True Spies Episode 31: Blood on the Waterside
NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?
This is True Spies Episode 31: Blood on the Waterside.
WILLIE CARLIN: It was one of those moments when I knew I was going to die. No doubt whatsoever. This is it.
NARRATOR: This is the story of one man’s secret role in ending one of the most intractable conflicts of the 20th century. He still can’t quite believe it.
WILLIE CARLIN: I had come from being a young boy growing up in the Creggan estate now being betrayed by the KGB and British intelligence.
NARRATOR: It’s a story that begins in a deprived housing estate in the city of Derry, Northern Ireland. It ends in the corridors of power.
WILLIE CARLIN: I thought: “Jesus Christ, you couldn't make this up.” My name is Willie Carlin and I worked for MI5 and the FRU from 1974 to 1985.
NARRATOR: Willie Carlin played a vital undercover role in the Northern Irish peace process during the conflict known as ‘The Troubles’.
WILLIE CARLIN: I was born in Derry in Northern Ireland.
NARRATOR: The Troubles, which spanned 30 years and left thousands dead or maimed, scarred the social fabric of Northern Ireland. The politics of The Troubles are complex, to say the least. Let’s get a handle on the basics. Republicans, drawn mostly from Northern Ireland’s Catholic community, believe the north should merge with the existing Republic of Ireland in the south. Loyalist or Unionist factions, largely made up of Protestants, believe in the union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The Provisional Irish Republican Army - better known as the IRA - had orchestrated attacks against official and civilian targets in Northern Ireland and England since 1970. In the towns and cities of Northern Ireland, the IRA was engaged in guerrilla warfare against the British Army. No one was immune.
WILLIE CARLIN: The Army came into my estate. Oh, it was a nightmare. They beat people up. They threw people out of doors that they wrecked... oh, it was awful.
NARRATOR: And there’s one more thing you need to know. The British Army was supported by paramilitary groups like the Ulster Volunteer Force, the UVF for short. We’ll meet them a little later on. Willie’s story begins a decade before The Troubles began.
WILLIE CARLIN: We had a great life. I mean, people look back and say it was terrible... but, my father had a job. He was one of very few.
NARRATOR: This was in 1965, three years before violence erupted in Derry.
WILLIE CARLIN: So going off to join the Army was a pretty standard thing that Derry people did because our fathers had been in the Army.
NARRATOR: Willie was from a Catholic family. During the Troubles, the British Army would have been an unlikely job option. But at that time, signing up to defend the union was a well-established path out of poverty. Willie was stationed in England, and adjusted well to military life, rising to the rank of Sergeant. But by 1974, he was ready to bring his young family home.
WILLIE CARLIN: I made an inquiry about going home through my sister, just to see [if it] would be safe enough because my wife wanted to go back to Derry.
NARRATOR: Safe enough, his sister replied. Willie knew the city he had left nearly 10 years previously was a very different place from the one he would return to. In the intervening years, the city had split along religious and geographic lines. On the west bank of the River Foyle, ‘the Derry side’ was home to the city’s Catholic majority. On the opposite bank stood the Waterside, a Protestant stronghold. Willie decided to take his chances.
WILLIE CARLIN: And the next thing I knew…
NARRATOR: He received a phone call from an unknown caller. He asked to meet.
WILLIE CARLIN: And this gentleman pulled up in a Mercedes car, introduced himself, and said to me that there was an opportunity for someone to go to Derry and work undercover and I seen it as... I don't know... exciting.
NARRATOR: The gentleman’s name was Alan Rees-Davies, and he worked for MI5 - Britain’s domestic intelligence service. He made his pitch: “Listen to me. We’re not looking for an SAS type. On the contrary, we’d prefer it if you didn’t get involved with gunmen. We’re interested in the politics of the Troubles.” MI5 wanted intel on Sinn Féin, the political wing of the paramilitary movement, in direct opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s government’s official policy of non-negotiation Elements within British intelligence knew that the only way to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict was to open up a conversation with the Irish Republicans. But information on the inner workings of the party was hard to come by. You needed to be Catholic. And you needed to be local. This is where Willie came in.
WILLIE CARLIN: I mean, I was going to leave anyway and go home to Derry. So I thought: “Well, why not?”
NARRATOR: Willie’s particular set of skills would allow him to embed himself in the fabric of Derry’s Catholic community. As a teenager in Derry, he’d enjoyed lending a helping hand to friends and family in his area. He’d helped draft letters, attended court proceedings, and acted as a go-between between local residents and council services. And during his time in the Army, he’d proven himself as handy with a pen as he was with an assault rifle.
