Teenage Spy: Infiltrating the Irish Republican Army

By: MAJ Gregory Mayer, PE, USAF

The ability to infiltrate a group in order to obtain tactical intel- MAJ Gregory Mayer, PE, USAF ligence is a critical weapon against terrorist organizations. Open-source literature on human intelligence does not provide many examples of terrorist infiltration, but a notable exception is the story of Martin McGartland, who successfully infiltrated the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) as a teenager while he was working for the British Special Branch. Recruited at the age of sixteen, McGartland ultimately helped save more than fifty lives and helped affect the outcome of the violence in Northern Ireland.

How does an intelligence agency recruit a spy to target terrorists, especially when discovery would carry deadly consequences? This article outlines the weapons of influence, the specific subconscious triggers that an intelligence service case officer can use to recruit an agent, and that will help persuade a new recruit to comply with requests.1 These methods, developed long ago, can still be useful as counter-terrorism intelligence officers seek ways to influence, infiltrate, and undermine terrorist organizations.

Principles of Influence

A case officer can use six specific "triggers" to influence an agent's decisions: reciprocation, commitment and consistency, liking, social proof, scarcity, and authority. These six triggers, or rules, which are briefly defined below, can be used to exploit the human tendency to use shortcuts in the decisionmaking process, rather than to weigh the consequences of every choice before reaching a decision.

The rule of reciprocation states that, "we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us."2 All human societies appear to subscribe in some degree to this rule, which obligates a receiver to repay gifts, courtesies, invitations, and the like. The rule of reciprocation is so strong that a feeling of indebtedness will prompt many people to comply with a request they would normally decline; all that is required is a small gift or kindness to be bestowed before the request is made.3

The rule of consistency stems from the fact that all humans desire to be— and appear to others to be—consistent in their actions, even if the actions are detrimental to their best interests. Being consistent in action is a shortcut in place of having to think through every action. Consistency is used as a weapon of influence when it is paired with commitment: Once someone commits to a cause, that person naturally tends to shape his or her actions to be consistent with the commitment.4

The rule of liking notes that humans prefer to comply with the requests of individuals whom they like. Studies have shown that certain characteristics increase likability, and therefore the power to influence. These characteristics include physical attractiveness, similarity to the target, offering compliments, contact and cooperation, and association.5

The rule of social proof tells us that people tend to look at others for cues on how they should behave or react. This is especially true under conditions of unfamiliarity and uncertainty, or when someone observes others within a similar demographic behaving in a particular way.6

The rule of scarcity shows us that opportunities or possessions seem more valuable if they are limited in supply or duration. This rule is closely linked with the psychological reactance theory, which states that when items (freedoms, goods, services) become scarce, people desire those items significantly more than they did when the goods were readily available.7

Finally, the rule of authority dictates that humans have a tendency to obey people who are in charge. Symbols of power, such as titles, clothing, jewelry, or expensive vehicles, tend to reinforce the desire to obey, even in the absence of genuine authority.8

Recruitment into the Special Branch

The British Special Branch recruited Martin McGartland to be a spy in 1987. To understand the recruitment process, it is important first to have a clear picture of McGartland's environment, as well as the historical context of the Provisional Irish Republican Army at that time.

In 1969, three monumental events took place in Ireland. First, riots erupted in Belfast as pro-union loyalists (largely Protestant groups, who favored keeping Ireland under the direct rule of London) clashed with nationalist Catholics, burning entire Catholic neighborhoods to the ground. Second, the British sent Army troops into Northern Ireland to quell the unrest. Third, the Irish Republican movement, which advocated independence from the United Kingdom for Northern Ireland, fractured over the use of armed violence. One faction formed the PIRA to counter the sense of defenselessness shared by many minority Catholics in Northern Ireland. The PIRA believed that the British military presence demanded an armed response, and that the British people would not be able to sustain a long bombing and shooting campaign.9

This was the reality that Martin McGartland faced while growing up in Belfast: Protestant-controlled police and the British Army were fighting a war of attrition against the PIRA. His childhood Catholic neighborhood was in the heart of PIRA-controlled territory, and he grew up disliking all authority figures, whether they were the state security forces who invaded his neighborhood to search houses and arrest people, or the PIRA goons who administered harsh local justice to anyone they deemed out of line. By 1987, nearly 18,000 British troops were in Northern Ireland and the security situation remained grim: 674 shootings, 236 bomb explosions, 148 bombs neutralized, 955 armed robberies, 1,130 people injured, and 95 people killed.10 That year Special Branch representatives approached 16-year old McGartland.

