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Northern Ireland

My double life as an IRA spy

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A Northern Irish Catholic and a British soldier, Willie Carlin was the perfect candidate for spying on the IRA. He was born in 1948 in tight-knit Derry, but left at 18 to join the army. MI5 knew he was informative “gold dust”, he tells Foreign Policy’s I Spy podcast. So when he and his wife moved back to Derry in 1974, it asked him to keep his ear to the ground.

Carlin built up republican contacts, but found life as a spy more challenging than he had imagined. He frequently saw IRA men being brutally killed: “When you have to go and tell some woman her son’s been shot dead and she collapses into your arms, you feel terrible.” He always did his job. “But there were times I was so angry.”

Finally, in 1985, he was exposed. “The boss said to me, look, your cover’s been blown and our information is you’ll be dead by morning.” He and his wife left Derry that night and haven’t returned to Ireland since. Recently his daughter died in a car accident in Donegal – he couldn’t go to her funeral. “I was waiting for the flight and these people sat down beside me, clearly from MI5,” he says. “They said, we can’t stop you from getting on that plane, but if you go to that funeral, we know there are people going to see if you turn up.” Before the plane left, the flight attendant called Carlin’s name on the Tannoy: “I just sat there, and then I went home.”

Listen to the full episode here.