WILLIE CARLIN: You know, soldiers rights and writing a magazine and stuff. So I think maybe they seen that in me.
NARRATOR: Willie returned to his home city, and moved into a house on the Gobnascale estate in the Waterside. A small Catholic enclave in an overwhelmingly Protestant area. As you can probably imagine, that fact alone meant trouble.
WILLIE CARLIN: You could see on a daily basis there were riots, there was stone-throwing, there were petrol bombs.
NARRATOR: And Willie’s secret status as a British agent didn’t shield him or his family from the violence - on either side.
WILLIE CARLIN: I was at home one day and a neighbor knocked on my door and said: “Look, I think the army are in your mother and father's house.”
NARRATOR: Raids by the British Army were a regular part of life for Catholics in Derry. The vast majority were speculative. If the army had so much as an inkling that weapons or IRA members were being harbored at a private address, then they were fully authorized to act. And as Willie was about to discover, they were under no obligation to be respectful.
WILLIE CARLIN: On this particular occasion, I went over to my mother and father’s. I mean, the soldiers had been in the house, had been upstairs. They'd virtually wrecked the place. I remember, they took my father's medals, his war medals, and threw them out the window. And they'd been in my sister's room and they had a dog with them, a sniffer dog, and it peed on the stairs on the way down.
NARRATOR: The raid had failed to bear fruit but Willie had a sneaking suspicion that there was no smoke without fire. His sister, Doreen, had a strange look on her face.
WILLIE CARLIN: And when they left, I said to my sister: “They didn't just come here for nothing.”
NARRATOR: His sister smiled and picked up a box of talc from the detritus that littered her bedroom. She tipped it out. A plume of white powder coated the carpet, and two bullets bounced to a halt. Willie’s jaw dropped. Doreen broke the silence: “They’ll have to get up early in the morning to catch me. And they’ll need a better sniffer dog than that.”
WILLIE CARLIN: Back then my sister was not unlike many young girls. She operated in a way that she was a gun carrier.
NARRATOR: Doreen, it transpired, was a member of the Cumann na mBan, the women’s IRA. Her role as a gun carrier worked like this: a young Republican would collect his weapon from a safe house, fire a few shots at his target, and flee the scene before he could be captured or killed. He would find Doreen or someone like her. Doreen would take the weapon or ammunition and the IRA man would disappear. Doreen would bring the contraband home, concealed beneath her maxi skirt. Sometimes a gun would be hidden beneath a baby’s buggy. Nobody suspects a young mother. This is the reality of guerrilla warfare. Nobody is exempt and nobody is above suspicion. Even so, excluding his sister, the next three years were fairly uneventful in terms of intelligence Willie could provide.
WILLIE CARLIN: Obviously I was able to give them the information that I was more involved in the community - and that they liked.
NARRATOR: As MI5 had predicted, he’d naturally become something of a community organizer, stepping in to advocate for his neighbors when they had issues with the local authorities. One night in 1977 his role suddenly became rather more involved.
WILLIE CARLIN: I was at home one night and my neighbor came and said to me: “Listen, this young fellow next door... I think he's looking for you but he knocked on my door by mistake. He said he'd been over to your father's looking for you so I brought him in.”
NARRATOR: The young man who appeared at Willie’s doorstep was a nervous wreck. He managed to get himself together long enough to make a mumbled introduction. His name was Shorty.
WILLIE CARLIN: So I sat him down and my wife and I spoke to him and said: “Look… “ First of all, we thought it was girlfriend trouble or something and he couldn't get back to the Derry side.
NARRATOR: But Shorty had bigger problems than girl trouble. On the evening of February the 2nd, 1977, a man called Jeffrey Agate was shot outside his home by IRA gunmen. Agate was the managing director of the DuPont chemical factory in Derry. By the late 1970s, the IRA was flirting with a new, anti-capitalist ideology. Their belief at the time was that any company that contributed to the Northern Irish economy was, in essence, helping the British and, therefore, the enemy. And it looked like Shorty - although he may not have been the one who pulled the trigger - had been at the scene of the crime. On his way home, he’d become lost on the hostile Waterside.
WILLIE CARLIN: And he went to my father's house looking for my sister Doreen.
NARRATOR: Shorty had come looking for a safe place to hole up until the heat died down. He might have found that with Doreen. Willie wouldn’t be so accommodating, especially when the young man began to take his hospitality for granted.