The Special Branch used reciprocation techniques right from the beginning of their effort to recruit the boy. His first interaction with the Special Branch occurred when a police officer walked up to him on the street and said he had a couple of mates who might be able to help McGartland pass his driving exam. All he had to do was take a taxi to within two miles of a Royal Ulster Constabulary base, then walk the rest of the way. The encounter intrigued McGartland, and he complied with the offer—a process that forced him to make a commitment to meet with the case agents because he had to expend quite a bit of effort just to have his first meeting.11

Once he arrived at the police station, the Special Branch case officers identified themselves and reaffirmed that they could help McGartland get his driving license. In the meantime, they said, they needed his help to keep an eye on some troublemakers in his neighborhood. At this point, McGartland did not know he would be spying on PIRA members. If he was not interested, McGartland was told, he could go home and forget all about the offer (an instance of using the law of scarcity—act now or it won't be available later). McGartland agreed to meet the officers again, and at this second meeting they had him memorize a phone number, gave him a code name, and instructed him about how to contact them in the future—all actions that reinforced their authority over the situation. They also gave him £40, which was another use of the reciprocation rule.12

McGartland explains in his memoir how excited he was after this second meeting. He had £40 in his pocket and two new friends he felt he could trust. They had made him feel important. At this point, he had no idea what his contacts wanted him to do, but he knew they were important because they were Special Branch officers, not normal police. In fact, these Special Branch recruiters were successfully exploiting the rules of liking and authority.13

Only after their fourth meeting did the Special Branch officers finally ask McGartland to do anything, and by this point he was thoroughly committed. First, they told him he would be earning £400 per month while working for the Special Branch, which was very enticing for a young man who had been pulling in about £400 to £800 per month fencing stolen goods door-to-door in his neighborhood. These payments are another example of reciprocity. Next, they started showing McGartland photos of people they wanted him to be on the lookout for, and maps of where they lived. After looking for these people for several weeks, he finally spotted one and relayed the person's vehicle registration number back to the Special Branch. After providing information about several more men, McGartland finally was told by the Special Branch officers that he'd been spying on members of the PIRA. By the time he learned that information, McGartland was fully committed to being an agent for the Special Branch.14

How the Relationship Changed over Time

The first major change in McGartland's behavior occurred late in 1987. He observed one of his targets standing on a lone corner, and something seemed out of place. The next night, he saw the man again in the same location and instinctively knew something nefarious was happening. McGartland seized the initiative and began to secretly watch the man. After a short while, he saw another well-known troublemaker arrive along a footpath to meet with the first man. McGartland called in the information to his handlers who praised him for the job he was doing. The next day, the Special Branch told McGartland that he had helped foil a PIRA plot to detonate a bomb along the path when it was used by police or Army foot patrols.15 This encounter displays an example of a commitment that has produced inner change. McGartland had made a commitment to the Special Branch to be a spy, and was now starting to take consistent action that aligned with his self-image of what a spy should do; he was going above and beyond what was initially asked of him.16

Up to this point, McGartland had supported the PIRA in taking a stand against the hardline Protestant paramilitary groups who were killing Republicans and Catholics. He did not like the PIRA punishment squads, however, who would strong-arm their own people and beat young troublemakers with metal clubs or shoot them in the kneecaps to enforce PIRA authority in the neighborhoods. His faith in the PIRA, however, was completely shattered on November 8, 1987, Remembrance Sunday, when a PIRA bomb at the Eneskillin War Memorial killed 11 people and injured 63 others, including women and children.17 In McGartland's own words, "That single bombing ended any doubts that I had experienced over my intelligence work and re-doubled my resolve to do everything possible to end the sectarian violence and save innocent people's lives."18

