Someone in the British government has a sense of humour. When Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar met UK PM Boris Johnson earlier this month they chose ‘neutral ground’, Thornton Manor on the Wirral. Let’s hope that everyone on the Irish side ‘kept their guard up’ because just down the road from Thornton Manor at Capenhurst was the site of one of the most secretive and costly intelligence ‘stings’ on Irish government and business ever mounted by the UK.
Back in the 1970s the United Kingdom decided it would monitor all communications between the UK and Ireland. The move was ostensibly prompted by the war in Ireland however the remit of the operation it was later revealed was expanded to look at routine Irish diplomatic exchanges and most pertinently commercial business deals.
The UK in an operation overseen by intelligence spooks at GCHQ constructed a large tower at Capenhurst using the sites proximity to the main UK/Ireland microwave link. The operation was incredibly sophisticated as this detailed technical appraisal points out (link):
Security of the plan was imperative and that’s where Capenhurst a BNFL site already controlled by the Civil Nuclear Constabulary was especially useful being an already secure site. The facility operated for half a decade in the 1990s at which point internet development made crude intercepts of microwave traffic redundant.
Strangely its operations stayed secret for another five years although Celtic League had highlighted the possible compromise of UK – Irish microwave links as early as the mid 1980s as we recalled in a news item many years ago:
“The Celtic League first became aware of Britain’s strange electronic snooping around the Irish sea in the mid 1980s. At that time both civil and military communications traffic from Northern Ireland bizarrely was routed through the Irish Republic and across to North Wales. During the Eighties links were also constructed through the Isle of Man and across the North Channel to Scotland. Capenhurst was also constructed about this time and is believed to have come on stream in 1989/90 operated by a shadowy section of the RAF called the ‘Radio Introduction Unit’ (RIU). For some time it was believed that the purpose of the Tower was military and connected more to electronic surveillance traffic in the closing stages of the Cold War than domestic snooping. It is likely that the station did have such a dual function as its electronic capacity and capability seems to have been substantial.
Intercepts made at the station are believed to have been processed at GCHQ.”
Anyway, news reports say the recent Varadkar – Johnson meeting went well and the two men seemed to trust each other. Obviously there were no ‘secrets’!
Image: The British government Ireland’s ‘trusted friend’. Inset: Capenhurst Tower just down the road from the meeting unfortunately Boris could not give Leo a tour the Brits demolished it in 2004!
Assistant General Secretary Celtic League (22 October 2019)