Last November, Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE, issued a public apology to journalist and writer Kevin Myers, along with a promise to pay substantial damages, for falsely labeling him a Holocaust denier in July 2017, thus bringing to a close a more than two-year long ordeal for one of the country’s more notable, talented and colourful wordsmiths.
During that exile he was shunned by the mainstream Irish and British media, and libeled by RTE. Shamefully (at the time of writing), only one mainstream outlet, The Irish Independent, has reported the RTE apology. Silence also, and most contemptibly, from The Irish Times, where for some years Kevin made his daily column, ‘An Irishman’s Diary‘, a must-read.
In one of his first major pieces of writing since the RTE climb-down, Myers dissects for thebrokenelbow.com, in his own distinctive way, the story of the IRA’s spycatcher, Freddie Scappaticci.
(Readers should know that I first met Kevin in Belfast circa 1972/73 and have counted him a friend ever since, even though our views of the world might only occasionally coincide)
The central truth about Northern Ireland, which stands as the primary enabler that makes the utterly impossible often perfectly probable, is that it is a society based on lies. Everyone lies there. Everyone. They lie to themselves, they lie to one another, they lie to their children, they lie to their friends, they lie to their enemies. Lies are the currency of almost all intellectual exchanges. A body of commonly-held truths, whose strength is that they are empirically-provable and which elsewhere serve to bind the individuals in any society together, is almost completely absent from Northern Ireland.
To be sure, in such other societies, people constantly deceive one another, but largely in the form of white lies in order to diminish discord and enhance harmony. These are the low-grade fictions which, when given credentials, a plumed hat and motor-cycle outriders to the presidential palace, go by the name of diplomacy. But in Northern Ireland, people lie to one another to achieve opposite ends. Freud’s concept of the narcissism of small differences takes on pathological dimensions there. White Christians of almost identical gene pools who largely dress the same, talk the same, eat the same atrocious diet, listen to the same popular music, support the same English football clubs and have so much in common in their private lives, nonetheless prefer to enter a vast conspiracy of mutually-agreed public dishonesty that will enable them to exaggerate the tiny, often almost invisible elements that they do not have in common.
Such a lacuna-peppered society was almost tailor-made for a serial killer and skilled psychopath like Freddie Scappaticci. This senior IRA-man turned British agent was able for decades to prosper in the many gaps between truth and fantasy that existed in the minds of every single participant in the Troubles – and these include the many British soldiers, police and intelligence personnel engaged in the war against republican terrorism.
Only by imbibing Northern Ireland’s “culture” can outsiders come to terms with the place; but that very act then corrupts their own ability both to grasp reality and even more importantly to retain their own moral standards. What was intended to make understanding easier actually makes it impossible. There is no remedy here. The so-called peace-process similarly obliged everyone involved to lie, just as the war that it was intended to end required the same. The cure required everyone to be infected: you can only understand vampires by allowing yourself to be bitten, just a little.
But of course, there is no such thing as a little bite in this disordered world. And for the second half of the Troubles, the primary-vampire, inoculating the entire IRA and British intelligence community with the virus of self-deceit and moral depravity, was Freddie Scappaticci, the son of Italian immigrant family, and owner of a deep, unwavering, Manson-like stare. But despite the tempting stereotypes that beckon from the US, the Italian background was probably of lesser importance than his local origins, in the Markets area of Belfast.
Even more than most parts of the complex mosaic of identity in Northern Ireland, the Markets spins lies about itself in spectacular quantities. Consider the names some of the well-known Catholics and Republicans from this area: Davison, McKnight, Maxwell, Rice, Cunningham, Scott, Stilges and Elliman.
These are planter-names, not aboriginal Gaelic names. They are testimony to the once-common cross-community pastimes, in which dark nights had a vital role, as did alleyway walls, against which Catholic girls from the Markets courted Protestant males from the nearby Sandy Row, and often with seminal outcomes. The resulting children were raised as Catholics. Comparable walls, with slightly different bottoms against them, produced Protestant paramilitaries with Irish names like Murphy, Doyle, McCann and Gilmore.
So, the Protestant Sandy Row and the Catholics Markets are not just neighbouring districts in Belfast’s city centre: they are also where the in-laws live. It needs spectacular quantities of self-deceit to turn such cultural, geographical, genetic and nomenclatural contiguity into a state of permanent hostility, though admittedly admixed with regular doses of copulation. This is bizarre social dysfunctionality writ large, and none embodied the delusional qualities of the Markets so much as Freddie Scappaticci.
