Former MI5 boss Stella Rimington

Dame Stella Rimington on the IRA, Libya, being a single mother and her new career as a novelist. By Tony Todd.

DAME Stella Rimington fought - and won - successive battles against the IRA with vital help from the French security services.

Speaking with The Connexion, she revealed that France's input to continental security operations saved countless British lives.

Dame Stella was head of MI5 from 1992 to 1996, a period when the Cold War was coming to a close but when IRA activity was still a serious threat to British security.

She had worked as an MI5 operative from 1969, with experience of the Cold War and the Irish troubles at their peak.

She said: “I had not travelled much to France when I was young. There were not the opportunities people have these days. But I had a lot of contact with the French security services during my time at MI5, particularly when we were working against the IRA.

“In the 1980s particularly, they were trying to kill British soldiers at army bases in Germany.

“Often small groups of IRA terrorists would live in rented houses in France. They had their weapons buried in holes in the ground in Holland and their targets were in Germany.

“In order to deal with that we developed extremely close relations with our allies on the continent, particularly in France. We had a very close working relationship.”


Dame Stella added that it was French co-operation that led to the closing of shipments from one of the IRA's biggest benefactors - Libya.

She said: “One of the reasons that IRA was able to operate so much was because of the large amount of support, in the form of money and arms it was getting from Libya, and Colonel Gaddafi.

“We got onto this, thanks to a great deal of cooperation from the French government.

“We managed to intercept shipments, which had a big impact on the IRAs operations.

“Gaddafi was certainly a wild man in his youth. He may well have now seen the light. People do.”

Dame Stella is a softly spoken woman with a headmistress’ air of quiet authority. The mother-of-two was thrust into the limelight in the early 1990s, representing the country in the first contacts with the KGB after the fall of the iron curtain.

The government's decision to promote her to be the first woman Director General of MI5 coincided with a new policy to name her publicly. This was a shock to her and her family.

Single mother

She was a single mother, bringing up her two daughters on her own and had to sell the family home and live in a series of hotels before they could settle down again, a situation that made her daughters determined never to work for the government.

“One of the things you don't get from working in an organisation like that is any public acclaim for what you do, which can be frustrating.

“But your failures are there for everyone to see, in the form of broken glass and dead bodies.

“If you're running an organisation like that you have to compensate by creating almost a sense of family, where people within the charmed circle can talk to each other about what they have done and get the satisfaction of knowing they've done a good job when they can't get public acclaim.

“It's not a job you do for the money. It is a public service role after all.

“But there is this sense that you are at the sharp end of what is threatening the country.

“There is a sense of patriotism, but the also join for the excitement of it.

“It is, especially at the sharp end, a very exciting and interesting job.

“For instance, you can be faced with a group of extremely nasty terrorists plotting to do something against the country and it is your job to find out who they are and what they plan on doing.

“That can generate an extreme amount of excitement. Also disappointment, if you fail to get there first.”

James Bond

Dame Stella is instantly dismissive of any kind of glamour as portrayed in the James Bond films or the recent TV series Spooks.

Although there were gadgets “which I won't talk about”, excitement and some exotic travel, the work was notable low-tech and intelligence and “people” led.

She insists that MI5 never had anyone assassinated, an allegation put to her counterpart at MI6 Richard Dearlove in the ongoing inquest into Princess Diana's death in Paris in 1997.

She said: “Dearlove denied that anyone had ever been murdered by MI6 - and the same goes for MI5. Murdering people is not part of the role of the British intelligence services.

“When there is killing to be done, and occasionally in wartime of terrorist situations there might be, that is something that would be handled by the military, the SAS, because that is their role.

“The idea of James Bond types, with licences to kill, is even more of a fiction than the fictional novels I have written, which are at least based on some kind of reality.”

Since leaving MI5 Dame Stella has controversially published her memoirs and also three novels, based on a fictional MI5 operative Liz Carlisle.

She said she had submitted, and continues to do so, all her work to her former colleagues for clearance.

She said: “Liz Carlisle's character is loosely based on my own experiences. Like me, she is a woman who came to the MI5, in her mid-30s.

She is, I suppose, partly autobiographical, partly made up of bits of other female officers I have met at various points in my career.

“The plots are entirely imaginary, but what lies behind them are years of experience in how these things work.

“I have only ever been asked to alter very very small details in any of my books.”

Le Carré

In her opinion, the best fictional portrayal of the workings of the intelligence services is John Le Carré's Smiley novels, and the classic TV series starring Alec Guinness is a favourite that she regularly revisits.

Le Carré's psychological thrillers highlight the mundane nature of the work and are a far cry from Fleming's glamorous James Bond.

This does not stop her from being flattered that Dame Judy Dench's M in recent Bond films is quite obviously based on her.

She said: “Of course I'm flattered by it. Who wouldn't be?”

But she believes the public has a right to a strong counterbalance to the kind of fantasy represented in James Bond and Spooks, something she insists comes across in her novels.

She said: “I think it is good for readers, members of the general public, to have a feel for how things work in the security services.

“Films and television programmes such as James Bond and Spooks, which have such ridiculous plots, so much violence and are so unrealistic.

“I think it's good for the public to have a strong counterbalance, something that illustrates it far more for what it really is.”