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Answers needed on Stakeknife

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 22/10/2015

Close-up mid section of male judge banging gavel
Close-up mid section of male judge banging gavel

Less than 24 hours after Secretary of State Theresa Villiers announced that all paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland still exist and that the Provisional IRA Army Council continues in existence dictating republican political strategy, came an announcement that could lay bare just how dirty was the war known as the Troubles.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has ordered an investigation into the activities of the most notorious IRA double agent, codenamed Stakeknife - a probe that could involve more than 40 murders.

As well as the agent's role, the investigation will also seek to ascertain how much his Army and Special Branch handlers knew and approved of his actions.

Stakeknife is reputed to be Freddie Scappaticci - an allegation he has always denied - who was said to be a leading figure in the IRA's internal security unit, the so-called 'nutting squad', which had the task of weeding out and killing suspected informers in republican ranks.

While we do not seek to suggest there is an equivalence between the violence perpetrated by republican and loyalist terrorists and the actions of State agencies like the Army or RUC, the issue of collusion between such agencies and their informants has been a long running, festering sore.

From past experience we know that informers carried out serious crimes, including murder, and that their handlers were aware of their activities but protected them from prosecution and/or detection.

It may have been a dirty war, but the public expects a higher moral standing from the State, in which it places its trust.

There is no doubt that the families of the victims of Stakeknife deserve justice. They have seen their relatives vilified as "touts" by the very organisation that harboured an even greater informant within its own ranks.

But the search for justice may have to be tempered with the realism that the PSNI - in the words of the Chief Constable - can barely afford to police the present, never mind undertake a hugely expensive investigation into the past. Who would carry out the investigation anyway? Would it require police from another jurisdiction to conduct the probe to allay the suspicions of relatives of any potential cover-up?

Yet the allegations being made are grave in the extreme. Could any use of informants justify death on that scale?

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