WILLIE CARLIN: At the end of the day, I had to get rid of him because he became mouthy. He wanted to go to the pub.
NARRATOR: In terms of security, Shorty was a powder keg. It would only be a matter of time before he blew up. As you might expect, Willie’s first instinct was to contact his MI5 handlers.
WILLIE CARLIN: I remember phoning up and arranging a meeting and I said: “Look, this guy's at my house. It clearly had something to do with Jeffrey Agate, go and get him.”
NARRATOR: MI5 were pretty unequivocal in their response. They would not be taking care of Shorty. Think it through. Say the police arrive at Willie’s house... how would that go? First off, he’d probably be arrested for harboring a terrorist. MI5 wouldn’t be able to help him without blowing his cover. And don’t forget, word spreads quickly in the small Catholic community on the Waterside. Rumors would abound that the cops had been tipped off about an IRA fugitive and Willie would be suspect number one. No, the British couldn’t interfere. This had to be dealt with internally, and in Derry there was only one man with the clout to solve the Shorty dilemma.
WILLIE CARLIN: I spoke to my sister and she organized me to go over to where Martin McGuinness lived, and I'd heard of him but I'd never met him.
NARRATOR: You may also have heard of Martin McGuinness, one-time head of the IRA’s Northern Command - a big man in Derry. Willie arrived at McGuinness’ front door. He knocked and waited. The door opened. He crossed the threshold.
WILLIE CARLIN: And this man that was supposed to be a terrorist had a baby on his knee and a pink nappy pin in his mouth.
NARRATOR: But don’t be fooled. This cozy vision of domesticity belied the very real power McGuinness wielded in the city. Willie explained his issue with Shorty. McGuinness reassured him that things would be taken care of. That night someone knocked on his door. Shorty was collected by one of McGuinness’ men and spirited away to a more convenient safe house.
WILLIE CARLIN: And that was the end of my first introduction to terrorism.
NARRATOR: The shooting of Jeffrey Agate was a watershed moment for Willie. Agate had been well-liked and his death was mourned throughout Derry by Catholic and Protestant alike. The senseless brutality of the act triggered a wave of disgust in the city and Willie was no exception. He was more certain than ever that he was doing the right thing by helping British intelligence and as the years went on, his ability to do that increased.
WILLIE CARLIN: People came to me for help in filling out forms and stuff. And then, funnily enough, people from Sinn Féin, young men who were in Sinn Féin, came for me to help them as well with whatever difficulties they were having. So I got to know them quite well and there was a sort of a trust built up.
NARRATOR: Now at this point Willie wasn’t officially part of Sinn Féin but his list of contacts within that organization was growing and so, in turn, was his influence in Derry. That was good news for his MI5 handler, a man called Ben.
WILLIE CARLIN: I met him in 1980 and he was a strange wee character. I mean he... it's funny to say he didn't look like a spy, but then what does a spy look like? But he looked like a school teacher with corduroy trousers, tweed jacket.
NARRATOR: No, Ben didn’t look like a spy. And he didn’t really act like one either.
WILLIE CARLIN: When we first started out, he was okay. But then it became clear to me that he was... he was drinking all the time.
NARRATOR: Ben’s drinking made Willie nervous. In the early months of 1980 they met semi-regularly to discuss the mood among the Catholics on the Waterside. Each one of these meetings, at Ben’s request, took place in a pub or hotel. His alcoholism would sometimes make him behave erratically.
WILLIE CARLIN: And he scared me because he started to sing rebel songs.
NARRATOR: A tweedy English gent, belting out anti-British rebel songs in a plummy accent? Not a good look, not anywhere, but especially not in the sectarian tinderbox of Derry. And that wasn’t the worst of it.
WILLIE CARLIN: And I found him a couple of times drunk in the car. I found him once outside Martin McGuinness' house sitting in his car.
NARRATOR; Put yourself in Willie’s position. You’ve worked for six years to build a reputation in Derry and now your handler - one of the so-called ‘brains’ of your operation - is putting everything at risk, sitting drunk in his car outside the house of one of the most important figures in the IRA. Would you soldier on or cut the cord?
WILLIE CARLIN: And I remember phoning up London and said: “This man is going to get me killed. I don't want anything to do with him.”
NARRATOR: Surprisingly, MI5 didn’t share Willie’s concern. After all, it wasn’t their life on the line. They told him that it wasn’t unusual for their agents in Northern Ireland to enjoy a little tipple just to take the edge off. After all, it was a stressful environment for a visitor. Perhaps, they said, all Willie needed was a little break.
