Catholic World News News Feature

Britain's "Dirty War" with the IRA July 01, 2003

In April, after 14 years of investigation, Scotland Yard commissioner Sir John Stevens, Britain's highest-ranking police officer, released a 20-page overview of the largest single police inquiry in British history. Based on over one million pages of evidence weighing four tons, Sir John's report, known as "Stevens Three," contains devastating confirmation that intelligence officers of the British police and the military actively helped Protestant guerillas to identify and kill Catholic activists in Northern Ireland during the 1980s.

"This is not about rogue elements within the British system," commented Alex Maskey, the Catholic lord mayor of Belfast and a member of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army. "It's about a state policy sanctioned at the highest level."

Between 1969 and the IRA cease-fire of 1997, nearly 4,000 people were murdered in the course of "the Troubles," as the violent conflict in Northern Ireland is euphemistically called. The truth about many of the deaths is known. Victimsboth Catholics and Protestant, both British and Irishwere killed by paramilitary groups, including both the IRA and a number of Protestant guerilla organizations that took up arms to counteract IRA terrorism.

An avalanche of books is still hitting the market, examining how the Troubles started and who was responsible for the struggle over the rule of the six northernmost counties of Ireland which were partitioned from the Irish Republic in 1921 and incorporated into the United Kingdom. The conflict still rages between Catholic "republicans," who have sought to abolish Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, and Protestant "loyalists," who form the pro-British majority in the north.


The latest revelations brought about by Sir John's inquiry relate to deaths involving the British state. "This is partly because apologists for paramilitary terror wish to deflect attention and blame from their own heavy and heinous responsibility for violence," said Gary Kent, a British parliamentary analyst and longtime political commentator on Northern Ireland, "but also because one should expect better standards from democratically accountable organizations such as the army and the police."

Aside from unleashing shocking and ugly revelations of official collusion, Stevens Three has set in motion a series of historically significant events that has blown the lid off of Britain's role in the 30-year "Dirty War" with the IRA in Northern Ireland.

"What Stevens has uncovered is just how dirty the Dirty War became," said Dan Keenan, the Northern Ireland news editor for the Dublin-based Irish Times. Keenan told CWR:

Everybody knows the paramilitaries fought a very dirty war. Now it's becoming clearer by the day that the British fought a very dirty war, too. The British didn't operate by due process. They allowed their agents on both sidesthose who had infiltrated the IRA and the paramilitary groupsto engage in crimes to further their own ends.

Speaking at a news conference in Belfast, Sir John summarized the key findings of his inquiry by saying that the report "highlighted collusion, the willful failure to keep records, the absence of accountability, the withholding of intelligence, and the extreme of agents being involved in murder." He also admitted that innocent people had died because of the collusion.

The charges relate to activities of a British Army intelligence outfit known as the Force Research Unit (FRU) and former Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) police officers who operated under a policy through which details of suspected IRA members were passed along to Protestant paramilitary death squads, who then assassinated them.

Beginning in the 1980s the highly secretive FRU was sent into Northern Ireland to recruit and train double agents to work inside the paramilitary groups. The FRU combated IRA terrorism by the use of paid informers, blackmail, ambushes, and other methods not approved by the Geneva Convention. In the worst case, British officers decided that in cases when it would be difficult to bring suspected IRA terrorists to justice by legitimate means, the FRU would enlist outlawed guerilla groups that possessed both the desire and the means to murder the IRA men. According to Stevens Three, the FRU assisted Protestant terrorists in carrying out what were, in effect, proxy assassinations of Catholics. In order to forge such alliances, the British officers had to overlook the fact that the interests of the Protestant death squads were not those of the United Kingdom and its government.

A week after the report was released, Brigadier Gordon Kerr, the commander of the FRU's counter-terrorism operations from 1986 to 1989, was suspended from his high-profile post. Kerr is one of Britain's top defense experts and was serving as the military attaché at the British Embassy in Beijing at the time of his suspension. The inquiry also recommended that 23 former and present army and police officers be prosecuted for charges that include conspiracy to murder. There is a suspicion that many of those accused are now high-ranking officials like Kerr.

The results of the report are devastating in part because the Stevens Three inquiry confirms allegations that have long been laughed off as fanatical Irish republican propaganda. The longstanding Catholic belief in such collusion was not evidence of paranoia. It is now an established fact.

