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Freddie Scappaticci Pacemaker Press

Ex-Garda Chief Super Stakeknife and Operation Kenova - are there questions for Dublin?

John O’Brien looks at the investigations into the activities of British Agent, Freddie Scappaticci, aka Stakeknife.

THE INTERIM REPORT from Operation Kenova into the activities of the British Agent, Freddie Scappaticci, aka Stakeknife has now been published. He has not been formally named as the agent Stakeknife due to British government policy according to Chief Constable Jon Boutcher.

This was a criminal investigation which commenced in 2016 into the crimes of Scappaticci and his relationship with the Provisional IRA and the British Security apparatus. It has cost £40 million pounds so far. The investigation focused on various alleged crimes, including false imprisonment, murder, conspiracy to murder and perverting the course of justice. Suspects were implicated in activities related to the IRA’s Internal Security Unit, the British Army Force Research Unit (FRU), and the handling of Stakeknife.

left-to-right-chief-constable-jon-boutcher-and-temporary-deputy-chief-constable-chris-todd-at-stormont-hotel-in-belfast-for-the-publication-of-the-operation-kenova-interim-report-into-stakeknife Chief Constable Jon Boutcher, and Temporary Deputy Chief Constable Chris Todd, at Stormont Hotel in Belfast for the publication of the Operation Kenova Interim Report into Stakeknife, yesterday. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

It is now clear that this criminal investigation has failed, no one has been or will be prosecuted for these crimes. The Public Prosecution Service (Northern Ireland) have made this decision and their reasons have been articulated in some detail. In summary, the decision was based on a simple but a deadly premise, “ Lack of Court Quality Evidence”. The status of the victims and relatives remain very uncertain for the future.


So what went wrong, it is an implicit suggestion that the investigation team did not understand the rules governing the admissibility of evidence and the impact of non-cooperating witnesses or indeed non-cooperating suspects. I do not believe that this summation is either fair or accurate because this team of over 70 officers were vastly experienced in criminal investigations and aware of all the investigatory pitfalls.

Therefore the question revolves around the strategic direction of that project, which seems to have embraced a big bang approach i.e. investigate everything and eventually provide an investigation dump to the Public Prosecution Services of Northern Ireland (PPS). The PPS commented when files were submitted that no recommendations were made by Kenova.

The record shows that Operation Kenova submitted extensive files to the PPS, totalling over 60,000 pages, detailing incidents spanning from 1979 to 1994. These files implicated 28 suspects, including civilians alleged to be members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, retired soldiers from the British Army, and former police officers from the RUC. Would it not have been more strategic to have selected one typical sample case for investigation and forensically investigate that case to a relentless conclusion? This would have been the litmus test for all investigations where the fault lines would have been exposed and remedied or addressed.

‘Lack of collegiality’

At yesterday’s launch Mr. Boutcher was critical of the lack of collegiality in dealing with the PPS and that it was different to what he experienced elsewhere. He thought the information supplied was compelling and Scappaticci should have been prosecuted. He is highly critical of the service rendered by the PPS.

It is temptingly easy to consider that this debacle solely concerns the individual Scappaticci and his putative handlers. There is a much bigger picture which involves the role played by the Provisional IRA and the British reaction to the threat posed by PIRA. It also involves considerable naïveté in Dublin concerning the activities of the British Intelligence machine. It is often commented that the Provos were adept at playing the long game, but they were more than matched by their opponents. Sir John Stevens who conducted three major investigations into collusion in Northern Ireland commented at a hearing in Westminster that,

There was the RUC, MI5, the Army doing different things, and when you talk about intelligence, of the 210 people we arrested only three weren’t agents.

It became apparent to the British in the 1970s and particularly the British military that the battle would not be won by the employment of overwhelming military force against the Provos. Certainly, the SAS and other specialist units would be involved on the guerilla front line, but the real future lay in penetrating the enemy through undercover intelligence operations.

Enormous resources, technical, human and financial were to be employed. This is the theatre that produced the best long-term results and the PIRA and Nationalist institutions were heavily infiltrated as time progressed. Their most obvious human asset was the military recruitment of Freddie Scappaticci aka Stakeknife deep within the Provisional IRA.

Scappaticci was not alone by any means. The success of the Provisional IRA in inflicting massive casualties on the security forces in the North and in Britain was countered by the British employing a pivot towards intelligence gathering both North and South.

In the world of intelligence agencies, no country protects their secrets better than the British. This is another example of the “long game”. The classic example of this policy is exemplified by the introduction of the British roadblock legislation, in 2021 when they introduced their guillotine legislation (Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023 to make all these troublesome allegations go away. No doubt that there were broad sighs of relief in the Provo ranks and the British ranks when Scappaticci passed away in April 2023 as another disclosure door had slammed shut.

