Current Affairs Military Politics

Fantasy Troubles Part III – Britain’s Superspies!

Back in December 2011 I addressed the grossly exaggerated issue of the alleged penetration of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army by British intelligence agents and double-agents in the 1980s and ‘90s, concluding that:

“The majority of tactical intelligence gathered by the British Forces, the sort of intelligence that saw weapons and explosives captured, ambushes and attacks thwarted, (P)IRA volunteers and Active Service Units counter-ambushed, arrested or assassinated, whole regions of the north-eastern part of the island of Ireland closed down for days or weeks on end, was derived from the new modes of electronic and computer-coordinated intelligence, surveillance and bugging that were made possible by the advances in technology that began to make their presence felt in the late 1980s and ‘90s.

British listening devices placed in phones, homes, cars, shops, pubs, regular meeting points, the use of long range, long term covert cameras (with real-time satellite and landline feeds), tracking devices placed on or into vehicles and other equipment (including guns and explosives), the widespread use of CCTV in urban areas accessible to the then RUC and the British Army, routine and co-ordinated communication interceptions and monitoring, indexing of suspected or known IRA volunteers and continuous observation of their movements, homes, cars, work places (and of their families, friends and work colleagues), all these techniques were what powered the cutting edge of the British war machine in Ireland. The central collation and study of data, thousands of individual facts and figures, over a period of months or years, and the redistribution of that data to those who needed to know it is what weighed heavy in favour of the British in the closing years of the conflict.

Not the double-agents and “touts”, mythical or otherwise.”

My piece was followed up by Mick Fealty over on Slugger O’Toole, and now Paul Larkin casts a critical eye on the ongoing controversy in the Guardian:

“The refusal of the star witness, journalist Toby Harnden, to undergo cross examination at the Smithwick Tribunal in Dublin has thrown the whole inquiry into disarray and leads to questions about holding one in the first place.

The tribunal was set up by the Irish government to investigate claims that in 1989 a member of the Garda Síochána (Irish police) helped the IRA to murder two high-ranking RUC officers: Harry Breen and Ken Buchanan. This is despite the fact Canadian judge Peter Cory had already investigated these killings in 2003 and ruled that the IRA did not need the help of a traditionally hostile southern Irish police force to kill the two officers.”

The conclusion reached by Judge Cory after a lengthy series of investigations was clearly stated by him in his 2003 report:

“The intelligence reports received within days and the early weeks following the murder all suggest that PIRA members committed the murders without relying upon any information that the Gardaí or its employees could have supplied.”

He further recommended a public enquiry to examine the sources of the allegations of the claimed co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the Irish Republican Army in the assassination of the two RUC officers – not the claims themselves which he effectively dismissed. But to return to Larkin’s article:

“In a now familiar pattern, the Garda/IRA story was first circulated by former low-ranking agents of the British army’s force research unit (FRU). Most Irish people saw the decision to extend the Cory investigation as a sop to Unionists – a perverse quid pro quo for all that Irish republican fuss about Pat Finucane and the hundreds of other victims of Britain’s dirty war.

Perhaps the Irish government should have listened more closely to Judge Cory, who cast doubt on Harnden’s evidence in relation to the murders, saying he took unattributable testimony from security force or intelligence sources and repeated these as fact: “Statements and allegations were put forward as matters of fact, when in reality they were founded upon speculation and hypothesis.”

In the case of the two murders, for instance, FRU operatives say the formidable IRA units from north County Louth and South Armagh, which carried out the killings, were “riddled with spies” and that their favourite spy for Britain in the IRA, Freddie Scappaticci, knew all about these killings. This is pure fantasy; deadly IRA cells would have no need or desire to consult with anyone before launching this kind of attack – least of all a Belfast man like “Scap”. Territory is important in Ireland.

