State oppression and a turncoat
David John Douglass reviews Richard O’Rawe, Stakeknife’s dirty war: the inside story of Scappaticci, the IRA’s Nutting Squad and the British spooks who ran the war Merrion Press, 2023, pp272, £14.95
One of the impossible contradictions of the Provisional Irish Republican Army’s long and bitter war against the British occupation of Ireland was their superb military achievements, whilst harbouring a vicious cancer in their soul. This is an utterly depressing and uncomfortable book for anyone who supported the republican struggle in the 70s and 80s.
How could such a heroic and disciplined team, rooted so deeply in working class republican communities, have been penetrated - perhaps from its inception - by a British army agent positioned at the very heart of the organisation (or, if the book is correct, a number of agents acting independently of each other)? This is the exposé of Freddie Scappaticci, as told by Richard O’Rawe - a one-time comrade.
Scappaticci was from the Italian emigre community, who - fleeing starvation and social collapse at home - had flocked to the heavy industry of Belfast from the 1870s. Scappaticci was head of the IRA’s Internal Security Unit (ISU) - the man ostensibly charged with rooting out agents such as himself! His team was known as the Nutting Squad because of its summary executions.
The book follows the style of an investigation. It is ruthlessly researched in gruesome detail, covering many of the operations which resulted in former comrades being ‘nutted’ - shot in the head, often after merciless torture.
Scappaticci (‘Scap’ or ‘Scappi’) had like many young men around that time been born into the anti-Catholic pogroms of the late 1960s and joined the newly emergent Provisional IRA. He was interned in 1971, then again in 1974, and some time around 1975 he was ‘acquired’ by the British state and wormed his way into the very heart of the Provisional army structure. Former volunteer Anthony McIntyre states:
He damaged the IRA irreparably and helped pave the way for its defeat ... a seriously compromised IRA campaign would reinforce a peace lobby within republicanism. Arguably this is where the role of [Scappaticci] became crucial.
Other volunteers swore that he was not alone and that an even more senior figure in the structure may have been a British asset. Harry McCallion in his Undercover war - which amazingly reveals many of the black ops of Britain’s special forces in Ireland (basically a murder squad) - alleges Gerry Adams himself was an agent of the British state, especially in derailing the armed struggle! O’Rawe reveals a number of fingers pointed at Martin McGuiness, but draws back in his conclusions from finding a case against him proven. For me the jury is still out on both of them.
What is clear is that Scappi’s British handlers were informed in advance of all the victims interrogated, punished and murdered by him - and the death toll is said to be 18. It is clear that a number of these were former comrades who had realised his true role.
His degeneration seems to have started after being released from internment for a second time. He discovered a major money-making tax dodge, capitalising on the British state’s encouragement of commerce - particularly building contracts with tax exemptions and relief. The author notes that one could make £5,000 a week, and Scappi suddenly developed a taste for new cars, upmarket residences and the latest electrical gadgets well out of the reach of your average worker.
In the autumn of 1978, the Internal Security Unit of the IRA was formed, with Scappaticci second in command. Oddly they had chosen Joe Magee to head the unit - odd because he was an ex-member of British maritime special forces, the Special Boat Service. This was of immense importance to the British state, who correctly saw this IRA unit as a direct counter to their own intelligence and infiltration work. It was the most powerful body of the whole IRA operation, with virtually sovereign power and all-seeing observation powers. How many of their many victims were actually informers or assets of the British no-one can now really tell, although many relatives of executed men swear they were loyal republicans and not guilty.
One of the suggestions as to why he went over to the enemy is that they discovered his criminal tax fraud scam. He knew someone else who had been caught and got eight years for it. The offer of an amnesty and lavish bribes were strong inducements in keeping the life to which he had become accustomed. His treachery was one of the most important achievements of the British army in the whole operation.
Another suggestion made by fellow volunteers close to him is that he was blackmailed, owing to his predilection for pre-pubescent girls. It is suspected that he may have been caught and threatened with exposure and prison time from the state and possible death from the IRA. Such an accusation requires more than speculation or rumour and the pornographic material ultimately seized from his home was not of young girls. Richard O’Rawe admits he does not know the reason Scappi turned traitor, but there is absolute certainty he did - and this had a devastating impact.
The author says:
… the FRU [Britain’s covert Force Research Unit] ran rings around the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s. This was not because the Provisional IRA were stupid, but rather because the British had learned the folly of allowing spies with English accents and foreign habits to live in local, sometimes hostile, communities … nobody knew of Freddie Scappaticci’s treachery. Nobody.
