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Stella Rimington, The FT Weekend

“In those days I didn’t think of MI5 as a career. I thought it was all rather amusing.”

I sit in the reception of a Bloomsbury hotel, watching the door, waiting for Rimington, Dame Stella Rimington. This is home ground for the former Director-General of MI5, who worked here, on Gower Street, in her early espionage years.

Another Dame – Judi Dench – is said to have partly modelled her purse-lipped, steely portrayal of James Bond’s boss M on Rimington. But the slightly stooped 72-year-old with a becoming hairdo and elegant jacket who wanders into reception is nothing like that. Rimington gives a kindly smile, a soft handshake and we go through to the conservatory.

Was she as bossy as Dame Judi’s M, I ask? She laughs, a big hoot. “No, I don’t think I was. I was fairly clear about what I wanted but I was collegiate. Most of the things a leader has to decide are difficult, and you try and surround yourself with people whose opinions you value, and who are not exactly like you.”

Rimington has a faintly northern accent – though born in London in 1935, she studied at Nottingham Girl’s High School and Edinburgh and Liverpool Universities. She laughs a lot. When concentrating, she looks away, eyes flicking. When worried, she twists the solitaire ring on her wedding finger. She talks about intelligence or terrorism with slow circumspection.

The four years from 1992 to 1996 that Rimington spent as head of MI5, at the apex of Britain’s domestic intelligence network, were eventful. MI5 took over from Special Branch as the agency responsible for countering IRA terrorism on the UK mainland. The 1994 Intelligence Services Act brought the intelligence services under parliamentary committee scrutiny. An IRA ceasefire began in August 1994 and ended in February 1996. Meanwhile, MI5 moved from their assorted West End offices to the imposing neo-classical bulk of Thames House on Millbank.

What can MI5 do against terrorism? “Prevent certain terrorist plans taking place, by prior intelligence and good police work. That’s what MI5 does. It can never achieve 100 per cent success because there is no such thing as 100 per cent intelligence…The difficulty is, people see the attacks they [MI5 and the police] have failed to prevent. They don’t see the attacks they have prevented.”

The subject of prevention is not new to Rimington. Shortly after 9/11, it was alleged by The Observer newspaper that in 1994 Rimington had closed a joint MI5-MI6 section investigating Middle Eastern Islamist terrorism. Is this true? “It’s a complete misunderstanding. We [MI5 and MI6] did briefly have a joint section working against Middle Eastern targets. It was decided it would be better if MI5 focused on the threat to the nation, terrorism, and MI6 focused on trying to get intelligence. We [MI5 and MI6] were trying to focus more closely on our own business, rather than mixing it up.”

How, as a former director of counter-terrorism, does she feels when she sees Martin McGuinness as Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister? (At his trial for possessing explosives and ammunition in 1973, McGuinness said, “I am a member of the IRA and very, very proud of it.”)

Her grey eyes burn. “That’s quite difficult.” She pauses. “But I also feel the work we did to stop the IRA ultimately brought the Republicans to the point where they were prepared to engage in the political process.”

Does she miss MI5? “No. I found it very difficult when I first left because it takes over your life. Suddenly you find yourself outside the ring of secrecy. [There is] a sense of bereavement coupled with a sense of relief, that you no longer have to be responsible for these things.”

However, the issue of secrecy did not completely disappear from her life. In 2001, Rimington published her autobiography, Open Secret. It was scrupulously discreet but still created a lot of media fuss. Even at draft stage, the Ministry of Defence’s copy was leaked to The Sun, which then sent it round to Downing Street in a taxi.

Did she regret writing it? “I did have doubts as the process went along. But I knew there was nothing in it that was actually going to be damaging.”

Is it harder keeping secrets in an age seemingly obsessed with transparency? “More and more information does get out,” she says. “It’s to do with 24-hour press coverage and the internationalisation of the issues. If information doesn’t leak out here, it might leak out of the United States. I don’t think there are more leaks from the intelligence services. But the more oversight there is of these organisations, the more chances there are for information to leak out.”

Since retirement, Rimington has been a non-executive director of Marks & Spencer and British Gas, Chairman of the Institute of Cancer Research and sat on the board of the Royal Marsden NHS Trust. She now restricts herself to one-to-one business mentoring, sitting on the board of the domestic violence charity Refuge and writing spy novels.

Was boredom her great fear? “I think that, yeah. As you get older there is a fear that if you stop doing things you will no longer have anything of interest in your life. Since I retired, I’ve created new families. I left the intelligence family. I then joined Marks & Spencer and that was another family. Now I’m in publishing and that’s another.”

