Q&A: What is the Stakeknife scandal, and what happens next?

More than 20 people may be prosecuted relating to inquiry

Alfredo ‘Freddie’ Scappaticci pictured at the 1987 funeral of IRA man Larry Marley.  Scappaticci denies claims he is Stakeknife. Photograph: Pacemaker Press

Alfredo ‘Freddie’ Scappaticci pictured at the 1987 funeral of IRA man Larry Marley. Scappaticci denies claims he is Stakeknife. Photograph: Pacemaker Press

 

What is the Stakeknife scandal?

The agent code named “Stakeknife” was one of British military intelligence’s most valued assets, operating inside the Provisional IRA. Recruited in the late 1970s, the spy rose through the IRA’s ranks in Belfast to become head of the paramilitary group’s informer-hunting unit known as “the nutting squad”. He had the power of life and death over IRA members accused of being informers for the security forces during the Troubles. His unit used torture methods to extract admissions from those in the IRA accused of treachery. Often their so-called “confessions” were taped and on occasion played to their close relatives to convince them that the victim had been “guilty” of treachery.

Who is Stakeknife?

Since 2003 it is alleged that Stakeknife is Freddie Scappaticci, a 73-year-old Belfast man who in the early 1970s was interned without trial by the British army. Later it is claimed he was recruited by an undercover British soldier as an agent. Scappaticci has consistently denied he was Stakeknife or a spy for military intelligence’s Force Research Unit including a denial on oath in a Belfast court. One of the most senior British officers to serve in Northern Ireland during the Troubles described Scappaticci as “the jewel in the crown . . . the golden egg” for military intelligence in the conflict between 1969 and 1997.

Why is an agent who served the British state generating such controversy?

Stakeknife is accused of being responsible for multiple murders of alleged IRA informers, many of whom were beaten and tortured to extract “confessions”. This means that while operating as a paid agent of the state, the super spy was allowed to commit serious crimes in order to bolster his macho and fearsome reputation within the republican movement. The families of those abducted and killed by Stakeknife’s IRA unit – known ghoulishly in republican strongholds as “the head hunters” – claim his handlers could have saved their loved ones but failed to act. The intelligence the agent was passing about the inner workings of the IRA including its leadership was much more important to the British state than saving lives, the families say.

What happens now?

The scandal could lead to the possibility that senior British military intelligence veterans, police handlers and former leading IRA figures be prosecuted for crimes ranging from malfeasance in public office up to torture and murder. The final decision on charging not only Scappaticci (who will insist he is not Stakeknife in any court of law) but security force personnel rests with the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland.

What are the implications if Stakeknife and others are charged?

Such a scenario could prove to be politically embarrassing for both the British state and the IRA high command particularly if Stakeknife is forced to go to court. In open court there would be the potential for a former high-grade agent to disclose some of the darkest secrets from the “dirty war” that was waged by all sides during the Troubles. This could implicate everyone from former British Cabinet ministers to key figures in Sinn Féin who once held dual IRA membership. Veteran and more cynical observers of the Northern Irish conflict still believe thought that Scappaticci will never be brought into an open court. If they are proved right then many of those dark secrets will remain locked away for a generation. – Guardian