Freddie Scappaticci, StakeKnife And Britain’s Dirty War In Ireland

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 in 2017 than we did in 2003. That was the 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. This supposedly made him their greatest espionage asset against the decades-long insurgency in the UK occupied north-east of Ireland. At the time of the media revelations the alleged double-agent strongly denied the potentially fatal accusations. Indeed, he claimed to have retired from republican activism in 1990, apparently due to his wife’s then ill-health. Unusually for such an accusation, the Republican Movement agreed with Scappaticci’s protests of innocence. However the controversy did not end with his rebuttals and has remained the subejct of much speculation and acrimony.

Even the manner of Scappaticci’s recruitment, allegedly in the mid-to-late 1970s, is a matter for debate and contention. 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, often 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.

Martin McGuinness and Freddie Scappaticci (bottom-left) protesting the RUC presence at the funeral of IRA volunteer Larry Marley, murdered by a British death squad some days previous. 1987

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 1989-93. 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 the country’s counter-insurgency campaign. London had lost one of its most important undercover weapons in the war. In the words of General Sir John Wilsey, the head of the British 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 subjected others to during his tenure in the ISU? Some sources claim that a round of tough questioning did happen, which the Belfastman barely passed, though not without leaving doubts behind. 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 Scappaticci his life and spared the Republican Army the embarrassment of a court martial and execution of a locally well known figure. That is why, some twenty-five years later, the double-agent is still alive, still denying the claims against him. Along with the Republican Movement.

Though here is something to note. 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 but I’m mentioning the communication 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 before the conflict ended in a military stalemate and compromise peace. Respect your enemy, by all means. But do not ascribe to him super powers which he does not possess. Not then and not now.

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21 comments

  1. Well the narrative that the IRA were riddled with touts doesn’t sit well when you learn the Brits had thousands of troops in the north(some cases 40,000 I believe). For example in Helmand they had only 10-15 thousand troops stationed. If the IRA were in the pocket of the Brits then why all the troops?

    1. Exactly. Britain’s “Operation Banner”, its counter-insurgency deployment, officially lasted from 1969 to 2007. That is thirty-eight years. Military engagements between the British Army and the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army lasted from 1970 to 1997. That is twenty-seven years. Like the story of Martin McGuinness working for MI5, simple raw data, facts and figures, don’t match up with the betrayal-from-within or the sell-out narratives. Narratives pushed by both the British and the “Dissidents” for their own partisan reasons.

      The same arguments about British penetration of the Republican Movement were offered up as an explanation for the events of 1919-22 in the 1920s, ’30s and much later. Very few make that argument now.

      We have the words of the British themselves who admitted, not just in public but in secret briefing documents contemporary with Freddie Scappaticci’s activities, that the IRA was proving almost impossible to penetrate. Why would UK officials lie to each other in the late 1980s, in private, while discussing new methods of trying to defeat the IRA?

      Yes, it was a dirty war and yes the IRA had traitors. Undoubtedly. And Freddie Scappaticci was a major prized asset whose activities badly undermined aspects of the campaign.

      But he was gone by 1992.

      By 1992 the IRA had revised its internal counter-intelligence and security structures and practices (or so we are told).

      What strengthened Britain’s counterinsurgency effort was the resources of a large and prosperous nation-state. Money, technology, competitors, surveillance, data collection and analysis and so on. The IRA could not compete one-on-one against GHCQ or data-technologies like Vengeful, Crucible, Caister, etc. Technological assets tipped the scales not human assets, though even the former did not come to bear in full until after the UK had already reached out in 1990 via MI6. Peace forestalled what might have been. Though since we never got so far we will never be able to tell how the IRA would have survived and adapted to that new and developing environment.

      What we can do is look at the military wings of the “Dissidents” and the sorry state they are in. Though, again, they are one-twentieth of what the (P)RM was in its military heyday.

  2. Is a top PIRA volunteer going to throw it all away of a TV LICENCE? Glad you included Kerbstone (Stakeknife) reference. Put bluntly (so that even G2 scum thickos can savvy) it all boils down to Ian Hurst “Capt Rennie of SAS” alias Walter Mitty wanting to be on telly.

