Three spies came close to getting Collins caught at this time. One was a pretend Marxist sympathiser who Forbes Redmond was using to get to Collins, but once Redmond revealed the spy's true intentions in Dublin Castle, word got out to Collins who promptly dealt with the spy. Another was a former Irish P.O.W. from Germany in World War I, who double-crossed Collins to get money from the British police. The Cork Volunteers executed him. The third spy offered to buy arms for Collins, but his true purpose was discovered, and he was shot dead by the Squad in broad daylight.
Early 1920 saw several more successes for Collins' intelligence network. Collins had established a system of meeting his various agents regularly at a house in Clontarf. The keys to police and official cipher codes were ascertained, and over time a system was developed to decode official British police and military messages. A clerk in the RIC fed Collins with information and codes from the RIC headquarters, as did an RIC Sergeant stationed in Belfast. One of his agents managed to get into the British Secret Service, and was able to introduce some of Collins' intelligence officers to Secret Service men. The Resident Magistrate who had opened a much publicised inquiry into Sinn Fein funds was dragged from a tram and killed on March 26th. On April 3rd, tax offices throughout the country were fire bombed, on Collins' suggestion, to disrupt the British tax collecting apparatus. By this time, IRA units in various parts of Ireland were shooting policemen. In one day, 350 unoccupied RIC barracks were burned down. Resignations in the police force were running at more than 200 a month at the start of 1920. The IRA appeared to be succeeding in taking over the country. But Britain would fight back.
The Year of Terror
&ldquoOne of the cardinal maxims of guerilla warfare: the guerilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”– Henry Kissinger
On February 24th 1920, a curfew was introduced from midnight until five o'clock in the morning. British policy in Ireland would become more hardline, with the army and police operating a 'shoot-to-kill' policy and areas sheltering IRA fugitives to receive economic punishment. In practice, this meant burning, looting and shooting up towns all over Ireland. The Black and Tans first arrived in Ireland on March 25th. They were fairly undisciplined ex-British army soldiers, mainly from World War I, here to undertake &ldquoa rough and dangerous task”. In September, they were joined in the country by the Auxiliaries, ex-officers from the British Army. Both sets of soldiers joined the regular army and the RIC in combating the IRA.
As the surface war intensified, so too did the undercover intelligence war. Throughout much of 1920 Ireland was being infiltrated by Secret Service agents intending to take on Collins and the IRA at their own game. These men became known as the Cairo Gang as a result of their spying backgrounds in Egypt and also because they frequented the Cairo Café in Dublin. They all had cover jobs and their addresses were kept secret. Their plan was to kill prominent members of Sinn Fein and make it appear that they had been killed in an IRA feud between moderates and extremists. The Lord Mayor of Cork was killed in such circumstances. The Secret Service agents had to rely on Irish touts for information, which brought them into direct contact with Collins' key intelligence officers. In October 1920 these men were picked up and released only after days of questioning. Several days later the Cairo Gang realised who they had let go. The IRA Chief of Staff, Dick Mulcahy, wrote-
&ldquoWe were being made to feel that they were very close on the heels of some of us.”
Collins knew that it was only a matter of time before he was finished. But just as it the British Secret Service were closing in on Collins, Collins was closing in on them.
The sister of an IRA man told her brother that some of the gentlemen in the house spoke with English accents, kept odd hours and went out after curfew. A DMP man secured the names and addresses of these Secret Service Officers. Collins was able to obtain room keys for all their houses as a result. Detailed reports were prepared on each agent. Sunday, November 21st was chosen for the date to strike against these agents. Shortly after eight o'clock that morning, groups of Volunteers and members of the Squad converged on eight different addresses in Dublin. Nineteen British soldiers were shot dead. In reprisal, the Black and Tans opened fire on the crowd watching the GAA match at Croke Park. Fourteen people were killed and hundreds were injured.