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May 14, 2003
I risked death to spy on IRA
by James Rennie
Why would an IRA man dice with death to inform on his collegues? A former army intelligence office explains the lure of undercover life
WHAT MOTIVATES SOMEBODY to take on one of the most deadly roles in modern society - that of an informer inside the IRA? A psychologist writing in this paper on Monday told us that such a man was probably the victim of a personality disorder, which causes him to feel truly "alive" only when acting out a role, being an impostor. Well . . . maybe.
Freddie Scappaticci, aka Stakeknife, may or may not have been an undercover agent for the British security forces. I rarely believe what I read about covert operations; it is usually wrong and planted to suit those briefing the journalists.
Nonetheless, I have followed the Stakeknife story closely because I also once volunteered to work under cover in Northern Ireland. The media speculation about the motivation of somebody who opts for this line of work has brought back a host of memories and raised again some unanswered questions. Why exactly had I been willing to give up the security of conventional Army life in Germany for the dangerous half-light of covert intelligence operations?
As a 25-year-old infantry officer in the mid-1980s I rapidly became bored with peacetime garrison life, with its endless blank-firing exercises across the plains of central Germany. In my search for something more exciting I'd tried mountaineering in Norway, sailing in the North Atlantic, skiing in Bavaria and a jungle warfare training course in Borneo. All these diversions provided excitement, but only in a controlled and deliberate way. I wanted to be tested in a situation where I really wasn't in control. Probably, I should simply have become more deeply involved in extreme sports. As it was, I felt I needed to look further afield.
The turning point for me came during an emergency tour in West Belfast. My platoon spent six months patrolling some of the toughest areas of the city, including the Turf Lodge and Ballymurphy estates. It was physically demanding, relentless and frightening, since we were effectively walking targets, green-suited against the urban grey. But what really set me thinking was the day we stopped two individuals for questioning who turned out to be undercover soldiers - a man and a woman. "Don't worry about what we're up to," she muttered. "Just treat us like locals and we'll be on our way - you don't need to know what we're up to."
We had no idea who they were - and they couldn't have been SAS, because the SAS didn't recruit women - but we certainly admired their courage. I thought to myself, this could be the sort of job I'm after.
When I got back to Germany at the end of that tour, I saw it - a couple of lines in our daily orders: "From time to time there is a requirement for individual servicemen and women to volunteer for hazardous independent duties in Northern Ireland. The selection and training is rigorous and arduous. Volunteers should preferably be unmarried, be of medium stature and bear no prominent birthmarks or scars."
It set my pulse racing - I had to know more. I casually inquired of our intelligence officer if he knew what it was all about. "Undercover 'secret squirrels' in Northern Ireland - some kind of special forces malarkey," he said. "I'd steer clear of it if I were you - they aren't very nice people in my experience."
He'd said enough. He'd used the magic words special forces. I'd been impressed by the possibilities portrayed in the TV series based on Gerald Seymour's 1975 book, Harry's Game, in which a British agent, "Harry Brown", goes undercover to track down an IRA assassin who has murdered a British minister.
I knew that this was what I had to do. I wanted to test myself in this frightening and dangerous environment. Feeling apprehensive and fearful of failure, I volunteered for the job, knowing nothing whatsoever about it, but guessing - correctly - that whatever else might be involved, I would be in for a pretty rough time.
The next eight months passed in a swirl of gruelling selection and training courses as I and a dwindling band of nameless volunteers staggered and sweated from one daunting task to the next. It was particularly disturbing that even while we were learning awesome new skills - unarmed combat, covert photography, housebreaking, surveillance, advanced weapon handling and voice training to perfect a regional Irish accent - we were never told precisely what job we had been selected for.
As the training progressed I even began to suspect that we were going to join a unit involved in "black", or deniable, operations, above or beyond the law. I was relieved at the end of the training when it was made clear that while we would be joining the Army's most secret covert surveillance unit, and operating sometimes individually, more often in teams, in the very "hardest" republican communities, we would always be subject to both military and civil law.
In retrospect, many of the intelligence-gathering tasks we undertook may have resulted directly from "information received", as police parlance puts it, from Stakeknife himself. So we were not to be independent deep cover after all - and I was not to be another "Harry".
At the time this was oddly disappointing. What could require a more perfect and skilful discipline than living a life as another person, constantly exposed to the mortal threat of discovery? And how satisfying would it be to discover that the Prime Minister himself read the gossip and snippets of intelligence you supplied?