WILLIE CARLIN: So they brought me to London just to relax and... and... and get away from Derry for a while. I mean, they took me to see The Mikado in a theater, and they took me to St Paul's cathedral. Oh, God…
NARRATOR: Two MI5 officers took Willie out for a slap-up meal at the Park Lane Hilton, one of London’s most exclusive hotels. One of the officers was Alan Rees-Morgan, the man who had originally recruited him. The other was a woman who introduced herself as Paula. At first, Willie assumed she was a secretary.
WILLIE CARLIN: Now it was odd because Alan was more kind of: “How's the family?” and all this kind of stuff, whereas this woman, Paula, wanted to know about Martin McGuinness, and about guns and: “What do you think? And how many, many gunmen do you think live in your area?” It was all: “And what are their names?” And I remember thinking: “You're no bloody secretary.”
NARRATOR: It would be years before Willie saw the inquisitive ‘Paula’ again.
WILLIE CARLIN: I seen her photograph in the paper when it was announced for the first time ever that the head of MI5's photograph was taken. And it turned out that Paula was actually Stella Rimington.
NARRATOR: That’s the Stella Rimington who became the first female head of MI5. Looking back, it seems likely that MI5 knew they were on the verge of losing Willie, hence the somewhat aggressive line of questioning from Rimington. They were right. A trip to the theater and a little fine-dining was not enough to mollify his concerns about his handler. Willie put his foot down - either Ben went or he did.
WILLIE CARLIN: I remember it was just before Christmas in 1980. I decided that I'd had enough.
NARRATOR: Willie arranged his final meeting with Ben. The MI5 agent handed over a plastic bag containing £2,500, Willie’s wages for the past few years of intelligence. The atmosphere was tense. Ben didn’t know why Willie had decided to move on but some instinct told him it was more personal than the Irishman was letting on. Eventually, Ben was recalled to London, where he continued working for MI5. This isn’t the last you’ll hear of him. In the meantime, Willie was a free agent. So, what next? Would you pack up, head back over to England? Extricate yourself from the violent world of the Waterside? What if it wasn’t that simple?
WILLIE CARLIN: But of course, you see, the strange thing was having left MI5 I now found myself involved in The Troubles, involved in the community work, involved in Sinn Féin.
NARRATOR: He couldn’t exactly pick up and leave. He’d spent years becoming part of the community and he’d become an invaluable resource to local Sinn Féin activists. Surely they’d be suspicious if he simply disappeared?
WILLIE CARLIN: So in a funny sort of way I ended up getting more involved after I left MI5 than what I had been when I was in MI5.
NARRATOR: In 1981, his life in Derry became even more closely entwined with Sinn Féin. He took part in the election of the first Sinn Féin candidate to run for Parliament during The Troubles: Bobby Sands. Sands was an incarcerated IRA member who was leading a hunger strike from the Maze Prison, outside Lisburn. His protest, which centered around rights for IRA prisoners in the Maze, struck a chord with the wider Catholic community - not just diehard Republicans. When a Northern Irish Member of Parliament died unexpectedly, Sinn Féin decided to run Sands as his replacement in order to capitalize on his popularity. With the help of some textbook vote-rigging practices, Bobby Sands was elected by a narrow margin. Willie and his fellow ‘community activists’ had made the difference for Sinn Féin. It was a vital move in legitimizing the Irish Republican movement and bringing them one step closer to the negotiating table. But the Sands campaign wasn’t the only political event that shook Northern Ireland in 1981.
In that year, the British government took a census to keep track of the size of the population, as well as their religious and political affiliations. Harmless enough, you might think. In fact, Sinn Féin and the IRA were opposed to the census. They feared the information that the government gathered could be used to identify Republicans, which could lead to targeted harassment by the Army. In their eyes, census collectors were now legitimate targets for violence. One day in 1981 Willie was visiting his parents on the Gobnascale estate. Suddenly, his mother broke away from their conversation. She’d spotted a young woman approaching the house crying. They invited the woman inside and made her a cup of tea. Through her tears, she explained that she’d knocked on a door at the end of the street, and the man who answered informed her in no uncertain terms that if she didn’t leave the area he would kill her.
WILLIE CARLIN: And I thought: “Christ, this girl's a census collector.”
NARRATOR: Her name was Joanne Mathers. She was a young mother who had been paid £5 a day by the local authorities to collect census information in Willie’s area. This shouldn’t have been an issue. Remember, the Waterside was largely populated by Protestant Unionists who had no such reservations with the census. As it turned out, she’d made a wrong turn and ended up in the midst of an IRA stronghold.
