By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
Informers, agents and spies have been a part of Irish society for as long as the British government have been occupying Ireland.
They have been found in all walks of life, in all classes, in all sectors and in all organisations with complementary and competing political allegiances.
Prior to partition when Britain’s occupation covered the entire island there was not one democratic or progressive movement dedicated to the independence of this country free from an informer paid out of the British purse.
Informers were particularly active at high points in the independence struggle -they dogged the 1798 Rising and Emmet’s rebellion in 1803.
They frustrated various uprisings, agrarian and urban during the 19th century and were alerting a slumbering administration in Dublin Castle to the rumblings of the 1916 Rising.
Michael Collins ensured his agents at the heart of the Dublin Castle administration were more than a match for those hired by the British and swiftly dealt a devastating blow to the British crown forces.
Collins’s squad simultaneously shot 14 British intelligence officers, known as the Cairo gang, a deed widely believed to have influenced the British government to talk with De Valera and Collins; talks which led to the Treaty, partition, civil war and the British crown forces withdrawing from the 26 counties.
A recent publication, The Secret RUC Police Ledgers, based on RUC intelligence files from the 1920s, 30s and 40s, highlights the extensive network of informers the RUC’s Special Branch had in place, particularly in Belfast.
The informers were spying on republicans, trade unionists, communists, the Orange Order and various unionist and loyalist organisations.
In Ireland’s long history of trying to achieve independence the existence of informers on all sides of the conflict is an unpalatable fact of life.
The British intelligence agencies view every organisation, especially republican, as worthy of infiltration. They also consider everyone is worth approaching as a potential recruit.
There is probably no phase in Irish history where informer and agents have played such a role as the one we are passing through now.
Informing is a deadly business. Those caught have often paid with their lives or were expelled from their community and country.
During the armed conflict lives were lost as a result of the activities of informers.
However, the reality is that informers have had very limited impact on the struggle for independence especially at times when that struggle has had significant popular support.
The movement towards an independent republic which began in the late 19th century continues to move inexorably towards that end.
Informers failed to stop the withdrawal of the British forces from the south of Ireland.
They failed to stunt the growth of the IRA from the early 1970s onwards and have had no effect on the electoral growth of Sinn Féin.
The recent by-election in Dromore, where Sinn Féin almost doubled its vote, is a clear indication of that.
Informers are an irritant, an occupational hazard.
They have existed on the margins of the IRA or Sinn Féin and occasionally when one was significantly placed their information rarely altered the balance of forces between republicans and the British government and the direction the IRA or Sinn Féin intended taking.
Informers should be seen not just in a military frame but also in a propaganda one as well.
With the advent of the peace process the value of informers is not in the information they are passing on but when they are publicly revealed.
Revealing informers is about trying to demoralise republicans and nationalists; trying to place doubt in their minds that the struggle they are involved in, which has achieved so much change, is not worth the sacrifice involved.
The all-Ireland power-sharing administration which is functioning today at Stormont is a far cry from a one-party unionist state where military, economic and political power was in the hands of unionists only.
That administration owes its origins to the combined pressures and expectations of republicans and nationalists.
These expectations are the motor for further change ultimately leading to a united Ireland.
That is the mission in front of republicans.
They are too busy to be distracted by the fantasies of informers and their handlers.