Late last month it was announced there would be no further prosecutions of British Army veterans in relation to Bloody Sunday.
The shooting dead of 13 civilians by members of the Parachute Regiment during a civil rights demonstration in 1972 was one of the most controversial episodes in Northern Ireland‘s ‘Troubles’.
But one criminal investigation into the military’s role in that brutal conflict is still ongoing.
For the past four years, Operation Kenova has been looking at the activities of the Army’s super-agent inside the IRA, codenamed ‘Stakeknife’.
He was a key figure in the ‘secret war’ waged against the paramilitaries. Yesterday, Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service announced its first decision based on the Kenova findings.
For the past four years, Operation Kenova has been looking at the activities of the Army’s super-agent inside the IRA, codenamed ‘Stakeknife’. That person — though he has always denied it — is widely believed to be Freddie Scappaticci. Pictured: Scappaticci walking behind Gerry Adams (right) at the 1988 funeral of IRA man Brendan Davidson
The man who is believed to be Stakeknife, and three others including two former MI5 officers and a senior prosecutor, will not be charged with perjury or misconduct in public office because of ‘insufficient evidence’.
Further files presented by the Kenova team are still being considered by the PPS.
As Kenova nears its conclusion, the Mail’s own investigation has spoken to a number of former soldiers who worked undercover in Northern Ireland, recruiting and handling IRA agents like Stakeknife.
Their testimony — never before told — throws new light on a disturbing chapter.
It is long after midnight on Carlingford Lough, through which runs the most easterly border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.
All is quiet save for the slapping of the waves. But there is a deadly intent abroad; both on land and water.
Aboard a darkened vessel lying at anchor half a mile offshore, a Special Forces sniper lies in wait. Beside him is an officer from a British Army intelligence unit.
His HQ has told him that a local IRA quartermaster is about to retrieve a Bushmaster hunting rifle from a hide in Rostrevor Wood, which fringes the lough on the County Down side.
So sensitive — and detailed — was the inside information that neither the sniper nor the intelligence officer were briefed on their mission until they stepped aboard the boat.
‘HQ knew exactly who the IRA man was, what kind of weapon he was fetching, where it was buried and what it was intended for,’ the intelligence officer recalls.
‘I was told that, once recovered, the rifle was going to be handed over to an [IRA] Active Service Unit, which would then use it for an imminent assassination attempt on a senior RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] officer in X [I have excised the location for reasons which will become apparent].
‘This was an opportunity for a pre-emptive shoot.’
The hunter had become the hunted.
All went as predicted. ‘[Using night vision equipment] we watched him digging up the weapon and then zeroing it [shooting to test accuracy] against trees in the wood.’
But they still had to get permission to shoot him.
The man who is believed to be Stakeknife, and three others including two former MI5 officers and a senior prosecutor, will not be charged with perjury or misconduct in public office because of ‘insufficient evidence’
‘The situation did not fall within the British Army’s rules of engagement in Northern Ireland,’ says the intelligence officer.
‘Was the IRA man threatening life at that moment? No. But this was not a standard operation.
‘This was being run under a different set of rules. ‘Big boys’ rules’, as they have been called.
‘We had to get the green light from a call sign at Force HQ in Lisburn. The request was then patched over to London.
‘In other words, to shoot this man was also a political decision.’
The tension mounted. The secure radio link faded in and out. The boat was shifting. They feared being spotted by local fishermen.
‘Then the word came through. ‘No shoot.’ I said to the sniper, ‘Off target’, we upped anchor and were gone.’
He pauses. He adds: ‘I do know that within 24 to 36 hours a senior RUC in X was shot by the IRA with a similar, if not the same, rifle.’
The incident took place almost 40 years ago but this story, like others we can reveal today, has not been told until now.
Of course, the obvious question, which has lingered down the years, is this: ‘Why was the sniper ordered to hold fire?’
A plausible answer is he was told not to shoot in order to protect the source of the tip-off that had led to the potential ambush; to protect the British Army’s informant inside the IRA.
To have shot the quartermaster in Rostrevor Wood that night might have blown his cover.
It is possible that all the relevant factors had been weighed in the balance and, at the last minute, senior figures had decided that to lose the agent was too high a price to pay in the long term.
Even at the potential cost of a policeman’s life.
Scappaticci was born 73 years ago in South Belfast
That sounds incredible. But it sometimes happened. Certainly it seems to have happened repeatedly in the case of the super-agent codenamed Stakeknife.
It might even have been Stakeknife himself who tipped off his handlers about the Bushmaster rifle plot.
Stakeknife sounds quite the hero.
In fact, multiple sources agree that he was one of the cruellest and most bloodstained figures in the history of the conflict in Ulster. And his legacy refuses to go away.
Save for a rump of dissidents, the Troubles ended with the IRA ceasefire in 1994, the peace being formalised by the Good Friday Agreement four years later.
But after more than 3,000 military, civilian and paramilitary deaths and disappearances, many of them unsolved, a line could not be drawn neatly under three decades of mayhem.
