The more I hear about the Freddie Scappaticci spying or “StakeKnife” affair the more cynical I become. How did the ex-volunteer, a member of the Belfast Brigade of the Irish Republican Army and the deputy head of the guerrilla organisation’s Internal Security Unit (ISU), become a paid agent for the British Army’s Intelligence Corps (Int Corps)? And more specifically the death squad handlers of the nortorious Force Research Unit (FRU)? There are so many competing theories swirling around the West Belfastman and his personal history that we know little more today than we did in 2003. In that year he was publicly identified by the press as a former counter-intelligence officer of the IRA who had been “turned” by the United Kingdom’s armed forces in the late 1970s, becoming their greatest espionage asset against the decades-long insurgency. At the time of the media revelations the alleged double-agent strongly denied the potentially fatal accusations while claiming his retirement from republican activism took place in 1990, supposedly due to his wife’s ill-health. Unusually for such accusations, the Republican Movement agreed. However the controversy did not end there and has remained the matter of much speculation and acrimony since then.
Even the manner of Scappaticci’s recruitment, allegedly in the mid-to-late 1970s, is up for debate. While some suggestions are plausible, others are quite ludicrous, though all have been repeated at one time or another by the Irish and international press.
- Was he persuaded to betray his comrades because of his friendship with a reckless, if successful, British undercover agent who became a regular drinking buddy in Belfast in 1978-79?
- Was he too free with his mouth in the ’70s, his lowly military boasts played back to him on audio tape at a later date by enemy interrogators?
- Was he caught by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the former paramilitary police force in the UK-administered region, while engaging in personal tax-fraud and persuaded to act as an informer to stave off an embarrassing court case and prison sentence?
- Was he stopped by the RUC at a vehicle checkpoint and found to be drink-driving and threatened with a driving ban and/or a few months in prison?
- Did he have an unpaid television licence and face a humiliating threat of prosecution and a fine?
- Was he found in possession of reams of pornography, magazines and 8mm films, during a house search by the RUC or British Army? Did the UK Forces supply him with further materials to sate his appetite for erotica?
- Did he have an argument with a fellow IRA volunteer over a woman in the late 1970s? Was it an illicit affair? Or a dispute over who she would date?
- Or was it a caustic remark about the physical appearance or sexual reputation of another man’s partner?
- Did he suffer a humiliating defeat in a public brawl with an opponent in 1977-78? Was he subject to a beating by several men? Was it an authorised or unauthorised punishment-beating by the IRA in Belfast itself?
- Did he develop a dislike for the military tactics of the Irish Republican Army in the late ’70s or early 1980s, a disagreement so strong that it forced him to become an enemy spy but not so strong that it stopped him from implementing those same tactics and far worse for the next decade or so?
- Was he recruited with the lure of money, of extravagant payments into private overseas’ accounts? Of future retirement with all the other traitors to a life of relative luxury in Australia, New Zealand or Canada?
- Was his family, and his wife in particular, threatened with arrest or imprisonment on trumped-up charges and evidence?
- Or was it all down to ego, a man driven by the attention he was receiving from his British contacts and handlers, from lowly sergeants to high flying generals?
I could add a half-dozen other scenarios, each more outlandish or complex than the next and referred to at least once by “informed sources” and “security experts”. The truth, as always in the thirty year history of the United Kingdom’s dirty war in Ireland, remains obscure.
What we do know is that Freddie Scappaticci was suspended from his role with the Internal Security Unit in late 1992, at a time when the conflict-weary UK had reached out to its insurgent opponents to resume behind-the scenes negotiations in 1990-93. Some media reports claim that the Irish Republican Army had become suspicious of Scappaticci’s motives following a controversial incident with a self-confessed informer in late 1990. By the end of 1992 or earlier he had been removed from the ISU (though note the allegation that he was still active as late as 1995). If he was, as is now claimed, “Britain’s top spy” in the IRA his removal and eventual dismissal – or retirement – as a volunteer came at the worse possible moment in London’s counter-insurgency campaign. The United Kingdom had lost one of its most important undercover weapons in the war. In the words of General Sir John Wilsey, the head of the UK Forces in the Six Counties from 1990 to 1993, their “golden egg”.
However, why was Freddie Scappaticci not subject to the same level of interrogation by his former comrades in 1991-92 that he had allegedly subjected others to during his tenure in the ISU? Some sources claim that a round of questioning did indeed happen, which the Belfastman barely passed, though not without doubts. Others argue that he confessed almost immediately, making a deal with the IRA, offering up a wealth of information on what the British had been up to (and possibly agreeing to temporarily continue in his espionage role, now feeding a mixture of true and false information back to his FRU handlers). This bought him his life and spared the Republican Army the embarrassment of a court martial and execution of a locally well known figure in the guerrilla force. That is why, some twenty-five years later, Scappaticci is still alive, still denying the claims against him. Along with the Republican Movement.
Though here is a thing. A few weeks ago I was sent an anonymous message, titled “Freddie Scappaticci”, with a link to this story, “The Al-Qaida ‘Triple Agent’ Who Infiltrated The CIA“. I have a strong suspicion that I’m being played with here but I’m mentioning it for completeness sake. Overall, I’m relatively sure that the ISU’s ex-deputy head was indeed a traitor. However I’m not sure when that treason began and when it ended. Or how it ended. One thing is for sure. The debate over the agent latterly codenamed “StakeKnife”, though also disingenuously identified as “Steakknife” and “Kerbstone”, is not over yet. However, for all the claims of the IRA being “riddled” with spies, yet again we are left with the conclusion that Britain’s recruitment effort came down to handful of high-placed individuals, two or three at most, one of whom was gone after fourteen years of betrayal and well before the end of the conflict.
Respect your enemy, by all means. But do not ascribe to him super powers which he does not possess. Not then and not now.