But don’t take my word for it. A high-ranking RUC Special Branch officer (witness 62) told the Smithwick tribunal: “No agent of the state or anyone who was recruited at that time was in any way involved in the shooting.” [ASF: For more on the evidence of the ex-RUC officer see here where he dismisses the testimony to the Tribunal of the wandering British “spy” Peter Keeley/Kevin Fulton]

[Freddie Scappaticci] was a member of a debrief unit that questioned IRA volunteers after certain operations and in certain areas. He was never briefed about upcoming operations. He was never in a so-called “nutting squad” and never in a position to walk into a particular area and demand prior details of an operation or the head of an IRA volunteer on a plate. Yet this FRU-inspired myth has become the accepted narrative.

The repeated (and incorrect) assertion that MI5 was running the IRA and pushing the peace process feeds the ire of armed groups in Ireland who oppose the Good Friday agreement. A headline that says “IRA riddled with spies” is, in that sense, an incendiary device and undermines our democratic all-Ireland decision to try another, unarmed, way to find justice and peace and ultimately end partition.”

Indeed, as I pointed out back in December the exaggerated claims in certain quarters about the numbers and successes of British intelligence agents placed in the Republican Movement is less about the past war and more about the present war.

As for Freddie “Scap” Scappaticci, the alleged deputy-head of (P)IRA’s Internal Security Unit (ISU), despite the tens of thousands of words written about him he remains as big a question mark as ever. His first name is Freddie yet the media frequently call him “Alfredo”. A serving volunteer from 1970 onward he was interned in 1971 and 1974 (along with his brother Umberto), and we are told that he turned traitor in 1978 after a personal dispute with a more senior (unnamed) IRA officer in Belfast. Shortly thereafter he was subject to a “punishment beating” by the IRA on the orders of this unknown superior, leading Scappaticci to walk into a local RUC paramilitary police base several days later offering up his services as an “informer”. Initially this was with the RUC Special Branch before he was “passed on” in the 1980s to the deliberately disingenuously named Force Research Unit (FRU), which controlled a number of British Army spies and agents in the Irish Republican Army (and at least one leading member of the terror squads of the British separatist minority).

However other sources claim that Scappaticci became a double-agent after being arrested by the RUC in 1982 for a drink-driving offence and that he was immediately recruited by the FRU. Some have conflated both these events, while others have challenged the “foundation myth” that Scappaticci was attacked by fellow IRA volunteers as part of a personal vendetta (a vendetta that seems to have never gone beyond a story in a number of British newspapers since there is no further history of it), stating that the “beating” taken by Scappaticci was the result of a youthful, drunken fistfight, a dispute over military strategy with another IRA volunteer. Or that it never happened in the first place.

Take your pick!

It is claimed by the conspiracy advocates that the FRU facilitated Scappaticci’s rise through the IRA’s ranks by eliminating rivals and giving him a number of “successes” against the British Forces (in other words a section of the British Army co-operated in guerrilla attacks upon its own soldiers!). By the mid-1980s he was now second-in-command of the IRA’s security department (however, yet again, other sources claim that Scappaticci was in fact in command of the unit). This group, the ISU, was in charge of the IRA’s counterintelligence war: which primarily meant investigating some IRA operations that went wrong or were aborted in suspicious circumstances, individuals suspected or known to be agents or informers, the loss of munitions to “enemy action” where no reasonable explanation existed, conducting counter-surveillance operations or checks, and sometimes executing those convicted of “capital offences” in IRA courts martial.

Many journalists (and some anonymous but much quoted “security sources”) have stated that the ISU “vetted” all new IRA recruits. This is untrue. It rarely acted in this manner. The ISU’s remit was largely restricted to the – frequently brutal – interrogation of suspected informers (and their families and friends) or people of a “dubious” background. Most individual IRA Active Service Units recruited their own volunteers (relatively) free of interference from anyone higher than brigade staff-level, usually based upon personal and family links or recommendations.

