The Dirty War….


Operation Kenova, an ongoing operation scheduled to last five years, was launched in June 2016 to investigate a range of alleged activities including murders, kidnaps and tortures dating back to the 1970s and into the activities of ‘Steak Knife’ , ‘the alleged British Army’s highest ranking informant within the Provisional IRA. Named in the media, originally from west Belfast, Freddie Scappaticci has denied the allegations. is the website of the investigation led by Chief Constable Jon Boutcher of Bedfordshire Police. He said, “I do not underestimate the huge task of establishing the circumstances behind how and why these murders occurred during those dark days.” Publically his objective “is to bring those responsible for these awful crimes, in whatever capacity they were involved, to justice.”

Such sentiments were also expressed by fellow leading police officers in the investigations that saw to the Stalker report, and with the Sampson report which took over from Stalker. It is hard not to be skeptical. The inquiry is not the first into the secret intelligence war. It is not hard to be skeptical that it will publish evidence that implicates too many senior members of the British intelligence services, or the Republican movement. Boutcher counters this concern, saying “if any of this perceived resistance happens, I will challenge it”. However the prognosis is that a secret inquiry, held in private will produce a report which will be said to be so sensitive that its contents will not be divulged, possibly a short, sanitised summary will be produced, and the British authorities will be able to say that they did something about the Scappaticci scandal. 

Below FRU at dinner

Vested interests

It has all been seen before: Stalker, Sampson and Stevens. Of all the previous inquiries into Northern Ireland’s undercover war that have taken place over years, none has the potential to threaten as many vested interests as Kenova. Press speculation was that Kenova’s sights are also targeted on members of the IRA’s provisional army council who sanctioned the murder of agent/informer suspects as required by the IRA’s rule book. And what about IRA members executed as informers by the IRA? It has been pointed out that Michael Kearney in 1979 and Anthony Braniff in 1981, for example, who have since been exonerated by former comrades.

Former IRA member McIntyre, who knew Scappaticci, said that the Provisional leadership had “behaved disgracefully” after the spy had been unmasked. He said:

Like the Catholic Church hierarchy in sex abuse cases, the IRA leadership acted to protect themselves and their own reputations by covering up the truth about Stakeknife, rather than reaching out to help those who had been wronged. Stakeknife sent dozens of people to their deaths as alleged informers. Surely the IRA leadership is not going to continue to rely on the evidence of a British agent? Any case he was involved with is tainted beyond salvation. The evidence can’t be relied upon.”

In January 2018 the Kenova investigation team confirmed that a 72-year-old man had been arrested in England and questioned. The BBC reported the man being questioned was Fred Scappaticci. He was released later that week on bail after being questioned by detectives investigating 18 murders. The arrest of Scappaticci came 15 years after the Sunday Herald first named him as “Stakeknife” in May 2003. It was an ex-British soldier, a former member of the Force Research Unit, Ian Hirst who, using the pseudonym ‘Martin Ingram’, exposed the Scappaticci story to daylight. Efforts by the British Ministry of Defence to silence Hirst led to a court injunction forbidding him to use or promulgate Scappaticci’s code name, ‘Steak Knife’. So instead he called ‘Scap’ ‘Stakeknife’ and the media followed suit in its initial reporting. ‘Scap’s’ real code name though was ‘Steak Knife’. [The Sunday Herald also named Brigadier Gordon Kerr as the head of the Force Research Unit in November 2000.]

Scappaticci is pictured bottom left with dark moustache at funeral of Provisional IRA member Larry Marley

Broadcast on April 11th 2017, Scappaticci was the subject of John Ware’s BBC Panorama investigation, The Spy in the IRA, allegedly working for the British intelligence services while running the IRA’s internal security unit. It was claimed he was Agent 6126 – codenamed Steak Knife’ – who had worked as an agent for the FRU since 1979.

Ed Moloney, an Irish journalist, succulently explains that Scappaticci’s story

“covers what was probably one of the darkest and dirtiest chapters of the British state’s secret war against the IRA in which the republican movement’s top spycatcher was in an ideal place to subvert his own comrades while giving British intelligence an unprecedented opportunity to manipulate IRA policy and personnel. During that enterprise it is more than likely that British intelligence allowed Scappaticci to kill people and may even have connived at others’ deaths in order to promote their intelligence goals. It is hard to understand how Scappaticci was employed by the British without at least a blind eye being turned to what he did. In that capacity he was in a position to help British intelligence advance the careers of other informers, halt or divert the careers of those who were not and, arguably, help shape IRA military and political policy.”

According to John Ware’s reporting, thirty people were killed during Scappaticci’s time as IRA interrogator. Not all were registered agents such as Frank Hegarty run by military intelligence’s Force Research Unit (FRU), “but the majority provided information to the security forces. Yet they were not saved from interrogation and death, sometimes even after being tortured. In defence, the British army said Stakeknife’s intelligence could be credited with saving some 180 other lives… the 180 figure is partly the army’s “guesstimate” of lives that would have been lost had Stakeknife’s intelligence not led them to recover weapons from various dumps.”

