Funeral of Tony Catney
Funeral of Tony Catney

For almost two and a half years the British media have been running stories about a dissident republican fixer and supposed MI5 agent called Dennis McFadden. Some of the stories have more than a whiff of MI5 propaganda about them. Reporting fairly on MI5 is difficult, but the media need to try harder.

McFadden was exposed in August 2020 when he was described in court as a state agent by lawyers representing ten people charged with offences related to alleged New IRA terrorism. Committal proceedings against the ten have been under way since 24 October 2022 to determine whether there is sufficient evidence for a trial.

McFadden was central to the events leading to these people being charged, but he has not been named as a suspect in the case or called as a witness and has apparently disappeared. The circumstances surrounding his involvement make it virtually impossible to doubt that he was working for the British state.

Nine of the people charged were at the time of their arrest members of Saoradh, a political party that the media often describe as the “political wing” of the New IRA. The tenth person was Issam Bassalat, a Palestinian doctor from Edinburgh. His limited connection with Saoradh was solely through McFadden, and his lawyers say that his presence at a meeting that is key to the charges against him was the result of pressure and deception by McFadden. They say that in any case Dr Bassalat spoke only about the situation in Palestine and committed no crime.

MI5 is said by police to have been a “partner” in the operation – codenamed “Arbacia” – that led to the arrests, and to have made the covert recordings on which the prosecution relies. But the spy agency has so far refused to confirm or deny that McFadden was working for them.

This has not stopped MI5 providing unattributed media briefings that claim credit for McFadden’s supposed success. For example, The Times said on 29 December 2022: “spy chiefs believe that McFadden’s work has caused serious damage to a small but dangerous organisation” [the New IRA].1

A legal bid to challenge non-disclosure through the divisional court has failed. So defence lawyers must act in court as though McFadden’s status is unknown, and must avoid probing other witnesses too deeply about his status, while it is common knowledge outside the courtroom that McFadden was in fact working for MI5. The law is being made, at best, to look stupid.

“I believe he sabotaged my appeal”

McFadden’s activity was not limited to the events that led to the arrest of the ten. Channel 4 News revealed in October 2020 that McFadden had been involved in campaigns in support of Brendan McConville and John Paul Wootton – the  Craigavon Two – who say that their conviction for the 2009 murder of PC Stephen Carroll was a miscarriage of justice. McConville’s parents told Channel 4 News that McFadden had been in their home when they received weekly private legal briefings relating to his appeal.

Brendan McConville said: “I believe he sabotaged my appeal.”

Channel 4 News found that McFadden had been one of the founders of Justice Watch Ireland (JWI), which was set up in 2013 and supported the campaign for the Craigavon Two.

A recent report by Ciaran Barnes in Sunday Life (16 January 2023) looked again at McFadden’s role in JWI. It found that McFadden had encouraged Gerry Conlon – one of the Guildford Four, wrongfully convicted for the 1974 Guildford pub bombings – to become one of JWI’s guarantors. JWI’s initial directors were McFadden and his wife, solicitor Ciaran Mulholland and ex-prisoner and former Sinn Fein councillor Angela Nelson. Angela Nelson told Sunday Life that with hindsight one can deduce “that McFadden set up Justice Watch Ireland to infiltrate and sabotage republican justice campaigns for MI5”.

Sunday Life’s anonymous sources apparently agree. Sunday Life says:

“This is a view shared by several republican and security sources who agree that JWI was an MI5 construct established by McFadden to manipulate republicans.”

An official spokesman for MI5 told Sunday Life it never comments on named individuals. So who are the paper’s unnamed security sources? Are they MI5? PSNI? Staff in the Northern Ireland Office? Groupies with an interest in security? Sunday Life offers no hint. Without some such hint, what do their views add to the quote that Angela Nelson has provided?

More usefully, Sunday Life says that in 2013 Gerry Conlon named McFadden as “running” Justice Watch Ireland. This apparent endorsement would probably have gone a long way to assuaging any worries that people might otherwise have had about McFadden’s background (he was a former special constable in Scotland).

According to Sunday Life, Gerry Conlon also said that McFadden had encouraged him, in Sunday Life’s words, “to support legal attempts by notorious paramilitaries to silence the media.” This appears to be a reference to an attempt by Colin Fulton to sue Sunday World over a series of articles published in 2012-2013 that described him as a “UVF thug”, a “UVF goon”,  “dopey UVF commander” and “UVF sex torture boss.” A JWI press release dated 28 August 2013 said there had been “unfounded, untruthful and derogatory reporting” against Fulton and reminded editors and publishers of the Press Complaints Commission Code. It makes no mention of court action and said “JWI strongly advocates the freedom of the press”.

A four page file headed “case work inquiry” was attached to the press release. Rather naively, it said: “If Mr Fulton had committed the alleged offences published by the newspaper, there is no doubt that he would have faced due process under the law.”