Family is a theme Rimington returns to often. Her early life was unsettled. The family moved around wartime Britain as her draughtsman father changed jobs. With her own family, she took the decision, bold in 1971, to return to work three months after the birth of her daughter Sophie. (Her second daughter, Harriet, was born in 1974.) Rimington balanced family and career with the help of childminders and improvisation, once having to settle Sophie in the bedroom of a safe house with her homework while meeting an intelligence source in the sitting room.

In Open Secret Rimington says her MI5 role damaged her relationship with her daughters. Has it improved? “Hugely. We now get on extremely well. But it was extremely difficult, particularly when I was director-general. Sophie was at university and students don’t necessarily think being head of MI5 is a good thing. She had to put up with intrusive press stuff as well. Difficult for Harriet because she was living at home and we had to leave home. At one stage I really did feel I was going to lose both of them.”

Rimington has been a single parent since she and husband John separated in 1984. (They still see each other: “We get on very well,” she says, and chuckles.) Has there been anyone else? She suppresses a laugh: “That’s private, I think.”

Stella Whitehouse was 27 when she married John Rimington, a childhood friend, in 1963. John was posted to the High Commission in New Delhi in 1965 as First Economic Secretary. It was here that MI5′s man in Delhi (a Jaguar-driving baronet, enticingly anonymous in her autobiography) invited her to help with administration. She worked in the commission’s information research department and, when the Rimingtons returned home in 1969, she joined MI5 as a junior assistant officer.

“In those days I didn’t think of MI5 as a career,” she recalls. “I thought it was all rather amusing.” Over the next five years she worked on Northern Ireland intelligence, counter-espionage and the search for Soviet agents planted by the Burgess-Philby-Maclean-Blunt-Cairncross spy ring.

She got serious about it in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “I moved into counter-subversion [and I began] to realise what was going on was, literally, subversion. The Soviet Union was trying to undermine western democracies by infiltrating areas which were levers [of society].”

In Rimington’s second novel Secret Asset an undercover agent is murdered by the terrorists he is spying on. The book says, “There was sometimes self-indulgence in feeling guilty.” Did she have to suppress emotions when running agents?

“To an extent you do. In running agents in a terrorist area, the key is proportionality: the balance of the seriousness of the thing you are trying to prevent, against the risks you are asking [your agent] to take. The compact is that if the agents are taking risks, you will look after them.”

It must be stressful. “Yes, yes, it is.”

Rimington has always said MI5 does not kill people. Had she ever wished they could? She jolts. “No. No. MI5 is an intelligence organisation, it’s not a direct action organisation. It is trying to find out what people are planning, then prevent it by use of the law. So, no. No.”

By 1981 Rimington had risen to number two in the Soviet Bloc section and, over the next decade, kept rising until, in 1992, she was named Director-General of MI5. She was the first woman DG and the first publicly identified by MI5. Journalists camped on her doorstep and The Independent published a photograph of her house (resulting in her and Harriet moving out).

Going public was a little odd, she recalls. She even gave the BBC’s Dimbleby Lecture, in 1994. “That was very strange, having lived in the shadows suddenly to be on television talking about what we did. I wasn’t nervous about what the public would say but about carrying the thing off with credit to everyone [in intelligence].”

In her autobiography, Rimington describes the periods of anxiety, claustrophobia and depression she suffered from her mid-20s to mid-30s. How did she overcome those, and the lack of confidence she had when she joined MI5? “Gradually. You gradually come to realise there are things you actually do quite well, and that everyone else is not super-brilliant.”

When has she been happiest? “I was very happy as Director-General, it was a fantastic job. I’m happy now in that I have no hugely demanding problems to solve, I have a family I am close to and an interesting job.”

Does she have a writing routine? “About now I start thinking about the plot. I get going about September and work on until around May.” Her favourite spy writer is John le CarrĂ©. “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Smiley’s People. All those guys in hairy sports jackets smoking pipes. It was very reminiscent of when I joined MI5.”

Rimington’s third and latest novel, Illegal Action, concerns murder and espionage among the Russian community living in London. Does she think the Russian secret service killed former Russian security agent Alexander Litvinenko?

“If the Russians did, their tradecraft has deteriorated remarkably from what I knew. You invite someone to have tea and then you pour poison in it? The evidence seems to point to this former member of the intelligence services but, as I say, it [the murder] is disappointingly straightforward.”

Before we part, I ask Rimington why she’d wanted to meet in Bloomsbury. Disappointingly, it had nothing to do with old MI5 days: she’d been lunching with Quercus, who will be publishing her books after Illegal Action. She had begun to find Random House too corporate. Is Quercus more family-like? “Much more, yes. There you go, I’m creating myself another family.”

28 July 2007

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