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Stakeknife’s final escape The IRA mole's death offers no hope for Ireland

Catholics demonstrate in Derry in 1986 (Alain Nogues/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

Catholics demonstrate in Derry in 1986 (Alain Nogues/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)


April 14, 2023   5 mins

Freddie Scappaticci died sometime last week, somewhere in his late 70s, somewhere in England. It is a death that defies obituary.

Obituaries give shape to a death and hold it in context, allowing us to extract explanations and lessons. But Scappaticci died distant from his victims, accusers, collaborators, investigators — geographically and chronologically removed from Northern Ireland, the Troubles and his role in them. He died far out of context, which was perhaps fitting for a spy.

Scappaticci had made an art of elusiveness. I searched for him 18 years ago, when he became known by the code name given to him by Britain’s security services: Stakeknife. As their agent, he had risen within the IRA to head its own internal security unit, the Nutting Squad, famous for shooting its subjects in the back of the “nut”, or head. Scappaticci stood accused of killing and torturing many people while also, his handlers claimed, saving untold other lives. Sir John Wilsey, the top British general in Northern Ireland during much of the conflict, called Scappaticci the army’s “golden egg”.

Along the way I found others close to him. A bomb maker. An intelligence officer. In 2005, in Belfast, I met Denis Donaldson, a longtime IRA recruiter and then Sinn FĂ©in party leader. He sat at his kitchen table next to his wife and smoked, often glancing towards a set of security monitors. Just outside the kitchen, a wrought-iron gate blocked access to stairs leading up to his home’s second floor. Donaldson was a careful man who had survived hunger strikes and imprisonment at Long Kesh and cross-border IRA missions. Even so, the Stakeknife revelations shook him. “I still can’t believe it,” he said. “My God.”

In the meantime, Scappaticci — Scap, to his IRA friends — had disappeared from the landscape of County Antrim only to reportedly reappear, vaguely, somewhere in Italy. Then back in Northern Ireland, somehow. Then maybe a coastal village in Scotland. In retrospect, he had better instincts for survival than some of his cohort; early one morning, I received a call from a source who said: “Yer man Denis Donaldson has just been expelled from Sinn FĂ©in, about three minutes ago — for being a British spy.” A few months later, my source called again, to say Donaldson had been found in County Donegal, in a remote cottage without electricity or running water. He’d been shot to death. “Missing a hand,” he said.

So, when I heard Stakeknife had died on Tuesday, I wondered at first who had finally found him. It seems time itself had.

Scappaticci grew up in Belfast’s Markets area in the Fifties, the son of an Italian immigrant who sold ice cream from a van. He had the funny name, with its plosive foreign consonants, but he lived like any other Belfast boy — playing football for fun, then laying bricks for money — until the Troubles began. In 1971, police picked him up for rioting and interned him at Long Kesh alongside Gerry Adams, the future Sinn FĂ©in president; Scappaticci became his bodyguard. The short, broad-chested young man was, like all of Northern Ireland, reborn as something new.

The IRA was hard on its foot soldiers and, the story goes, in 1978 one of Scappaticci’s senior officers beat him as punishment for some organisational infraction. Afterwards, outraged, he marched into a British army office and offered his services as a spy. The impulse was small but pivotal for the entire conflict; with the help of his handlers, Scappaticci climbed into the untouchable role of the IRA’s head spy-hunter. From that vantage he interrogated and allegedly killed informers or “touts”, some of whom were his own unwitting British security counterparts. Investigators say he is “linked” to at least 18 deaths, and may have played a role in many more.

That violence — that intensity of violence, at least — came to an end 25 years ago this week, with the Good Friday Agreement. The peace has held, defying gravity all these years. The “peace walls” still divide Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods, and social housing is still almost entirely segregated, but the churn of blood and flesh has stopped.

The price is weak government. The Good Friday Agreement is a power-sharing arrangement with parity and fragility built in; if either side walks away, the government falls apart. That has happened half a dozen times since the Agreement began, and it’s happening now. Today, people in Northern Ireland can expect a handful of the barest public services, but there’s no leadership in power, no direction. The Northern Irish are, in many ways, adrift.

A generation of people have grown up under the Good Friday Agreement, knowing only peace. Some of them — a frustrated splinter — feel a nostalgia for a conflict they can’t remember. So they romanticise past violence. Now, on the Republican side, the New IRA gathers young people to itself, and lashes out in old ways. In February, its gunmen attempted to kill policeman John Caldwell in Omagh, shooting him multiple times as he finished coaching a youth football practice, scattering children and leaving Caldwell almost dead. In March, MI5 raised the threat of terrorism from “substantial” to “severe”, indicating an attack is highly likely. And this week police foiled a New IRA bomb plot in Derry, set to coincide with Joe Biden’s brief visit.

