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Spying on Ireland

Review by: Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon,University of Arkansas

Eunan O’Halpin, Spying on Ireland: British Intelligence and Irish Neutrality During the Second World War, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). xxi, 335 pp.

In his latest study of Anglo-Irish relations, Eunan O’Halpin has produced what will surely be regarded in time as the classic text on British intelligence in Ireland during the Second World War; it is a work to which reference will have to be made before any future monograph on the subject can progress. Using archival material from a plethora of official and private collections, many documents from which are being cited for the first time, O’Halpin convincingly shows that British intelligence pursued a dual strategy in Ireland from 1939 to 1945, on the one hand developing “what became almost a full alliance” with Irish intelligence in matters of “security and counter-espionage, and aspects of wireless interception and codebreaking,” while on the other hand engaging in “aggressive black propaganda against Irish neutrality” (p. 300). To make his case, O’Haplin moves beyond the narrow constrains of Anglo-Irish relations to instead “place British dealings with Ireland in the wider context of the challenges facing British intelligence generally” (p. vii). The result is a work that speaks equally to Irish history, the history of British intelligence, and the history of the Second World War, and which deserves to be on the shelves of every serious scholar of these subjects.

In his first chapter, “Britain’s Irish security problem, 1922-1939,” O’Halpin discusses the ambivalent constitutional position that the Irish Free State (later Éire) held in regard to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth in the interwar period. In particular, O’Halpin discusses the unique difficulties British intelligence encountered in targeting a potentially subversive dominion, problems not faced with the more obliging Dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. He argues that intelligence gathering in Ireland was generally neglected because of these challenges. Consequently, on the eve of the Second World War, “British intelligence knew precious little about Ireland” and “British agencies were equally ignorant about Irish politics” (p. 44). Chapter two, “Phoney war, phoney spies: September 1939-April 1940,” explores British intelligence in neutral Ireland during the phony war, when all of western Europe waited with bated breath to see when, where, and even if Hitler’s next moves would come following his invasion of Poland. It shows that British concerns were dominated by the myth of German submarines refueling in isolated Irish bays. In general, however, until the fall of France, Ireland was of second-rate importance to British war planners, and the quality of intelligence-gathering in Ireland was, therefore, “not high” (p. 86). In his third chapter, “Invasion fears: May 1940-June 1941,” O’Halpin addresses British intelligence in Ireland from the fall of France to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, a time period when “Ireland suddenly became of vital importance” to the British government (p. 88). By the end of these thirteen months, “Anglo-Irish security liaison had developed well in most respects . . . and the quality of intelligence on Irish affairs had improved markedly” (p. 162).

The fourth chapter, “From Barbarossa to Torch: July 1941-December 1942,” details the shift in the British perception of Irish neutrality from being a strategic problem to being a security problem and gives special attention to the issue of the German legation radio in Dublin. From July 1941 onwards, there was no longer serious fear of a German invasion of Ireland; instead, the question became: “how could the leakage of war information through Ireland be minimized?” (p. 213) This question continues to be asked in the fifth chapter, “Preparation for Overlord: January-December 1943,” in which O’Halpin explores the year that saw British intelligence break the German diplomatic codes and the German legation in Dublin hand over its radio set to the Irish authorities. Consequently, “For the rest of the war the British had full control of Berlin-Dublin communications” (p. 215). The sixth and final chapter, “Anomalous, benighted backwater: January 1944 to the late 1940s,” demonstrates that once the allied invasion of Normandy had taken place, the issue of security (that is, the leakage of allied information to the Germans through Ireland) ceased to exist, and “Ireland virtually disappeared from London’s intelligence agenda. . . . From being the gap through which key secrets might leak, after June 1944 Ireland became what it had been for most of Whitehall before the war, an anomalous, benighted backwater” (p. 299).

Despite its inherent thoroughness, the organization of O’Halpin’s book can at times be difficult to follow, with each chapter broken into subsections addressing the same time period but from a different perspective, such as “The Fighting Services and Intelligence on Ireland, 1940-1941,” “SOE and Ireland, 1940-1941,” and “British propaganda and Ireland, 1940-1941.” This makes the chronology awkward in places and hinders the smooth flow of the historical narrative. The sheer detail contained within its pages can also be a detriment, occasionally obscuring the forest for all of the trees. Nevertheless, within each chapter the information provided by O’Halpin has unparalleled scholarly depth and in places his work reads more like a fictional spy thriller than an academic text. There has in recent years been a flowering of academic monographs on British intelligence in the twentieth century, from Martin Thomas’ Empires of Intelligence: Security Services and Colonial Disorder After 1914 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008) to Priya Satia’s Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) to my own Turning Points of the Irish Revolution: The British Government, Intelligence, and the Cost of Indifference, 1912-1921 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). In each of these works, the prominence of intelligence collection, distribution, analysis, and action has featured highly in considerations of high policy-making. O’Halpin’s Spying on Ireland provides no exception to this general trend, and he compellingly demonstrates the centrality and necessity of intelligence to the study of British history.

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