It appears that the Special Branch officers sensed McGartland's new resolve. Just three days after the Eneskillin bombing, they met with him for a serious discussion. Over dinner, they told him how impressed they were with his intelligence work and said they wanted him to do more. They asked him to start frequenting clubs that were known to be PIRA recruiting grounds, and to bolster his relationship with any childhood friends who had joined the PIRA. McGartland was hesitant, but he expressed a sense of obligation to comply because the Special Branch was paying him 400 pounds a month; he was firmly bound at this point by the rule of reciprocation.19

Shortly after taking on his new assignment, McGartland was hired by the PIRA to provide security for a construction site. While not a formal member of the PIRA, he was making inroads, and the Special Branch was thrilled. McGartland spent four more months identifying many PIRA members from the clubs, and then the Special Branch bought him a car worth £1,600. With this vehicle, McGartland started working as an unofficial taxi driver, and the PIRA began using him to transport punishment squads. At this point, the Special Branch rigged the car with a tracking device so they could pinpoint its location at any time. They also gave McGartland a special radio with a concealed device that he could use to notify his case officers when he urgently needed to meet them. Finally, they arranged for McGartland to get his own flat so he wouldn't have to live with his mother. The new car, the high-tech spy gear, and the new apartment all contributed to the rule of authority for the Special Branch, and also served as significant contributions to the rule of reciprocation.20

One day, a childhood friend of McGartland's asked him to come and meet Davy Adams, who was the cousin of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and a powerful PIRA leader in West Belfast. Adams was impressed that McGartland didn't mind taxiing PIRA members around in his vehicle, even when they had bomb-making materials. He formally asked McGartland to join the PIRA, and McGartland agreed. Adams placed McGartland in the PIRA intelligence wing and had him reconnoitering targets once or twice a week; he would scope out the house of a member of the police or Army whom the PIRA had targeted for execution, watch his movements, and look for vulnerabilities on how to kill the target, all the while informing the Special Branch about the potential targets. Eventually, McGartland was also recruited into a nine-man PIRA operational cell that would plan and execute assassinations and bombings—without much success since McGartland was foiling their operations.

Because of his success in thwarting so many operations, McGartland eventually began to feel that his cellmates suspected him of being an informer. At one point, he was told that a planned bombing had been canceled, but his cell then completed the operation without his knowledge. From that moment, he knew that the PIRA suspected him of working with the Special Branch. In the end, a tasking coordination group comprising officers of the Special Air Service, MI5, Special Branch, and military intelligence acted on a piece of intelligence concerning upcoming operations that McGartland had passed to the Special Branch. This action finally exposed the young spy, since he was one of the very few members who knew of the planned operations and was already under suspicion within the PIRA.22

A few days later, McGartland was detained by the PIRA and taken to a flat on the third floor of an apartment building to be interrogated. The Special Branch was watching, but had lost sight of McGartland when he was abducted so did not see which building he was taken into. They blanketed the area with security forces and helicopters to search for him, which scared his captors, who were waiting for the interrogation team. After being held, tied up, for seven hours in the apartment, McGartland asked to use the bathroom. When he came out of the bathroom, he hurled himself through a window to escape, falling three stories and sustaining massive injuries. When McGartland recovered from his injuries, the British placed him into protective custody, ending his four years as a Special Branch spy.23

Effect of the Relationship on International Events

In 1997, a senior intelligence officer in London confirmed the worth of McGartland's work: "At least fifty men are still walking the streets of Northern Ireland today, thanks to the heroic work of Martin McGartland."24 The work he performed was part of a broad and deep intelligence effort to infiltrate the PIRA, which had an enormous impact on the conflict in Northern Ireland. In the late 1970s, the PIRA had been forced to reorganize its command structure, moving away from a traditional hierarchy of brigades, battalions, and companies and placing new recruits into smaller, independent cells known as active service units. This reorganization was in direct response to both intelligence infiltration and the ability of the Royal Ulster Constabulary interrogation squads to break members who had been detained. The smaller service units would limit the number of people aware of ongoing operations, so if someone did break or a cell was infiltrated, the damage would be contained.25