There is frustration on the opposite side, too. The feeling of adriftness has deepened in recent years as Brexit has forced the government to draw a customs border on one side or the other of Northern Ireland, implicitly asking whether it is more Irish or British. The Sunak administration has placed the border in the Irish Sea and Westminster has assented, alienating Unionists on the outlying side of that border. They view it as a government capitulation to the threat of Republican violence.

Most young people, though, simply want something resembling the life Freddie Scappaticci knew before the Troubles began: playing sports, finding productive work. They go to concerts, buy homes, start families. And they yearn for something they have never known: a functioning government. The power-sharing structure of the Good Friday Agreement dictates, absurdly, that votes from third-party representation in the Northern Ireland Assembly don’t count. Despite this, the third-largest, fastest-growing party now is the centrist Alliance Party. The Protestant and Catholic wings have shrunk so that neither holds a majority, and it’s not difficult to imagine a day when a plurality of Northern Irish voices go unheard, while outnumbered partisans bicker over control.

The peace exacts one other price, in the form of accountability. Various inquiries and reports have investigated the worst atrocities of the Troubles, and one, Operation Kenova, is dedicated entirely to the work of Stakeknife. It has employed 50 investigators and cost more than £30 million, but has not yet issued its report. On the news of Scappaticci’s death, Kenova’s head investigator, Jon Boutcher, told the BBC that “old age may catch up with those affected, be they perpetrators, witnesses, victims, family members or those who simply lived through those times, before matters are concluded”.

That’s more revealing than intended. As we search for the meaning in Scappaticci’s death, it seems he has made one last escape. It may upset us that he and his controllers have eluded justice, but there lies the truth of Northern Ireland’s future. Most of us who did not grow up within the Troubles remain unable to grasp the fullness of the conflict. It’s too complex. It unfurls and loops back to touch itself, an endless fractal of loyalties and recriminations: thousands of deaths, tens of thousands of lives destroyed, and countless ugly street encounters and dinner-table spats.

Instead, this one death — this informer, this spy — seems more graspable. So we reach for explanation, for understanding, for warning. But the lessons of Freddie Scappaticci’s death, even placed in its context, are ultimately as unsearchable as the man himself. Scappaticci, for his part, denied ever spying in the first place. His death offers no solutions to or illumination of the chaos in which he lived and acted, and no hope for Northern Ireland. Those answers, like Stakeknife, remain elusive.


Matthew Teague is a journalist and co-author of The Steal.

MatthewTeague

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Jeff Dudgeon
Jeff Dudgeon
1 year ago

“Today, people in Northern Ireland can expect a handful of the barest public services.” This statement is far from the reality of high public sector subsidies in Northern Ireland, Nearly 70% of the economy operates on state monies and the services are generally good if not better than England. The Kenova investigation came from a case brought by a legacy practitioner when a judge ruled the matter needed investigation by an independent police force. The head of Kenova says he has submitted a million pages of evidence to the Public Prosecution Service which explains why it is taking decades to decide on charges against MI5 or IRA personnel.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeff Dudgeon

Perhaps it would been better(cheaper) to have continued the war to its logical conclusion?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Jeff Dudgeon

Perhaps it would been better(cheaper) to have continued the war to its logical conclusion?

Jeff Dudgeon
Jeff Dudgeon
1 year ago

“Today, people in Northern Ireland can expect a handful of the barest public services.” This statement is far from the reality of high public sector subsidies in Northern Ireland, Nearly 70% of the economy operates on state monies and the services are generally good if not better than England. The Kenova investigation came from a case brought by a legacy practitioner when a judge ruled the matter needed investigation by an independent police force. The head of Kenova says he has submitted a million pages of evidence to the Public Prosecution Service which explains why it is taking decades to decide on charges against MI5 or IRA personnel.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

Maybe he was just one of those gangster/informers who throws the security forces a bone now and then, as the price for his freedom to operate, and perhaps get rid of rivals.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago

Maybe he was just one of those gangster/informers who throws the security forces a bone now and then, as the price for his freedom to operate, and perhaps get rid of rivals.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

It’s is only 0913 BST and the first two comments have already been censored!
Come on UnHerd you can better than this! You are setting yourself a low standard and yet even failing to achieve that!

ps.Common sense prevails at 0949 BST.