There was one yet further detail that went into the making of that little enclave: as its name implies, the people there are dealers, whose slyly intrusive fingers are adept at rigging the scales, hiding the bad apples at the bottom of the bag and miscounting your change (though curiously enough, always to their own advantage).
In other words, the Markets would alone and in their own perverse way embody all the contradictions and the lies of Northern Ireland, and so indeed does Freddie Scappatticci. However, Scappaticcologists, would look in vain today to find the Markets of his childhood, for they have been redeveloped beyond all recognition. Indeed, the squalor of the little brick-kennels of the Markets that he grew up in begs the question, what in the name of God were conditions like in Italy that this dire place should be considered an improvement?
These were slums which were beyond any 21st century imagination: made of crumbling, porous red-brick that inhaled moisture vertically from the soil and horizontally from the endless Belfast rain, they were almost completely without indoor plumbing: residents had to wash themselves at the only tap, cold, over the kitchen sink. There were no baths. Toilets were chilly, damp and unlit outhouses attached to tiny soot-encrusted backyards. The box-like living-rooms of their homes would be over-crowded if four grown-men stood alongside one another. To be sure, many good and honest people were raised in such conditions: Freddie Scappaticci was not one of them.
It is reported that in the 1970s he was an effective IRA sniper. No doubt he said as much, but as a Markets man, he would do, wouldn’t he? But as Markets man, he would also have had a mind for deals and details. Enterprise and dishonesty were (and are) indistinguishable within the Markets code of honour, an oxymoron that also manages to be a tautology.
No doubt these qualities, as well as a deeply menacing charisma and blackly unwavering eyes, led to his appointment to, and rapid promotion within, the IRA’s Internal Security Unit, also known as the Nutting Squad. Its duty was to sniff out informers, interrogate (ie, torture) them and then shoot them through the head, KGB-style, or in Belfast-speak, “nut them”. He was good at this simple task. His steady unwavering eyes usually got people to talk. His manner could be gentle and persuasive, as such manners often are when backed up with the possibility of a hammer smashing the fingers of the interviewee. And when charm failed to persuade someone to open up, the hammer probably didn’t.
Through the 1970s, the IRA fought a long, complex and astoundingly dirty intelligence war with the British. Maybe someone was keeping notes, and one day that someone will detail who did what to whom during this war, but that’s highly unlikely. Either way, at the very centre of these truly terrible deeds was the Markets man, Freddie Scapatticci, whose many interrogative skills proved extremely useful to the IRA, firstly in the streets of Belfast, and later in the Long Kesh internment camp after his arrest. It was here that the IRA learnt the limitations of torture, as IRA leaders got it into their heads that many of their republican fellow-prisoners were not merely working for the British, but were doing so in conjunction with loyalist prisoners, who between them constituted a new “third force”.
This was fantasy, a Gothic paranoia along the lines of a Mossad-Iranian alliance, but it was confirmed by beating prisoners until they confessed to whatever was necessary to end the beatings. Meanwhile, in the loyalist wings, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force were doing similar things, only worse (naturally) and with similar results. In order to end the torture, desperate prisoners would even finger paramilitaries not in the jail, and these were promptly shot. Scores of men were beaten senseless, and maybe a dozen murdered before both loyalists and republicans finally realised – and finally took a long time, because for many paramilitaries, sanctimonious, self-righteous brutality is such manly fun – that it had all been an exotic illusion, perhaps confabulated by the British. Thereafter, Scap fully understood the value of the gently-worded threat (matched with the empty promise of freedom) in the course of an interrogation.
In the mid-seventies, he was released from internment, and continued about his merry business, well-respected amongst the republican “community”, but otherwise, unknown to the ordinary people of Belfast and the province generally. Anonymity is usually preferable in his line of work. And then one day in 1979, driven by whatever impulse resides in a mind as complex and deranged as his, he walked into a police-station and offered to become a British government informer within the IRA. Over the coming years, he acquired the codename Steak-knife/Stake-knife and supplied his handlers with vast amounts of intelligence.
In terms of the Second World War, this was like a German code-book falling into the hands of the cryptanalysts of Bletchley Park. With his knowledge of the IRA’s personnel and operations, the entire IRA could and surely should have been rolled up like an SS Division whose advance to Normandy was being systematically betrayed by its own signals. Instead, despite the presence at the heart of the IRA’s decision-making of a British agent, the IRA campaign lasted essentially another twenty years. This single sentence is not compatible with common-sense and could only have been made possible within a society that lives, breathes, eats and excretes lies, and which in turn infect all those who come to close to it.