Working daily in republican enclaves, dressing and behaving like the locals, it didn't take long to appreciate how difficult it was for an outsider to infiltrate such closed communities. Even simple tasks such as buying a newspaper and a pint of milk from a corner shop could be nerve-wracking, while drinking and behaving naturally alongside suspects, never knowing if you have been compromised, is extremely difficult.
Whether you operated on your own or as part of a large team following a suspect and spread over two square kilometres of the city, with helicopter back-up, you were, to all intents and purposes, wandering through that rough housing estate on your own. One of the problems was how to loiter without attracting attention; even killing two minutes dressed as a businessman in a suit is a challenge - there's only so much you can do. The only place you ever see people reading newspapers on street corners is in a film. That's why women were introduced; it's a lot easier to blend in pushing a pram.
We had a very large wardrobe of clothes to play with and techniques to change appearance. Your visual signature at 100 metres is determined largely by your gait, the way you hold yourself. Somebody sees you on one street and you can appear to be a completely different person to his chum around the corner.
But this was no game. Because of the successes the unit had had, the IRA was specifically out to kill or capture us and this raised the stakes considerably. We were trained to resist interrogation and to carry out immediate hostage rescue; the team would always be ready to go into a house assault, for instance, because if you don't react in the first ten or 15 minutes they will have gone. It shook us up when two corporals, Derek Wood and David Howes, were dragged from their car, beaten and shot dead after blundering into a Republican funeral procession in 1988. They were admin staff, signallers attached to us, and not trained operators, but it reminded us how high the stakes were.
We were never unarmed, whether it was a Walther in an ankle holster or a Browning 9mm or a Heckler and Koch MP5K submachine-gun, small enough to conceal in a briefcase. We were constantly alert as to whether we had been "pinged" for who we really were. There was one incident that shook up the way we operated. A fully armed operative who had sat in a car on surveillance for 40 minutes was shot in the back of the head. It had been long enough for the IRA to rustle up a pistol. The truth is that when you are armed to the teeth and highly trained you feel pretty invulnerable most of the time. It boils down to common sense and having the balls to stick to what you know.
The training is first class. They take honest, decent British servicemen and over eight months turn them into something quite different. The environment is not at all like that in the "green" Army, where you are told what to think and do. That's why there are no ranks and only false Christian names; there is no reliance on rank or authority. The training is very realistic. We had to go into the roughest pubs on the mainland and conduct a recce without being rumbled - and these were the sort of pubs where if they thought you were an undercover policeman you'd be in big trouble anyway.
But however good your training, there is a limit to how deep an outsider - and an English outsider at that - can go. This is why so many "agents" are simply terrorists who have been turned - voluntarily or otherwise - by the security forces, who play on their greed, ambition or a thirst for revenge.
Looking back now, and with the benefit of maturity, I realise that I would never have had the raw courage - let alone the acting skills - necessary to sustain a convincing act in a deep cover role. Plenty of people do, of course, when called upon, and I have the very greatest respect for the truly courageous SOE agents who parachuted into occupied France to lead and organise the resistance against the Nazis, knowing that betrayal meant almost certain death.
Patriotism motivated the Resistance, whereas my colleagues and I were simply highly trained professional servicemen and women, reasonably well paid and looking for a new challenge. Stakeknife might have been motivated by the money - allegedly £80,000 a year - or he might have been driven by a need for revenge against those who had insulted him. Maybe he, and others like him, do have personality disorders. But whatever the underlying reasons, Stakeknife must surely also be one of two things - incredibly brave, or astonishingly unimaginative. My money's on the latter.
Captain James Rennie served with 14 Intelligence Company, the Army's elite covert surveillance unit. He spent 12 months in Northern Ireland, initially as an operator on the ground and later as an operations officer. In 1996 he wrote The Operators, a best-selling account of life under cover combating terrorism.
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The Sunday Times - Ireland
May 18, 2003
Focus: Scappaticci's past is secret no more
Liam Clarke reveals how he discovered the identity of the British
Army's prize 'mole' but could not reveal it throughout four
He didn't look like a monster or a superspy, just a frightened,
thickset, middle-aged brickie with an unseasonable sun tan. Was this
Britain's top secret mole in the IRA, who had haunted me for two
When Freddie Scappaticci, a stocky, second-generation Belfast
Italian, surfaced in his solicitor's office last week, he had the
cuddly paunch and grizzled curls of a Mediterranean grandpa, but his
puffy eyes were those of a man on the edge of a breakdown.