Stevens Three, however, is not without its critics. The Rev. Iain Paisley, Jr., an assembly member of the hard-line Protestant Democratic Unionist party, expressed concern that Stevens Three "will be used by certain elements to bludgeon and blacken the name of the police and to justify over 300 police killings in Northern Ireland."

Northern Ireland's police force, the RUC, was almost entirely Protestant and known for its brutality and prejudice against Catholics. Last year, the RUC was overhauled and reconstituted to include a fair mix of both Catholic and Protestant officers. It was even given a new name: the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Hugh Orde, chief constable of the reformed police force, gave his assurance that the PSNI is a very different organization from its predecessor. "The vast majority of officers involved in [the Stevens] investigation would have retired," he said. "As long as I'm the chief constable, I'm determined to make sure there is no collusion."


Sir John's investigation began in 1989, following an earlier inquiry undertaken by Manchester's top cop, John Stalker, into an official "shoot to kill" policy run by the British Army. The Stalker inquiry was abandoned in 1986 after he was falsely accused of corruption. Sir John said he believes Stalker's investigation was sabotaged because of the sensitive information he had uncovered and was planning to expose.

The sabotage didn't end with Stalker. According to Sir John, his own inquiry took many years to complete in part because it was "willfully obstructed and misled from day one" by police and military intelligence officers intent on destroying evidence. In January 1990, less than a year after Sir John took over the investigation, the Stevens team launched a dawn raid to arrest a military agent who had infiltrated an illegal paramilitary group. When the team returned from the raid, they found their "secure" investigation headquarters in Belfast had been firebombed. All the contents inside the building were destroyed by the flames, although fortunately most of the key documents had been copied. Stevens Three concluded that the fire was started by a covert army unit determined to prevent Sir John from discovering the extent of collusion between an army double agent and the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), Northern Ireland's largest Protestant paramilitary group.

The firebombing was not the last attempt to derail the investigation; it was only the beginning of years of obstruction and non-cooperation. Sir John said he had been lied to by senior police officers in the RUC, deceived by high-ranking soldiers and treated as naïve by Britain's Ministry of Defense. "It should not have taken 14 years to get to the point where we are now," Sir John lamented. "None of us [is] above the law, and no future inquiry should have to be conducted in the way we had to conduct ours."


According to Stevens Three, among those murdered under the state-selected assassination policy was Patrick Finucane, a high-profile Catholic civil-rights lawyer with a reputation for winning his cases. The 39-year-old was gunned down in 1987 by the UDA in his Belfast home in front of his wife and three children. Finucane's murder was one of the most controversial during the Troubles. It became the focus of the allegations of collusion between state agencies and Protestant terrorists. Finucanewho, like many of his professional colleagues in Belfast at the time, had defended several IRA suspectswas accused by the UDA of being a senior officer in the republican terrorist group.

At the Belfast press conference following the release of Stevens Three, Sir John explained that he had come across no evidence that Finucane was a member of the IRA, corroborating the claim made by the lawyer's family repeatedly for the past 16 years. Former IRA commander Sean O'Callaghan contradicted Sir John when he testified that Finucane was at the very least an IRA adviser. Nevertheless, O'Callaghan's apparently credible claim, disclosed in his book The Informer, does not justify in any way the horror of Finucane's murder in front of his family.

Sir John also presented evidence that Finucane's murder could have been prevented by British officials who knew that the Belfast lawyer was a target of Protestant paramilitaries. He added: "I also believe that the RUC investigation of Patrick Finucane's murder should have resulted in the early arrest and detection of his killers."

Until May of this year, only one man had been charged in connection with the killing of Finucane. William Stobie was a former British soldier and police informer who had infiltrated the UDA. Though Stobie admitted to supplying the guns used in the assassination, the case against him collapsed in November 2001, and he walked free. But he had little time to celebrate his newfound freedom. A few weeks later he was shot dead by the Red Hand Defenders, a cover name for Stobie's former colleagues in the UDA.

Brian Nelson, recruited by Brigadier Kerr, was another informer who had worked his way to the top of the UDA. Nelson said in his testimony to Sir John that his role in the Protestant terrorist group was to gather information on murder targets. Nelson, who died in April of a brain hemorrhage, insisted his British handlers knew in advance that Finucane was being targeted, and that they did nothing. Stobie admitted much the same. Both agreed that Finucane's assassination could easily have been averted.