WILLIE CARLIN: So we calmed her down, got her tea, and I said: “Look, you need to leave and go down the street and go to Irish Street. That's that place there on your clipboard marked in Green. And it's only a couple hundred yards.” And as she was leaving, I said: “Look, there's a house down there... you may well get a census form from her because she hates Sinn Féin and she hates Republicans.”
NARRATOR: The young woman smiled and made her way along to Willie’s neighbor’s house. As Willie had predicted she got her form. Maybe this buoyed her confidence. She decided to try one more house - no sense in a wasted journey.
WILLIE CARLIN: And she knocked on the door and as he opened the door a gunman came from around the back and shot her in the head. And she kinda crashed in through the door and I remember running… and ran down the street and went up the steps and into the house. It was... it was terrible. There was blood everywhere soaking in the carpet. There was blood splattered on the wall and the wee girl was still holding the clipboard.
NARRATOR: In Derry, sometimes the difference between life and death was the width of a row of houses. This is a difficult memory for Willie. He had witnessed a senseless tragedy. The IRA’s public response to the shooting pushed him over the line. They claimed that the British Army had staged the shooting to delegitimize Sinn Féin’s political ambitions.
WILLIE CARLIN: And when that happened, I thought to myself: “Do you know what? I'm gonna get back in touch with MI5 because this is wrong. This is definitely wrong what happened to that girl. She wasn't… she wasn't a soldier.”
NARRATOR: Willie made the call to MI5. Unsurprisingly, the number he dialed had been deactivated so he tried a different tack. As an ex-soldier, he figured that the Army barracks in Derry might provide him with a route back to British intelligence.
WILLIE CARLIN: I made the phone call. They asked me to phone back the next day. I phoned back the next day and he asked me to meet someone, and I met someone called James, and that turned out to be my kind of introduction into the Force Research Unit.
NARRATOR: The Force Research Unit, also known informally as ‘The Froo’, was a covert military intelligence unit. At first, they were suspicious. They usually recruited assets through bribery or blackmail. It was highly unusual for a Derry Republican to offer up his services for no reason.
WILLIE CARLIN: But they decided, they... we'll give it a go and see how far we get.
NARRATOR: After all, any insight into Sinn Féin and the IRA’s activities in Derry was better than none. And Willie was well placed to deliver it. He had recently become officially involved with Sinn Féin in the city. He’d even caught the attention of Mitchel McLaughlin, the chairman of the party in Derry. McLaughlin introduced Willie to Martin McGuinness and was surprised to discover that they’d already met. A day later, he made his way to the party’s Derry headquarters on Cable Street. He was met in the lobby by a prominent Derry Republican who asked him what he was doing there.
WILLIE CARLIN: I says: “I've come over to spy on you, to see what youse are doing over here.”
NARRATOR: I’ve come over to spy on you. They do say that all the best jokes contain a seed of truth. He was in. Willie had secured access to the nerve center of the Republican movement in Derry. He had joined the party at an exciting time. By 1982 Martin McGuinness, having long since distanced himself from the IRA - in public, anyway - was running for a seat in the Northern Irish Assembly. For Willie’s handlers at the Force Research Unit this was good news too.
WILLIE CARLIN: So what I call men in gray suits. They were very, very clear when I met them, once they brought them to see me and they said: “Look, do anything you can to get this guy elected because that way it becomes sort of official. And then people will have to talk to him.” Whether they do or not is not the point. The point would be that he would be no longer regarded as an anathema to all this process. He'd be part of the equation and part of the solution.
NARRATOR: Sinn Féin put their electoral machine into motion. McGuinness was elected. Public perception of Sinn Féin was changing. What had once been a pale shadow of the IRA was coming into its own as a political force. But that’s not to say that it wasn’t still very much entwined with its paramilitary counterpart - violence was still an inescapable part of the Republican movement in Northern Ireland. In the summer of 1983, Willie was overseeing the construction of a park for young people on his estate. A visit to the site office threw up an unpleasant surprise.
WILLIE CARLIN: I was in my office one Friday afternoon locking up and I went next door - to which is the joinery workshop - and there were ArmaLite rifles and bandoliers of bullets, and I thought: “Jesus Christ.” You know?