It leaves the question who benefits? Who instigates the action?British ministers from every prime minister down always emphasised that the Northern Irish conflict was not a war and that the state maintained the rule of law. Yet Steak Knife’’s handlers were acquiescing in, tolerating, colluding – call it what you like – his involvement in preparing fellow agents/informers for death as the price of keeping him in place.if allegations were true that “Scappaticci was killing people at the behest of those in charge” then the question was not “who pulled the trigger, it’s who pulled the strings. It’s something that isn’t going away no matter how much the British government wants it to”.

Pat Finucane, a prominent human rights lawyer who represented republicans, was killed in 1989 after alleged collusion between FRU officers and loyalist paramilitaries, including Brian Nelson, a former Black Watch soldier who became head of intelligence for the terror group the Ulster Defence Association. Nelson was FRU’s man in the UDA. In December 2012, a report by Sir Desmond de Silva QC said he had found “shocking” levels of collusion involving the army, police and MI5. It said the state had facilitated the killing and made relentless efforts to stop the killers being caught. But demands for a public inquiry remain rebuffed.

The stonewalling phraseology often employed: A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “We are assisting the police in their investigation. As the investigation is ongoing it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Stalker: Ireland, Shoot to Kill And the Affair (Penguin 1988)

A reasonable point was made by an Amazon reviewer: When someone of John Stalkers rank with an unblemished record can be kept in the dark and treated so badly by his superiors for no reason other than being too professional, too thorough and digging too deep and asking questions that they would rather he didn’t, what chance have lesser mortals have?

John Stalker was a straight up law and order copper.In 1984, when he was Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester, John Stalker had been asked to go to Northern Ireland to investigate the alleged “shoot to kill” policy by RUC policemen of suspect terrorists. With a team of six experienced policemen he spent two years conducting three murder enquiries. Just as he was about to complete his inquiry he was called back to Manchester, suspended from duty and subjected to an intense investigation for alleged improprieties. It ended his career.

Journalist Peter Taylor, author of numerous well-received studies on the conflict, covered the investigation into Stalker himself and not so much his investigation into Northern Ireland. The focus of this book [Stalker: The Search for the Truth (Faber 1987)] is how his loose links with criminals in Manchester through a friend of his meant he ended up being taken off the investigation. Stalker was replaced by Sir (now Baron) John Stevens, Commissioner of the Met (2000-2006), producing three reports of increasing exposure of collusion by state forces leading to the murder of nationalists.

The Stevens Inquiries found that elements of the British Army had used loyalists as “proxies”. His secure inquiry offices within RUC headquarters suffered an arson attack. The extensive evidence he gathered remains secret. The report released in April 2003 states that members of the security forces in Northern Ireland colluded with the Ulster Defense Association (UDA) over the loyalist murders of many innocent people in the 1970s and 1980s, including the solicitor Pat Finucane in 1989. The government forces involved include the Force Research Unit of the British army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), in particular its Special Branch.

The Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday stated that British paratroopers “lost control”, fatally shooting fleeing civilians and those who tried to aid the civilians who had been shot by the British soldiers. The report stated that British soldiers had concocted lies in their attempt to hide their acts. Saville stated that the civilians had not been warned by the British soldiers that they intended to shoot. The report states, contrary to the previously established belief, that none of the soldiers fired in response to attacks by petrol bombers or stone throwers, and that the civilians were not posing any threat. It rejected the findings of the tribunal set up under a former army brigadier, the Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Widgery, that had reported on 19 April 1972 and long been regarded as a legal cover-up.

It is clear that during Operation Banner, the British Army longest continuous deployment, state security forces often dispensed with judge and jury, selected candidates for assassination, managed collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, on the streets exercised a shoot to kill and reckless use of plastic bullets against civilians, extracted false evidence from suspects, forced confessions from innocents and tortured citizens detained without trial. In the covert war each of the three agencies running agents – the RUC Special Branch, the Army’s Force Research Unit and the Security Service – operated under their own separate regimes. The result was that: the RUC SB had no workable guidelines; the FRU were subject to Directives and Instructions that were contradictory; and the Security Service received no effective external guidance to make clear the extent to which their agents could be permitted to engage in criminality.

The picture painted of continuous internecine warfare between the various bureaucracies, and covert operations and counter-terror completely out of political control sidesteps the contextual contingencies that they were defending the state and the status quo in the manner they thought acceptable. Given the extent of the accusations and that it was indeed routine and systematic in Northern Ireland, and that the British state acted on all levels, but to varying degrees, illegally in their counterterrorism strategy, can they all be rogue operations?

