Freddie Scappaticci obituary: IRA informer ‘Stakeknife’ was known as ‘jewel in the crown’ of British intelligence

IRA enforcer turned British army agent was deeply involved in some of the murkiest chapters of the Troubles

Born: circa 1946

Died: March/April 2023

A former British army commander in Northern Ireland, the late Gen John Wilsey, once described Freddie Scappaticci, the agent known as Stakeknife, as the “golden egg”, “the jewel in the crown” of British military intelligence over several years of the Troubles.

Wilsey said Scappaticci, whom he did not name, saved “hundreds and hundreds of lives”. There are different views on that claim but what seems certain is that he was responsible for the deaths of many people, up to 20 or more.


Scappaticci, who had died aged 77, is believed to have been recruited in 1978 and was “outed” in 2003 in a report written by Belfast-based journalist Greg Harkin and by a man who uses the pseudonym Martin Ingram. It was clear Ingram had the goods on Scappaticci, as he was a former member of the British army’s Force Research Unit (FRU) which ran Stakeknife.

Scappaticci, was born in Belfast around 1946 the son of an Italian immigrant Daniel Scappaticci, who arrived in the 1920s. He was from the Markets area of Belfast and is reported to have trained as a bricklayer. He rose to head the IRA’s internal security department, its so-called Nutting Squad, which vetted and debriefed IRA members and, through torture and other means, sought out suspected informers.

Scappaticci was viewed as the “judge, jury and executioner” of this unit, which was feared within the IRA. It is unclear how many died as a result of Stakeknife’s direction; some have it at up to 40 people, others at about half that number. What does seem clear is that a number of those who were “executed” were not informants – or “touts” as they were disparagingly called – but people who were sacrificed to help preserve his secret identity and intelligence role.

Former IRA man Eamon Collins, who himself was murdered by the south Armagh IRA, worked for a period with Scappaticci in the internal security unit. Some people have raised questions as to whether Scappaticci actually was Stakeknife but Collins in his book, Killing Rage, leaves little if any doubt, describing the man he called Scap perfectly: “Small and barrel-chested with classic Mediterranean looks – olive-skinned with tight black curly hair.”

There are different accounts as to why he took up with British intelligence. One story has it that he was beaten up by another senior IRA member over an affair with the man’s wife, which prompted Scappaticci to sign up as a “walk-in” agent

He also told a disturbing story that caught the cold and pitiless nature of the Nutting Squad. Collins asked Scappaticci, who at that time was second in command to a former British soldier, John Joe Magee, whether victims were notified of their impending fate.

Scappaticci, as Collins wrote, “turned to John Joe and started joking about one informer who had confessed after being offered an amnesty. Scap told the man that he would take him home, reassuring him that he had nothing to worry about. Scap had told him to keep the blindfold on for security reasons as they walked away from the car.

“It was funny,” he said, “watching the bastard stumbling and falling, asking me as he felt his way along the railings and walls, ‘Is this my house now?’ and I’d say, ‘No, not yet, walk on some more.’ ‘And then you shot the f**ker in the back of the head,’ said John Joe, and both of them burst out laughing.”

He was in the IRA from early in the conflict and was interned in the early 1970s with the likes of future Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams.

There are different accounts as to why he took up with British intelligence. One story has it that he was beaten up by another senior IRA member over an affair with the man’s wife, which prompted Scappaticci to sign up as a “walk-in” agent, ultimately ending up working for the very shadowy British army’s Force Research Unit.

Another version has it that he was blackmailed into becoming an agent, possibly over his interest in hardcore pornography. He also could have been turned after he was arrested for involvement in a building fraud.

He was a curious personality with a brooding, menacing presence and had a personal animus against the late deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, a hostility that led him to speak to Roger Cook for his ITV current affairs programme, the Cook Report in 1993, saying that McGuinness was a senior IRA leader.

His words were secretly recorded and broadcast on the programme. While he wasn’t named, the IRA, one would reasonably deduce, would have suspected that Scappaticci was the source of the report. Yet he appeared sufficiently strong and confident to remain as a senior IRA figure. Some in the organisation were known to have suspicions about him and it is believed he was stood down in the mid-1990s.

On the Cook Report he said Gerry Adams was a member of the IRA’s army council – an allegation the former Sinn Féin leader has repeatedly denied – but reserved most of his venom for Martin McGuinness. He described him as an “evil man” who “one minute would be in church and the next would say, ‘Stiff him’.”

