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Ulster's can of worms
Most readers will have been horrified by the stories circulating at the weekend about "Stakeknife", who is said to have been a double-agent working for the British Government while serving as one of the most powerful figures in the IRA.
Stakeknife is said to have played a part in as many as 40 murders, carried out with the complicity of the British authorities. Most chillingly of all, his handlers are alleged to have known about his executing at least three of his fellow informers who were "no longer useful", in order to preserve his standing in the IRA.
The first observation to be made about all this is that we have no idea whether or not it is true. There may be no Stakeknife - or if such an agent exists, he may not be the man whose name was bandied about over the weekend. He may be somebody even higher up in the IRA, whose identity the security services are trying to protect. In the world of espionage and counter-espionage, countless lies are told.
What is certainly true, however, is that informers have always been an essential part of the state's armoury against terrorism. For more than 30 years, the IRA has been in a continuous state of undeclared war against our democracy. During that time, informers have saved countless innocent lives and limited the damage that terrorists on both sides of the sectarian divide have been able to do.
You can be sure that many times during those years, the authorities have reluctantly sanctioned behaviour by their agents that no democratic country would willingly permit, if its citizens were not under attack. Winston Churchill is widely believed to have sacrificed convoys of merchant shipping during the war, so as not to let the
Germans realise that their Enigma code had been cracked. He is said to have judged - rightly, as most historians would say - that he thereby saved many more lives than were lost in the convoys.
In the same way, the British security services in Northern Ireland have undoubtedly turned a blind eye to crimes committed by their double-agents, so as not to blow their cover. They have constantly had to weigh the number of lives likely to be saved by protecting their sources of information, against the number likely to be lost by stopping the small crime and thereby sacrificing their hope of preventing the big one.
It is a horrible calculation, but it is one that all world powers must make when they are challenged by terrorists.
Sometimes, the judgments made by the security services are bound to be wrong - as the reports about Stakeknife strongly suggest. But are they true? Politics in Northern Ireland has always been beset by wild accusations - and never more so than now.
The Government must take a substantial part of the blame for encouraging these accusations, by setting up its breast-beating official inquiries into British conduct over the past three decades in Northern Ireland. The Stevens inquiry, for example, sought to identify a small group of wrongdoers. But as part of a highly political process, designed to appease the IRA, it inevitably encouraged every interested party to hurl accusations against every other.
Most of the activities of informers and their handlers must necessarily be shady. It is impossible to see how anybody except the terrorists can benefit from opening them to the light.
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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.