SAS hero Andy McNab shares Northern Ireland secrets
Now he has turned his novel Shadow Dancer – about The Troubles – into a movie thriller starring Clive Owen and Gillian Anderson.
The gritty film, which has had rave reviews, deals with the efforts of British undercover operatives to recruit IRA sources as informers.
Here, Tom talks to The Sun’s Security Adviser, Andy McNab, who worked undercover in Northern Ireland for 14 Intelligence Company – known as The Det – in the Eighties.
WHEN a little boy is killed in the crossfire of a gun battle between Irish Republicans and British soldiers, his sister Colette McVeigh’s path to a life of radicalism is set.
That is the shocking opening to the film Shadow Dancer — and 20 years on, as a single mother and active member of the IRA, she is arrested during a failed attempt to bomb the London Underground.
Colette, played by Andrea Riseborough, is presented with a dossier by MI5 officer Mac (Clive Owen) that reveals she has been under surveillance for some time.
She refuses to co-operate when she is shown photographic “evidence” that it was an IRA bullet that killed her brother.
Faced with the threat of years in prison away from her young son, she reluctantly agrees to turn informer, reporting to MI5 on the activities of her terrorist brothers.
As she and Mac become close, the MI5 man discovers that his boss (Gillian Anderson) may be using both him and Colette as pawns in a bigger game.
To former SAS man Andy, Tom’s gripping thriller was frighteningly familiar.
ANDY: “I really liked the film. I recognised straight away some of the motivations for the sources who turned.
“Colette’s motivation rings true. Women were the hardest to turn, and I never knew a woman do it for cash. It was almost always down to emotions.
“I remember one woman doing it because her mum had cancer and we could get her mum moved up the NHS waiting list.
“Other women did it because they had a son or a brother who was in an Active Service Unit (ASU) of the Provisional IRA and they agreed to inform in return for us trying to protect their men from getting killed by the security forces.”
TOM: “I remember a Special Branch guy telling me how one IRA man turned because his wife was having an affair with the local brigade commander. Another one because he was passed over for promotion.
“There were as many different reasons for turning as there were different people.”
ANDY: “I had about a 40 per cent success rate for turning targets.
“We would identify a weakness and work on it, getting together enough information until we could get the target in front of somebody from Special Branch or the Security Service to make the pitch.
“We set up one guy with evidence of his homosexuality, which was not a good thing in Derry in those days, and got him into the back of an RUC Land Rover where the SB guy made the pitch and threatened to expose him unless he turned informer.
“We thought we had got him and the guy said, ‘Go on, then.’ He called our bluff. That guy, you respect.”
TOM: “Would you say you respected those who said ‘No’ more than those who said ‘Yes’, even though those who said ‘Yes’ were taking an enormous risk?”
ANDY: “Yes but there was a hierarchy of those who said ‘Yes’.
“For the guys who did it for money there was no respect. They were despised. Would I have folded? Yes.”
TOM: “When you went on the streets trying to bring people in, personal chemistry was key, I suppose. As a member of The Det, I guess you grew your hair long.”
ANDY: “You had to look like you belonged. A housing estate on the Bogside was pretty much the same as a housing estate in south London, like where I grew up in Bermondsey, so, emotionally, you were tuned in to the environment. If I had grown up on the Bogside, I would probably have joined the IRA.”
TOM: “I was fascinated by the life-and-death relationship between the handler and source. As a handler, if you or they make one mistake, they are dead.”
ANDY: “It was always a priority to protect the source but it was not always successful.
“Take the sister of the ASU member who talks to you to protect him. If he gets killed on a job, it’s not as if she has got any recourse against you.
“You have to take into account the value of the information the source is giving you and where that source is going to be in the organisation in the future.
“If you have a low-level ASU member and you lose him, so what? You’ll get another. They were coming to us all the time.
“We were not worried about them. We were more worried about what they knew about us.
“We never called them ‘terrorists’ or ‘the enemy’. They were just ‘players’ because the whole thing was a game.”
TOM: “People talk about the very intense relationship between the handler and the source because the source’s life is in the hands of the handler.”
ANDY: “In many cases we would manufacture a situation where the source would be in danger and they would be passed to someone like me to get them out of it. Hopefully you would get even more information out of them because of the emotional situation.”
TOM: “Do you ever think about guys you brought in who didn’t make it?”
ANDY: “No. I have written them out of my mind. Everyone is called a player and if they f****d up, or they did not like it, they should not have got involved.”
TOM: “But sometimes it must have been your guys who f****d up.”
ANDY: “It is not a science. Sometimes sources got killed.”
TOM: “You had to balance keeping your source alive against keeping people on the streets alive.
“What I really wanted out of the movie was that sense of an emotional bond between the handler and the source.
“You might put yourself on the line to bring someone in and you run them — but somewhere a Gillian Anderson character is responsible for keeping the rest of us alive.”
“The way I wrote it, you sympathise with Mac but, intellectually, you identify with Gillian Anderson’s character because she is prepared to make the hard decisions and he is not.”
ANDY: “If you know there is an ASU shoot-out planned against a military patrol and you are not sure when or where, somebody has to make the decision whether you cancel that patrol and potentially compromise the source who tipped you off about the shoot-out.
“Since most of us in The Det were from the three services, there was a high chance we would know the guys who might be going on patrol, unaware they would be attacked.
“If it was to be a bomb attack, we could sometimes substitute an inert explosive device for the real thing and then the ASU internal investigation would be about the quality of the device when it did not go off.”
TOM: “Towards the end it seemed like an incredible number of terrorist operations were going wrong.”
ANDY: “All sorts of sources were giving up people on their own side because they wanted some dominance when peace did happen.
“To the Provisional IRA and the INLA, it was all business. They were controlling everything from drugs to extortion to taxis.
“Everyone was making huge amounts of money. People were thinking it was all going to crumble and that is where we had a big influence.
“Everyone was hedging their bets. That is why the kill rate went up towards the end.
“One of the reasons why peace negotiations were so easy and the transition happened so easily is because most of the hardliners who would have resisted were getting killed.
“It came to a point where when we were going in to pick up a source, there were so many different sources they almost collided.”
TOM: “The senior ones must have been hard to get. What about the IRA’s Army Council?”
ANDY: “They were totally penetrated. Right up to the top. Four of them were being run by the British. There was one Army Council member who had been run since 1985 by the security services.
“Unfortunately, the hardliners who were not killed — the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA — are now recruiting again.”
Shadow Dancer is in cinemas from August 24. Andy McNab’s new book, Battle Lines, is published by Bantam Press at £18.99.