Ken Barrett, a self-confessed former UDA assassin who is a prime suspect in the murder of Finucane, fled Northern Ireland last year after Stobie was gunned down. Barrett, who had turned an army informer, gave a secret interview with the British Broadcast Corporation's Panorama program in 2002 for a documentary called A License to Murder. Explaining the relationship between intelligence gatherers such as Nelson and the gunmen who shot down Finucane, Barrett told the BBC: "They're not passing us documentation [on IRA suspects] to sit in the house and read it. They're passing us documentation because they know what is going to happen afterwards." Barrett also claimed that Stobie had been killed in order to protect both his UDA commander and the senior policeman who had in effect ordered Finucane's assassination.

Finucane's family has been calling for an independent, international judicial inquiry into the killing, saying that they will not trust one conducted by the police. Geraldine Finucane, the victim's widow, told Britain's Press Association that she has no confidence that British police will ever be able to convict anybody of her husband's murder. Finucane's son Michael also criticized Sir John for not releasing his entire 3,000-page report to the public. Michael Finucane would like to see the full damning indictment published. Human-rights organizations have suggested that the full report is being withheld so as to shield some of its contents from public scrutiny.

The London police commissioner, however, explained that the overwhelming bulk of the detail has been withheld from the public because of pending legal actions. The full report was forwarded to Hugh Orde, chief of police in Northern Ireland, as well as Peter Cory, a retired Canadian judge who was named a year ago to investigate the Finucane murder for evidence of police collusion. When the proper time comes, promised Sir John, he will publish a full account of the "absolute mess." In May of this year, the public had a clear indication that the investigation was still active, whenhaving returned from his self-imposed exileKen Barrett was arrested in connection with the Finucane assassination.


Just as politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea were beginning to digest the devastating conclusions of Stevens Three, another startling revelation shattered the political landscape. This time the revelation was not just a public relations nightmare for the British, it was an embarrassment for the Irish Republican Army.

On May 11, several newspapers in both Scotland and Ireland unmasked the top British spy inside the IRA, whose identity had been the subject of much speculation for years. The long-secret agent, who went by the codename Stakeknife, was identified as Alfredo Scappaticci, popularly known as "Scap," a Belfast man now in his late 50s. He was said to have been managed by a dedicated RUC unit called "The Rat Hole."

The revelation came as such a shock because Scappaticci was the deputy commander of the IRA's much-feared internal security unit. Known as the "Nutting Squad" for its habit of putting bullets into people's heads (or 'nuts' as they are called in Belfast), the security unit is charged with vetting new recruits and sniffing out British undercover agents within the ranks of the IRA.

In other words, the man responsible for rooting out British double agents was himself a mole. A British spy in Scappaticci's position would be able to identify most members of the republican terrorist group and would wield the power necessary to execute them. He would have been able to pass information about dissidents along to the British, who could have them shot, jailed, or otherwise sidelined. On the basis of such high-level intelligence reports, it seems the British had a major advantage in peace negotiations with Sinn Fein, and perhaps even substantial control over IRA operations for decades.

Ramifications of the Stakeknife revelation run every bit as deep for British Army intelligence, which handled Scappaticci. Just as Stevens Three assesses the extent of collusion between the British state and Protestant guerillas, the unmasking of Stakeknife will shed light on what is effectively collusion between the British state and the IRA. In both cases, illegal paramilitary groups were used to carry out proxy assassinations against Irish Catholics. "The supposed golden rule that informers should not commit crimes while they are in the business of exposing criminals," Dan Keenan commented, "has been shown to be a cruel sham."

At the Belfast news conference announcing the findings of Stevens Three a month before Stakeknife was unmasked, Sir John had said that he wanted to question the spy about claims that innocent Catholics and other agents were murdered to protect his identity. "We will be questioning Stakeknife soon. We fear other informants have been sacrificed to save him, and we will be asking him about that," he said

It is supposed that the British were prepared to give Stakeknife a free hand because if anyone moved against him the most valuable intelligence source in the IRA would have been compromised. "They wanted to protect him at just about any cost," Keenan told CWR. "They seemed to be willing to put up with that."

Keenan, who has been covering IRA-related issues for the Irish Times for more than a decade, believes that the outing of Scappaticci underlines the irony that double agents working for the British engaged in just the sort of criminal acts of terror that they were supposed to be trying to stop. "The identification of Stakeknife," he said, "is little short of a disaster for the British army in Northern Ireland and, by implication, for the political establishment in London."