It is said that the IRA underestimated the forces arrayed against them, and one can see how their popularity among the community and grassroots membership, among neighbours, relatives and friends, might have blinded them to this. They would never expect - given the cause, given the repression, given the close-knit weave of the community, that folk they knew could be informers (or worse). The test of loyalty was the commitment to fight, die and kill, and the trust in those who made that commitment was unshakable.
There was also a contrary, equally erroneous belief that the British would never have an agent who could coldly kill his own handlers, while working for them. But at least one did. That same man was someone who sat in on recruitment interviews of young IRA volunteers, quizzing them on their suitability, their conviction and advising them how to remain below the radar and keep their membership secret. He then passed on all the information to the security forces within hours of their joining.
One of the most odious features of FRU work was to pass on to loyalist death squads information on republican communities and activists - resulting in the murder of literally hundreds of innocent Catholic men, women and children. The fact that this was the work of an official body of the British state exposes the ruthless nature of that machine. It might be added that the FRU played a similar role of murder and betrayal within the loyalist militias and communities too. To an extent the state, through its secret assassins, spies and agents, played out the conflict between and within the divided communities.
Were there suspicions? South Armagh IRA sussed out during the interrogation of James Young, an IRA man suspected of betrayal, that Scappaticci’s questioning of him was aimed at discovering his unit’s operations and volunteers, not the alleged crimes, and contacted the Belfast IRA to warn that he was not to be trusted. They ignored the warning.
The greatest achievement of the British state - if one can use such an expression without inducing nausea - was that most of the time it was actually directing the IRA’s internal security operations, including who was to be executed, many of whom were important, sometimes vital, members of the organisation. They also presided over the killing of their own actual agents rather than involve civil authorities on either side of the border to save them. Indeed all of the executions under Scappaticci’s direction were with the indulgence of the British states forces.
The book strongly suggests that most leading figures, such as Adams himself, may have been playing some game with the British secret state - a suggestion made in other, similar works. The book shows how Martin McGuiness - alleged by many to have been a prominent member of the IRA Army Council - was caught on camera preparing and helping to plant a bomb, as well as demonstrating weapons to younger people; and that the evidence was sent to British intelligence, but they chose not to act on it, when McGuiness could have been banged to rights.
Worked for Britain
There are tales of betrayal and set-ups. The commander of North Derry and those of other active units of the IRA had been forced by Frank Hegarty - another subsequently outed British agent - to pass on details of an attack on the FRU to McGuiness, which they duly did, but were suspicious of.
They then did a careful check on the area prior to the attack and discovered that an ambush to be carried out by the British army’s Special Air Service (SAS) had been planned at the time and location. They called it off and then were summoned to explain why they had done so, and eventually Hegarty confessed that he and others were ‘touts’ (or spies) for the British army. This resulted in his interrogation by the ISU, led by Scappi, and he was subsequently executed.
If Hegarty was indeed an agent, then it is clear that the British allowed him to be disposed of, to protect the bigger operation, and that this would have been a decision made by a senior member of the government. Scappaticci was later to argue that he was not the person who carried out that interrogation and that the subsequent execution was carried out by McGuinness, not him. It was McGuinness who had rapidly promoted Hegarty to positions of trust - much to the resentment of longer serving, more honourable volunteers - so, once all this came out, getting rid of his protege might have been an attempt at covering his tracks.
After reading this book one could be forgiven for pondering how it was the IRA continued to conduct such a devastating war against the British army and the Six County state with such an albatross of treachery round its neck. After all, Scappi occupied the Sinn Féin office and presided with others over the civil administration of Belfast.
But the truth is the IRA had deliberately decentralised their operations, which meant its units had a great deal of operational autonomy and internal control, jealously safeguarding their own plans and strategy. South Armagh was particularly guarded in what it shared with anyone from the Belfast organisation (and rightly so). But by 1989 McGuiness had reasserted the right of the Provisionals’ Army Council (actually himself in particular) to vet all operations and plans.
This provided the British state with something it could only previously have hoped for - the most damaging development since the formation of the Provos. It was the breaking of the code which had prevented British forces gaining access to information about the whole IRA operation. It necessitated allowing some operations to continue, which meant that their own plants and touts might have to be executed to cover their tracks, and it also allowed for double-cross games, whereby unsuspecting, loyal volunteers were set up for assassination. In addition it meant, of course, that the British state effectively sanctioned the killing of its own troops and agents. In reality many units realised they were being monitored and withheld information on some of their operations or false-flagged them as those of some other faction.
