Alex Massie

Julia Pirie: A Real Miss Froy

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Cracking obituary in the Telegraph the other day:

Julia Pirie, who has died aged 90, spent two decades as an MI5 agent at the heart of the Communist Party of Great Britain, most of it as personal assistant to the party's general secretary.

A small, dumpy woman with the appearance of a confirmed and rather matronly spinster, Julia Pirie was the most unlikely of spies. But her unassuming demeanour masked a sharp intellect and the powers of observation essential for the task of a secret agent.

She was recruited to infiltrate the party at the beginning of the 1950s, at a time when many Britons still remembered the Soviet Union as a valued wartime ally and Communists retained considerable influence within the trades union movement.

Julia Pirie would pass over her regular reports and photocopied documents to her MI5 handlers during cricket matches at the Oval cricket ground, a procedure that left her with a lifelong love of the game.

She was told to resign from her party post in the 1970s, by which time, she said, the Communist Party had become a rather pathetic and increasingly irrelevant organisation. She went on to collect intelligence on the Provisional IRA during several missions in Europe.

Effortlessly adopting the cover of a harmless, elderly English spinster intent on sightseeing, Julia Pirie once travelled to Barcelona, renting a flat immediately below one occupied by IRA officials. The flat, rented by members of the Catalan terrorist group Terra Lliure, was being used by the IRA as a safe house and a temporary store for shipments of gold bullion supplied by the Libyan President Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

Julia Pirie's inability to control the reverberation and echo coming from her own equipment led to some precarious and alarming moments. At one point her apartment was raided by the Barcelona police, putting the entire operation at risk. Julia Pirie was aware from monitoring their communications that the IRA terrorists were nervous of discovery, and the arrival of a number of armed police officers was unlikely to reassure them.

But she managed to persuade the police that she was simply an innocent English spinster, and calmly continued her monitoring operation until her MI5 handlers, alarmed at the latest turn of events, pulled her out for her own safety.

Do read the whole thing. Oh, and the kicker?

Until her death on September 2 Julia Pirie continued to receive her pension from the Communist Party, paid monthly into her account from a bank in Italy. She was unmarried.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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