The change in organizational structure, however, still left the PIRA susceptible to infiltration. After Libya began supplying arms and explosives to the PIRA—an estimated 30 tons in 1985 and 1986—the security forces became very good at uncovering hidden arms caches. As the discoveries mounted, the PIRA undertook a long-term investigation to determine who was revealing the locations and movement of weapons. The group got an unexpected view of its susceptibility to infiltration when it learned that the man who for two years had held the post of quartermaster-general of the Belfast Brigade, and thus was responsible for all the city's weapons and explosives, had been a Royal Ulster Constabulary informer for more than eight years.26

In the end, the massive intelligence infiltration campaign was one ingredient in a recipe that pressured the PIRA to come to the peace table. The true legacy of Martin McGartland is that he was able to save lives while also helping to impel the terrorist organization toward the peace process.


The story of Martin McGartland's infiltration raises numerous ethical questions related to recruiting a teenager to spy on a terrorist organization, which are outside the scope of this short article. The purpose here is to show how intelligence agencies can influence people to do dangerous work, even against their initial inclinations. A key factor in McGartland's recruitment was how his Special Branch handlers used specific triggers to entice him to comply with their requests. The triggers most commonly used were reciprocation, commitment and consistency, authority, and liking. In the beginning, the teenager's focus was on making some money and enjoying the thrill of working for the Special Branch, but eventually McGartland became fully committed to the new cause. At that point, his handlers were able to tap into his inner reasons for compliance: a desire to save innocent lives. McGartland admits in his memoirs that his case officer would reinforce his resolve whenever he had doubts by saying, "Remember, Marty, what you're doing. You're not simply saving a man's life, but the life of someone's father, someone's husband or someone's son. They will never know what you did for them. But you will know. When this is all over, you will realize the lives you saved by your courage."27 This quote illustrates the ultimate lesson from this case study: real compliance comes from aligning inner desires with operational requirements.28

About the Author(s): MAJ Gregory C. Mayer, P.E., is a student at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in the Department of National Security Affairs, pursuing an M.S. in Defense Decision Making Analysis. He is a civil engineer in the United States Air Force, and will fill a political-military affairs strategist position upon graduation.


1. (New York: William Morrow, 1993), 6–7.

2. Ibid., 17.

3. Ibid., 17–22.

4. Ibid., 59, 64, 67.

5. Ibid., 167, 173–76, 188.

6. Ibid., 116, 129, 140.

7. Ibid., 238, 245.

8. Ibid., 213, 221.

9. Brendan O'Brien, The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Fein, second edition (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1999), 20–21.

10. "Background Information on Northern Ireland Society—Security and Defence," University of Ulster's Conflict Archive on the Internet, last modified January 17, 2012: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/ni/security.htm.

11. Martin McGartland, Fifty Dead Men Walking (Norwalk, Conn.: Hastings House, 1997), 51.

12. Ibid., 54–56.

13. Ibid., 57.

14. Ibid., 58–60.

15. Ibid., 61–63.

16. Cialdini, Influence, 97.

17. McGartland, Fifty Dead Men Walking, 65; O'Brien, The Long War, 142.

18. McGartland, Fifty Dead Men Walking, 67.

19. Ibid., 69–80.

20. Ibid., 80–81, 88–89, 92.

21. Ibid., 102–3, 105, 117, 130.

22. Ibid., 204–6, 216, 219.

23. Ibid., 229–34.

24. Ibid., vi.

25. O'Brien, The Long War, 109.

26. Ibid., 135, 150.

27. McGartland, Fifty Dead Men Walking, 166.

28. Randy Burkett, "NS3160 Human Intelligence Class Notes: Understanding Human Motivation," April 12, 2012.

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