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

Can’t resist the challenge to have a go now (it’s 09:50).
Really enjoyed (if that’s the right word for something about Northern Ireland troubles) this article. It certainly wasn’t obvious to me in the 1980s and 90s that Britain has infiltrated the IRA like this.
It does seem that the old school investigative journalists did most of the work uncovering this. Quite why we’re spending over ÂŁ30m (and the meter’s still running) in official “investigations” here is beyond me though. Guess it creates jobs for lawyers. Meanwhile other parts of the justice system are short of skills and funds. Still, I’m sure “grievance studies” is more important than actually solving crimes and putting criminals away …

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Millions more being spent on the so called ‘Legacy Investigations’, and as I scribble, the octogenarian Soldier F, of the Ist Battalion the Parachute Regiment is on trial in Belfast for his small part in that minor disturbance otherwise known a “Bloody Sunday “.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

The deal was done by Adams and McGuinness who wanted those who did not approve of the peace agreement ‘ taken out’, so the info was passed on to the British, and the job was done….. The condition for being given the names was Republicans being let out of prison post the agreement OR Adams and McGuinness would make ” the deal” public…. then the US intervened and the helicopter crash on Isle of Mull mysteriously crashed, so conveniently wiping out all in British Intelligence who had done said deal, at the instigation of the US… betrayal to appease the US.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

We’ve been doing that since at least 1916 and the dreaded Balfour Declaration.

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

For all of this I assume that you have some backing information and references, so could you please post this information here.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
1 year ago

Cool story, bro. But you need to put some flesh on the bones.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

We’ve been doing that since at least 1916 and the dreaded Balfour Declaration.

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

For all of this I assume that you have some backing information and references, so could you please post this information here.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
1 year ago

Cool story, bro. But you need to put some flesh on the bones.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Millions more being spent on the so called ‘Legacy Investigations’, and as I scribble, the octogenarian Soldier F, of the Ist Battalion the Parachute Regiment is on trial in Belfast for his small part in that minor disturbance otherwise known a “Bloody Sunday “.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

The deal was done by Adams and McGuinness who wanted those who did not approve of the peace agreement ‘ taken out’, so the info was passed on to the British, and the job was done….. The condition for being given the names was Republicans being let out of prison post the agreement OR Adams and McGuinness would make ” the deal” public…. then the US intervened and the helicopter crash on Isle of Mull mysteriously crashed, so conveniently wiping out all in British Intelligence who had done said deal, at the instigation of the US… betrayal to appease the US.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

Can’t resist the challenge to have a go now (it’s 09:50).
Really enjoyed (if that’s the right word for something about Northern Ireland troubles) this article. It certainly wasn’t obvious to me in the 1980s and 90s that Britain has infiltrated the IRA like this.
It does seem that the old school investigative journalists did most of the work uncovering this. Quite why we’re spending over ÂŁ30m (and the meter’s still running) in official “investigations” here is beyond me though. Guess it creates jobs for lawyers. Meanwhile other parts of the justice system are short of skills and funds. Still, I’m sure “grievance studies” is more important than actually solving crimes and putting criminals away …

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

It’s is only 0913 BST and the first two comments have already been censored!
Come on UnHerd you can better than this! You are setting yourself a low standard and yet even failing to achieve that!

ps.Common sense prevails at 0949 BST.

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

The entire Conservative cabinet should be termed ” Holdsteaknifelikepen”…

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Oops.. ‘ herfended 2 pipl on the settee in the leounge parlour….

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
1 year ago

Funny now I understand the language of ‘Finnegans Wake’

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
1 year ago

Funny now I understand the language of ‘Finnegans Wake’

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
1 year ago

What are your views on Roy Mason as Secretary for N Ireland ? McGuiness said he kicked the s.. out of the PIRA and was three weeks from defeating them.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Oops.. ‘ herfended 2 pipl on the settee in the leounge parlour….

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
1 year ago

What are your views on Roy Mason as Secretary for N Ireland ? McGuiness said he kicked the s.. out of the PIRA and was three weeks from defeating them.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

The entire Conservative cabinet should be termed ” Holdsteaknifelikepen”…

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 year ago

As Freddie Scappaticci dies, Derry Boys who have probably never heard of him are throwing petrol bombs at the Police. The United Kingdom is going to be the worst-performing economy in the G7 this year, so a lid needs to be kept on any popular dissent. It is time for a security emergency, thanks to one or both of the Loyalist paramilitaries and the dissident Republicans. If those did not exist, then our rulers would have to invent them. And at different times, those did not used to exist.

Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries have always been heavily involved in traditional organised crime in general, and in drug-dealing in particular, leading to generations of professional and social interaction of the kind that also takes place routinely among, for example, rival Mafia families, as well, as of course, the sort of merciless bloodshed that goes on in that world.

There has never been any secret that the Loyalist organisations were off-the-books arms of the British State, while the old IRA was also riddled from top to bottom with Police informants, MI5 assets, and so on, as was the Real IRA, and as at least has been the much older Continuity IRA, which goes back to the split over abstentionism in 1986. The recent documentaries about David Rupert, and about “Robert” by the superlative Peter Taylor, undeniably broke ground, and were a reminder of how good the BBC could be, but they could not have surprised anyone.

And early last month, four Protestants, at least one with known Loyalist paramilitary connections, were arrested in relation to the attempted murder of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, for which the New IRA had already claimed responsibility. There has always been a school of thought that the New IRA was a false flag operation. There has never been any doubt as to the true nature of the likes of the UDA, the UVF, and Ulster Resistance, which provided the then Queen’s Government with confidence and supply from 2017 to 2019. Across that ostensible divide, it is all heating up over there just as it is all threatening to heat up, by our standards, over here.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Peter Taylor’s reassessment of so called ‘Bloody Sunday’ certainly wasn’t ’superlative’ nor was Saville’s participation in it..

Paul Devlin
Paul Devlin
1 year ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

No idea why you got so many negative votes, David but your final analysis is wide of the mark. The shooting of the PSNI man and the ongoing loyalist feud in Newtownards show just how marginal these people are. NI won’t be going back to the old days simply because people just don’t care enough anymore

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Devlin

They don’t need to. Those Police and MI5 vehicles just have to be there. However small they are, they serve their purpose.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Devlin

Indeed why should they.?
All the poverty and gerrymandering has been removed and now it’s time for the fabled ‘Craic’ or “Nunc est bibendum “ as others might say!

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Devlin

They don’t need to. Those Police and MI5 vehicles just have to be there. However small they are, they serve their purpose.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Paul Devlin

Indeed why should they.?
All the poverty and gerrymandering has been removed and now it’s time for the fabled ‘Craic’ or “Nunc est bibendum “ as others might say!

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

Peter Taylor’s reassessment of so called ‘Bloody Sunday’ certainly wasn’t ’superlative’ nor was Saville’s participation in it..

Paul Devlin
Paul Devlin
1 year ago
Reply to  David Lindsay

No idea why you got so many negative votes, David but your final analysis is wide of the mark. The shooting of the PSNI man and the ongoing loyalist feud in Newtownards show just how marginal these people are. NI won’t be going back to the old days simply because people just don’t care enough anymore

David Lindsay
David Lindsay
1 year ago

As Freddie Scappaticci dies, Derry Boys who have probably never heard of him are throwing petrol bombs at the Police. The United Kingdom is going to be the worst-performing economy in the G7 this year, so a lid needs to be kept on any popular dissent. It is time for a security emergency, thanks to one or both of the Loyalist paramilitaries and the dissident Republicans. If those did not exist, then our rulers would have to invent them. And at different times, those did not used to exist.

Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries have always been heavily involved in traditional organised crime in general, and in drug-dealing in particular, leading to generations of professional and social interaction of the kind that also takes place routinely among, for example, rival Mafia families, as well, as of course, the sort of merciless bloodshed that goes on in that world.

There has never been any secret that the Loyalist organisations were off-the-books arms of the British State, while the old IRA was also riddled from top to bottom with Police informants, MI5 assets, and so on, as was the Real IRA, and as at least has been the much older Continuity IRA, which goes back to the split over abstentionism in 1986. The recent documentaries about David Rupert, and about “Robert” by the superlative Peter Taylor, undeniably broke ground, and were a reminder of how good the BBC could be, but they could not have surprised anyone.

And early last month, four Protestants, at least one with known Loyalist paramilitary connections, were arrested in relation to the attempted murder of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell, for which the New IRA had already claimed responsibility. There has always been a school of thought that the New IRA was a false flag operation. There has never been any doubt as to the true nature of the likes of the UDA, the UVF, and Ulster Resistance, which provided the then Queen’s Government with confidence and supply from 2017 to 2019. Across that ostensible divide, it is all heating up over there just as it is all threatening to heat up, by our standards, over here.