A library of material has emerged with writers like Martin Dillion regularly publishing on the subject of The Dirty War (Arrow 1991) that started in 1973 with the Penguin Special Political Murder in Northern Ireland. From a variety of viewpoints, and critical reception, the literature on the subject has grown

Ten-Thirty-Three: The Inside Story of Britain’s Secret Killing Machine in Northern Ireland (Mainstream Publishing 2000) by Nicholas Davies reveals the conspiracy between British Military Intelligence and the gunman of the UDA who targeted and killed both Republican terrorists and ordinary Catholics.

State Violence, Collusion and the Troubles: Counter Insurgency, Government Deviance and Northern Ireland (Pluto Press 2012) by Maurice Punch

Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland (Mercier Press 2013 ) by Anne Cadwallader.

A State in Denial: The British Government and Loyalist Paramilitaries (The Mercier Press 2016 ) by Margaret Urwin

In Search of the Truth: British Injustice and Collusion in Northern Ireland (The Collins Press 2017 ) by Michael O’Connell

Everyone wants to put their part

The RUC Special Branch have their champion in Secret Victory: The Intelligence War that beat the IRA (2016) by Dr William Matchett who served in the RUC. Likewise a former police officer, Colin Breen, tell their own stories in their own words. A Force Like No Other: The real stories of the RUC men and women who policed the Troubles (2017) covers overt and public aspects of police work, from handling informants and conducting interviews with criminals to dealing with the aftermath of bombings.

Ever since Contact by A.F.N. Clarke’s account of a paratrooper in Northern Ireland during the mid to late ’70s, there has been the British Army memoirs, even the secret covert bits – Fishers of Men – The Gripping True Story of a British Undercover Agent in Northern Ireland (John Blake 2017) by Rob Lewis. Mark Urban’s Big Boys’ Rules: The SAS and the Secret Struggle Against the IRA (Faber & Faber 1996) and Ambush: The War Between The SAS And The IRA (Pan 1988) by Anthony Bainbridge Robin Morgan, & James Adam contributed to a British narrative of “The Troubles”. The quality of the research seldom matches the sensationalist claims with central allegations coming without any substantiating material and are thus impossible to evaluate, such as The Nemesis File: the true story of an SAS execution squad (Blake Publishing 1995) by Paul Bruce.

Although Fred Holroyd’s revelations did not receive the widest distribution – see the long out of print War without Honour: True Story of Military Intelligence in Northern Ireland (Medium 1989) by Fred Holroyd and Nick Burbridge.

There is even the niche account for army buffs from Pen & Sword Aviation: Steven Taylor’s Air War Northern Ireland: Britain’s Air Arms and the ‘Bandit Country’ of South Armagh, Operation Banner 1969 – 2007 (2018).

Increasingly the subject for academia there is Liverpool University Press’ microscopic investigation, An Army of Tribes: British Army Cohesion, Deviancy and Murder in Northern Ireland (2018) by Edward Burke. An article titled “The Influence of Informers and Agents on Provisional Irish Republican Army Military Strategy and British Counter-Insurgency Strategy, 1976–94” by Thomas Leahy of King’s College, London, pretty much demolishes the myth of British “super spies” in the ranks of (Provisional) Irish Republican Army.

From the introductory abstract:

This article investigates the impact of British informers and agents on Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) military strategy and British counter-insurgency strategy in Northern Ireland between 1976 and 1994. The importance of this topic was highlighted by revelations in 2003 and 2005 concerning two senior republicans who had both been working for British intelligence for decades. While acknowledging other important factors, various authors believe that these intelligence successes were vital in containing the IRA, and significantly influenced that organization to end its military campaign in the 1990s.

Yet after cross-referencing new interview material primarily with memoirs from various participants in the Northern Ireland conflict, this article reveals that the nature of many rural IRA units, its cellular structure in Belfast, and the isolation of the IRA leadership from the rest of the movement, prevented it from being damaged to any considerable extent by informers and agents.

In fact, by the 1990s the resilience of the IRA was a crucial factor encouraging the British government to include Provisional Republicans in a political settlement. The IRA’s military strength by the 1990s also points towards the prominence of political factors in persuading the IRA to call a ceasefire by 1994. The role of spies in Northern Ireland and the circumstances in which the state permitted negotiations with paramilitaries such as the IRA, are key considerations for those interested in other recent and current conflicts.”

British Spies In The IRA, Myth Versus Reality

And there are others who speak for themselves:

Out of the Ashes: An Oral History of the Provisional Irish Republican Movement (Merrion Press 2017) by Robert W. White

Ed Moloney’s Voices from the Grave: Two Men’s War in Ireland (Faber & Faber 2011) draws upon the interviews with Brendan Hughes of the IRA and David Ervine of the UVF.

A number of IRA memoirs have emerged, amongst them Insider: Gerry Bradley’s Life in the IRA (2009 ) by Gerry Bradley & Brian Feeney which is not the normal apologetic reformed terrorist memoir that gets printed.

Will Kenova produce a best seller or do a widgery?

One thought on “The Dirty War….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s