One core (if sub-conscious) ingredient of the Irish republican delusion is the powerful desire for defeat and betrayal. Defeat has always been a certainty for all republican insurrections. Nobody could ever have doubted the outcome of any of the IRA campaigns, from 1916 – before the IRA, as such, even existed – up to today would be a settlement that would suit the British, to be followed by a republican split. Any settlement short of the utterly unattainable united 32-county Irish Republic is of course a betrayal: and meanwhile, another betrayal, that of Judas, would be systematically eating away at the IRA’s vitals. The informer is as Irish as the republican: Leonard McNally swore dupes into membership of the United Irishmen before the 1798 Rising, and then betrayed them to Dublin Castle and the gallows, before retiring to live a life of grace in London. Even the plans for the Easter Rising in April 1916 had been leaked to the authorities, and every IRA campaign since then has characterised by systematic inner betrayal.
There is yet another betrayal which is intrinsic to Irish republicanism, and which sets it firmly amid its iron-age, Fenian roots: its murderous hatred of those who disagree with it. Republicanism notionally aspired to bring Irishmen (and somewhat later) women together, and the means they chose to do that was to kill a few of them. That homicide is not usually a social adhesive seems to have escaped republicans’ attention – or more probably, it was central to their desire to lose, for they themselves would in defeat become both martyrs and victims, with their original victims being prudently forgotten.
The first people to be killed as the Provisional IRA’s campaign got underway were all Irish: in 1970, two Catholic dealers in Ballymurphy named McKenna and McVicar, a group of Protestant rioters in East Belfast, a couple of policemen in South Armagh. These killings were done in the name of “unity” – just like the first killings in Dublin in 1916, of unarmed policemen such as Constables Lahiff and O’Brien, and civilians like fifteen-year old Eleanor Warbrook, shot in cold blood by an insurgent outside Jacob’s factory. Since the method dooms the proclaimed outcome from the start, that proclaimed outcome cannot be considered the real objective. The method is. For “republicans” war was, and remains, fun. It is purgative. It is exhilarating. It is the ultimate existential drama, set in the iron-age, and with morals to match.
Scappaticci, as a relic from the Iron Age, in his own inimitable way is quite a plausible concept. He is, after all, Cain, and for nearly three decades, he repeatedly killed Abel, and occasionally Abel’s wife Awan, and only he knows how many people he was responsible for personally disposing of. Journalists airily say forty, largely because it is a nice round number. But of course, the Scappaticci death-toll consists of not just the people he killed, but also the people who were killed by others to safeguard his position as informer and executioner within the IRA, as well as those terrorists who were allowed to remain at large in order to protect him, and who thus continued to kill people, and so on and so forth. It is possible that his various security force handlers know how many people were murdered as part of the Great Scappaticci Project but rather unlikely; it is probably only within the powers of Divine Wisdom to assess the total death-toll caused by this ghastly enterprise. More simply, less wisely, and certainly undivinely, we can confidently say, A Lot.
His life resembled something from The Sopranos, though of course his richly dark humour was at the expense of real people, not of studio inventions. Eamon Collins, an IRA-man who would later turn-coat and start working for the British, before being murdered by his former colleagues, in his memoir, Killing Rage, wrote an account of meeting Scappaticci with John Joe, one of the Nutting Squad’s senior executioners. Collins asked them if they always told people they were going to be shot.
“He (Scappaticci) turned to (John Joe)and started joking about one informer who had confessed after being offered an amnesty. Scap told the man that he would take him home… Scap had told him to keep the blindfold on for security reasons as they walked away from the car.
“‘It was funny,’ he said, ‘watching the bastard stumbling and falling, asking me as he felt his way along the railings and walls, ‘Is this my house now?’ and I’d say, ‘No, not yet, walk on some more…’
“‘… and then you shot the fucker in the back of the head,’ said John Joe, and both of them burst out laughing.”
My, that is funny.
Moreover, that innocent-sounding name John Joe evokes something from another television series, The Waltons, from the 1970s. The grandfather-figure was played by Will Geer, who when not being winsomely folksy on screen, was a foremost fundraiser for Noraid, the republican front-group in the US. It is one of the great shames about the Northern Troubles that those Americans who gave so much money in order to prolong them never had the chance to sit with any of the many IRA victims – and Scap’s in particular – in those final moments before their execution and secret burial. Maybe, just maybe, they might have got some sense of the iron age barbarism they were not merely consorting with, but were also prolonging. But maybe not.