The families of victims whose killers had gone unpunished wanted justice. Or at least explanations.
Last month saw the announcement by prosecutors in Northern Ireland of their decision not to bring charges against any more than one former member of the Parachute Regiment in relation to the Bloody Sunday shootings in 1972.
But another criminal inquiry into the behaviour of the British Army in Northern Ireland remains ongoing.
Operation Kenova is ‘an investigation into the activities of the person known as Stakeknife’.
That person — though he has always denied it — is widely believed to be Freddie Scappaticci.
He has been living in necessarily discreet exile from his native Northern Ireland for almost two decades.
The indications are that Kenova, which began in 2016 and is led by the former Bedfordshire Chief Constable Jon Boutcher, is about to blow Stakeknife’s cover.
To quote Kenova’s own terms of reference: ‘The focus of this investigation is to ascertain whether there is evidence of the commission of criminal offences by the alleged agent including, but not limited to, murders, attempted murders or unlawful imprisonments attributed to the Provisional IRA.’
It will also look at whether there is evidence of criminal offences having been committed by members of the British Army, the security services or other government personnel.’
The potential for a sensational final reckoning that is deeply damaging to figures on all sides in the Troubles, is obvious.
Mr Boutcher said in December 2018 that the evidence he had gathered was of ‘prosecution standard’.
In our own investigation into this secret, if not ‘dirty’, war, we have spoken to a number of former soldiers who served in undercover intelligence units in Ulster, recruiting and running double agents like Stakeknife.
They have never spoken before. Their stories paint a compelling picture of extreme danger, ruthless and brutal decision-making, inter-unit rivalry and blurred moral boundaries.
Scappaticci was born 73 years ago in South Belfast, the son of Italian immigrants. ‘Scap’, as he is known in Republican circles, was said to have joined the IRA in 1969.
In the summer of 1971 he was one of hundreds of Republican activists and paramilitaries interned in Long Kesh (known as The Maze prison).
Many of these internees — such as Gerry Adams — would later rise to the top of the IRA and Sinn Fein.
By the time of his release in 1974, Scap’s credentials in the terrorist organisation were secured.
A violent-tempered individual, Scap was in time promoted to the IRA’s feared internal security unit.
Last month saw the announcement by prosecutors in Northern Ireland of their decision not to bring charges against any more than one former member of the Parachute Regiment in relation to the Bloody Sunday shootings in 1972
Its members were tasked with examining why operations had gone wrong and winkling out informers — or ‘touts’ — within the ranks.
This is why they were nicknamed the Nutting Squad.
Once a tout confessed to betraying secrets to the Brits, he or she would invariably get a bullet in the back of the head — the ‘nut’.
Using fists, hot plates, pokers and other implements of torture, the Nutting Squad was said to be excellent at securing confessions.
Scap eventually became the unit’s second in command.
The irony being that he was, it seems, the greatest tout of them all. How could the British Army have hoped to recruit a hardline Republican like Scap?
Such attempts presented grave risks. A former undercover soldier told me of one failure that ended in a bloodbath.
He was sent to rendezvous with a young man on the fringes of the IRA who had been judged a potential recruit.
‘I had never met the “asset” before,’ he recalls. ‘Someone in the RUC had made the initial contact.
‘Such [an operation] is so compartmentalised you only know the part you were supposed to play, because if you get [abducted by the Provos] that is all you can tell them.’
With any asset your job at first is to encourage a rapport and to gauge motive. I was the what we called ‘the icebreaker’. And if all went well I would become his handler.
‘Anyway, I walked into a trap. When I arrived in the pub, as arranged, he was clearly on edge.
‘But that is quite normal in these situations so I dismissed it. Your job is to make them feel comfortable.
‘We sat down together. Then I saw that he was really very sweaty, very nervous. It wasn’t right.
‘With hindsight, I should have got up and left right there. Then three known [IRA] players walked in and I knew for sure I was in the s***.’
As the soldier began to look for an escape route the ‘asset’ pulled a gun and shot him at point-blank range.
‘He was aiming for my head but because I was leaning back and turning he only got me in the neck.’
What did he do? His answer is matter-of-fact. ‘I drew my own gun and sent him to Milltown’ — that’s the Belfast cemetery where IRA volunteers are buried.
Bleeding profusely, the undercover soldier exchanged further shots with the other IRA men before escaping. It was his last undercover job in the province.
Scap’s alleged recruitment was down to the character of another undercover soldier who secured his cooperation.
It has been suggested that Scap had nursed a grievance after a beating at the hands of another IRA man.
But several sources support the story that an NCO from the Devon and Dorset Regiment who won the Queen’s Gallantry Medal and George Medal for his agent work in Ulster was the deciding factor.
The indications are that Kenova, which began in 2016 and is led by the former Bedfordshire Chief Constable Jon Boutcher (pictured), is about to blow Stakeknife’s cover
He simply had a gift for cultivating friendship and trust.
‘That was how it happened,’ a former colleague claims. ‘There were other factors too but it was essentially “pilotage”.