Dublin's Sunday Tribune reported that the FRU allowed Scappaticci to take part in at least 40 murders in order to protect his cover, so that he could continue to pass vital high-level intelligence to his British handlers in the FRU. The victims are said to include police officers, soldiers, and civilians. Stakeknife also reportedly kidnapped, interrogated, tortured, and killed other IRA men suspected of being British informers in order to keep up appearances. For Stakeknife to be effective for two decades he had to remain above suspicion.

One of the murders being investigated by Sir John is that of Francisco Notarantonio, a former IRA member who was assassinated by the UDA in 1987. Notarantonio's name was given to the guerilla gunmen by a British undercover agent as a substitute for their real target: Alfredo Scappaticci.

Stakeknife is also said to have provided information that led to the murders of three IRA members by British special forces soldiers in Gibraltar in 1988.

Scappaticci first approached British military intelligence as a junior IRA volunteer in 1978, seeking revenge for a severe beating he suffered at the hands of one of the group's members in Belfast. Security sources say that once installed as a British mole, he received £80,000 a year, paid into a special bank account that was opened for him in Gibraltar.


When Stakeknife's identity was first revealed, newspapers published the account from their numerous sources only after being assured by the British Ministry of Defense that Scappaticci had been moved to a safe location in England. The revelation of his identity makes him the IRA's number-one assassination target. Andrew Jaspan, editor of Glasgow's Sunday Herald, explained that "it was quite important to us to know that he was out of harm's way as well as knowing that [the information] was in the public domain." Accordingly, initial newspaper accounts stated that Scappaticci was "spirited away" from his Belfast home to a secure army base two hours north of London, where he was being debriefed by intelligence officers.

In an unexpected twist, it turns out that Alfredo Scappaticci never left Ireland. Although he admits that he fled his west Belfast home after learning that newspapers were naming him as Stakeknife, he re-emerged on national television three days later, still in Belfast. Scappaticci publicly denied "each and every one" of the allegations made against him, and although he admitted he once had links to the IRA, he claimed he had no idea why newspapers named him as Stakeknife. In a statement released to media, Michael Flanigan, his attorney, wrote of his client:

He is not Stakeknife. He has never been an informer, has never contacted the intelligence services, has never been taken into protective custody and has never received any money from the security services. My client is the victim of misinformation, apparently emanating from the security forces and disseminated by the press& Mr. Scappaticci is an ordinary working man living in west Belfast and as such he has no means at his disposal to combat this onslaught of false allegations. Clearly, his life has been placed in danger as a result and he is now in hiding.

Scappaticci, who is ostensibly a construction worker, told Belfast's Andersontown News that he was nothing more than a loving grandfather. He said:

To suggest that I was at the heart of the peace process, doing this Machiavellian stuff, that I had the ear of Gerry Adamsthe Mr. Big, in there for British intelligence, pushing the peace process one way, pushing it another to suit a British agenda. It's so ridiculous that it's just unbelievable.

Among those who say they are suspicious about Stakeknife's identity are prominent members of Sinn Fein. Danny Morrison, former spokesman for the republican group, said that he is skeptical of any allegations that have as their source British intelligence. "If Stakeknife was such a senior figure, sabotaging the IRA," he wrote in an editorial in London's Guardian, "then throughout the past few years he&did not do such a great job, when one recalls the mortar attack on No 10 [Downing Street] in 1991 and the bombings in Bishopsgate and Canary Wharf."

The IRA had begun hearing reports about a high-level infiltrating agent in 1999. Republicans like Morrison, however, typically dismissed such rumors as an intelligence bluff designed to set the IRA off on a self-destructive witch-hunt. Given that a number of British police and army officers have confirmed that Stakeknife is much more than the ghost of a rumor, it is growing more difficult for Sinn Fein and IRA members to dismiss the legendary Stakeknife. Still, they are left wondering why the British are now so willing to own up to the mole's existence.

Others have doubts about Stakeknife's identity for different reasons. Parliamentary analyst Gary Kent, a widely recognized expert on Northern Irish affairs, found something "fishy" about the Stakeknife story. The identity of Stakeknife, he said, "would have been a closely guarded secret, and yet the newspapers have been chock-a-block full of details of his life. Any self-respecting member of the intelligence services would have cringed if such information about a genuine agent was released into the public domain."