Just to keep you in the picture, if interrupting the narrative flow somewhat, Eamon Collins was later knifed to death by the IRA one morning while out on his daily run. And though this was in violation of every single undertaking given by the IRA and by their negotiators with the British and Irish governments, talks with Sinn Fein resumed later that day without pausing to administer a fond rebuke for the republican delegates or dispatching them to spend a few minutes on the naughty-step. The murder of this servant of the British crown was simply accepted as part of what Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam would memorably term “housekeeping”. Yes, the vampire had nibbled at her neck also.
Back to Scappaticci. It is often alleged that he worked alongside the IRA in South Armagh, but that is unlikely. You had to have had several generations’ lineage within a few square miles of Crossmaglen to qualify for a work-permit with the local IRA, and Scap’s name gives a small clue why he didn’t make the cut. But overall, in his hunt for informers, he would have had access to the secrets of operations by IRA units throughout Northern Ireland, including some in South Armagh. He would have known the names of very many volunteers, their operational skills and their personal records: a who-did-what thesaurus that should have opened up the IRA like filleting knife moving down a trout’s belly, leaving the organisation thoroughly gutted – lung, lights, liver and all.
Nothing of the kind happened. Instead, Scappaticci’s handlers seem to have played him in Northern Ireland’s foetid waters like an angler who has hooked a fish but is mysteriously reluctant to land it. Keeping him alive and productive seems to have been more important to them than defeating the IRA. They certainly learnt vast amounts from him, some of which was then fed to loyalist paramilitaries, who then occasionally killed an IRA suspect, such as the Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane. However, generally speaking, these handlers seemed “content” – an adjective whose many ambiguities seem peculiarly appropriate to Northern Ireland – to let Scappaticci provide the information to them about the IRA, but then not always act on it. This perpetual game was played for decades, even at the repeated expense of London’s financial centre, which makes the whole business utterly incomprehensible.
The standard IRA myth about the troubles, now amounting to a binding, blinding dogma, is that they were sustained by collusion between the British security forces and Protestant paramilitaries. And there was indeed some such collusion, occasionally reaching deep into the upper echelons of the British army. However, the more one probes, the more mysterious Project Scappaticci becomes, because in actual fact, not many IRA men were killed by loyalists on the strength of information given them by the British. Indeed, that is one of the most mysterious – and indeed sinister – aspects of the Troubles: how few paramilitaries of either side were murdered by their opposite numbers. Each seems to have preferred to kill innocent members of the “other” community, as the Northern Ireland lie-culture caused two rival campaigns of violence against innocent proxies. The classic case of this as the IRA’s massacre of ten Protestant workmen in South Armagh, without the least pretence that they were members of the security forces or involved in paramilitarism. Indeed, it was their very innocence which doomed them in the IRA’s eyes. There would presumably be no revenge for their slaughter, and indeed there was none.
Thus the province became almost a Petrie-dish experiment in deranged human behaviour, as viewed through a very perverse microscope: on the one hand you have the eyepiece through which the intelligence service are gazing and on the other, you have the objective lens which captures the actions of the paramilitaries. But instead of scientific clarity and resolution, you get complete moral corruption at both ends of the microscope, as the virus in the Petrie dish crawls up the tube and infects the watchers.
The Scappaticci Project thus seems to have been to keep him alive and see how long this weird experiment in survival against-the-odds could be continued, regardless of the loss of life, or even the fate of London’s Docklands. It is almost viral behaviour, as the invasive tumor requisitions the host’s tissues and makes them behave like cancer-cells.
This writer does not know enough about the divisions and demarcations between Army units, such as 14th Intelligence Company, the Force Research Unit and its predecessor, the Military Reaction Force, the RUC Special Branch and its various sub-divisions, and MI5, the domestic intelligence arm of the British government, to offer any useful insights into how any of them operated. What they had in common was Freddie: for Scapatticci seems to have been employed by them all. Those interested in such deleteria may follow the some of the viler details here https://web.archive.org/web/20070928170541/http://cryptome.quintessenz.at/mirror/scappaticci.htm and https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/issues/collusion/chron.htm
No doubt other details have been shredded or burnt in the deliberate-accidental fires that erupted amongst files as the official enquiry into collusion, led by Sir John Stevens, closed in on them. What remains reasonably certain is that the various handlers of Scappaticci crossed lines that not even the Special Operations Executive would have permitted in its operations in occupied Europe, 1940-45. SOE’s guiding principle was that under no circumstances and at no time may one SOE operative be involved in any way in killing a colleague, either to save his or her own neck, or anyone else’s.
