The decision by Barra McGrory, the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland, to recommend an official investigation into the activities of Freddie Scappaticci - the alleged IRA enforcer and British agent known as 'Stakeknife' - seems likely to unearth some of the most painful, long-buried secrets of the 'dirty war' in Northern Ireland. In so doing it will raise difficult questions about the permissible limits of state intelligence-gathering which remain highly relevant today.
Scappaticci, who denied being a British agent before departing Northern Ireland in 2003, is nonetheless widely reported to have been a longstanding head of the IRA’s 'nutting squad', or internal security unit, which was responsible for identifying and punishing informers. In IRA circles there was no more despised figure than the informer, or 'tout', whose information had the power to disrupt IRA operations and put its members behind bars. Within the IRA, the declared punishment for informing was death, often after a taped 'confession' had been obtained by torture.
At the same time as seeking out suspected informers – a task which former IRA members have attested that 'Scap' pursued with brutal relish – it is alleged that Scappaticci was the British army’s key agent at the heart of the IRA. He was described by General Sir John Wilsey, the Army commander in Northern Ireland from 1990 to 1993, as 'our golden egg, something that was very important to the Army. We were terribly cagey about Fred.'
It is easy to see why 'Scap' might have been thus regarded. His role in the internal security unit would have involved him in debriefing IRA members after their arrest and police interrogation, in order to be certain – ostensibly from the IRA’s point of view – that they had given nothing crucial away to the authorities. He would therefore have had a very exact picture of current IRA membership, as well as known of many planned operations.
Yet the very things that gave 'Stakeknife' access to such valuable information, are also those which should have created a nightmare for anyone even lightly concerned with ethics within the intelligence services. Put bluntly, it was seemingly his status as a noted psychopath – even within an organisation which regularly behaved psychopathically – which led to his position within the IRA becoming unassailable. With each murder of an alleged IRA 'informer', he bolstered his position within the IRA: his inherent value as a British agent, therefore, would have been copper-fastened by displays of extreme violence. In intelligence terms, the most rotten egg became the most golden.
It is reported that there will be investigations into at least 24 murders with which Scappaticci was allegedly associated. Some of those victims may indeed have been IRA members who were passing information to the security services; some may have been falsely fingered as informers in order to divert attention from Scappaticci himself after compromising leaks; others may simply have been people against whom he or the IRA bore a personal grudge. Often they were – in the republican pecking order – individuals who were very young, or otherwise perceived as relatively powerless. The allegations that have already emerged give some indication of the nauseating nature of IRA 'internal security' during the Troubles.
The body of Joseph Mulhern, a 23-year-old IRA member, was found in 1993 in a ditch in County Tyrone: he had been shot and his hands tied with wire. Three weeks later, his family was handed a tape of his faltering 'confession'. His father Frank recalled how – weeks after his son’s funeral – he saw Scappaticci, who approached him and raised intimate details of his son’s abduction and murder. Mr Mulhern said: 'If you were in the IRA and Scap was looking at you, your knees turned to water.'
The recorded confession of another suspected informer linked to Scappaticci, a 34-year-old mother of three named Caroline Moreland, ended with her advice to others in the same position: 'Just come forward and tell what you’re doing. No harm will come to you and you’ll be helped.' Shortly after she made that recording, her IRA interrogators shot her dead.
There were, of course, many similar killings in which 'Scap' was not even allegedly involved, carried out by other IRA enforcers who were not police or Army informers. But his case is of interest because of the particular questions it raises for the role of British intelligence.
How far is the state obliged to protect the lives of people who have put themselves at risk to pass on important information about dangerous organisations? Where is the line at which – in seeking to save lives – the intelligence services can no longer tacitly collude in the destruction of other lives? How can you successfully run a 'clean' informant, if his or her credibility within a terrorist organisation is bolstered only by close participation in dreadful acts? Should an apparently monstrous but valuable source such as 'Stakeknife' ever be protected at the expense of, say, a vulnerable, bit-part player in IRA activities, or even a courageous agent whose information is of less long-term value?
These are not simple questions, then or now, but some things seem clear. The IRA wanted 'Stakeknife' to perform its chosen role of interrogator and executioner, if not that of informer. The British government, often for compelling reasons, needed the secrets that precisely such a figure held. Yet what went on between those two positions is, I suspect, going to reveal to us the darkest, saddest places in which realpolitik struck murky, desperate bargains with an increasingly elusive morality.
You may also enjoy: