Recent events in Rossport fit into a long pattern of surveillance and harassment of campaigning groups by the "secret state" - as the record of Britain's MI5 shows.
For those who don’t allow the O’Reilly press to frame their understanding of the world, events in Mayo over the past couple of months have raised some disturbing questions about the Irish state and its agencies. One opponent of the Shell pipeline has been savagely assaulted by masked men, while another has had his boat sunk at gun-point. If the state was concerned to uphold the “rule of law”, as it claims to be, it would be reacting to such violence against people and property with great urgency.
In fact, the victims of the recent attacks have been greeted with a wall of indifference. The Irish police and army deployed in the area have continued to act as if the main threat to legality comes from anti-Shell protesters whose restraint in the face of violent provocation has been nothing less than remarkable. Laws have been bent and broken by those charged with enforcing them in order to facilitate Shell, while the Gardaí have worked hand-in-hand with a private security firm whose own staff should be facing close scrutiny by the lads in blue. The evidence which has already come to light of misdeeds in Rossport may be just the tip of the iceberg.
To put the Mayo controversy in context, it’s useful to have a look at the record of MI5, responsible for domestic intelligence operations in the UK. There has been far more investigation of MI5 than of Irish agencies like Garda Special Branch, army intelligence or the Ranger unit, so there’s a lot more evidence in the public domain. Former heads of MI5 have also gone on the record about the force’s role in countering “domestic subversion” - their catch-all term for political dissent which threatens the status quo. By looking at the recent history of MI5, we can probably learn a lot about the thinking of Irish police, military and intelligence agencies when they are assigned to deal with political campaigning groups, not least because those agencies have worked closely with the British state for many years in “counter-terrorist” operations. And since MI5 remains active on Irish soil, having recently constructed a massive base in County Down, its actions should be of great interest to us all.
There has been a steady trickle of revelations about domestic targets of MI5 in the past couple of decades. Files were opened on at least 3 senior Blairite politicians - Peter Mandleson, Jack Straw and Harriet Harman - during their early careers in the Labour Party. Whistle-blowing former agent David Shayler reported that the agency even maintained files on “subversion in contemporary music”, keeping a baleful eye on such threats to national security as UB40, Crass and the Sex Pistols. In his book The Enemy Within, journalist Seumas Milne documented an extraordinary dirty-tricks campaign directed by MI5 against the miners’ union during the 1984-85 strike, which included running agents at a high level in the union leadership.
MI5 has clearly been stung by the criticism it has received in the light of such exposures. Its website includes a section on “Myths and Misunderstandings” (1), which contains the following passage:
“It has often been alleged that, in the past, we systematically investigated trade unions and various pressure groups, such as the National Union of Mineworkers and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. We have never investigated people simply because they were members or office-holders of trade unions or campaigning organisations. But subversive groups have in the past sought to infiltrate and manipulate such organisations as a way of exerting political influence. To meet our responsibility for protecting national security, we therefore investigated individual members of bona fide organisations when there were grounds to believe that their actions were ‘intended to overthrow or undermine parliamentary democracy by political, industrial or violent means’. We investigated the activities of the subversive groups, but not the organisations they sought to penetrate.”
This requires a bit of translation, as MI5 has given itself a lot of wriggle room in this carefully hedged rebuttal. Note, for starters, the admission that members of the miners’ union or CND were indeed kept under surveillance. This is justified on the basis that “subversive groups” were trying to “infiltrate and manipulate” trade unions and campaigning organisations. The definition of “subversive” is conveniently elastic: the miscreants don’t have to be engaged in violence, “political or industrial” activity which MI5 deemed to pose a threat to parliamentary democracy would have been enough to qualify. We can assume, then, that members of legal political organisations which had not taken up arms against the state, such as the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party, would have been considered legitimate targets for surveillance. No attempt is made to define “infiltration”: if a union member was elected as a shop steward because of her hard work and organisational skills, and happened also to be a member of a socialist group, this would presumably qualify as an act of infiltration requiring MI5’s attention.
Most slippery of all is the claim that MI5 never kept tabs on “bona fide organisations”, just the “subversives” within their ranks. It should be immediately obvious that this is a spurious distinction: if you spend months or years tapping the phones, opening the mail, and otherwise monitoring the behaviour of an alleged subversive who holds a prominent position in a union or a campaign, you will inevitably acquire shelf-loads of material about the broader organisation. The plain truth is that MI5, as a central part of Britain’s Cold War military establishment, would have been implacably opposed to the open political goals of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which challenged the NATO alliance at one of its key links. It is very hard to believe that the agency would not have taken advantage of opportunities to undermine the work of CND or other dissenting groups.
MI5’s avowed concern to defend “parliamentary democracy” against subversion should not be taken at face value, either. Stella Rimington, the first female boss of MI5, recently defended the operation against the miners’ union which she had personally directed: “If the strike is led by people who say they are trying to bring down the government, our role [is] to assess [them].”(2) It’s certainly true that Arthur Scargill wanted to see the end of Margaret Thatcher’s government, and made no bones about it: the immediate goal of the strike, however, was to defend miners’ jobs and the communities that depended on those jobs. Such concerns probably did not appear very important to the MI5 top brass, whose place in the social elite was secure.
The implication of Rimington’s statement is that MI5 would react with equal concern to any attempt to bring down the government of the day, whether that government was Labour or Tory, radical or conservative. The evidence suggests otherwise.
