The Irish outsider set to lead British intelligence agency GCHQ

By on April 24, 2014
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Robert Hannigan has been chosen as directory of GCHQ

BRITAIN’S incoming director of GCHQ, the secretive cyber spying agency, is of Irish heritage, enjoys watching GAA in his spare time and formerly trained as a teacher.

Robert Hannigan was seen as an outside choice for the role as head of GCHQ when it was announced last week that he would take up the role in August

However, National Security Adviser, Sir Kim Darroch, said Hannigan would bring “energy, flair, deep knowledge and extensive experience to the role”.

Sometimes dubbed Britain’s eavesdropping agency because of their methods of mass surveillance of internet and phone traffic, the Government Communications Headquarters is a clandestine agency working to ensure the “safety and security of the United Kingdom”.

As well as protecting regular citizens, GCHQ also acts on behalf of the Government, the army, the police and big business. One of the agency’s biggest challenges is fighting terrorism, drug trafficking and other serious crime.

Hannigan’s Irish roots are also something of a secret, while it was confirmed to The Irish Post that he is “of Irish heritage” few details about his family will be released due to the nature of the role he will take on this autumn.

What we do know is Hannigan was born in Gloucestershire, not far from GCHQ’s hub. He grew up in Yorkshire and studied classics at Wadham College, Oxford.  He spent some time training to be a teacher, and possibly had thoughts of the priesthood before joining the civil service.

He follows hurling and Gaelic football along with rugby, tennis and golf and he is married with two children — a son and a daughter. It’s likely that few other details of his private life will ever be released.

Hannigan might be new to the spy game but he has held several top ranking roles. He joined the FCO as director general of defence and intelligence in March 2010. Since then he has advised David Cameron on counter terrorism, intelligence and security policy.

He originally joined the civil service from the private sector, before becoming director of communications for the Northern Ireland Office. Hannigan acted as principal adviser to Tony Blair and various Secretaries of State during the peace process.

An account in Andrew Rawnsley’s book The End of the Party describes one tense incident during the peace talks in 2007. Sinn Féin and the DUP had agreed to appear in a staged photograph to show that they were serious about power sharing, but there was a problem. Both sides were quarrelling over how Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley would be seated in the picture.

The GCHQ complex in Gloucester

The GCHQ complex in Gloucester

“The DUP demanded an adversarial seating plan,” writes Rawnsley. They wanted Paisley sitting opposite Adams while Sinn Féin insisted the men sit side by side, “as partners”. The squabble was solved by the “ingenuity of Robert Hannigan” who proposed making a diamond-shaped table and sitting both men at the apex and thus the historic image was captured.

When Gordon Brown took over from Blair in 2007, he made Hannigan his head of intelligence, security, and resilience in the cabinet office.

Hannigan’s CV also lists him as a long-term member of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) and a regular chair of Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (COBR) meetings on terrorist incidents. He was also responsible for Britain’s first cyber security strategy and oversaw the first national security strategy.

Hannigan said it was a “privilege” to be asked to lead GCHQ. “I have great respect for the integrity and professionalism of the staff of GCHQ and for what they have achieved under the outstanding leadership of Iain Lobban,” adding that he was excited at the challenges ahead.

Foreign Secretary, William Hague said he was “delighted” about the appointment saying: “As well as his impressive personal qualities, Robert brings to the job a wealth of relevant experience in the fields of national security, counter-terrorism and international relations”.

Hague also paid tribute to the outgoing director, Sir Iain Lobban who has held the position since 2008.

Hannigan’s appointment could suggest a sea change at the agency. Sources say Hannigan is seen as “an outsider” and that this is “very significant” considering how GCHQ was tarnished by whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s revelations.

The agency came under fire when The Guardian newspaper broke a story exposing that the agency had been running an operation codenamed ‘Tempora’ during which it recorded telephone calls, spied on emails and on social media and shared the information with NSA.

Hannigan isn’t the only top security dog with Irish roots. John Brennan, current director of the CIA descendants hail from Co. Roscommon while US army general and current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey’s grandparents are also Irish.

Irish Post

About Katy Harrington

The Irish Post is the biggest-selling weekly newspaper for the Irish in Britain and the voice of the Irish community since 1970. Follow the Irish Post on Twitter @theirishpost