ESPRIT DE CONTRADICTION: Rita Ricketts reviews MI5's evolving case against Costello, as revealed in his recently released file in the British archives.

AuthorRicketts, Rita
PositionPADDY COSTELLO - Case study

Friends knew Paddy Costello as funny, noisy, irreverent, argumentative, acerbic, occasionally appallingly drunk and a latter day minstrel. But Costello, a forensic Irish smartarse, who would not tug his forelock to his British elders and betters, raised the Establishment's hackles. Even more damning, he could speak Russian and understood the Russian psyche. So, of course, he had to be a Soviet agent in MI5's eyes. Whether or not Costello was a spy is still debated. Although the recently released MI5 files will provide ammunition for his detractors, they offer little more substantive proof.

In their prolonged scrutiny of Paddy Costello, MI5 had scant evidence to go on. As a child, he was something of a paragon: an altar boy and a swot. His parents were conservative, patriotic and devout Roman Catholics. But they were of Irish immigrant descent, and his mother was famous for her renditions of patriotic songs. Tom Larkin, now aged 99, still remembers all the verses of a revolutionary song of Costello's mother, taught to him by Costello. Living in crowded conditions over his fathers grocery shop for the first ten years of his life, in working class Auckland, must have encouraged Costello's anti-establishment leanings and left him with a chip on the shoulder, or so MI5 maintained. (1)

More prescient would be Costello's student years: first at Auckland College then Cambridge. In Auckland, however, during what Malcolm McKinnon terms 'the broken decade', (2) Costello had kept his head down. Gaining a double First in Greek and Latin, he was awarded a travelling scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge. New Zealand's police commissioner reported later, in July 1934, that while in Auckland Costello was a 'decent young man with no communist tendencies'. But he had 'friends who had communist leanings', and may have 'become a sympathizer'. That 'he had renounced Roman Catholicism' was also thought to be significant. (3) Where better to find a new, communist, 'faith' than in the very left-inclined Cambridge of the 1930s?

Costello almost certainly took part in the peace demonstration in November 1933. In 1934, MI5 discovered, he contributed 5 [pounds sterling] to the communist paper Daily Worker and was associating with communists. In a letter on file, Griff Maclaurin, a member of the Communist Party, writes to his friend Costello that he will contribute a further 30 shillings to funds; he adds: 'I'm sorry I cannot send more'. (4) Here indeed was something to go on. Costello had certainly known other, famous, communists while at Cambridge, such as John Cornford and James Klugmann. But by the time they had taken over the Cambridge cell, Costello had gone down.

When the Russians were recruiting the infamous 'Cambridge Five', Costello was married and out of earshot. (5) But his wife Bella ('Bil') started to attract MI5's attention. The fifth of eight children born to Russian-Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, she had followed her married brother to Cambridge to help care for his twins while he was at the university. Looking for part-time work, she ran across Maclaurin, who offered her a job in his bookshop. Later MI 5 would see it as axiomatic that Bil, whose family were leftish, would fall in with a communist: 'her brothers and sisters had much in common with the Kroger [Cohen] spies'. (6) Paddy met Bil in his friend's bookshop and soon after, in 1935, they married. Costello took up a lectureship at University College, Exeter just as the Spanish Civil War started. When Maclaurin wrote that he was going to fight, Costello rushed to London to see him off, but was forbidden by Bil to follow suit. Maclaurin was killed fighting in defence of Madrid and John Cornford, who was friendly with Bil, died a few weeks later. After these tragedies, Bil was active in the Exeter Communist Party, becoming a full member in August 1943, MI5 noted.

Secret trip

After spending the 1937 summer raising funds for the Republican cause, Costello made a secret trip to India, taking 500 [pounds sterling] in cash as a gift from the British Communist Party to the Indian Communist Party. (7) In February 1940, the police reported that 'various members of the Communist Party' lodged from time to time with the Costellos; they included Bil's brother Jack Lerner, who had sold the Daily Worker in London in 1934 and was raising funds in Exeter. (8) The same report contained the news that 'Desmond Patrick Costello--Communist' had resigned from the Labour Party, having refused to sign a document agreeing to abide by its principles.

Had Costello turned communist? When Costello was dismissed from his Exeter post, in October 1940, for 'communist activities', MI5 was convinced. But the evidence was purely...

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