A family man posing as an NHS worker and hotel inspector infiltrated the violent New IRA dissident group and spilled its secrets to MI5 for more than a decade before vanishing into thin air.
Dennis McFadden – ‘the man who was always there but was never there’ – bugged meetings and gleaned information from suspected terrorists by treating them to Spanish holidays and Celtic tickets, according to a sensational series of court hearings in Northern Ireland.
In an effort to loosen the tongues of suspected New IRA members, the Glaswegian plied them with Guinness and gin in a Covid lockdown bar in the back garden of a suburban bungalow where he lived with his wife and young son.
As part of ‘Operation Arbacia’, he also hosted the group’s so-called army council of senior figures in rented Airbnbs, with the agent allegedly staying behind when everyone else went to collect ashtrays and glasses to dust for DNA.
Residents described him as a good neighbour, with one saying: ‘To be honest, he was overly pleasant, a bit too friendly – he was always asking you round for a drink.’
The MI5 agent told local residents that he was a hotel inspector who would have to travel often to carry out safety checks on tourist accommodation.
But for more than 15 years he had been infiltrating splinter groups who stood in opposition to the Good Friday agreement in 1998.
And while locals believed he was away inspecting hotels, he was actually debriefing MI5.
McFadden rose through the ranks to join the national executive of Saoradh, the New IRA’s political wing, holding the post of resource officer and becoming involved with the party’s financial affairs.
Spy chiefs believe that McFadden’s work has seriously damaged the organisation, which is claimed to be responsible for bomb attacks, punishment shootings and the murder of the journalist Lyra McKee in 2019.
Information regarding the proceedings can now be reported because for terrorism cases in Northern Ireland there is no jury to prejudice.
Instead, terrorism cases are heard without a jury due to fears dating back to the 1970s that jurors could be intimidated by terrorist groups.
McFadden’s success came despite an apparently unpromising start for the MI5, whose political involvement began with meetings of his local Sinn Fein branch.
He is said to have attracted suspicion, with one person who met him saying: ‘He’d be asking people ”where are the other meetings?’ I gave him a wide berth. He always seemed to be in the background all the time.’
But McFadden soon began ingratiating himself with dissident republican groups such as the New IRA – which has been identified as the most violent and active Republican dissident group operating in Northern Ireland.
The group was responsible for the fatal shooting of journalist Lyra McKee, who was killed while covering rioting in Derry in 2019.
In an effort to woo members, ‘Celtic mad’ McFadden gave them tickets to football games in Scotland, covering travel costs and offering accommodation with his family there.
On three occasions McFadden treated Kevin Barry Murphy, 50, a suspected senior figure in the New IRA on holiday to Spain with their wives, paying for flights and the villa each time.
The undercover agent also arranged travel and accommodation for members to attend overseas political conferences, including in Brussels and Beirut.
Known as a man for whom ‘money was no object’ it is unclear if McFadden’s drinks parties, holidays and football tickets were funded by MI5 or Saoradh.
MI5 does not disclose expenditures on intelligence gathering but between 2017 and 2022 the Police Service of Northern Ireland paid £1.6 million to informants, The Times reported.
What is also unclear is whether McFadden was planted by the security services or if he was turned into an informant – perhaps due to pressure or as a result of him renouncing violent republicanism.
His primary means of gathering evidence was by bugging meeting rooms where alleged leaders of the New IRA were gathering.
When discussions got underway he would leave for a work phone call or to get teabags – gaining him the nickname of ‘the teaboy’.
The recordings also revealed the New IRA’s desire to forge international links to source supplies of arms and explosives, prosecutors say.
Discussions also included trying to get money from ‘the Russians’ and forging alliances with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
One defendant in 2020 submitted a bail application but was refused by Mr Justice McAlinden who said: ‘There was absolutely mad stuff being discussed in these meetings.’
In 2020, McFadden vanished with his family, with his former comrades unable to reach him by phone.
A neighbour said: ‘I thought he was on one of his hotel trips. Then one night a taxi came and the woman and the boy just went with a bag or two.
‘Three or four days later a black SUV with black-out windows arrived and two guys went into the house and removed lots of stuff. I tried to chat with them but they didn’t even look at me.’
The family’s disappearance coincided with the arrest of seven men and two women in Northern Ireland and a Palestinian political activist at Heathrow airport.
The arrested men deny all charges against them including direct terrorism, preparation of terrorist acts and membership in a proscribed organisation.
McFadden will not be called upon to give evidence and is believed to be living under a new identity in witness protection.