Who was Freddie Scappaticci – Stakeknife?

Scappaticci was born in the Markets area of Belfast in 1946. He had been interned on two occasions in the 1970s.

Freddie Scappaticci 6 Freddie Scappaticci Pacemaker Press Pacemaker Press

He became a key figure in the Provisional IRA internal disciplinary unit aka the “Nutting Squad”. Their victims were ultimately murdered with a bullet to the head. He was a full time paid British Army agent from circa 1978 and he continued to operate on that basis serving his British masters well and deceiving his PIRA leadership at every turn. It is also alleged that he had a lifelong interest in extreme pornography and in 2018 he was sentenced in London to three months imprisonment suspended. Supposedly the Judge commented that he had not come before the courts in 50 years and that was in his favour. Remarkably he was enjoying protected status in England at that time. This appears to be the only criminal conviction recorded against him, words are superfluous.

Objectively of course every agent has a shelf life and eventually, that road comes to an end. Many agents turn on their sponsors and many agents are discarded by their sponsors.

It is not clear why Scappaticci turned agent although he professed to a strong dislike of Martin McGuinness.

There is no doubt that he wielded excessive power including life and death over his victims. It is very important to consider that he operated within a secret military structure. In this case, this was provided by the Force Research Unit (FRU).

‘Star Agent’

There are discernible layers to the Stakeknife story that plots his trajectory from Star Agent, Compromise, Denial, Public Disclosure, Protection in the UK and eventual investigation by Kenova. There were some interesting way points in that journey:

Round 1 Scappaticci was recruited as an agent by the British Army in the late 1970s. He operated successfully in that role until 1990, was involved in many killings and was managed closely by FRU.

Round 2 Stakeknife’s compromised status dates to 1990 when an RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) raid in Belfast led to the rescue of Sandy Lynch from an IRA interrogation. Although Stakeknife was not present during the raid, his fingerprint was found at the scene, leading to questions about his allegiance within PIRA circles. Subsequently, his effectiveness as a British Security asset diminished. PIRA also side-lined him progressively.

Round 3 Freddie Scappaticci (Stakeknife) was formally outed in 2003, he disappeared from Belfast, presumably in protection in the UK.

Round 4 Despite leaving Northern Ireland, Scappaticci remained under scrutiny, even becoming involved in the Smithwick Tribunal in Dublin where he appeared as a non-witness so that he could defend the allegation that he was, in fact, the British agent Stakeknife. The Irish State paid his lawyers €382,270 for their services in defending his “good” name. Smithwick reported in 2013 having commenced in 2005. There are many unanswered questions regarding this event and most critically who authorised it on the Irish side and who introduced him to the Tribunal. These secrets lie buried in the Department of Justice in Dublin. He was not the only British agent who got this treatment. Peter Keeley/Kevin Fulton another British agent was awarded witness status and this agent’s lawyers were paid €456,645 for their services. The gullibility of official circles in Dublin is staggering.

Round 5 Enter General Sir John Finlay Willasey Wilsey former General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland acknowledged the existence of Kerbstone aka Stakeknife in his book Ulster Tales (2011). The general was later fooled in a phone call where he freely admitted the key role of this agent. An audio tape of this call is in the author’s possession. He also praised his handler. He went on to say that “Both took prudent precautions under the supervision of an experienced controller or case officer. These extra pairs of ears and eyes, and the additional input to the planning and monitoring of each meeting, or ‘meet’ as it was termed, was reassuring, as was knowing that the resources of one of the Army’s most professional and wiliest organisations were dedicated to their safety”. Presumably he meant the FRU. The general died in 2019.

Round 6 Historical Enquiries Team – HET, launched in Northern Ireland in January 2006 as an initiative to help relatives of unresolved deaths there. The team had a budget of approximately £30 million and a staff of 84, including analytical and administrative personnel. This exercise was wound up in 2014.

Round 7 March 8, 2024, Interim Report published by the PSNI on Kenova. 

John O’Brien is a retired Detective Chief Superintendent, in An Garda Síochána, formerly head of the International Liaison Protection section in Garda HQ, National Head of Interpol and Europol. Previously Divisional Chief Superintendent in Louth/Meath and Laois/Offaly Divisions. A former Superintendent, Detective Inspector, Uniform Inspector, and Sergeant. He enjoyed a rewarding career as a front-line Garda. He is the holder of a MSc in Public Order Studies. He is the author of four books, A Question of Honour, Politics and Policing (2020) and Securing the Irish State (2022). The Troubles Come South 2023. And the shortly to be published, The Great Deception, Dublin, and Monaghan Car Bombings 1974.

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