Fulton went to court and lost. A 2015 High Court ruling found that the newspaper articles “are to be seen as a robust expression of press freedom which the courts have a duty to protect” and described the journalists involved as “experienced and courageous.” Since Fulton had sued the paper for harrassment and breach of his right to life, rather than for defamation, the court made no finding of fact about the published allegations. It said that “various possibilities exist” to explain the police inaction over Fulton’s alleged offences. The judgment notes that Fulton said he had had a series of meetings with Gerry Conlon and Justice Watch Ireland, who had recommended a solicitor to him.

Perhaps McFadden/MI5 had a specific reason to try to help Fulton out. Or perhaps it was just a reflection of McFadden/MI5’s general strategy of positioning JWI as politically unaligned in order to strengthen its claim on charitable status and public funding. Were it not for the suspicions surrounding McFadden, JWI’s actions might best be seen as a limited response to a request for help from someone with a rather troublesome case and perhaps – we might speculate – a rather persistent manner. I have laboured the point only because the casual reference to it by Sunday Life might excite readers’ curiosity.

Gerry Conlon was always very clear that he was not politically aligned. Any republicans who might feel that made him a poor guide as to who they should trust would perhaps have been reassured by the involvement of another friend of McFadden and JWI guarantor – Tony Catney (“TC” to his friends).

Catney spent 15 years in jail for the 1974 murder of  17 year-old Maurice Knowles when he was himself 16 years old. He seems to have been widely respected in the republican movement as a thinker and strategist and as a campaigner for prisoners rights, but became increasingly disaffected from Sinn Fein and aligned with dissident republicanism. There have been claims in the media that he was a leading member of the New IRA. His friendship would probably have opened a lot of doors for McFadden.

Gerry Conlon and Tony Catney both died in 2014.

Sunday Life says:

“There is no suggestion of duplicity connected to any of the JWI directors or guarantors, other than McFadden and Catney, and they became involved in the organisation with the best of intentions.”

the near-mythical Castlereagh files

Sunday Life does not explain why it has exempted Tony Catney from its presumption of good intentions and grouped him with a man who appears to have exploited him. Perhaps it simply couldn’t bear to be too nice about him. Or perhaps it was a nod towards media reports in 2010 that Catney was accused of being a special branch informer. The allegations were said to have come from former republican colleagues who were said to have obtained the information from files stolen in the mysterious 2002 burglary of Castlereagh police station. The IRA quickly became prime suspects for the burglary, but denied involvement. There has been widespread speculation that one or another wing of the British state was involved, perhaps to protect its interests by removing files. Only one person – a man who had been working as a cook at Castelreagh police Station at the time of the burglary – has ever been charged over the incident, but charges were dropped.

It is very hard to see how any weight at all could be attached to allegations based solely on information said to have been obtained from the near-mythical Castlereagh files. Sunday Life would have been right to make no mention of the accusation against Catney, were it not that the accusation haunts its unexplained statement that every JWI figure except Catney and McFadden is absolved from any suggestion of duplicity.

Besides his 15 January article for Sunday Life, Ciaran Barnes took part in a Belfast Telegraph podcast (23 January) that explores the same issues.

He says that in the period 2009 to 2012 “what we know now is that Catney, along with Dennis McFadden, are working in the background to set up the New IRA.”

Barnes doesn’t say how this is known. The claim is striking not just for its imputation of criminality to Catney, but because of the implication that McFadden was a mover and shaker of comparable weight.

Barnes says that MI5 has “absolutely decimated” the New IRA. It seems fair to suppose that the New IRA has attained nothing like the capability and political clout that the people behind it must have hoped for. Perhaps this can be called decimation. Whether that is because of its own errors, or because of the prevailing political climate or because of MI5’s efforts is another matter. MI5 would probably like us to believe the latter, up to a point.

The murder of the young journalist Lyra McKee while she was covering a disturbance in Derry in 2019 was a turning point, according to Barnes. The New IRA accepted responsibility for the murder and apologised for it. Barnes says that a decision was taken afterwards – presumably by MI5 – to shut the New IRA down. There seems little doubt that the murder did great damage to the reputation of the New IRA and perhaps to dissident republicanism more widely, and little need to suppose that the subsequent downturn in the New IRA’s fortunes was due to specific activity by MI5. But if MI5 penetration of the New IRA had all along been as deep and effective as the media suggest, questions inevitably arise about MI5’s involvement in the circumstances surrounding the murder. What part of the New IRA’s run of bad luck does MI5 really want us to credit it with?

And was it really the case that the Arbacia arrests were a prepared step in a carefully choreographed plan to demolish the New IRA? It seems just as likely that MI5 had come to believe that McFadden would soon be exposed if he were not pulled out, and therefore chose to make the best of a bad job by triggering  arrests without having obtained the evidence it might have hoped for.