This was absolutely not the case with Scappaticci, who actively pursued fellow-agents within the IRA and then murdered them. For example, along with Martin McGuinness, he was intimately involved in the murder of Garda Special branch agent, Derryman Frank Hegarty. The latter had informed the Gardai of a Libyan army shipment that had been stashed in Donegal. Hegarty then fell under suspicion of the IRA, and the British duly gave him a safe billet in Sittingbourne in Kent. McGuinness was nonetheless able to get through to him, via his wife, by telephone and duly promised this homesick, lovelorn dupe safety and sanctuary if he returned to Ireland and confessed all. He duly did, was duly abducted, duly interrogated, duly tortured and duly shot, his eyes being neatly sealed in place with sticking-plasters so that when his skull was shattered by his executioner’s Ruger .44 Magnum bullet, they didn’t pop out. So messy.
Before that final, and merciful deliverance, he had been Scapatticci’s guest for over two weeks. If any prospect could chill even the hardest heart, it is surely that. Though perhaps the Queen being later persuaded to shake hands with his co-executioner, Martin McGuinness, at a royal banquet in 2015 might well have a similar effect.
And that’s the ghastly truth behind the Scappaticci Project. It involved so many compromises. Though some senior British army officers knew of the Project, as did some Special Branch, as did some MI5 case-officers, most of the upper echelons of the security forces would probably have been in the dark about it, as of course would the Queen herself. Probably no-one knows the whole story – not even the man himself, because he would not have been privy to the countless compromises and deceits that were used to keep him alive for decades, while so many others died.
Scappaticci’s end-days have been as sordid as most of the rest of his time on this earth. In hiding in Britain with some sort of semi-permanent special branch protection, he was nonetheless prosecuted for possessing extreme “animal-pornography”, whatever that might; it is, presumably, best left to the imagination, and even that will not get the rest of us very far. However, that such imagery is even “criminal”, in an era when virtually all child-free pornography is not, suggests carnal appetites too depraved, pitiful and wicked for ordinary human contemplation.
No doubt, this is what serial killers resort to when they are too old to break people’s legs or can no longer put a .44 round into the skull above the temporal lobe behind the ear, with an outcome that is not the least temporal. That, after all, is how Scappaticci spent his twenties, thirties and even his forties. Now all that is left him is the fond memories of those whom he killed, perhaps revived in his happier, more virile moments by winsome images of Dobbin the Horse, Peter Rabbit and Pigling Bland doing whatever it is that they would have to do to turn their frolics into criminal offences.
Nonetheless, there is a certain purity of vision here, unclouded by rosy romance or republican myth. For Scappaticci was the moral and executive centre of the Northern Ireland troubles, the point of convergence of the IRA’s campaign, the cutting edge of British and RUC intelligence operations, and loyalist terrorism. It is a cliché to refer to the heart of darkness in such matters – but such cardiac metaphors about lightlessness somehow fail to capture the sound of a shinbone cracking, which was one of the many fractures that the IRA – and some say Scap himself – reserved for the limbs and ribs of the Louth farmer (and alleged informer) Tom Oliver on his terrible if leisurely journey to death in 1989. Nor can they match the hideous terror of Caroline Moreland during her ten days of IRA captivity, with the IRA ceasefire just weeks away, before she too was despatched into the eternity that now patiently awaits Freddie Scappaticci, the personal and moral embodiment of Northern Ireland’s troubles.
But let us not forget that it was another Belfast man who appointed him, who ruthlessly exploited the material he gained from his iron-bound forays into human misery, who employed him to protect his own apical position in the IRA pyramid and who is morally answerable for his assaults on human life, bodily integrity and the health of Northern Irish society as a whole. This – to use another metaphor – is the Jekyll and Hyde dualism that was behind the IRA campaign from the outset. On the one hand, you had the pipe-smoking, benignly-bearded frontman of Sinn Fein-IRA complete with tailored-tweeds – all in all, rather resembling an affable professor from a minor New England college: on the other you had this dead-eyed, conscienceless serial-killer stalking the alleys and the byways of republicanism.
For whatever monstrosities Scappaticci did, that other man authorised their implementation and profited from their outcome. If some modern Ultra machine were ever to crack the double-helix code encrypted within the name Scappaticci, the decrypt-teleprinter would probably – if a little hesitantly, because even machines can recognise the face of evil – tap out the letters A-D-A-M-S.