As well they might: he had been outed in the press as Stakeknife,
jewel in the crown of British military intelligence in Northern
Ireland, an allegation he denies but which I pursued from the early
1980s until finally learning his name four years ago.
The evidence against him is sufficient for Sir John Stevens, the
London police commissioner, who heads the long-running official
investigation into collusion between the security forces and
paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, to want to interview him.
The unmasking of Stakeknife marks a seismic moment in the Northern
Ireland process: the beginning of the end for both the IRA and the
Force Research Unit (FRU), the controversial British Army undercover
unit that handled him.
The IRA leadership is thoroughly discredited for trusting him for so
long; all their talk of secrecy and security is exposed as a sham.
And on the army's part, all the FRU's embarrassing secrets are
to come tumbling out under the spotlight of the media and the
His unmasking is also the trigger for some disturbing questions.
Within the IRA, Stakeknife had the task of rooting out informers in
the ranks. The IRA must ask itself if any of its volunteers were
wrongly killed with the connivance of the British, and the army
itself must ask if others could have been saved.
But who is Scappaticci? Are his denials to be believed? I have had
nearly 20 years to mull over this extraordinary enigma.
I FIRST heard the codename Stakeknife in the early 1980s, when an
informant told me that he was the army's top agent within the IRA.
was not part of the political leadership, my source said, but was a
hard-line military figure whose identity "you would never guess at".
And he had such a stunning overview of the organisation that a whole
British intelligence unit was devoted to handling him.
His output was so prolific that two handlers and four collators
worked full-time on his leads. His source reports were read by
ministers. Army careers were built on his information.
I wrote about Stakeknife, or "Steak Knife" as I assumed it was
in the Northern Ireland newspaper I worked for at the time, and
occasionally I dropped the codename into conversations at military
and police gatherings to test the reaction.
Generally I got funny looks and raised eyebrows, but occasionally
there were nuggets of information. A handler was mentioned, and I
learnt that Stakeknife was from Belfast and had been recruited in
But who was he? Time gradually narrowed the field: by the late
death, retirement and imprisonment had taken its toll on the 1970s
IRA leadership. Fewer and fewer people fitted the Stakeknife profile
I had built up.
Still, I kept guessing wrongly until more details came my way in a
series of interviews with Martin Ingram, the pseudonym of a retired
member of the FRU who had recruited and run agents in the IRA.
Although Ingram knew Stakeknife's identity, he would not reveal it.
He did tell me, however, the story of how Stakeknife used his
FRU "get out of jail free card" after being arrested by the RUC.
Ingram said he was on night shift at the British military
intelligence headquarters in Northern Ireland when one of the phones
rang. It was the hotline, a number known only to, and reserved for,
The RUC sergeant at the other end of the line blurted out. "We have
arrested a Mr Padraic Pearse (not his real name) and he gave us this
number to contact. He says he works for a man called Paddy", giving
the cover name of a military intelligence handler. Stakeknife was
released a few hours later.
When The Sunday Times published that story in August 1999, adding
further details, including the revelation that the army had paid
Stakeknife up to £60,000 a year, a man suspected of being Ingram was
arrested and I was questioned for a suspected breach of the Official
Gradually further pieces fell into place, however. Unexpected
came forward and within weeks I believed I had the name: Freddie
Scappaticci, a former internee who was described as the deputy head
of the "nutting squad", the IRA's feared internal security division,
responsible for interrogating suspected informers. Once I had
indicated who I thought Stakeknife was, and suggested a name to my
sources, a select few all but confirmed it, if only to warn me how
dangerous this information was. "If the Provos think you know who
agents are they will grip you, and it won't be too nice talking to
them," a senior source warned me as he gripped me by the arm to
underline his point.
Scappaticci had all the right credentials. He had been interned
without trial in the 1970s, sharing a cage in 1975 with such
legendary IRA figures as Owen "Jug Ears" Coogan, who had led the
British bombing campaign for years, and Con "Bald Eagle" McHugh.
Michael Donnelly, a veteran republican from Derry, was also a fellow
internee. He recalls "Freddie Scap" as "short-tempered and quick to
throw a punch . . . If he had been a foot taller he would have been
dangerous bully, but as it was he usually had one or two with him
when he did throw his weight about and he didn't do much damage."
