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 Julia Pirie

Perhaps due to the fact that Pirie was an MI5 agent who for two decades worked at the head office of the British Communist Party, she does not deserve an entry in this Compendium! Nonetheless, as Lenin once observed of a Tsarist agent discovered to have been a spy in the midst of the  Bolsheviks before the revolution, s(he) performed some good service to the Party!!!  

Pirie was recruited to infiltrate the party at the beginning of the 1950s and passed on her regular reports and photocopied documents to her MI5 handlers during cricket matches at the Oval cricket ground.

She is said to have been a PA to John Gollan, implying some special access to discreet information but this was not in the nature of the secretarial tasks carried out in King Street; essentially, she was a typist of the rather mundane kind of documents that now grace the archives of the Communist Party. Nor, indeed, was John Gollan noted for having himself been a man for anything that might count for sensitive areas of work, rather these were more the preserve of the National Organiser and the Industrial Organiser.

Pirie worked for F4, the section within MI5 which monitored the Communist Party's activities and, especially, its links with the trades union movement. It would have been in this arena that MI5 would have wanted information from Pirie but the nature of Party activity of this kind did not require secretarial work, for such activity was not generally written down in any way and certainly not by King Street, or by typists within the head office. 

Her detractors say that she was asked to leave her employment in the 1970s having been suspected for some time of some disloyalty. MI5, or at any rate journalists sympathetic to it, claim that she was told to resign because the Party was no longer considered a relevant target. She went on to collect intelligence on the Provisional IRA during several missions in Europe.

Pirie died aged 90 in 2008, when the full details of her clandestine life, along with the basic facts of her background were released in a move clearly associated with her former real employers of MI5. Elizabeth Mary Julia Pirie (known to her family as Elizabeth, but, later, as Julia to her colleagues in MI5) was born at Harbury, Warwickshire, on July 8th 1918, the only daughter of Allen Grant Pirie and Elizabeth Mary Pirie.

Her father, an advocate from Aberdeen, died in 1923 as a result of wounds received in France while serving in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Soon afterwards Elizabeth's mother decided to return to Calcutta, where she had been born and brought up, taking her daughter with her. The latter was educated at the Loreto convent at Shillong, in a rural area of Assam, where she recalled tigers roaming around the school.

On the outbreak of war in 1939, Pirie returned to Britain and joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women's section of the British Army. She saw service as a driver of staff cars and ambulances in Shrewsbury before volunteering after D-Day for work in France and Germany. After serving with the British Army on the Rhine, she went to work as secretary and personal assistant to the Duchess of Atholl. It was during this time that Pirie joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, which had provided female agents for the Special Operations Executive working with the French Resistance. She then worked for the International Maritime Organisation before being approached by MI5, possibly as a result of her links with FANY, and was asked to infiltrate the Communist Party by working as a typist.

It has also been claimed that she obtained the “entire secret membership” of the Party for MI5 but it is doubtful that such `secret’ membership constituted anything, especially during the period she was employed, but those employed by unions that banned Communists from holding office, or those in other sensitive employment or personal circumstances, such as business persons concerned not to damage their commercial activity by having it known that they were Party members.

Extraordinarily, some media commentators have stretched the ambiguity that lay within their construction of `secret’, or what in other walks of life might be merely `confidential’, to write that some members of the party were told to keep their membership secret “so that they could be used by the KGB or Soviet military intelligence”. There is absolutely no evidence of this having been the case at all, indeed it borders on the absurd that a mainstream newspaper could even begin to believe that this might have been true - of the 1950s to 1970s Communist Party at any rate. The conflation of Soviet intelligence interests with the underground work of the Comintern was, perhaps, more relevantly ambiguous in the last seven years of the existence of the International.

Even so, the stories of bugging, surveillance and prurience over the private lives of Communists that accompanied obituaries of Pirie remain perfect examples of the security forces using a supposed Soviet threat - and a supposed commitment by British Communists to aid this - to justify their life of abundant high jinks and illegal high-handedness.

Main source: Daily Telegraph 28th Oct 2008