Freddie Scappaticci, one of the most effective and notorious British spies to infiltrate the IRA during the Irish Troubles, was, according to well-placed republican sources, drummed out of the IRA in 1993, a year before the first IRA ceasefire, after the IRA’s spy-catchers, the Internal Security Unit (ISU), demanded that the then Chief of Staff allow them to investigate the seven-man Army Council for evidence of treachery.
Both Gerry Adams and the late Martin McGuinness were members of the Council at this time and stirring up internal turmoil as such an investigation surely would have, could only seriously complicate the journey to peace they had started, which would culminate with the Good Friday Agreement, the winding down of the IRA and the decommissioning of the bulk of its weapons.
But the IRA’s military leader, Kevin McKenna, enraged by the ultimatum, called the ISU’s bluff and sacked the entire spy catcher unit, including Scappaticci, thus ending the career of Britain’s most valuable double agent during the Troubles.
One IRA source described the Chief of Staff’s furious reaction to the demand: ‘McKenna was incandescent with rage’, he said. which suggests that whoever had devised the plan had badly misread their quarry.
The effort to investigate the Army Council bore the hallmarks of a classic deception operation put together by Scappaticci’s British Army handlers which would have been designed to divide, confuse and weaken the IRA leadership. But for McKenna it might well have worked, although the consequences for the infant peace process might have been disastrous.
Once fired from the IRA, Scappaticci, known widely as ‘Scap’, then retired to a home in Andersonstown, West Belfast until he was outed by a former British soldier, ironically a disillusioned ex-member of the intelligence unit that ran ‘Scap’, and an Irish journalist.
After a brief effort to protest his innocence, ‘Scap’ – whose family roots were in Italy – essentially disappeared from public view, re-emerging only when he was charged with bestiality by detectives led by Jon Boutcher, the former Bedfordshire Chief Constable whose ‘Operation Kenova’ is probing ‘Scap’s’ part in the murder of nearly twenty victims.
‘Scap’s’ victims invariably ended their lives on country roads trussed like Christmas turkeys and riddled with bullets. He is said to have specialised in torturing his victims, sometimes suspending them from the ceiling by their heels until they confessed. He also used drugs to render them unconscious before transporting them to isolated cottages on the southern side of the Border for interrogation. These sessions invariably ended with an admission of guilt and a bullet behind the ear.
What role ‘Scap’s’ British Army handlers played in the effort to destabilise the Army Council remains a mystery although common sense suggests they may well have devised the plan, a classic piece of disinformation designed to confuse and divide the IRA leadership. If so, the question of whether political approval from Whitehall was sought or given assumes great importance.
Such operations are not uncommon in the murky world of intelligence and are designed to create mutual suspicion and division in enemy ranks, in this case as the IRA tried to navigate its way through the peace process towards a ceasefire and decommissioning, a fraught enough endeavour as it was.
All of ‘Scap’s’ dealings with the British were with the military; he hated the Northern Irish police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and refused to do business with them, but he was ready and willing to work for British military intelligence, then led by an outfit called the Force Research Unit (FRU). This is the same unit that was at the centre of the controversy surrounding the assassination of Belfast lawyer, Pat Finucane.
But what, aside from ‘Scap’s’ loyalty, led the FRU to think that Chief of Staff, Kevin McKenna would open up the Army Council to a level of scrutiny that would be bound to cause anger and discord?
The former IRA chief, who succeeded Ivor Bell in the top job, was the longest serving IRA leader during the Troubles, holding the Chief of Staff rank from 1983 to 1997; he was also known to be a loyal supporter of Gerry Adams, unlike Bell.
After Adams survived a challenge from opponents of the peace process in 1996 and his allies reasserted command of the IRA, calling a second ceasefire which led eventually to the Good Friday Agreement, McKenna was put in charge of decommissioning the organisation’s weaponry, a measure of the trust the Adams’ camp had in him.
McKenna died in 2019 aged 74 and a tribute to him was published on the internet by Gerry Adams who called him: ‘An honest decent republican who saw off Thatcher and her ilk and brought the British government to the negotiating table’, adding, ‘It is in the nature of these things that the part played by republicans like Kevin during the long years of war will never be known.’
Freddie Scappaticci was among those sacked by McKenna and his loss must have been a heavy blow to British intelligence. As a double agent his treachery had given the British an unprecedented insight into IRA attitudes, internal rivalries and membership.
Scappaticci, known universally as ‘Scap’, had the codename ‘Steaknife’, but when the British Ministry of Defence sought and secured a court injunction forbidding the media from publishing the name, journalists instead called him Stakeknife’, at which point the mandarins of Whitehall appear to have decided to call it quits.
‘Scap’ is currently being investigated by a team of British detectives led by Jon Boutcher, the former chief constable of Bedfordshire. He has already been charged with bestiality, a fondness for sex with animals, and could well have faced murder charges arising from his spy-catcher activities.
The clumsy and apparently ill-thought out effort to wrong foot the Army Council, if such it was, happened in 1993 and came as IRA leaders sought to win internal support for a peace process and the demilitarisation efforts that would accompany it. Less than a year after the ISU leadership was ousted, the IRA called a ceasefire and began a journey into constitutional politics.
The fact that Scappaticci’s handlers seen to have allowed him to be part of the attempted putsch raises an obvious question: was the attempt to destabilise the Army Council ultimately FRU’s idea and did other agencies, such as MI5, have a hand in events? What was the level of political knowledge in Westminster?
‘Scap’ was handled by the British Army’s then intelligence wing in Northern Ireland, the Force Research Unit (FRU) but had always refused to work with or for the old RUC Special Branch. Like many Northern Catholics he trusted the British Army more than the RUC.
One incident spoke to the importance with which the British Army regarded ‘Scap’. Worried about his security, he sought and got a face-to-face meeting with General Sir John Wilsey, who was British Army commander in Northern Ireland from 1990 to 1993, to discuss his concerns.
‘Scap’ faces an uncertain future but thanks to British prime minister Boris Johnson, he may never serve a day in jail for the many murders he was involved in.
Faced with growing Tory grassroots anger at the sight of elderly, former British soldiers being brought before the courts over distant events such as ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Derry, the Johnson government introduced a proposed Act of Parliament last May to deal with the problem.
Now widely known as ‘the Legacy Bill’, the new law would grant immunity from prosecution to anyone accused of committing Troubles-related offences as long as they agreed to co-operate with the process of investigating the charges against them. An irrevocable pledge of immunity will be granted to individuals who give an account of their offences judged to be ‘true to the best of (their) knowledge and belief’.
The legislation is strongly opposed by civil libertarians and human rights lawyers and has caused deep concern amongst victims’ groups and those, like Jon Boutcher, the former Chief Constable of Bedfordshire, who leads the so-called Kenova team investigating Scappaticci’s many alleged offences. The PSNI was never consulted about the law and nor were victims’ groups, notably the Human Rights Commission, which is charged with advising and overseeing human rights in Northern Ireland.
The Kenova investigation of ‘Scap’, which began with Jon Boutcher’s appointment as its head in 2016, is probing no less than 18 murders linked to the former IRA double agent. The investigation is, according to informed sources, based on the notion that many of the factual and disturbing aspects of ‘Scap’s’ IRA career – information long sought by his victims’ families – are best aired or can only be aired in the context of a criminal trial. As things stand now, it appears as if neither ‘Scap’ nor any other perpetrator will be exposed to the level of scrutiny best provided by that sort of process.
Thanks to Boris Johnson’s government the families of ‘Scap’s’ victims look as if once again they will be the losers and that the peace of mind promised when the Boutcher probe began will be denied to them.