The only real exceptions were in the case of the English Department, the IRA’s fighting arm in Britain and Europe, which was attached to the General Headquarters (GHQ). Yet even here the ISU’s vetting seems to have been mixed, with most volunteers being recruited from within the IRA’s existing ranks and through personal contacts or familiarity with senior IRA members. In any case by the mid-1990s the traditional command-and-control structures for operations in the UK were being increasingly by-passed with greater reliance placed on Special Service Units recruited and directed by the IRA’s South Armagh Brigade and associated personnel (which was not the first time that local IRA units in Ireland took control of attacks overseas).

Bizarrely we have Freddie Scappaticci’s own words from an anonymous interview he gave in 1993 for a British television documentary, “The Cook Report”, produced in order to publicly name senior alleged members of the IRA, including Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams. How Scappaticci came to make the interview, and how his British Army “handlers” permitted their “prized spy” to give it in the middle of the ongoing conflict, remains one of the strangest episodes of Britain’s long and dirty war in Ireland. It seems to have been driven by a grudge at his dismissal sometime beforehand by the IRA, who were suspicious of his motives and loyalties. What marks it out, amongst other things, is the list of casual inaccuracies about the IRA’s internal structures that are surprising in someone at a high level within the organisation:

Scappaticci: McGuinness? Oh, I know him very well. I know him about twenty years, you know. Basically, see the thing you were putting across on the programme the other night that he’s in charge of the IRA. He’s not as such. It’s a technical thing, right. The IRA’s split in two. There’s another command, a Southern Command. He’s in charge of Northern Command. He’s the Northern Command OC. There’s a Southern Command, it has nothing to do with the Northern Command. The Northern Command basically takes in the nine counties of Ulster, right [ASF: The Northern Command was usually said to have comprised of 11 counties not 9]. He controls all of that. He’s also on the IRA Army Council. There’s a five-man Army Council [ASF: The Army Council had 7 members not 5]. He’s one of them. Nothing happens in Northern Command that he doesn’t okay, and I mean nothing. Now, he’s nothing to do with England. See what happens in England, he’s nothing to do with that. The person who controls England is a south Armagh fella, right? [ASF: At this time the Army Council controlled the English Department through the GHQ Staff]”

Elsewhere in the interview, Freddie Scappaticci claims that:

“No. Danny Morrison had nothing to do with it. Nothing to do with it. He was director of publicity, but he was also on the IRA Army Council. But he’d no balls. That’s basically, right? He was a pen-pusher if you want to put it that way, right?”

We are told that the 2003 revelation of Scappaticci’s identity as Britain’s chief spy in the IRA, the infamous “Stakeknife”, came from other British ex-agents angry over their lack of financial reward for the “dirty work” they did in Ireland:

“WE have, apparently, two other disgruntled double agents to thank for the unmasking of Stakeknife. The pair, Kevin Fulton [ASF: aka Peter Keeley, the “spy” dismissed as a virtual fantasist by the former senior RUC officer above] and Samuel Rosenfeld, passed his real name, Alfredo Scappaticci into the public domain, because the British Ministry of Defence was refusing to provide them with pensions.”

So, one wonders how much of this is simply disinformation, “black propaganda” designed to strike fear into the Irish Republican enemies of Britain, past, present and future? And how much is simply personal vendettas: disgruntled ex-spies embittered former employees and ego-boosting fantasists?

Update 17/02/2012: There is more on this issue, and a very heated debate in the Comments section involving several of the people mentioned here, over at Slugger O’Toole.

1 comment on “Fantasy Troubles Part III – Britain’s Superspies!

  1. NMunsterman

    Superb Seamas…….go raibh agat !
    Serious heat over on Slugger as you point out – evidently unionists not willing to publicly admit that the GFA has been deeply resented and opposed by unionists. In fairness to Ian Paisley, he called it as it is :

    “It was a selling out of all that we stood for and all that our fathers did for ”

    – Ian Paisley on the GFA


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