Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Informers and agents everywhere – G.K. Chesterton's 'The Man who was Thursday'

"A poor man has much more interest in good government than a rich man. A poor man must stay and be misgoverned; a rich man has a yacht".
– G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton (1874–1936) was a renowned writer, still held in high regard today. He was firstly a 'high church' Anglican and later a Catholic theologian. The photo above is of his grave at Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, very close to where my in-laws live, and I had hoped to visit it this past summer but coronavirus banjaxed those plans. He is very quotable and has multiple fans on Twitter, tweeting little chunks of Chesterton every day.

Last summer I read his gripping 1908 novel The Man Who Was Thursday (Wikipedia here). It's set in London, and is about a man who is approached by the police to infiltrate an anarchist group who are plotting a terror campaign. He very quickly rises through the ranks to take a seat at the top table of the organisation, where an odd collection of individuals all have codenames which are the days of the week. He becomes 'Thursday'.

As the novel develops it turns out that every single one of these anarchists is also a police agent or informer. It's never been out of print and has been dramatised by BBC Radio Four (iPlayer link here), and also a movie as recently as 2016.

In recent weeks in Northern Ireland we numerous revelations of informers within armed groups of all political shades, from away back at the very start of our Troubles right up to the present day. A sizeable segment in the Radio Ulster current affairs discussion programme Talkback just today was about this story. There have of course been decades of stories like these seeping out. All of which begs the question – if each of those groups was so riddled with agents, then who was pulling the strings, for what reasons, and why was it allowed to drag on for so many bloodied years?

Some have claimed that our conflict was a social experiment and that Northern Ireland was a kind of laboratory where new strategies could be tested. 

Whatever the truth is, I doubt we will ever really find out. As a noted journalist wrote back in January in an article on the subject – "The central truth about Northern Ireland, which stands as the primary enabler that makes the utterly impossible often perfectly probable, is that it is a society based on lies. Everyone lies there. Everyone. They lie to themselves, they lie to one another, they lie to their children, they lie to their friends, they lie to their enemies. Lies are the currency of almost all intellectual exchanges..."