Watching last night’s BBC Panorama special on Freddie Scappaticci, I was struck by the media consensus that now surrounds the existence of the British Army spy in the IRA, ‘Steak Knife’, now known as ‘Stakeknife‘ by all and sundry (with the exception of this site), thanks to a court injunction. Everyone now believes ‘Steak Knife’ existed.
It wasn’t always so.
For a long time, at least until 2003 when Freddie Scappaticci was outed by a Sunday newspaper, belief in the existence of ‘Steak Knife‘ or otherwise was regarded as a surrogate for attitudes towards the then still fragile peace process.
When I say that, I mean that in the eyes of peace process advocates in the media – and there were and are divisions along these lines in the Belfast press – to express any level of belief in the Steak Knife story was tantamount to being opposed to the direction Gerry Adams and his allies were taking the IRA.
The Steak Knife story was broken by the late Liam Clarke in August 1999, just over a year after the Good Friday Agreement. In tribute to Liam, I reproduce his article in The Sunday Times of August 8th, 1999 below.
There were, admittedly, flaws and weaknesses in the story. The source was grandiosely and inaccurately called a ‘spymaster’ when in fact he was a junior NCO, a corporal if my memory serves me right, in an unnamed unit of British military intelligence.
The source was given a false name, ‘Martin Ingram’, although this was not known at the time. And his unit in the intelligence world was not identified.
All this, and the fact that the spy was not identified but described as ‘the crown jewel’ of British intelligence sources and his status and existence supported by no other evidence made it a controversial story. Liam wrote it up because he had reason to believe ‘Ingram’, either because ‘Ingram’ was especially persuasive or had provided evidence that he could not publish.
Either way it was a one source story. Liam had faith in his one source but how could others share it?
Not long afterwards ‘Martin Ingram’ (real name: Ian Hurst) rang me and we arranged to meet in Dublin. I came away from the meeting impressed by him and what he had told me, and believing that this was a story that had to be followed up.
Eventually, ‘Ingram’ would give me documentary and photographic evidence proving that he was a member of British military intelligence and that the unit he worked for was called the Force Research Unit. As for the existence of ‘Steak Knife‘, that had not yet been established. ‘Ingram’ knew the name but was not telling.
Not all journalists were as keen to follow the story up. Sinn Fein spread the word that Liam Clarke’s story was the work of ‘securocrats’ – remember them? – who wanted to bring the peace process crashing down.
The charge had a certain credibility because of the days that were in it. The process was still fragile in late 1999. Killings were continuing – Rosemary Nelson, Eamon Collins and Frankie Curry were among the victims that year – the Provos and Unionists were squabbling over IRA decommissioning and the formation of the power sharing Executive promised by the previous year’s Good Friday Agreement was as distant as ever.
So the sudden appearance of a claim that the British had a major spy in the ranks and that there was an associated if only implied suggestion that the spy may have helped steer the Provos towards the peace process was, immediately denounced by Sinn Fein as a dirty trick.
And a significant and influential section of the media in Northern Ireland agreed.
By this stage the media in Belfast had, in considerable measure, divided into camps differentiated by their approach to the peace process. The pro-process camp in large measure closed up shop and contented themselves with simple daily reportage of events. But no digging worth the name. The school eventually adopted the moniker: ‘Peace Journalism’.
They accused those who wouldn’t go along with this, who approached the peace process as they would any other story, as being politically motivated, propelled by a desire to do the process damage.
I don’t know if Liam Clarke was placed in this camp (and I had my own differences with him down the years) but I suspect he was. I know that I certainly was. I remember at one point being roundly denounced for writing about Steak Knife by one reporter. ‘You want it to be true’, was the thrust of the accusation.
So forgive me if I take a wry satisfaction watching members of that camp now falling over themselves to appear on TV programmes about Freddie Scappaticci.
Here is Liam Clarke’s original article about Steak Knife (note his spelling) in The Sunday Times. For reasons that defy explanation I could not recover the final paragraph(s). Enjoy:
Britain’s spy network in Northern Ireland finds that money talks. A senior IRA figure in the province is the army’s top agent, earning up to Pounds 60,000 a year for vital information. Liam Clarke talks to a former spymaster who reveals how the system works
Martin Ingram was on night shift at the British military intelligence headquarters in Northern Ireland when one of the phones rang. It was the hotline – a number known only to and reserved for Britain’s most cherished agent, a man known by the codename Steak Knife.
Steak Knife was and is the crown jewel of British intelligence in Ulster, a man at the heart of the IRA’s war effort who had to be kept happy at all costs. His source reports were read by ministers. His output was, and remains, so prolific that two handlers and four collators work full-time on them.His identity is a matter of national security but the RUC sergeant at the other end of the line just blurted it out. “We have arrested a Mr Padraic Pearse (not his real name) and he gave us this number to contact. He says he works for a man called Paddy …” giving the cover name of a military intelligence handler. Steak Knife had played his “get out of jail free” card and was released a few hours later.
Ingram was appalled that the RUC had forced Steak Knife into this position. “I will never reveal the identity of any agent but that is how easily it can come out,” he said. It was not the first or last time the RUC, whose special branch is well aware of the IRA man’s double role, had approached a key agent it was desperate to poach from the army.
“They told him they would expose him unless he worked for them, they put out arrest-on-sight warrants, they accused him of holding information back. They even sweet-talked him but they couldn’t match the money we were giving him and couldn’t make him trust them.”
Steak Knife had originally been a walk-in. For reasons never explained, he turned against his comrades and, almost casually, had strolled into an army base far from his home and offered to help.
Though now a wealthy man, he cannot attract attention by spending the cash he receives. He also knows he may never live to enjoy his tax-free fortune. His Pounds 50,000-Pounds 60,000 annual retainer and lavish bonuses lie gathering interest in a building society account held in a false name.
He has frequently threatened to retire and to buy a business. He has always been tempted back by the promise of more riches to come and his apparent addiction to the deadly game he plays with his own life and the lives of
others. INGRAM never planned to enter this hall of mirrors. An army barmy teenager from the Midlands in England, he sought a man’s life in the Parachute Regiment. On basic training, he was talent-spotted and invited to attend an interview at the Intelligence Corps in Ashford, Kent.
He passed out of basic training in late 1980 and was posted to a unit called 3SCT in Northern Ireland. His first job was to programme the corps’s main Northern Ireland computer system. Soon he was moved to 121 Intelligence, which prepared reports for Major General James Glover, the second most senior soldier in Northern Ireland.
In both these posts, he had access to a wealth of raw intelligence data that he was expected to read and process. It came mainly as Misers (military intelligence source reports), which listed intelligence given by individual agents at briefings, cross-references to notes on people, vehicles and places the agents had mentioned to their handlers.
There were reports from agents working for MI5, the British internal security service. These files, known as Box 500 reports because of the service’s London address, were complemented by reports from MI6, the British foreign intelligence agency that monitors terrorist contacts with countries such as Libya and Syria. RUC special branch reports were passed on to the army on a strict need-to-know basis through the Tasking and Co-ordination Group which co-ordinated security force activity across the services.
It was clear that most of the MI5 agents were in the republic. The most prolific, codenamed Eamon, was a high-ranking Garda officer who met his handler regularly at Dublin airport. In Northern Ireland, a leading Sinn Fein figure was on the MI5 payroll, providing a steady stream of internal policy documents and reports on republican thinking on the move into politics after the 1981 hunger strike.
RUC agents tended to be low to middle-ranking IRA members, often recruited as……