BELFAST, Northern Ireland—His code name is synonymous with the dirtiest days and nights of Northern Ireland’s dirty war in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s: “Stakeknife.”
Now Stakeknife, the feared executioner and allegedly the most valuable spy England had in Northern Ireland, is back in the news. But is he even who the IRA and the British Army say he is?
Stakeknife’s identity ostensibly was revealed to the public in 2003 as Freddie Scappaticci, a West Belfast bricklayer who rose in the ranks of the IRA and was a close friend of Gerry Adams, now the president of Sinn Fein (once the political arm of the IRA). He met Adams when the two were imprisoned in the early 1970s. He was the son of Italian immigrants who fully embraced the republican cause.
Stakeknife reportedly ran the so-called “Nutting Squad,” where he ferreted out and tortured (also called “cracking the nut”) IRA members accused as informers for the British government.
But in the kind of triple cross well known to Northern Ireland back in the day, Scappaticci himself is alleged to have been one of the British government’s most prized assets, a vicious double agent who allegedly ordered the killing of those supposed informants both to secure his own cover and to make the IRA paranoid about rampant betrayal in its ranks.
“He was our most important secret,” General Sir John Wilsey, who was Army commander in Northern Ireland from 1990 to 1993, said in a conversation with a British military intelligence whistleblower who posted the audio tape on the Internet in 2012. “He was a golden egg, something that was very important to the Army. We were terribly cagey about Fred [Scappaticci].”
Called “Scap” by his friends, this now-notorious figure is 71 and rumoured to be living in his father’s native Italy after undergoing facial surgery. His current whereabouts are, officially at least, unknown, and he has always denied the various allegations against him, including the ones identifying him as Stakeknife. But, then, he would. He was long considered the IRA’s No. 1 target for assassination.
An early media account described how Scappaticci joined the IRA in the 1970s and, despite his friendship with the powerful Adams (who has always denied membership in the IRA), got into a fight with a senior IRA member and was badly beaten. Because he felt betrayed and humiliated, Scappaticci reportedly became an informer for the British, earning more than $150,000 a year.
Now, under considerable pressure from the families of some of the murdered men alleged to have been IRA informers, Northern Ireland’s police ombudsman is investigating whether Britain allowed Stakeknife to order or to carry out as many as 20 killings as a way of protecting himself or other senior intelligence assets. The report was first published in The Guardian.
One of the driving forces behind the push for the investigation is Frank Mulhern, whose son Joe was 22 when he was accused of passing secrets on to the British, abducted, and shot to death. The murder remains unsolved.
Mulhern told the media that Scappaticci told him how his son was murdered six weeks after the young man was killed.
“Scap said that the first shot had hit my son in the back of the neck and he told the guy whoever shot him to shoot him again, so the second shot hit him on the back of the head and apparently that’s what killed him,” Mulhern said.
At stake is the decades-long accusation by republican sympathizers that the British government at the highest levels during the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland helped Ulster paramilitary death squads fight the IRA as if Britain were at war, while at the same time denying it was a war since the British classified the IRA as terrorists.
“What we are trying to find out is if British government agencies were involved in conspiracies to murder,” Kevin Winters, a Belfast lawyer representing many of the victims’ families, told The Daily Beast. “It was a very murky, violent time and there was no structural handling or oversight of intelligence agents in order to let mayhem prevail.”
The Troubles may have ended on paper with the Good Friday ceasefire agreement in 1998, but the murkiness surrounding Stakeknife is even more opaque than it was when Scappaticci was first outed in 2003.
The core question: Was Scappaticci truly Stakeknife or just a red herring stand-in for an even more senior informer for the British within the IRA who is still being protected?
If you’re expecting clear answers, you don’t know Ireland, north or south.
“He might or might not be Stakeknife,” says Kevin Winters. “I have no idea. No one knows where he is and he’s not talking. My role is to get more knowledge out into the open as the case progresses.”
Many people have questioned the ease with which Scappaticci was unmasked and his own unusual behavior after he supposedly was found out. First, “anonymous British security sources” told British and Irish papers in 2003 about Scappaticci’s double life, as the Los Angeles Times reported in 2003. Then, rather than fleeing Belfast for the relative safety of England, Scappaticci stayed in Northern Ireland and even held court at his lawyer’s office, denying he was Stakeknife. (He was later whisked off to a secure center outside London before reportedly being given a new identity.)
Mairia Cahill, who worked for Sinn Fein in its party offices and has said her grandfather recruited Gerry Adams into the IRA, told The Daily Beast she does not believe the entire Stakeknife story.
“It was all just too easy,” she said of Scappaticci’s outing in 2003 and subsequent disappearance. “I think he was sacrificed for someone bigger. But it’s one of those cases like so many at the time: The real question for the IRA is, who wasn’t an informer?”
Many former hard-core members of the IRA are furious with Gerry Adams for agreeing to a ceasefire in exchange for power-sharing in Northern Ireland instead of an end to British rule. As a result, some suggest Adams and his lieutenants knew about Stakeknife well before 2003 and hint at collusion between factions of the IRA and the British government.
Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member who served 18 years for murder in Belfast’s notorious Maze prison, taking part in the dark days of the “no-wash” protests, said a “senior figure” in the IRA who was in prison with him clearly had concerns about Scappaticci years before his work for the British came out.
“It was back in 1991 and I was going on home leave for a few days,” McIntyre told The Daily Beast. “I was asked to do an errand for this person who was in prison with me and who had been a central figure in the IRA command in Belfast. The errand was to get information on Scappaticci. So they knew something was going on back then.”
McIntyre says he doubts Scappaticci was Britain’s “crown jewel” of spies, as stated in a 2004 book about the case, and he echoes others when he says Stakeknife could be a cover-up within a cover-up.
“The question is, was Stakeknife, whether he was Freddie or not, really the most senior informer in the IRA?” says McIntyre. “I say no. I don’t think he was. I think it was all to protect someone even more powerful.”
Neither Martin McGuinness, the former Provisional IRA leader turned deputy prime minister of Northern Ireland, nor Danny Morrison, who used to be in charge of the IRA’s publicity, believe the Stakeknife story.
“Stakeknife’s usefulness as an informant might have expired, but rumours of his existence and claims about his seniority and influence, however preposterous, have been used in recent years by British Intelligence in an attempt to sow confusion and fuel republican dissent,” Morrison wrote on his blog.
Whether Scappaticci was Stakeknife or not, his methods encapsulate the brutality and betrayal of the Troubles.
Eamon Collins, a former member of the Nutting Squad who was eventually murdered by the IRA, wrote a book, Killing Rage, in which he recalls asking Scappaticci and one of his bosses, who also was later unmasked as an informer, if they always told people they were going to be shot.
“Scap said it depended on the circumstances,” Collins wrote. “He turned to John Joe [his boss, John Joe Magee] and started joking about one informer who had confessed after being offered an amnesty. Scap told the man he would take him home, reassuring him he had nothing to worry about. Scap had told him to keep the blindfold on for security reasons as they walked from the car.
“‘It was funny,’ Scap said, ‘watching the bastard stumbling and falling, asking me as he felt his way along railings and walls, ‘Is this my house now?’ and I’d say, ‘No, not yet, walk on some more... ’
“And then you shot the f---er in the back of the head,’ said John Joe, and both of them burst out laughing.”