Gerry Adams came to the leadership of Sinn Féin in November 1983, but how much of his agenda was already formed at that time is debatable. The author argues that his appointment came at a time of realisation that the armed struggle was unwinnable, but I am not sure whether this was a ‘realisation’ or rather a self-fulfilling prophecy, imposed on the movement by stealth and sabotage. Much of the targeted killing of key IRA volunteers and unit members came about via carefully constructed SAS ambushes and direct treachery from the inside. The militant wing of the movement was being culled - and not just its military sections.
Key to this change of strategy - ‘from the bullet to the ballot box’ - was the winning over of the Army Council (I would say the rigging of the Army Council) to a programme of winding down and ending the armed struggle. This had to be achieved while convincing both the rank and file and the movement at large that the Adams leadership still supported it. However, sections of the ‘troops on the ground’ started to smell a bunch of rats quite early on.
What is remarkable (or maybe not!) is that when Scappaticci’s cover was finally blown - partially by his own handlers and partially by the full expose by the media of his role, including his role in various executions - instead of taking the advice of British agents and fleeing the country with his accumulated £1 million (to be increased to nearer £2 million with a golden handshake), he decided to bluff it out. What is worse is that, instead of ‘nutting the nutter’, the IRA and Sinn Féin leadership rallied to his side, proclaiming that the whole exposé was British intelligence slander.
That they vouched for him when so many of the fighters on the ground knew he was a traitor begs lots of questions. If they accepted he was a deep-plant traitor of long standing, operating on behalf of British intelligence and executing friend and foe alike, what would it do to their credibility and the trust of the community? But, if that had been their reasoning, they missed the more obvious conclusion: if a British agent could sit so comfortably in the heart of the organisation without detection, how many others even higher up in the movement were also playing a double game, particularly now with the abandonment of armed struggle and the embracing of the policies and strategies which the movement had been formed to resist?
Fled to Britain
In 2003, when it was clear that the bluff had not worked - the evidence was too clear and the pile of innocent bodies too high - Scappaticci fled. He stayed in various locations in England and Scotland and in 2006 any press revelation of his whereabouts was banned as a result of a high court order. Of course, that order helped to prevent him getting a taste of his own medicine, had the IRA chosen to execute him, but again one must ask why it did not attempt to do so. We are told that the man might well have had a serious personality disorder, because, instead of fleeing to some anonymous sunny shore, he fled to “a major northern city” (rumoured to be Newcastle), where he took up his former profession as a builder, humping bricks and making cement.
That there seems to have been no attempt to arrest him for the various murders many had testified to, identifying him as the chief assassin, shows how deep the deception was - and still is. In 2015 the families of many of his victims decided to open a case with the police ombudsman on the collusion of the British state and its agents in the death of their loved ones. How far had they acted as a cover for the ongoing assassinations and executions, allowing Scappi to continue his reign of terror?
In October 2015 the director of public prosecutions for the Six Counties, Barra McGrory, ordered the Police Service of Northern Ireland to examine the role that Scappaticci - together with Special Branch, the FRU and MI5 - had played in the killing of alleged informers and agents. Then in 2016 Operation Kenova was launched under the leadership of a former chief constable, Jon Boutcher. It assembled 50 detectives from around the world to demonstrate that this was to be no whitewash. The MI5 was livid - documents and files it had intended to destroy, revealing much of the work of its agents, were seized.
True to his word, in October 2019 Boutcher subsequently passed on 33 files, relating to former members of the IRA, the security forces, the British army, etc, to the public prosecution service. They contained evidence of kidnapping, torture and murder, as well as misconduct in public office and perversion of the course of justice. To this day no action has been taken on them, and we note plans to close all investigations on crimes committed during ‘the troubles’ by the current government. It makes you wonder if all of this will be buried along with the victims.
In May 2022 The British government’s Northern Ireland minister, Brandon Lewis, introduced a bill to parliament which would prevent members of the armed forces from being prosecuted for crimes up to and including murder. This has so far been blocked, thanks to widespread opposition. Nevertheless, the attempts to undermine and emasculate the Kenova enquiry by the introduction of such legislation - in order to excuse not just British soldiers, but undercover agents and secret service operators - is clear. Amnesty for IRA and loyalist military operators from future prosecution would be a small quid-pro-quo - especially since at least some of the most pernicious of these were anyway carrying out government-approved actions.
Remarkably Freddie Scappaticci lived out the rest of his life in Britain, dying of natural causes in April 2023. But the Kenova report is yet to be published (the interim version is due out at the end of the year).
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin has shaken off the whole scandalous treachery like water from a duck’s back and continues to grow its support and authority for its ‘constitutional path to Irish unity’.