Freddie Scappaticci was close to the top of the IRA hierarchy for decades. The arrest of the man widely believed to be Army double-agent Stakeknife could yet bring his former comrades crashing down
There are many republicans - and British military spymasters - who have much to fear from what the 72-year-old could divulge, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
Belfast poet Gerald Dawe left Northern Ireland in 1974 at the height of the Troubles, first for Galway, later Dublin. In a programme for Irish radio this week he recalled the "feeling of having escaped just in the nick of time" and his relief at the new-found "freedom from the ceaseless rant and rancour, freedom from the thugs and bullies".
"The Belfast I left behind doesn't exist anymore, except in people's minds and memories," Dawe acknowledged, because those who do remember what it was like have made a pact never to return to that dark time and "the young don't look back" at all - and that's the way it should be.
Young people must be free to make their own choices without being beholden to the ghosts of history. But there are moments when the past comes crashing back, impossible to avoid, and the arrest of Freddie Scappaticci, widely regarded as the top-ranking IRA informer known as Stakeknife, is one such point in time.
Scappaticci has been detained in England following the 18-month Operation Kenova investigation into dozens of murders, kidnappings and incidents of torture connected to his name and is now being questioned at a secret location where, one thing is certain, he will be better treated than those unfortunate enough to find themselves at the mercy of the IRA's murderous internal security unit known as the "nutting squad", which he allegedly headed.
Scappaticci has been living in hiding since he was outed in 2003, because, guilty or not, he would otherwise undoubtedly have faced the fate of other IRA informers, including Sinn Fein's Denis Donaldson, who was gunned down in 2006 at the remote Co Donegal cottage where he'd fled after being unveiled at a Press conference a few months earlier.
The reason that informers are executed is not merely because they have transgressed against the rules of the organisations to which they belong, but because they know too much. Informers are feared and hated enough. An informer who talks is even more dangerous.
There are surely plenty of senior republicans, some now out of the public eye, some still in it, who have plenty of secrets they'd rather keep to themselves and which their own handlers would prefer to stay hidden, too.
There are, similarly, many working for British security who would prefer that their own activities during the so-called "dirty war" did not see the light of day.
They're believed to have allowed Stakeknife to kill up to 40 people to protect his identity, while letting other innocent people die so as not to blow his cover.
This is a morally murky area, because it could be that having such a high-level asset in the IRA saved the lives of many more potential victims.
Infiltrating the IRA so deeply also eventually brought the conflict to an end, as the Provos realised that they were too compromised to be effective and that going down the political route was the only remaining option.
But informers traditionally do not survive long, and can be safely relied upon to take what they know to an early grave, and that's just the way both sides like it.
If he is who they all say he is, then Scappaticci has the power to upset that cosy arrangement.
He may not be charged. If he does stand trial, the west Belfast native may even be found not guilty. He has, after all, always denied being Stakeknife. The prosecution would need to prove beyond reasonable doubt that he's a liar.
But if he did face the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence Scappaticci would hardly have any incentive to keep his mouth shut - as he has done now for years.
While he led a new life with a new identity, it made sense to keep his head down. Out of sight, out of mind.
If that strategy does not save him from imprisonment he might well decide that singing like the proverbial canary is the perfect revenge against both sides.
If he was acting on behalf of British intelligence, he may even feel aggrieved at now being made to pay for the crimes which they encouraged and directed him to commit. What's the point of being a state agent if it doesn't come with protection? He's also 72. What would he have to lose?
It could also be that having unsavoury characters such as Scappaticci detail their role in the Troubles is the only way to uncover some of the period's murky secrets.
There has long been airy talk of a peace and reconciliation process, at which all sides come clean about what they did to give closure to victims, but there's no evidence that participants on either side are willing to embrace that degree of honesty yet.
They still lie. They still underplay their culpability, because, as Dawe said on radio, "those involved don't really see the damage (that they caused) and probably never will".
Projects such as the Boston College tapes have so far proved to be the only productive method of eliciting testimonies from former paramilitaries and the controversy into which the project fell has left a vacuum. Silence reigns once more, conveniently for many.
Many of the participants, such as notorious IRA commander Brendan Hughes, have since died; others who may have given evidence are now under the ground as well.
Every year that passes reduces the likelihood of putting on record an accurate account of those years of madness. All that will be left soon is a faint hope that state papers are made public and that is unlikely to happen for decades, probably long after everyone named in them is gone.
Scappaticci may decide not to talk in any case, inside prison or out of it; he does have relatives still living in west Belfast, who could face reprisals if he does.
But if he is Stakeknife, he's in a unique position to throw light on how both the IRA and the security services operated.
Stakeknife was close to figures near the top of the republican leadership for more than two decades, while reportedly being paid as much as £80,000 a year for his information, which itself is a measure of how valuable he was as an asset.
There have been informers and touts and supergrasses before, but few have been so highly-placed for so long.
Whispers are already rife as to who Scappaticci might implicate.
His former comrades thought he was gone for good.
They'll be praying that he retains sufficient loyalty to the cause not to drag them down with him.