Five years after it was set up, the Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) is finally getting round this month to examining the evidence of potential abuses of power by the police in monitoring political protest.
Yet with the decision to grant anonymity to the majority of undercover police acting as witnesses, it is possible that the truth about the controversial practise will never come out.
Author and human rights expert Neil MacDonald is doubtful that the public will ever fully come to understand the mindset of those that can lead a double life. As the next best thing, he has explored this important question in his debut novel, The Tears of Boabdil.
By Neil MacDonald
The Undercover Policing Inquiry (UCPI) began hearing evidence this week, with the first tranche commencing remotely – due to Covid-19 – on Monday, 2nd November. Will we learn what at least 139 ‘spycops’ did in our name to (at least) 1,000 political and protest groups over a period of five decades?
Will we, furthermore, learn the real names and motivations of the men who tricked over 30 women members of these groups into sex, in some cases even going so far as to have a child with them, in order to infiltrate their organisations?
The inquiry, established by then Home Secretary Theresa May in 2015, has followed a troubled path of delays and controversy to reach this point. Last year, victims groups withdrew support from the process in a dispute over granting anonymity to so many of the police witnesses.
The inquiry was prompted following revelations that an undercover policeman had infiltrated campaigners calling for social justice for the grieving family of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, killed in 1993, to gather information about activities damaging to the reputation of the Metropolitan Police.
Among others, ‘spycop’ Mark Kennedy masquerading as eco-activist ‘Mark Stone’ had sexual relationships with several women in environmental groups he was reporting on.
So, that leaves the question, “What sort of person would do this?”. Where factual evidence isn’t available, it may be the job of fiction to explore the terrain.
This is what I have done in my debut novel, literary thriller The Tears of Boabdil. The protagonist, Vince is an undercover policeman – a ‘spycop’. He is tasked with penetrating a jihadi cell.
I was inspired in 2015 to begin writing it when revelations first surfaced about ‘spycops’ infiltrating community groups and sleeping with their targets. As an aid worker, I saw the same thing happen over four decades as security services co-opted aid agencies to further national security and counter-insurgency aims in the 1980s during Central America’s civil wars, and later.
Vince is not a good man. He is weak and self-justifying, even self-deluded. Yet, because the story is told from his (unreliable) point of view, the reader has some sympathy for him. We know we shouldn’t. He even warns us in the first chapter that he’s a professional liar. Yet, still, we sort of like him. The book traces the magic and tragedy of a lie.
We first see him trying on his cover identity of Zami, a convert to Islam. Zami is strong and fearless. He has what Vince lacks. Vince doesn’t just assume the identity of Zami. Like an actor, he becomes Zami and is released from his own personal doubt and pain by the persona he takes on.
The border between truth and lies isn’t clear to Vince. He believes the truth of a thing is the story we tell about it: almost everything we think we know, including ourselves is a narrative. And so, he tricks himself into believing that it’s okay to sleep with Ayesha, the sister of his principal targets. Not only must he hide the relationship from the brothers, he must also do so from his handler, the hated Tommy.
There is, of course, a cost to be paid. For Vince, that price is his grip on reality, his sanity. For Ayesha, his victim, it is much higher. As pressures grow on Vince, his stories start to unravel and merge.
Early in the book, Vince begins to tell Ayesha stories of Don Vincent, a troubadour in 15h century Spain. Don Vincent meets and woos a Muslim washerwoman, Ayesha, in Granada, last redoubt in Europe of the Moorish civilisation under its caliph Boabdil. In the real world the noose tightens on Vince. In the story world, the Spanish Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, lay siege to Granada and threaten Boabdil, putting pressure on Don Vincent’s loyalties. Vince and Don Vincent begin to change places.
Mythological creatures from the Middle East’s Sumerian past begin to assail Vince as his sanity fractures. Boabdil is driven from Granada and into exile. At a hilltop, he turns and looks at the city he has lost, and sheds a tear. Hence the title of the novel.
The psychological cost may not have been as high to those real police agents who infiltrated the Stephen Lawrence’s family, who spied on trade unions and protest groups. But the inability to tell truth from fiction, right from wrong, must have been as high as they were for Vince.
The Tears of Boabdil by Neil MacDonald is published through Matador, priced £7.99 in paperback and £2.99 as an eBook. It is available on Amazon and for more information visit www.neilmacdonaldauthor.com
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR NEIL MACDONALD
We speak to retired humanitarian aid executive and author Neil MacDonald about his former career, his assessment of the ‘spycop’ scandal and Undercover Policing Inquiry, and how this inspired his first novel, The Tears of Boabdil
Q. What is your assessment of the use of undercover cops? Is there ever a valid justification for such means of gathering information for the sake of national security?
A.Clearly, there are circumstances where infiltration of groups and communities is necessary and legitimate in the interests of public safety. But trade unions, peaceful protest groups, and campaigns for justice by grieving families are part of a vibrant democracy, not threats to public safety. It is hard to see the justification, for example, for police agents infiltrating and spying on the family of Stephen Lawrence, murdered in a racially motivated attack in 1993. Preserving the damaged reputation of the Metropolitan Police can never be a reason for such infringement of privacy and grief. And there can never be any circumstances in which it is right for a ‘spycop’ to trick the women he’s spying on into sexual relationships. If a woman does not consent to knowingly have sex with an undercover policeman, this can only be described as rape.
Q. What do you think will be the outcome of the UCPI inquiry?
A. It is hard to see, given the granting of anonymity to the police witnesses, how this enquiry is ever going to get to the bottom of what happened and bring justice and closure for the victims. We can always hope for the best, but it would be wise to prepare for the worst.
Q. What motivated you to base a novel on the ‘spycop’ scandal?
A. Fiction steps in where factual research can do no more. The UCPI enquiry will probably never tell us who did these things or why they did them. The book asks and explores the question, “What kind of person would do this?”, and also examine what the consequences are for that person.