Most of those close to the situation, however, are quite skeptical about Scappaticci's denial. Dan Keenan, one of the Belfast-based writers who had named Scappaticci as the high-level IRA mole, believes "overly skeptical" would be an understatement. "There's not a journalist in Belfast that I know of who doesn't believe that Scappaticci is Stakeknife," he said. "All the security sources that we've reliably consulted for years all insist that Scappaticci's the one."

After Scappaticci made his forceful public denial, an unidentified British intelligence officer in the RUC gave an interview to Glasgow's Sunday Herald. The officer explained to Neil Mackay that Scappaticci left his Belfast home in order to be debriefed by British intelligence at a safe house in Northern Ireland. Although British officers were prepared to escort him swiftly to England, Scappaticci told them he refused to flee and would go back to Belfast to "bluff it out." The RUC officer explained Stakeknife's role in their Rat Hole operation:

Due to his position [Scappaticci] was privy to everything that went on in the [Provisional IRA]: arms dumps, arms shipments, finances, propaganda plans, political machinations, drugseverything& As one of the top boys in the internal security unit, Scap was called in when an operation went wrong to see if there was an informer involved. When a suspected informer was abducted, he'd arrive at a safe house to lead the interrogation. Scap would tell us what was going on and if we could we'd try and mount a rescue, but more often than not the person was taken over the Irish border and there was nothing we could do to save them.

Former IRA member Sean O'Callaghan gave much the same description of Scappaticci's role, saying that the mole's brutal interrogations included "torture, usually designed to leave no physical marks. Hooded, deprived of sleep, head regularly immersed in water until nearly drowned, threatened with all manner of assaults."

Referring to Scappaticci's role in the execution of informers, the FRU officer added:

Generally speaking he wouldn't have pulled the trigger& I don't know how many he killed, but he has killed at least one or two informers just to give him the credibility he needed. The interrogations he took part in would have been quite brutal.

By all accounts, Scappaticci was a brutal man, much feared throughout the ranks of the IRA. In his book Killing Rage, former IRA member Eamon Collins wrote that Scappaticci laughed when he recounted how he shot one blindfolded informer in the back of the head after misleading the man into believing he would be set free. Even before Scappaticci was "turned" as a double agent, he reportedly cut his teeth as an IRA hit man, specializing in shooting British soldiers.


The revelations of Stevens Three and the apparent unmasking of Stakeknife raise more than a few important questions. One of the most important is how the British state can justify permitting its intelligence agents repeatedly to commit murder as a matter of policy. Further compounding that problem, as Sir John noted in Stevens Three, "even on their own terms" the intelligence agencies sometimes had the "wrong" people killed: innocent people, like Brian Adam Lambert, the Protestant university student who was shot dead in Belfast after he was identified as an IRA man named Gerry. An even more convoluted issue is that of allowing their own agents, among others, to be sacrificed in order to protect high-level moles.

A second fundamental issue is the fact that British forces in Northern Ireland consistently directed their killing campaign against Catholics. Whereas security forces tended to make efforts to warn Protestants who were in danger, Catholics were not accorded the same protection, Sir John concluded.

Sir John's investigation has probably come as close as anyone will ever get to the truth of events involving the murky world of Irish terrorism and counter-terrorism, yet the 20-page overview of Stevens Three is but the tip of an iceberg. London's Guardian characterized Sir John's brief summary of his 3,000-page report as "merely tantalizing glimpses of deep and very murky waters."

From Gary Kent's perspective in London, the big question emerging from the Stevens Report and the Stakeknife controversy is "whether or not some sort of full-blown Truth and Justice process, like that of South Africa and other countries too, should be embarked upon." But as Kent told CWR, "a truth process is useless if key players are unwilling or unable to tell the truth"as he believes is the case with both the British intelligence units and the IRA.

Kent and others believe that a tell-all truth process would probably open more wounds than it would heal. "Northern Ireland is a very small place in which victims and their tormentors can live cheek by jowl," said Kent. The most immediate priority, he added, is for the IRA to declare that its war is completely over and that it will no longer "intimidate, kneecap, exile, or kill Catholics."

[AUTHOR ID] Michael S. Rose, a frequent CWR contributor, is the author of Goodbye, Good Men and Ugly as Sin.