Donnelly said Scappaticci "hung around with the Ballymurphy team who
were led by Gerry Adams". He was particularly touchy about his name,
which many of his fellow inmates mispronounced. "He would stamp his
feet and shout, "It's scap-a-tichi, scap-a-f******-tichi!"" Donnelly
In the years after his release he had become a feared figure,
regarded as a man whose accusations could lead to IRA members being
demoted, ostracised or, some believed, shot. One republican told
me: "Having someone like that near you was like Germans having a
Brown Shirt or a Stasi officer at the end of the street. You were
nice to him, you tried to keep on the right side, but it was through
fear, you couldn't relax or get close."
Despite the image, some former republicans, among them Eamon
a sometime IRA intelligence officer from Newry, told me of moments
kindness from 'Scap'. He had a stern exterior, they said, but was
often willing to cover for the mistakes of others.
It also emerged that there was intense rivalry for Stakeknife's
services between FRU and the RUC Special Branch, which had tried to
recruit him on several occasions. One source claimed that the RUC
threatened him with exposure unless he worked for them.
I told senior figures in The Sunday Times about Scappaticci, and for
obvious legal and security reasons we decided to wait and watch. If
he died or was exposed, we would tell the story.
Around last October, Scappaticci's name started circulating among
journalists. At the same time, more seriously, Stevens's inquiry
seized the records of his meetings with his army handlers.
Kevin Fulton, a former army agent within the IRA, appears to have
learnt Stakeknife's identity and lodged it in sealed affidavits in
court as part of a campaign to persuade the army to give him a
OCCASIONALLY, I rang Scappaticci, and he didn't seem to fit the
stereotype of an IRA hardman. He arranged to meet me once but pulled
out citing ill health. I learnt he was being treated for depression
and was thinking of moving to southern Italy where his family
It was only when he was outed last weekend and appeared on
that I could fully humanise him. True to his IRA training, he
admitted his name but nothing else. "I am telling you I am not
of these allegations," he intoned solemnly as his solicitor stood
beside him threatening to sue. The uncomfortable truth is that both
sides have to ask themselves where his true loyalties lie.
Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA commander turned academic, has
published an article about Stakeknife on the internet which raises
the possibility that "the IRA already knew his identity, debriefed
him some time ago and have remained silent since, a bit like the
British did in the case of Anthony Blunt".
On the British side, there were suspicions about him since shortly
after Stakeknife walked into an army base and offered his services
the late 1970s. A senior intelligence officer warned both Special
Branch and the head of military intelligence that he believed the
informer was using his relationship with the army for the benefit of
the IRA, that he was in effect a double agent.
The officer said: "He was able to tell us where bodies were to be
found but not to tell us how to prevent the murders. On a couple of
occasions, he told us of planned IRA bank robberies but when we
deployed undercover surveillance units no robberies took place.
Instead, the IRA recceed the banks and observed how we deployed.
Nobody acted on it: he was too good, nobody wanted to see the
Yet there was serious damage to the IRA. Much of it sprang from the
roles that Scappaticci and his boss John Joe Magee had in carrying
out postmortems on failed IRA operations, after bombs failed to
detonate or arrests were made, for instance.
They had a right to walk into any IRA unit, find out who the bomb
makers were, who planted the devices, where the explosives were
hidden and to suggest changes. Knowledge in the IRA is normally
strictly compartmentalised on a need-to-know basis, but Scappaticci
and Magee could ignore that rule, getting a complete overview of an
operation, which could be passed on to the British army.
Scappaticci was routinely shown British Army surveillance devices
that IRA units had discovered, information that could be reported
back to the army so that the devices could be made more secure.
Specialist army units could go to weapons dumps pointed out by their
agent and bug or disable the weapons. They could also target
vulnerable individuals for recruitment as agents and dangerous ones
for surveillance and harassment.
One such target was Dan McCann, a Falls Road IRA man who took part
a hard-line 'heave' against the leadership in the mid-1980s and was
for a time suspended from membership. McCann later made his peace
with the leadership but, for a time, the suspicion of disloyalty
over him. He was vetted by Scappaticci and Magee and cleared for
terrorist 'active service' overseas, but put under surveillance by
The surveillance later resulted in the deaths of McCann and two
IRA members, Sean Savage and Mairead Farrell, in Gibraltar on March
14, 1988, when they were gunned down by the SAS as they attempted to
bomb a changing of the guard ceremony. Farrell had also been vetted
by the IRA's internal security unit and found to be reliable in IRA
terms and a dangerous militant in British Army terms. The families
those killed by the IRA as informers, often mistakenly, have many
questions to ask. Mary Finnis, whose son Rory was murdered by the
as an alleged informer on June 6 1991, suspects that he was a fall
guy executed to save a higher level informant. Similar suspicions
swirl around the case of Paddy Flood, at one time the IRA's main
maker in Londonderry, who was abducted and tortured before being
murdered in July 1990.