You are gently holding the tiller and steering them towards a desired course of action.’
Given the codename Stakeknife, Scap reportedly came to be controlled by a section of the Intelligence Corps called the Force Research Unit (FRU), based in a manor house in Kent.
Stakeknife was not simply their star.
Among competing intelligence agencies such as MI5, Special Branch and the 14 Intelligence Company (known as ‘the Det’), who did not always share the information or assets they had separately acquired, Stakeknife was the ‘jewel in the crown’ of British penetration of the IRA.
But this success presented a fundamental moral dilemma.
As former FRU handler Ian Hurst has pointed out in his book Stakeknife, which he wrote under a pseudonym, no one can be at the heart of a criminal organisation without committing offences.
‘Handlers of all services have recruited killers . . . throughout the Troubles,’ wrote the eventually disillusioned Hurst, some of whose claims have been questioned by former colleagues.
‘This practice . . . is truly appalling when members of the security services know their agents are killing people and they do nothing about it.’
Stakeknife’s inside information saved lives, it has been claimed. But that was only part of a bigger, grimmer picture. Because he and his unit were also taking lives.
Informers or not, many of his alleged victims were IRA men; members of an organisation committed to murder to further their cause.
If one of them ended up dead, trussed and naked with a bag over his head in a country lane, bearing the marks of torture, then few tears would be shed in the FRU or elsewhere.
But there were also civilians from the nationalist community who were providing information to the authorities until they were lifted by the Nutting Squad.
What is truly dizzying about the allegations made by Hurst and others is that a British agent — Stakeknife — was effectively being allowed to torture and kill other British informants in order to maintain his privileged position within the IRA.
A number of cases stand out as being remarkable. Frank Hegarty was the IRA Northern Command’s quartermaster and recruited by the FRU.
The scale of this coup was confirmed when Hegarty told his handlers about a shipment of arms from Libya, which arrived in the Republic in late 1985.
The British Army tipped off the Irish police. More than 100 assault rifles and thousands of rounds of ammunition were seized.
Thus compromised, Hegarty was whisked to a safe house in England.
But he grew homesick and, allegedly encouraged by soothing telephone conversations with IRA/Sinn Fein supremo Martin McGuinness, he returned to Derry.
There, he was abducted, ‘interrogated’ and killed by the Nutting Squad. Hurst claims that Stakeknife told his handler it was he who had ‘nutted’ the other FRU agent.
Last night, Hegarty’s son Ryan declined to comment.
Joseph Fenton was an estate agent who lent properties to the IRA and allowed the RUC Special Branch to bug them.
Under early suspicion of being a British informant, he allegedly implicated a married couple, Gerard and Catherine Mahon, who were also acting as RUC informers.
They were executed by the Nutting Squad.
Fenton was later rumbled and confessed before being murdered; again, allegedly, by Stakeknife, who had apparently warned his own handlers to no effect what was about to happen.
Tom Oliver was a farmer and father of seven from the Cooley Peninsula on the other side of Carlingford Lough from Rostrevor Wood.
A law-abiding man, he tipped off the Irish police about IRA activity in his area. An IRA-bugged pay-phone did for Farmer Oliver.
In 1991 he was horribly tortured and killed, allegedly by Stakeknife’s men. Another informant had died.
Would Stakeknife really have been allowed such freedom from prosecution? A former Army agent handler told me: ‘Back then you did sometimes wonder why a particular individual had not been lifted [arrested].
‘But if you have a strategic asset as important as Stakeknife, you must balance how important that asset is [in the long term] against how far you will have to go to protect him.
‘It would not be unthinkable for him to be completely protected. I know it was done for other people.’
Freddie Scappaticci was finally arrested in his provincial English safe house by Kenova detectives in 2018. There was an unexpected outcome from their search of his premises.
In December that year he appeared before Westminster magistrates and admitted two counts of possessing extreme pornography, some involving animals.
He received a three-month jail sentence, suspended for a year.
‘You have not been before the court for 50 years — and that’s good character in my book,’ the magistrate told him.
That got a laugh in the drinking dens of Belfast where this week the Mail spoke to those who knew something of Scap. They believe that Kenova will be allowed to wither and die.
One Republican who had once ‘run with Scap’ rubbished the idea of a high-profile trial because it would ‘expose all the touts who put Scap in place and who are still in place themselves.
The Brits aren’t going down that road. Plus it would mean if he was charged, his handlers would have to be charged, and then their bosses, so it’s going nowhere’.
He said Scap ‘did many, many stiffs himself’. But as an agent he had legal clearance.
A spokesman for Kenova repeated a statement first put out almost two years ago, saying: ‘[We have] now gathered more than 12,000 documents, secured 1,000 statements and conducted 129 interviews with witnesses, victims and families resulting in more than 6,000 investigative actions for the team.’
A former member of ‘the Det’ remarked: ‘Why rake over these coals? It’s over. Put it behind us and move on.’
Mr Boutcher and his Operation Kenova is determined those coals won’t grow cold yet.