NARRATOR: And the guns were just the tip of the iceberg. A small shopping bag had been tucked away in the fireplace. Cautiously, Willie walked over to it. He crouched down and reached out for the bag. In the silence of the empty office, he could hear a clock ticking. Funny. No clock in the office. He opened the bag. Wires ran between two batteries which were bundled in with a clock and a block of white clay-like material. Another set of wires ran down behind the grate of the fireplace.
WILLIE CARLIN: It was one of those moments when I knew I was going to die. No doubt whatsoever. This is it.
NARRATOR: Gingerly, Willie used a pen to try and lift the bomb out of the fireplace. His heart was pounding. Then the clock fell over. It wasn’t attached to the explosive. He lifted the wires. They went nowhere either. The bomb wasn’t primed. And… breathe. Okay, so you’re not dead. That’s a plus. But now it’s decision time. You’ve seen first-hand the damage these weapons can do. On the other hand, if you report these weapons to your handlers, you risk blowing your cover. After all, there’s only a limited number of people with access to the building site, and if you try to spirit them away you might run into one of your friends in the IRA. They’d have some questions. What would you do? Willie decided on a compromise. He’d take the bomb to British Army barracks in Derry. His conscience wouldn’t allow him to risk that kind of carnage. At the Barracks, bomb disposal dealt with the device. Then, they set about putting together a plan to remove the other weapons.
WILLIE CARLIN: So I let my people know in Ebrington Barracks, and I said to them: “Look, the best time to do this would be 3 am, 4 am Saturday morning when all the people who were out in the pub the night before were all sleeping. And that'll be the best time to do it.” And of course, they did the opposite.
NARRATOR: What happened next was a textbook example of why you should always listen to your sources - especially if they know the area of operations significantly better than you do.
WILLIE CARLIN: I mean, up they went that night... just before midnight when all the pubs were getting out. I mean, really stupid.
NARRATOR: Two SAS men in plain clothes had made their way to the site hoping to seize the weapons. They didn’t go unnoticed. A crowd had gathered outside the wire fence around the building site. The two soldiers were in a dire situation. Fortunately for them, Willie arrived on the scene before the locals took matters into their own hands. Stones were already flying. Without thinking of his own safety, Willie dashed toward the trapped soldiers who were trying their utmost to scramble over the fence under a hail of abuse.
WILLIE CARLIN: I remember grabbing one of them by the leg and saying: “Look, you need to get out of here or you're going to get killed.” Now at the time, IRA volunteers were watching and they mistook what I had done as trying to catch the guy and bring him down to the ground, which I didn't. I was trying to get him out of there.
NARRATOR: To the assembled crowd, it looked like Willie had made a heroic attempt to apprehend the intruders. His reputation inside Cable Street was assured for now. By 1984, Willie had become an indispensable part of Sinn Féin’s operation in Derry. He’d risen to the position of treasurer and was able to give his Force Research Unit handlers invaluable insights into the inner workings of the Party: who thought what, who was arguing with who, and so on. He was even entrusted with driving Martin McGuinness to various meetings when his regular driver was unavailable. It was a huge responsibility but a fruitful one. Willie was able to chat to McGuinness on a personal level, eking out nuggets of information that might otherwise have never come to light. Here’s an example: on one road trip they were discussing the return of Willie’s relatives from Glasgow, Scotland, to Derry. Up until now, they’d been making small talk. Now, Willie saw the opportunity to tackle some meatier subject matter.
WILLIE CARLIN: Is there any reason why the IRA have never done anything in Scotland? You know? Now, I was chancing me arm there because he normally doesn't like them type of questions. And he says: “Well, I wouldn't know what the IRA says, but looking at it, I would take the view that the Scottish people are Celts, like ourselves. They've had their rights denied from time to time. In fact, there's a lot of Irish Catholics in Glasgow and a lot of Catholic policemen in Glasgow. And it would be going against the grain to put a bomb in Scotland.”
WILLIE CARLIN: Now, I didn't realize how significant that piece of information was because when I passed that on to James - he was my handler at the time - they went straight out of the room and it turned out to be one of the best pieces of information they had.
NARRATOR: Scotland’s cities were home to a large Irish Catholic population who had their own rivalry with Scottish Protestants and hereditary links to Ireland. The risk of this sectarian tension bubbling over, Derry-style, was a threat that Westminster had to take seriously. British military intelligence had just had it confirmed that Scotland was unlikely to be an IRA target. So what did Willie’s intel mean? For a start, the government could pull the majority of their anti-terrorist squad from Scotland, saving time and resources. Without the threat of violence, the local police can tread more lightly, improving community relations with Scottish Catholics. As far as policy went, this off-hand comment was hugely significant at a time when mainland Britain lived in fear of the next IRA attack. Any suspicions that the Froo had about Willie had long since evaporated. He’d proven himself to be a valuable asset and he’d be the first to admit that he was feeling supremely confident in his position, too. But if you’ve tuned in to True Spies before you’ll know that there’s no such thing as an untouchable agent. In 1985, Willie found that out the hard way.
