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Stakeknife the poacher turned gamekeeper, the spy-catcher turned spy - when truth is stranger than fiction

By Henry McDonald

Published 23/10/2015

Ian Hurst
Ian Hurst

Just by coincidence BBC Radio 4's current Book of the Week happens to be the biography of the master spy-thriller author John le Carre.

Adam Sisman's life of the ex-Cold War intelligence officer turned novelist is abridged every night this week after the World Tonight news programme.

David Cornwell's pen name has become an adjective over the last five decades to describe the murky, morally ambiguous and double-crossing world of espionage across the world. Yet even the creator of master spies like George Smiley or his Soviet nemesis Karla and the writer of such classic novels such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Little Drummer might find the real life double-agent story to emerge once more this week from the fog of Northern Ireland's war gone by as too incredulous.

Because if ever there was a twisted tale of covert lives under deep cover, betrayal, death and dirty tricks it must surely be the true story of Stakeknife inside the Provisional IRA.

Le Carre-esque is certainly one way of describing the long running controversy over how the British State turned and used the IRA's very own spy-catcher to become an agent of the Crown.

The moral implications of recruiting Freddie Scappaticci to work for Military Intelligence even while he ran the Provos' internal security that dispatched dozens of men to their deaths still reverberates. His service to the State raises for the security forces and their political masters serious questions about morality and the use and abuse of agents who often appear above the law.

The main complaint made to the Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire from the families of those Stakeknife and his IRA unit captured, interrogated, in some cases tortured and then killed is that in many instances these deaths could have been prevented. The families through their solicitors argue that instead the State chose to allow their loved ones to be killed in order to protect a valuable intelligence inside the PIRA, one which Sir General John Wilsey is reported to have said was the "... golden egg, something that was very important to the Army".

However, while the Army, MI5 and police might have something to worry about if (and it is a huge if) the case against the ex-IRA mole hunter and his handlers ever comes to court, there is plenty to keep some leading republicans awake at night when their thoughts turn to Stakeknife.

Back in 2003 the coping mechanism for Sinn Fein and the IRA was a simple one - denial. Just like the veteran republican himself who initially denied any role as Stakeknife in that Press conference at his solicitor's office on the Falls Road, the 'movement' itself tried to rubbish the idea that one of their senior operatives, someone in charge of hunting down the hated 'touts', was himself a long-term British agent working at the very heart of the organisation.

After Scappaticci vanished there was a quiet, grudging acceptance publicly within Sinn Fein at least that the Military Intelligence whistleblower Ian Hurst and author Greg Harkin had been right all along, that Stakeknife existed as a double-agent.

The prospect of one of the British State's most important spies inside the IRA appearing in open court is as worrying for the republican movement as it must be for his handlers.

For not only did he oversee the internal security squad (known colloquially in places like west Belfast as 'the nutting squad'), but Stakeknife and his team also vetted new recruits into the IRA meaning that the Force Research Unit and other branches of the security organs knew who was being brought into the ranks. The British therefore could, if they wanted to, cast an influence on exactly who should be sworn in and made to adhere to the IRA's Green Book as new volunteers. Just imagine the atmosphere in a Belfast court if the former super spy was ever summoned into the dock to be cross-examined over his double-life and the things he might let slip during proceedings.

Like Davy Jones' Locker, myths abound about Stakeknife having some hidden treasure chest of information on his former comrades which legend has it he would unlock if ever he felt under threat from his old IRA colleagues bent on revenge.

Even if such an archive doesn't exist, the mere possibility that he could be questioned in open court about his role in the secret, often dirty, war is enough to worry about among republican veterans, especially those loyal to the present Sinn Fein leadership.

Of course, there was another coincidental event that happened this week, which was the revelation that not only did PIRA Army Council continue to exist but, judging by the tone of the report, the British State was relatively content with that so long as it isn't targeting police and troops or strategic economic sites in England.

Given such convenient arrangements, perhaps it would be in the interest of both the Brits and Sinn Fein to ensure Stakeknife never takes the stand in any court in the land.

Belfast Telegraph

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