Off the record briefings are hard to verify. The solution is to use them as lightly as possible and to seize any opportunity that presents itself to check them, or at least to partly check them. The intersection of MI5 messaging with court proceedings provides an opportunity to do just that.


Ciaran Barnes says that he has been told that sound in the MI5 recordings relied on as evidence against the ten Arbacia co-defendants is “pristine.” It’s a slightly odd word to use in this context. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary it means “belonging to the earliest period or state” or “not spoiled, corrupted, or polluted.” The prosecution may have difficulty proving that.

The court has heard that sound and video in the recordings are not synchronised and that attempts to synchronise them have proved problematic. Defence lawyers say that when they requested the original files stored on MI5’s recording devices they were told they had been deleted. So it will be hard to determine whether or not the recodings are pristine in the Merriam-Webster sense.

Perhaps “pristine” is only intended to mean that the recordings would sound crisp to an audiophile. They have not been played in court so I cannot speculate on how they might strike a listener. But a crisp recording of a confusing and unclear conversation is still a recording of a confusing and unclear conversation. Police officers who transcribed the recordings have told the court that they had significant difficulties both in transcribing and in identifying who was speaking. The court was told part way through the committal hearing that police hold a previously undisclosed report by a voice expert. This prompted defence lawyers to ask for time to obtain their own expert report. The expert evidence from both sides has yet to be heard.

Whoever in the first place (MI5?) called the recordings “pristine” is saying something tendentious and maybe prejudicial, and doing so with a word so particular that it suggests they understand what they are doing.

If the recordings are comprehensively pristine it might be thought that the Arbacia case is an open and shut one. It would not be too wide of the mark to assume that, if the case proceeds to trial and is heard by a Diplock court, convictions on at least some of the charges are likely. But that is an assumption about Diplock courts, not about the strength of the prosecution case.

Barnes says “the wheels of justice turn very slowly in Northern Ireland.” But their slowness in this case is not caused by some kind of habitual lassitude. It is a symptom of the difficulty the legal system has in dealing with MI5 recordings and MI5 witnesses. Four weeks of court time have been spent dealing with issues surrounding remote access to the court – normal in Northern Ireland courts since the start of the pandemic – when MI5 witnesses give evidence. If a comparable case were to reach the courts elsewhere in the UK, MI5 would almost certainly not have such a frontline role. If exceptionally it did have that role, the court system would have trouble dealing with it and would at the same time be less tolerant than Northern Ireland courts of a delay in reaching trial. Combine that with the likely response of a jury, and it might be suspected that prosecutors outside Northern Ireland would be less likely to bring such a case in the first place.

The Belfast Telegraph podcast deals not just with the Arbacia recordings, but with other more speculative recordings. Ciaran Barnes says that McFadden took Tony Catney in “hook, line and sinker.” He says that when Catney developed cancer, McFadden moved in with him and nursed him and encouraged republicans to visit and chat with him. Barnes says there is is now a “deep suspicion among republicans that McFadden had the house bugged” and that republicans fear the recordings “may be used as leverage.”

Extracts from the podcast are presented at its start, as a teaser. A mention of the feared bugging of Catney’s house – which may or may not have occurred – is followed immediately by an extract in which Ciaran Barnes says “what I’m told is, is that this bugging operation, the sound is pristine.” Any listener would at this point assume the claim of pristine sound referred to the hypothetical bugging of Catney’s house, and would also assume that Barnes had reason to think the recordings actually existed. Only a careful listener, who listens to the end and then checks the beginning, is likely to realise that this is not the case. The extract in fact refers to the Arbacia recordings. Reporter Ciaran Barnes is probably not to blame for the misleading editing, but there is in any case no excuse for it.

Threads of Britain’s secret state run through political life in Northern Ireland. Journalists trying to report on it are caught between a rock and a hard place. Information from people inside or close to the secret state is often the only information available, and may occasionally be better than nothing. But those people presumably only talk to journalists because they expect, at least sometimes, to able to insert their own spin or outright disinformation. Journalists need to be lot more thoughtful than they usually are about this relationship.


Photo: Funeral of Tony Catney, Belfast, 13 August 2014 © Stephen Barnes/Northern Ireland News / Alamy

Disclosure: The author is one of the people who have provided surety for Dr Issam Bassalat’s bail.

  1. The Times says:

    “Details of Dennis McFadden’s mission inside the organisation, codenamed Operation Arbacia, have emerged in court hearings in Northern Ireland concerning criminal proceedings against ten people.

    Security chiefs believe that the undercover operation — by “the man who was always there but was never really there” — has severely weakened the New IRA. It was the most dangerous terrorist group still operating in the province and was responsible for the murder of the journalist Lyra McKee in April 2019.”

    Later in the article it says:

    “None of those detained have been convicted but spy chiefs believe that McFadden’s work has caused serious damage to a small but dangerous organisation that had been responsible for bomb attacks, punishment shootings and the murder of McKee.”


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