Q. Your novel could be described as a literary thriller. What would you say that readers will gain from it?
A. The reader will be able to explore the personality, and the motivation of a ‘spycop’. My protagonist, Vince, is a weak man, abandoned by his mother and brought up by a disciplinarian father. He is released, like an actor, by playing a part. He believes truth is the story we create about a thing. He creates the character of Zami, a Muslim convert, in order to penetrate a jihadi group. Zami is strong and fearless—he has what Vince lacks. He convinces himself that having a sexual relationship with Ayesha, the sister of his main quarries, will help his mission. He convinces his hated handler, Tommy, that he is progressing well with the investigation. In the end, sustaining his lie becomes impossible.
Q. What is the meaning of the title of your new novel, The Tears of Boabdil?
A. The novel interweaves two stories. There is the present-day tale of an undercover policeman, Vince, pretending to be a Muslim to infiltrate ajihadi cell. And there is the tale of Don Vincent, a fictional 15-century Spanish troubadour who lives in the Moorish city of Granada, just before the final conquest of the city by the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. Boabdil was the last ruler of Muslim Spain. In the final chapter of the book, we see Boabdil going into exile, turning back to look at his city and letting fall a single tear.
Q. Prior to your retirement, you worked in the humanitarian sector. What attracted you to this sector, and what achievements are you most proud of?
A. I was trained and worked initially as a scientist, a geneticist. And it was wonderful, being paid to go into the lab every day and solve intricate puzzles. But I came to feel that, given the world we live in, there were more important problems, such as world poverty. This probably reflects the influence of a childhood spent in the Caribbean. The achievements I’m most proud of are probably those with the greatest impact. I spent much of the last 20 years helping aid agencies and government bodies to plan and measure their impact better. It’s simple: if you’re not clear why you’re doing something, you’ll never be clear on whether you’ve succeeded and what you could have done better. For example, I was instrumental in helping an agency in the Angola to understand that it wasn’t enough to help deprived boys—they needed to find the hidden sisters too. But the achievements I remember most fondly are those when I was able to work directly with organisations of peasants and shanty town dwellers. It was from them I learned most.
Q. Are humanitarian agencies wholly a force for good?
A. No humanitarian agency is wholly a force for good. At root, our industry grows out of the colonial experience. Our values are not necessarily those of the people we serve. But I believe, despite contradictions, most aid agencies do more good than harm. At best, they support people to be more resilient and better able to make their own choices, including the ability to reject the help of aid agencies. There are, however, some situations in which this isn’t true. To do their work, humanitarian organisations have to be scrupulously neutral. Where this neutrality is compromised, the agency cannot maintain the trust of the people they work with, and may indeed compromise the safety of some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet. That is why episodes of security services penetrating and manipulating humanitarian agencies have proved so wrong and so deadly.
During the 1980s civil wars in Central America, the evangelical Christian charity World Vision, which ran a refugee camp on the El Salvador/Honduras border, was accused of colluding with counter-insurgency strategy and Honduran death squads resulting in the abduction and deaths of some under their care. Similar use by the US military has been alleged of the evangelical agency International Services Group in Afghanistan and North Korea. The Guardian also published claims that Linda Norgrove, a British employee of the global development company DAI, killed in Afghanistan, had also been an MI5 agent. There is no justification for corrupting humanitarian agencies as an instrument of intelligence-gathering or counter-insurgency.
Q. Because of your work, you had to operate in countries impacted by civil and political unrest. What was your most dangerous assignment?
A. Undoubtedly, the most dangerous time was during the civil wars in Central America. People were being ‘disappeared’ every day. I spent several years going in and out of the region. People I knew were murdered by death squads. On one visit to El Salvador, I was staying with a contact. Civil wars divide families and this family was no exception. My contact was sympathetic to the peasants. Her husband was a member of a far-right political party linked to the death squads. On a later visit, when I was working for Oxfam, a group of us had been into one of the guerrilla-controlled zones and were stopped by soldiers as we crossed a bridge into government territory. Dusk was falling, and they separated the men from the women, lined us up facing a ditch with guns at our back. I thought they were going to shoot us into that ditch. I have worked in other conflict zones, such as Angola, Sudan, and Yemen. In Yemen, where I worked for a year for the EU, I was advised how to behave and who to contract if I was abducted. But all passed without incident.
Q. You believe that is highly likely that British aid agencies are being infiltrated by intelligence operatives. Do you have any first-hand experiences that add to this suspicion?
A. There was the time I picked up my phone and, without dialling, got a recording of a conversation I’d had the previous day (eavesdropping in those days used reel-to-reel tape recorders). There was also the time when a Brit I’d bumped into in El Salvador walked into my office in London, smiled, gave me a look, and walked out again. I was then coordinating a human rights organisation for Central America, during the period of the civil wars in the 1980s. I’d just returned from a fact-finding mission to El Salvador, using the cover story that I was a visiting academic. My visitor was letting me understand that he’d known exactly who I really was. I never knew the same of him. And there was the time, again during the wars in Central America, when I reported on a US-based evangelical agency handing over refugees under its care to Honduran death squads. We alleged they were acting as an arm of US-supported counter-insurgency. They threatened a lawsuit and we had to cease publishing, since their pockets were substantially deeper than ours.
Q. What’s next for you as an author?
A. I’m working on a very different novel now, The Star Compass. It’s about a bookish caretaker at a minor public school who undertakes a visit to the tiny island of Yap in the remote South Pacific. There he encounters traditional navigators who voyage in canoes across the vast ocean without sextant or compass, navigating by means of the stars and imaginary islands. There he discovers that we see the world, not as it is, but as we are.