WILLIE CARLIN: I remember being at home one evening and went over to me mother's, and my cousin was there, Evelyn. And what she told me was that her husband, Dougie McElhinney, had been in the UDR, was no longer in the UDR, and wanted to know if this amnesty was still in place.
NARRATOR: In a past life, Dougie McElhinney had served in the Ulster Defense Regiment, a division of the British Army with a reputation for extrajudicial violence. In a rare conciliatory gesture, the IRA had set up an amnesty for former UDR men, protecting them from retaliatory violence. Now Dougie’s wife Evelyn was reaching out to her well-connected cousin to ensure that this was indeed the case. It wasn’t a casual request. Evelyn was scared that the IRA might be after her husband.
WILLIE CARLIN: Dougie has been followed a couple of times in his car and he thinks it's the IRA and they're gonna kill him. And he's no longer in the UDR, and he wants to know if that's still okay. Okay, so... I said: “Well leave it with me.”
NARRATOR: Willie asked around. A contact in the IRA assured him that nobody from their organization was tailing Dougie.
WILLIE CARLIN: And I said then that: “There's nobody looking for you. You're safe enough.” And when I left, I went home, told me mother as well because she liked Evelyn. Let her know that everything was well and the next night Dougie was shot dead getting out of a van. And I thought: “Jesus Christ.”
NARRATOR: No, the IRA hadn’t been following Dougie but another Republican group, the Irish National Liberation Army, had been. The INLA were smaller in scope than the IRA but noted for their bloody and often poorly planned spurts of violence. The consequences of this oversight were deadly, and not just for Dougie. One night at the Cable Street headquarters, one of Willie’s Sinn Féin colleagues delivered a chilling warning. He had it on good authority that a Loyalist paramilitary group blamed Willie for the death of Dougie McElhinney. They thought he’d set the ex-UDR man up for a fall and, living on Derry’s Waterside, Willie was surrounded by Protestant Unionists. He was an easy target. Troubled, Willie headed home. A couple of nights later, he was driving around the Waterside and passed a Loyalist estate.
WILLIE CARLIN: And a car came out behind me. Never thought anything of it.
NARRATOR: As Willie drove, a bus turned the corner ahead of him. Its headlights illuminated the car behind him. The drivers were wearing masks. Whoever was following him, they weren’t on a social call. Time to kick things up a gear.
WILLIE CARLIN: So I drove into the estate and drove like hell out into the countryside and… changing gears like some kind of mad rally driver. And the car that was chasing me came out from behind me and I could hear thuds in the boot of the car. These guys were firing at me and I thought I was dead.
NARRATOR: Willie hammered the accelerator. He saw an opportunity, a small gap between a truck and an oncoming bus. He gripped the steering wheel. Now or never.
WILLIE CARLIN: And the bus nearly clipped the back of my car. The car that had been following me was stuck behind a lorry.
NARRATOR: Willie rolled into a car park, knuckles still white against the leather. He parked the car and ran under some bushes. He waited. Another car entered the lot. It performed a slow circuit of the area. Headlights scanned the darkness. Finally, it turned to leave.
WILLIE CARLIN: And I went home and just waited.
NARRATOR: As it turned, there would be very little time to catch his breath. The next night, the phone rang. It was a handler from the FRU: “We need to see you tonight.”
WILLIE CARLIN: “I'm seeing you Wednesday.”
NARRATOR: “No. Tonight.” Willie arrived at the barracks and took a seat. A high-ranking Force Research Unit officer entered the room.
WILLIE CARLIN: And he said to me: “Listen, I have to tell you something. Your cover has been blown and we need to get you out of here tonight. You need to go home and tell your wife and tell her that she'll need to leave along with you because if she doesn't she'll be tortured.”
NARRATOR: The room faded away as the officer spoke. The IRA were on their way to pick Willie up. Now he had Republicans and Unionists after his blood. If he left Ireland without his family his wife would surely be tortured. His decade in the shadows was over. If he wanted a life beyond it he needed to listen closely.