Authoritative security sources say that neither Finnis nor Flood
supplied information to the police, although Flood had confessed to
doing so after nearly seven weeks in IRA custody. His abductors
threatened to kidnap his wife if he didn't talk.
Senior detectives defend Stakeknife's role in retrospect. One
said: "It was probably not on every occasion that he could say I
don't want to be involved in an interrogation.
"I am sure that on many, many occasions when he was involved he
alerted people at a very early stage that X, Y or Z was under
suspicion. He was in the business of saving lives."
One such tip-off ended nonetheless in murder. It involved Joseph
Fenton, a West Belfast estate agent who began acting as a Special
Branch informant in 1982. Fenton supplied the IRA with vacant
properties on his books, where they held meetings and stored
The police bugged the gatherings and disabled the weapons or placed
tracking devices in them. Fenton gained considerable satisfaction
from undermining the IRA and profited financially but, by 1989, the
organisation had worked out what was happening.
Scappaticci seems to have been given timely warning and Fenton's RUC
handlers told him to leave Belfast as he was about to be abducted
killed. They offered him a new life in England; but once there he
contacted a Northern Ireland MP and complained that his handlers
too cautious. He convinced himself that he would be able to talk his
way out of any suspicion and asked the MP to speak to the police on
The MP told me some months later: "Special Branch told me that if he
came home he would be killed very quickly. They warned me he was a
marked man and that it was dangerous to be associated with him and I
passed this on to him, but he still went back."
Fenton was abducted, held in a house in Carrigart Avenue, West
Belfast, questioned until he had confessed, and murdered.
had been under suspicion over Fenton's escape to England, but with
the estate agent's death his cover was protected.
A YEAR later a second informer, Sandy Lynch, was brought to the same
house and questioned. Police swooped on the premises, arresting an
entire IRA unit and capturing Danny Morrison, the Sinn Fein director
of publicity, who said he had come to issue a press release but who
the security forces believe was there to pass a death sentence on
Lynch told the police he had been questioned by Scappaticci. But
according to superintendent Tim McGregor, who headed the subsequent
RUC investigation: "Lynch's evidence on this point was totally
flawed. He was talking about a big man with balding, white hair,
which is what John Joe Magee had. We arrested Scappaticci and he had
jet black hair."
Swapping names like this was one of the security procedures adopted
by Scappaticci and Magee and it helped both of them to escape
criminal charges on that occasion.
Morrison and others were jailed, however, and a massive internal
inquiry was launched within the IRA. It was at this point, security
sources say, that Scappaticci started to get frozen out of the IRA's
inner circle, though suspicion also focused on Magee. (Magee died in
1998 of a heart attack.)
Scappaticci said in his brief statement last week that he had
out of republican activity around this time, but sources suggest
he continued for some years, albeit in a less trusted role.
What is known is that, when The Sunday Times published the Ingram
interviews mentioning Stakeknife four years ago, MI5 felt he was
sufficiently under suspicion to offer him a new life under a fresh
identity abroad. He turned this down saying, like Fenton before him,
that he could look after himself.
What now? Although Scappaticci denies that he has been contacted by
the Stevens inquiry, there is no doubt that it wants to interview
him. A spokesman for it said last week: "We are not talking about
this, apart from saying that we intend to interview him. That is
still our intention and we will do that in due course. As for the
timing of that we are not going to discuss that."
For its part, the republican movement is in a quandary, unable to
accept publicly that it could have suffered such a security lapse.
Sinn Fein is struggling hard to portray the whole thing as British
black propaganda. An affiliated website argued last week: "There is
growing suspicion that the story was planted to distract from the
British government's cancellation of elections in the North of
Scappaticci is known to be a compulsive gambler. As the Stevens team
closes in and prepares to arrest him, he continues to stake his life
on his ability to tough it out. Perhaps he has built up favours with
the IRA that we can only guess at.