  3. Leaving aside the Provos, how about the infiltration of the Officials/Stickies? The book ‘The Lost Revolution’ makes it clear that OIRA/WP enjoyed very fraternal relations with the
    British security services – the Brits drank in OIRA clubs and – by OIRA men’s own admission – they turned a blind eye to OIRA/WP criminality – or even actively facilitated it.The book quotes WP members recalling how senior figures in the party collected intelligence for the British at the time of the killing of the two British soldiers at Milltown cemetery in 1988.

    Many interpreted the Workers Party’s slavish pro-Soviet stance as proof that the party was a hardline Stalinist cult, but the real evidence suggests that its role was to give British unionism a left-wing gloss, and also to proselytise on behalf of the British version of the Irish conflict in communist countries. It’s easy to forget these days how fashionable Soviet supporting “tankie-ism” still was in the 1970s and 1980s – for instance the Hibernophobic Julie Burchill became the highest paid columnist in Britain in the 1980s by blending British ultra-jingoism with panegyrics to the Soviets. The fact that WP apparatchiks found employment working for Murdoch, the Irish Times Trust and Tony O’Reilly, indicates that these capitalists didn’t see the WP’s Stalinist posturing as any kind of threat.

    Likewise the fact that so many WP hacks – Eoghan Harris, Gerry Gregg, Henry McDonald, et al., subsequently became Neocon propagandists for Anglo-American interventionism – not to mention fanboys of Dessie O’Malley – also suggests that the hard-left stance of the WP in the 1980s was a fraudulent but ingenious way of promoting the Unionist cause among those who otherwise would have dismissed it as reactionary imperialism. And then there’s the far from small matter of the WP’s reverse takeover of the Irish Labour Party in the late 1990s.

    I’m all for investigating the extent of British infiltration of the Provos – but Ed Moloney, Suzanne Breen & co. seem strangely reticent about the glaring evidence that the WP was in essence a British front group. The WP had much more influence on the politics of the culture and politics of the south of Ireland in modern times than the Provos did, so surely the source of their political trajectory is worth investigating in depth.

      1. Wolfe Tone, the interesting thing about ‘The Lost Revolution’ is that it is written from a fairly pro-Workers Party point of view, so the revelations contained therein of the Sticks’ very close relations with the forces of the British state are all the more credible and damning on that account. In the book, one Sticky activist even admits that WP statements on Northern Irish issues were often almost word for word transcriptions of official British statements – and this during the era of the great bete noir of the left, Mrs Thatcher!

        I always thought Sinn Fein’s failure to take the political fight to the WP was a major weakness of Adams & co. The late Derek Dunne once interviewed Adams in Magill magazine, and tried to get him to address the issue of Eoghan Harris’s agenda of barring all nationalist and republican views from the Irish media, but Adams didn’t want to go there.

        The WP were an incredibly sinister outfit. In 1982 Magill did a two part expose of their criminality and control of much of RTE, and according to The Lost Revolution, the Sticks then made plans to have the magazine’s editor Vincent Browne, die “accidentally” in a boating mishap. They also tried to trick loyalists into murdering Ed Moloney- who contributed a lot of the material for the Magill expose. Incredibly (or maybe not on second thoughts) Vincent Browne, as editor of the Sunday Tribune, urged people to vote for the WP in later 1980s elections – even though he had written extensively of their criminality and thuggery, and was apparently under a death sentence from their military wing, OIRA. OIRA also carried out surveillance on environmental activists. republican inclined leftist organisations, and even rosary groups!

        Imagine the outcry if the Provos had gone around planning to kill journalists who wrote critically about them. None of this is necessarily in the distant past, as many former big cheeses in the WP are still in very influential positions – the Sunday Indo almost operates as an employment service for the extended families of ex-WP personnel . Also, ex WP hacks like Gerry Gregg played a major role in seeking to discredit opposition to the Corrib pipeline as a dissident Republican front – offering zero hard evidence to back this canard up.

        1. And some former WP folk, including one particularly well-known OIRA activist, followed the WP-splinter grouping, the Democratic Left, into the Labour Party which the ex-DL/WP/WP-SF/OSF entryists promptly took over. Yet we are supposed to pretend that former “gunmen” of the OIRA, their families or associates, were not on the government payroll in recent times via Labour ministers in the coalition government with Fine Gael.

