A family man posing as an NHS worker and hotel inspector infiltrated the violent New IRA splinter group and spilled its secrets to MI5 for more than a decade before disappearing into thin air.
Dennis McFadden, ‘the man who was always there but never there’, disrupted meetings and obtained information from suspected terrorists offering them holidays in Spain and tickets to Celtic, according to a sensational series of court hearings in Northern Ireland.
In an effort to loosen the tongues of the suspected New IRA members, the Glaswegian gorged them on Guinness and gin at a covid-closed 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 so-called military council of high-ranking figures from the group in rented Airbnbs, with the agent allegedly staying behind when everyone else went to collect ashtrays and dust glasses for DNA.
MI5 agent Dennis McFadden, who infiltrated dissident republican groups in Northern Ireland
Dennis McFadden, 54, lived with his wife, Christine, 38, and their young son in a quiet cul-de-sac of 1980s-era townhouses in Glengormley, a north Belfast suburb.
Residents described him as a good neighbor, with one saying: “To be honest, he was too nice, too friendly, always buying you a drink.”
The MI5 agent told local residents that he was a hotel inspector who would have to travel often to carry out security checks on tourist accommodation.
But for more than 15 years it had been infiltrating splinter groups that opposed the 1998 Good Friday deal.
And while the locals thought he was out inspecting hotels, he was actually questioning MI5.
McFadden rose through the ranks to join the Saoradh national executive, the political wing of the New IRA, serving as resource officer and becoming involved in the party’s financial affairs.
Spy chiefs believe McFadden’s work has seriously damaged the organization, which is blamed for bombings, punitive shootings and the 2019 murder of journalist Lyra McKee.
Information about proceedings can now be reported because for terrorism cases in Northern Ireland there is no jury to prejudge.
Instead, terrorism cases are heard without a jury due to fears dating back to the 1970s that jurors could be intimidated by terrorist groups.
The now abandoned bungalow where McFadden lived before he disappeared
McFadden is said to have spoken with Kevin Barry Murphy, 50, a suspected high-ranking figure in the New IRA.
McFadden’s success came despite an apparently bleak start for MI5, whose political involvement began with meetings of its local branch of Sinn Fein.
It is said that he attracted suspicion, with one person who knew him saying: ‘I used to ask people ‘where are the other meetings?’ I gave it a wide circle. He always seemed to be in the background all the time.
But McFadden soon began to ingratiate himself with splinter republican groups such as the New IRA, which has been identified as the most violent and active splinter republican group operating in Northern Ireland.
The group was responsible for the fatal shooting of journalist Lyra McKee, who died while covering the Derry riots in 2019.
In an effort to attract members, ‘Mad Celtic’ McFadden gave them tickets to football matches in Scotland, covering travel expenses and offering accommodation with his family there.
On three occasions, McFadden treated 50-year-old Kevin Barry Murphy, a suspected New IRA senior official, on holiday in Spain with his wives, paying for the flights and villa each time.
The undercover agent also arranged travel and accommodation for members to attend political conferences abroad, including in Brussels and Beirut.
A republican mural on a side wall of the Saoradh offices in the city center of Derry, Northern Ireland, in early May this year. Saoradh is the political wing of the New IRA
The New IRA claimed responsibility for the fatal shooting of journalist Lyra McKee (pictured) in 2019
Known as a man for whom “money was no problem”, it is unclear whether McFadden’s drinking parties, holidays and football tickets were funded by MI5 or by Saoradh.
MI5 does not disclose intelligence-gathering spending, but between 2017 and 2022, the Northern Ireland Police Service paid £1.6m to informers. The times informed.
What is also unclear is whether McFadden was planted by the security services or turned into an informant, perhaps due to pressure or as a result of his renunciation of violent republicanism.
Their main means of gathering evidence was to bug meeting rooms where suspected leaders of the New IRA met.
When arguments started, he would leave for a work phone call or to buy tea bags, earning him the nickname ‘the tea boy’.
The recordings also revealed the New IRA’s desire to forge international links to obtain supplies of weapons 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.
Lyra McKee’s sisters Joan Hunter (centre-right), Nichola Corner (right) and family hug on Fanad Drive in Derry earlier this year.
A defendant in 2020 filed a bail application, but Judge McAlinden rejected it, saying, “Absolutely crazy stuff was discussed at these meetings.”
In 2020, McFadden disappeared with his family, and his former comrades were unable to reach him by phone.
A neighbor said: ‘I thought he was on one of his hotel trips. Then one night a taxi came and the woman and child just walked off with a bag or two.
“Three or four days later a black van with dark windows arrived and two guys went into the house and took out a lot of things. 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 detainees deny all the charges against them, including direct terrorism, preparation of terrorist acts and membership of a banned organization.
McFadden will not be called to testify and is believed to be living under a new identity in witness protection.