Belfast Telegraph

Stakeknife: There's too much at stake for any in this dirty war ever to face trial in an open court

By Henry McDonald

There is probably as much chance that detectives from Operation Kenova will arrest three senior IRA figures connected to the Stakeknife scandal as there is that they will start detaining top military intelligence officers, high up figures in MI5 or RUC Special Branch who either ran or exploited the intelligence provided by Britain's key agent inside the Provisionals.

While no one should underestimate the calibre of the police officer heading up Kenova - former counter-terrorism expert and Chief Constable of Bedfordshire Jon Boutcher - wider political factors and even the passage of time will play a large part in ensuring no one will be held accountable for the Stakeknife controversy. Certainly, no one that is of a senior position in either the British security forces or the IRA leadership.

Let's take the latter group first, the trio in the Provisionals' high command which Panorama's tenacious investigative reporter John Ware says sanctioned the murders Stakeknife carried out or oversaw when his spy-catching unit, the so-called "nutting squad", interrogated suspected informers.

One of these IRA figures, Martin McGuinness, is dead. He met with the spy believed to be Freddie Scappaticci usually on a weekly basis at safe houses in Belfast. McGuinness would be briefed by 'Scap' on the progress of internal investigations into those under suspicion of betraying the cause, failed/compromised 'operations' and the loss of weaponry, as well as the fate of those who had 'confessed' to treachery.

The remaining two IRA leaders are of such senior rank and held in such high regard in the broader movement that it could be politically risky to, as Ware says, "lift them" and start questioning them over the 30 murders Panorama has been told occurred while Stakeknife was in charge of smoking out the spies from the IRA's ranks. Given the sensitivity of the current political process in Northern Ireland, we are hardly likely any time to see these men arrested in relation to the scandal. It could be perceived by Sinn Fein as an open attack on republicans over past Troubles' crimes at a time when the parties and the Governments in London and Dublin still cannot agree on a mechanism to deal with legacy issues.

The risk in starting to arrest retired military intelligence officers, MI5 spooks and police officers is also great in terms of the interests of the British State and its determination to lock down the peace process. Given the secrets many of these old warhorses from the 'secret war' hold on to, those who call the shots on security policy must fear that a whole raft of damaging leaks about agents, informers and others in the 'dirty war' would flow in the wake of arrest operations.

Several veteran RUC officers this writer has known have in the recent past been candid about the outcome of arrests targeted against those on the front line of the intelligence war.

As one senior ex-police officer put it: "If they want to point the finger at us in an open court we can start naming the names."

Which presumably must mean other high grade informants the State ran in terror groups, including those who were carrying out crimes up to and including murder while on HMG's payroll.

And then there is the man at the dead centre of this murky, blood-spattered tale of double-agents, treason and subversion of law - Stakeknife himself.

At the time of the Smithwick Tribunal into the IRA's 1989 murder of detectives Breen and Buchanan in south Armagh as they returned from a joint RUC-Garda conference, Scappaticci made it known that he was prepared to give a full and frank account of what he knew.

Of course, Swithwick never called him to the tribunal, or the British military intelligence operative who exposed the Stakeknife scandal, Ian Hurst (aka Martin Ingram).

It is understood that if there was a trial into which Scappaticci was dragged, the former agent would be prepared to be as open and frank about not only his career, but also those who ran him.

They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

The same goes, one would imagine, for an agent of the State who feels his former masters are about to throw him under the bus.

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