WILLIE CARLIN: And I said: “Well, how can this be?” And that's when he said to me: “I'm going to tell you something now and I'll deny it if you ever repeat it. But the man you used to know as Ben is in fact, a man called Michael Bettaney.”
NARRATOR: Ben. Remember Ben? Bumbling, drunk Ben, a man who he hadn’t seen for five years? The officer continued.
WILLIE CARLIN: When he left the north of Ireland they put him, funnily enough, on the Russian desk because that's what he studied at Oxford.
NARRATOR: During Ben’s time on the Russian desk he’d become involved with the KGB, spying for the enemy. He began working with a Russian called Oleg Gordievsky. As it happened, he’d chosen his friends poorly. Gordievsky was himself a British spy, embedded in the KGB to undermine their operations. He’d turned Ben in. Ben was imprisoned on espionage charges. During his time in jail, he met an IRA prisoner. With nothing to lose and no love for Willie he had given his name away.
WILLIE CARLIN: Now, it's been well known for a long time that there was someone in the IRA who was the head of what was called the ‘Nutting Squad’. These were five guys specially selected because they were ruthless, who dealt with IRA treachery.
NARRATOR: The Nutting Squad was famously brutal. Their task was to root out, interrogate and execute IRA volunteers who betrayed the Republican movement - people like Willie. But there was a strange irony at the heart of the squad: a mole. His codename was Stakeknife and he worked for the Force Research Unit too.
WILLIE CARLIN: And if he was going somewhere to do a job or interrogate somebody, when he could, he would phone up and say where he was going to and who he was going to see. And he would assume that when he got there the person - if the person had anything to do with the FRU - they wouldn't be there.
NARRATOR: Stakeknife had tipped off the Froo. Remember, the IRA knew where Willie lived, where he worked, where he drank. He had to disappear. Now. With the help of the Froo, the extraction happened quickly. Willie and his family were rushed to RAF Aldergrove, north of Belfast. No time to pack, no time for goodbyes. But it wasn’t until the Carlin family arrived on the tarmac that the gravity of the situation and his role with the Force Research Unit really hit home.
WILLIE CARLIN: And, uh, I was quite shocked. There was Mrs Thatcher's ministerial jet sitting there. It had been laid on specially to bring me and my family out of the north, which I found very strange. And I often wondered: “Why would this woman send a plane to get me?”
NARRATOR: Good question. As it turned out, Willie’s intelligence had been circulated to the highest echelons of the British Home Office. His insights about Sinn Féin and the IRA’s attitudes and activities had been crucial to forming a picture of the situation on the ground in Derry. The family relocated to Brighton under new identities but Derry hadn’t forgotten about Willie Carlin.
WILLIE CARLIN: My mother, mother-in-law, was talking to my wife one night and she asked to speak to me. This is when we had first been extracted and I thought: “Oh, Jesus. She's going to get at me about taking her daughter away from Derry.” But she said to me: “Listen, Martin McGuinness was over here last night along with another man.”
NARRATOR: McGuinness had wanted to deliver a message, an olive branch, as it were.
WILLIE CARLIN: What actually happened was he asked my mother-in-law to ask me to come back. That's what actually happened and that I could phone at any time and they were... they could see to it that I... Martin's famous words: “I will do everything I can to see to it that you are safe.”
NARRATOR: Read between the lines: “I will do everything I can.” Would you take McGuinness’ word for it? Willie, understandably, didn’t take him up on the offer. Today, he’s still looking over his shoulder. The Provisional IRA officially disbanded in 2005, but newer, younger groups have taken up the mantle. Even so, these new groups lack the scope, organization, and ambition of the IRA at the time of The Troubles. The ‘armed struggle’, as they described it, is more or less over - notwithstanding a few sporadic outbreaks of violence in the north over the past few years. In 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was signed by representatives of the British government, the Republic of Ireland, and the major political parties active in the north. The agreement brought a delicate kind of peace to the region. It comforts Willie to think that he might have played a part in making that happen.
WILLIE CARLIN: If they ever strip away the peace process... down at the bottom, on the ground they'll find a brick with my name on it. I would do it all again tomorrow.
NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another encounter with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.
Willie Carlin joined the British Army in 1965 and was recruited by MI5 in 1974, and later the Force Research Unit. His job was to infiltrate Sinn Féin at the height of ‘The Troubles’. Carlin built up close contacts with Martin McGuinness, becoming one of Britain's most valuable long-term agents in Northern Ireland, but Carlin worried his cover might be blown by an unstable British handler who liked to drink on the job. Was Carlin risking too much?