(by Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune)
A west Belfast figure with strong links to the IRA's intelligence gathering department is the normal driver of the car used by Gerry Adams in which a sophisticated electronic bugging device was recently found, according to sources familiar with security force information on the incident.
The car was used to ferry Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to meetings of the recent 10 week Mitchell Review as well as to appointments with IRA figures to discuss developments in the discussions about IRA decommissioning.
An angry Gerry Adams accused what he called British "securocrats" of being behind the operation and claimed that the Mitchell review would not have succeeded had the bugging device had been discovered earlier. Saying that the device had been found during routine searches, Adams said the IRA "won't be pleased with this".
The implication in his claims was that the bug had been planted in order to monitor his conversations to and from the Mitchell Review negotiations in an effort to discover whether or nor Republicans were genuine about the decommissioning talks.
However, the fact that the normal user of the car, a Ford Mondeo, has held, and continues to hold, sensitive positions in the IRA intelligence department gives another motive for the surveillance operation.
In the early 1990's he was, according to reliable sources, the Intelligence Officer for the entire Belfast Brigade of the IRA but later, according to a recently published history of the Troubles, he rose to become the IRA's Director of Intelligence, a rank which apparently he still holds.
As such he would be a member of the IRA General Headquarters Staff (GHQ) and would have had a hand in many of the IRA's activities as well as being privy to its most dangerous secrets. He would thus be an obvious target for both British and Irish security force surveillance. At a press conference last week to announce the find Gerry Adams refused to name the owner of the car and would only say it belonged to a west Belfast republican whom he was now encouraging to take legal action.
Sources familiar with the electronic device say that it dates back to the early 1990's and by modern standards is a fairly crude bug. It used a satellite link to enable the security forces to track the vehicle's movements while a microphone would have picked up and relayed conversations to the eavesdroppers.
At his press conference Adams demonstrated how the electronic tracking device, colour-coded to the car, slotted inside the door panel with concealed wiring linked to a battery in the engine, an aerial in the roof and listening equipment inside the car.
He said the device provided further evidence of the work of the "shadowy figures" of British military intelligence in Northern Ireland and strongly rejected DUP claims that Sinn Féin had planted the device or had delayed publicising the incident. The SF chief said he was seeking an urgent discussion with the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to determine who had sanctioned the sevice. The Taoiseach raised the issue with Blair at last week's European summit in Helsinki.
Experienced sources say that installing the device would involve welding brackets into the car to hold the device and that altogether the work could take between six and eight hours. SInce this could not be done at the roadside or overnight while the car was parked outside the owner's home the implication is that the security forces somehow gained unfettered access to it for a considerable time.
The bugging operation may also reflect the great division of opinion about the IRA's true bona fides in the peace process that exists amongst the British intelligence community. According to sources familiar with these matters the RUC Special Branch and MI5 are at loggerheads with the latter believing the IRA is sincere while the Special Branch believes it intends to return to armed struggle. British military intelligence is said to be neutral. The bugging operation may be an effort by one or other of these agencies to find proof for their argument.
Some observers believe Sinn Fein are making such a great fuss over the device in order to pressurise the British government to make concessions on demilitarising Northern Ireland and that this is being motivated by a strong groundswell of opposition within grassroots Republican ranks against the prospect of IRA decommissioning.
The Northern Secetary Peter Mandelson is scheduled to publish a normalisation paper in January outlining which security bases will be closed as well as indicating what plans exist to deal with the some 150,000 legal weapons in circulation in the North. Last week the RUC announced the closure of the Castlereagh interrogation centre in Belfast and it is clearly the two governments' hope that all this will make it easier for the IRA to decommission some time next month.