          Such is Ireland!

      2. I highly recommend “The Lost Revolution”. Fascinating and eye-opening read. For years we were told that the Provos were the infiltrators of the State when the ones actually doing it were the ones warning us about the Provos! The hijacking of RTÉ and a generation of Irish journalism by the pre-1990s WP is shocking stuff. And, to borrow a quote, they haven’t gone away y’know.

  4. It is fitting you include a pic of scapp with McGuinness. It was always rumoured that that the brits had one agent bigger than stakeknife. I wonder who that might be? I only heard the fight story for the reason scapp turned. Never really heard the others. If scapp is innocent where has he been past 14 years? Shinners defended him at the time but havent wanted to talk about him since. Maybe shinners are afraid he will out the biggest tout of them all. Mark my words now that McGuinness is dead don’t be surprised if certain revelations come out about him.

  5. If the provos were such a hard nut to crack where are they now? Provos disband and disarm and support the ruc/psni before achieving any of their goals. Hardly an impenatrable army. Looks more like one of the most successful counter insurgencies in world history.

  6. “the Phony-nix”

    – UDR : disgraced, discredited, defeated, disbanded, dead and buried in the dustbin of history
    – RUC : disgraced, discredited, defeated, disbanded, dead and buried in the dustbin of history.

    Using your logic, Bishopsgate, the Baltic Exchange, Canary Wharf were all inside jobs and British MSM media reaction ” Bombed (the British Govt.) to the table” got it all wrong as it was simply a clever ruse to get the Brits to the table – to talk to the Brits.

    By the way, please advise us what part *** you have played in destroying the Orange terror statelet and in removing British death squads terrorising the Nationalist community in the North and in successfully bringing Washington on board culminating in the successful negotiation of the GFA – the biggest climb-down by Britain since Suez – and thus paving the way in making a Re-United Ireland inevitable.

    ***PS :
    Penning anonymous bile in 2017, heavy on horse-manure but short on facts on an Internet Forum does not count.
    Then again, you may just be a horse-manure artist – so that would explain everything.

    1. Those late stage attacks were done by South Armagh brigade which acted without interference by McGuinness and his ilk. PSNI still around and sinn fein supports them. British army still occupies north. Brit spooks stronger than ever. Nothing has changed.

  7. I don’t really see what the relevance of the reference to “Triple Agent” Ali Mohamed to the Scappaticci case is. Having read that book – among other relevant material – I’m of the opinion, that the notion of this mysterious Egyptian officer being a “triple” agent for AQ – i.e. playing his CIA handlers and beating them at their own game, is a “limited hang-out” and a convoluted attempt to explain away embarrassing and highly revealing facts at the heart of the criminal enterprise which goes under the acronym GWoT.

    1. Apologies. Having just checked the link, I see I made a mistake. I assumed the reference was to Al Mohamed, about whom there’s a book with the title “Triple Cross”, which is the one I was referering to. “Triple Agent” is about Al Balawi, the Jordanian, who blew himself and seven CIA agents up 2009 in Afghanistan.

  8. Perhaps we’re all missing the really big picture here.
    As someone who grew up in N.I, I feel more than anything that the place is one enormous open-air experiment.
    I’m not convinced that the British actually give a f*ck about Ireland at all, but that they like messing around with stuff in order to learn to mess every/anyone around. Even if certain politicians and military types do/did care, that doesn’t mean that the people who are really at the top of society (whoever that may be) does care.
    Regardless of what has happened, and who did what, the powers-that-be have learned a hell of a lot from messing about in Ireland for 1000 years. And now the majority of Irish are happy drinking G and watching TV.
    Lets just keep paying our taxes and bickering amongst ourselves, that’ll make the world a better place won’t it?

    1. The open-air experiment theory, in terms of civil control and military testing, was written up several times in the 1980s by various journalists and historians. I do believe that the sentiment was a small part of the UK thinking on the war, at least among a small cadre of army and intelligence figures and civil servants. If only for a short period. Maybe the inability to defeat the insurgency forced them to rationalise the conflict in some other, half-positive way? Whatever the case, the resurgent campaign in Britain put an end to any lingering thoughts along those lines.

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