THE WILSON PLOT
When Harold Wilson served as Labour prime minister in the 1970s, Britain entered a period of social unrest marked by an unprecedented wave of strikes. According to the former MI5 agent Peter Wright, a paranoid clique of MI5 staff convinced themselves that Wilson and the German chancellor Willy Brandt were Soviet agents trying to destroy NATO from within. They embarked on a campaign of destabilisation recalled by Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian:
“MI5 men burgled the homes of the prime minister’s aides, bugged their phones and spread black, anti-Wilson propaganda throughout the media. They tried to pin all kinds of nonsense on him: that his devoted political secretary, Marcia Williams, posed a threat to national security; that he was a closet IRA sympathiser ... the great and the good feared that the country was out of control, and that Wilson lacked either the will or the desire to stand firm. Retired intelligence officers gathered with military brass and plotted a coup d’etat. They would seize Heathrow airport, the BBC and Buckingham Palace. Lord Mountbatten would be the strongman, acting as interim prime minister. The Queen would read a statement urging the public to support the armed forces, because the government was no longer able to keep order.”(3)
It may sound like the plot of a thriller, but Harold Wilson himself was in no doubt about the potential threat to his government. Journalist Barrie Penrose later recounted his conversations with Wilson after he had resigned as prime minister:
“Wilson spoke darkly of two military coups which he said had been planned to overthrow his government in the late 1960s and in the mid 1970s. Both were said to involve high-ranking elements in the British army, eager to see the back of Labour governments. Both involved a member of the Royal Family - Prince Louis Mountbatten.”(4)
Such fears need to be placed in the context of Britain in the 1970s, when it was a far more troubled society than it is today. The British army was fighting an all-out war in the North of Ireland, while the growing power of the trade union movement was considered intolerable by business leaders and their political allies. Proposals by the Labour industry minister Tony Benn to introduce elements of planning and industrial democracy into economic life were denounced as a plot to establish a Soviet Britain. Against that background, it is very likely that sections of the British establishment considered the option of subverting Wilson’s government if it went “too far”. And MI5 officers, far from intervening to defend parliamentary democracy against subversion, were right there in the thick of it.
One remarkable thing about this episode is that Harold Wilson was firmly on the right wing of the Labour Party: he defended the NATO alliance, supported the American war in Vietnam, and opposed calls from the Labour Left for sweeping nationalisation of industry. A Labour government headed by a more radical figure like Tony Benn would surely have prompted a much sharper response (it was this prospect that led the Labour MP Chris Mullin to pen his novel A Very British Coup in the early ‘80s). In any case, the campaign against Wilson’s government represented far more of a challenge to parliamentary democracy in Britain than any of the left-wing groups deemed “subversive” by MI5, but there was no sign of the agency stepping in to protect the elected government against the threat it faced.
There can only be one explanation for the double standards: MI5, like most state institutions in a capitalist society, is under the command of people who slot neatly into the upper class. If they weren’t born to privilege (and often they were), they have certainly won themselves a place among the cream of society by climbing the ladder to the top and acquiring the income and status that come with such elevation. It has always been very easy for the British upper class (like its counterparts elsewhere) to convince itself that its own interests are synonymous with the rule of law, national security and the democratic way of life. So a Tory government confronting militant trade unions will receive full-blooded support, while a Labour government facing businessmen and army generals can go hang.
THE WAR ON CLOWNS
So what’s changed? According to MI5, “the subversive threat to parliamentary democracy in the UK is now negligible and we have no current investigations in this area”. It would be wise to take this claim with a pinch of salt: MI5 may simply have passed responsibility for tackling “domestic subversion” to other state agencies. The Cold War is certainly over, but legislation introduced after 9/11 has increased the power of the British state to spy on its citizens, and the technology available to do so has greatly improved.
With the Soviet Union gone, opportunities to smear people as “communists” or “Moscow agents” are much more limited, but there’s a new discourse to justify the criminalisation of protest. Non-violent civil disobedience is cynically conflated with violence and terrorism: breaking the law, we are told, is itself a form of violence, and laws now on the statute book make any form of effective protest potentially illegal. In practice, the only demonstration considered legitimate by the British security establishment is one that can be ignored:
“The National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (Netcu) is the police team directing the fight against extremists. To illustrate the threats it confronts, the Netcu site carries images of people marching with banners, of peace campaigners standing outside a military base, and of the Rebel Clown Army (whose members dress up as clowns to show that they have peaceful intentions). It publishes press releases about Greenpeace and the climate camp at Kingsnorth, in Kent. All this, the site suggests, is domestic extremism.”(5)
This discourse would certainly have transformed Martin Luther King into a criminal and presented the US civil rights movement as a conspiracy against legitimate authority. And it provides ample justification for any police, army or intelligence agency that wants to spy on “domestic extremists”.
It doesn’t take much imagination to apply the lessons from Britain to the Irish experience in Rossport. There, too, a legal campaign using non-violent methods of protest has been denounced as a criminal conspiracy led by subversive elements bent on overthrowing the state. The labels used have been different. Green-baiting has more resonance in Ireland than Red-baiting, so the Shell 2 Sea activists have been vilified for receiving support from republicans. But the goal has been essentially the same: to justify the use of repressive methods, from phone-tapping to baton-charges, against the citizens of a supposedly democratic state.
The opponents of Shell in Mayo have faced this campaign of intimidation even though their core demand poses no direct threat to the social order in Ireland: if Shell was required to build an off-shore pipeline, its profit margins would be reduced, but our political and economic systems would not be affected in any drastic way. It says a lot about the subordination of the Irish state to corporate power that nobody appears to have contemplated stepping in and requiring Shell to compromise with local residents.
Progressive activists of all kinds should be asking themselves: if the forces of “law and order” in this state are willing to go to such lengths in coercing Irish citizens on behalf of a multi-national company, even when the stakes are relatively low, how might they react to a much broader movement for change?