Money also may have been a factor in his recruitment: he is reported to have been paid more than £80,000 annually by his handlers.

His activities could have been brought to a close in 1990 when police raided a house where an alleged informer, Sandy Lynch, was being interrogated. As part of that operation, Sinn Féin director of publicity Danny Morrison was arrested. He was sentenced to eight years for false imprisonment, a conviction that was overturned in 2008.

After his exposure in 2003, Scappaticci initially attempted to brazen out the claims against him but fairly quickly left Belfast and went into a witness protection programme in England

Scappaticci had fled the scene, ultimately heading to the Republic, but a thumbprint later linked him to the abduction. The FRU however created an alibi for him. He returned to Belfast and was arrested and then released without charge.

After his exposure in 2003, Scappaticci initially attempted to brazen out the claims against him but fairly quickly left Belfast and went into a witness protection programme in England. While in protection a court injunction was issued preventing anyone from disclosing information about his whereabouts or publishing images of his appearance.

According to Greg Harkin he lived in Manchester, where he could follow his favourite team, Manchester City, for whom he had been a young triallist. He also had a trial for Nottingham Forest.

The fact that he was such a highly placed agent was embarrassing for the IRA, which seemed content to go along with his denial that he worked for the FRU.

But it also raised moral questions for the British security agencies, which were running an agent who was directly involved in murder. Six years ago BBC’s Panorama programme claimed that the RUC failed to investigate the murders of more than a dozen people to prevent Stakeknife’s identify being revealed.

Panorama cited the case of 35-year-old Joseph Fenton, who was killed by the IRA in February 1989 as an alleged RUC special branch informer. It claimed he was shot after Stakeknife left a house where he was being interrogated by the Nutting Squad. It said he told his FRU handlers that Fenton would be murdered but that no action appeared to have been taken to prevent the killing.

That case became even murkier as it was subsequently alleged that Fenton, in order to try to protect himself when previously under suspicion, identified west Belfast couple Gerard and Catherine Mahon as working for British intelligence. They were shot dead by the IRA in September 1985.

It was such incidents relating to the so-called dirty war of the Troubles that led to the creation of Operation Kenova, run by the former chief constable of Bedfordshire, Jon Boutcher.

If Gen John Wilsey could describe Stakeknife as the “jewel in the crown” of British intelligence it appears evident that details of his work went right to the top of the British army and possibly or probably to upper political levels too.

Boutcher, who has a £35 million budget and a team of 80 police and civilian workers reporting to him, has insisted he will do all in his power to get to the truth of Scappaticci, saying “the families of the victims deserve to know what happened”.

“We are going where the evidence takes us, so that has meant speaking to those with links to government, the police, military, intelligence agencies and paramilitary organisations,” he added.

Many of those families had hoped to see Scappaticci in the dock. On Tuesday, Boutcher issued a statement disclosing that Scappaticci had died some time before Easter. He said, “We remain committed to providing families with the truth of what happened to their loved ones and continue to actively pursue criminal charges against several individuals. We will publish an interim report on Kenova’s findings this year.”

That investigation is understood to include a claim that his handlers, on learning loyalist paramilitaries were planning to kill Scappaticci, diverted them to kill a 66-year-old retired taxi driver, Francisco Notarantonio, in Belfast in 1987.

While Boutcher has been adamant he will strive to get to the full truth behind Stakeknife, there is great scepticism over whether the intelligence agencies, the British establishment and indeed the IRA will allow such disclosure. Time will answer that question but the death of the main witness has made such truth-telling more difficult.

Scappaticci’s final years were rather humiliating and pathetic. In December 2018 he was convicted of possessing extreme pornography including images of bestiality, in a case taken as part of Operation Kenova. He appeared briefly before Westminster magistrates in central London to admit the charges, for which he received a three-month suspended sentence.

The court heard Scappaticci told police he was not sexually interested in animals, and preferred women with big breasts. He told them he was “not doing anyone any real harm” and said he had depression.

In a comment that those familiar with his secret life found almost beyond ironic, the chief magistrate Emma Arbuthnot said to Scappaticci, “You have not been before the court for 50 years – and that’s good character in my book.”

“I can see you are not a well man at all – you have very serious health issues – and that you live a lonely life,” she added.

Scappaticci’s wife, Sheila Cunningham, who was in her early 70s and also from the Markets area and described as a “devout” Catholic, died in 2019. It is understood they had six children.