human level. He liked to tell a yarn or two about Derry, a place I had a fondness for after living and working there in 2007-08.
It was our shared interest in Irish history and politics and my fascination with his silent war against the Provisionals that drew me into further conversations and correspondence with him.
I had decided to write a book about Britain’s secret intelligence war against the Provos after sharing a platform with a former senior Intelligence Officer at an event in London in the Spring of 2016. He spoke informatively about the strategy by which Britain had sought to defeat the IRA’s ‘armed struggle’. I wanted to know more and so embarked on a mission to track down former intelligence operatives, agents and their handlers.
“It was never a war of win or lose – that wasn’t the purpose,” a retired senior RUC Special Branch officer told me in an interview. “You don’t set out to eradicate terrorism in a military sense – it is about rendering it incapable of pursuing its violent ideology.”
“And the principal method for achieving this outcome?” I asked.
“The capacity of two or three well-placed agents to have a disproportionate effect well beyond their number ‑ you infected the organisation, triggering paralysis.”
Willie Carlin was key to spreading that infection inside the Provisionals.
For 11 years between his recruitment by MI5 in 1974 and his exfiltration by the British Army’s Force Reconnaissance Unit (FRU) in 1985, Willie Carlin was in the front line of Margaret Thatcher’s war on terrorism.
Willie quickly became a key component of the intelligence attack against the Provisionals, particularly in the wake of the hunger strikes.
His sister’s involvement in Cumann na mBan and his close association with IRA chief Martin McGuinness soon gave him a ringside seat in the secret intelligence war in Ireland. Through his long-term deception, Willie Carlin was partly responsible for setting the Provos on the path to political engagement that ultimately undermined their armed struggle and saw them embrace the ballot box.
I successfully lobbied the British Government for the declassification of secret documents relating to Carlin’s reporting on the Provos.
It took several years for the material to be released.
Later, I obtained a copy of the document where Carlin is described as ‘one of our best placed agents in Northern Ireland.’ There was even a handwritten annotated note by a senior official in Defence Intelligence to Mrs Thatcher informing her that ‘The agent in question was a senior official in Sinn Féin who was compromised by Bettaney’.
Carlin’s handler, Michael Bettaney, was an alcoholic and fantasist who was sent by MI5 to Derry to handle Carlin after Carlin’s original handler was promoted.
Carlin temporarily walked away from MI5 because he harboured ‘serious concerns’ about Bettaney’s fitness for duty. He came back in from the cold after the Provisionals murdered young Protestant mother-of-one Joanne Mathers. Carlin would be handled by the FRU, specialists in operating behind enemy lines, for the remainder of his time as an agent.
Bettaney was later caught in a sting operation passing secrets to the Soviet KGB. It was said that Bettaney had grown disillusioned with his superiors and, some later claimed, converted to Communism.
After his imprisonment for breaching the Official Secrets Act, Bettaney subsequently shared information with an IRA prisoner about Carlin and the Service’s work in Derry that would lead to Carlin’s eventual exfiltration and resettlement.
It always struck me that my conversations with Willie Carlin had rekindled his interest in his career as a spy at the heart of the Republican Movement. He used to refer to this as ‘being in the zone’ and claimed he had come out of the shadows because he believed the time was right to tell his story. He said he wanted to pass on the lessons he had learned in his life for the benefit of posterity.
However, I could see that ‘being in the zone’ had even driven him to question the very foundations upon which he had committed his treachery.
Sometime in 2019 Willie returned to Derry to make peace with his past.
His sister was dying of cancer and the Provos had allegedly given him safe passage.
I cautioned him against such a course of action though he claimed he was ‘in the zone’ and nothing would deter him.
I did not learn of the full truth of his secret mission until I myself returned to Derry on a fact-finding trip in the summer of 2021.
My early meetings with Willie Carlin left me so enthralled by the significance of his contribution to the secret intelligence world in Northern Ireland – and that he had written his memoir – that I introduced him to my Publisher who would eventually publish Willie’s Thatcher’s Spy: My Life as an MI5 Agent within Sinn Féin. The late journalist and former Ireland Editor at the Guardian and Observer, Henry McDonald, was tasked with editing Willie’s manuscript.
I will eventually get around to writing more about Willie Carlin’s role in future blog posts and in other writing. Suffice to say that while he may well have shared some secrets in his extensive interviews with me and in his autobiography, I always got the feeling he was prepared to carry many more to his grave.
Perhaps that was his greatest deception of all?