Newton Emerson: Stakeknife case will cut into comforting narratives

High-profile trials may expose British security’s management of paramilitaries

Alfredo “Freddie” Scappaticci in 1987: Stakeknife was the code-name for a British army agent inside the IRA, identified as Scappaticci. Scappaticci denies the claims. Photograph: Pacemaker Press

Alfredo “Freddie” Scappaticci in 1987: Stakeknife was the code-name for a British army agent inside the IRA, identified as Scappaticci. Scappaticci denies the claims. Photograph: Pacemaker Press

 

The power of the Stakeknife story to upset comforting histories in Northern Ireland can be gauged by the range of people who never mention it. Prominent rights groups, justice campaigns and parties across the political spectrum have little or nothing to say on what is alleged to be the worst single scandal of the Troubles, involving British state collusion in over 50 IRA murders.

In 2003, the Sunday People alleged Stakeknife was the code-name for a British army agent inside the IRA, identified as Freddie Scappaticci, head of the IRA’s internal security unit, responsible for torturing and murdering suspected informers from the early 1980s.

Scappaticci denied the claims and left Northern Ireland – he has recently resurfaced in London.

The idea of a British agent operating at this level within the IRA is what gives the Stakeknife case its transgressive power. It confounds every partisan narrative.

Until 2003, “collusion” had been a term used by republicans to mean British connivance with loyalists. While it was always understood there were agents inside the IRA, this was merely “informing”. For their part, unionists viewed the running of informers as a legitimate tactic to protect the public from loyalists and republicans alike.

The Stakeknife story began opening people’s eyes to a more complicated vista, where the security forces had not so much infiltrated paramilitaries as managed them, cultivating and protecting leaderships they could do business with as everyone inched towards the peace process – a process far longer and bloodier than its visible culmination in the Belfast Agreement.

Also in 2003, Sir John Stevens, head of the Metropolitan Police, completed the last of three loyalist collusion inquiries he had overseen since 1990. He proposed a wide new definition of collusion, promptly adopted by the courts, that encompassed turning a blind eye to any wrongful act by state servants or agents. Stakeknife was therefore a collusion scandal, legally indistinguishable from any other.

Secret documents

Then followed the silence, as this suited nobody’s agenda.

In 2016, a Stakeknife investigation was finally established under pressure from victims’ families. Known as Operation Kenova, it is headed by John Boutcher, chief constable of Bedfordshire Police. There was scepticism when Kenova was launched, especially when Boutcher said it would take five years. But in dramatic statements over the past week, he has revealed Kenova will recommend prosecutions shortly. Interviews have been conducted with 129 past and present members of Sinn Féin, the IRA, MI5, the police and the British army, from whom suspects have been identified thanks to new DNA techniques and secret documents seized from MI5’s London headquarters. It transpires that Stakeknife files were passed around state agencies, with each agency making a copy.

Sir John alleged his inquiries were targeted by media dirty tricks. Boutcher appears keenly aware of that prospect and is getting his retaliation in first, briefing the media in detail and warning he has made enemies inside MI5. He has said from the outset he will not meet the fate of John Stalker, the former deputy chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, who conducted an inquiry in the mid-1980s into an alleged RUC “shoot to kill” policy. Stalker was drummed out of office on false accusations just before his report was published and ended up selling patio awnings on daytime television – an exquisitely English punishment.

Would the public be shocked into a new perception of the Troubles?

We will have to wait and see whether the Public Prosecution Service will act on Kenova’s recommendations – it has often been accused of squeamishness with awkward cases.

Denial instinct

However, there is now the real prospect of high-profile trials exposing the Stakeknife scandal and all it represents.

The question is what difference this might make. Would the public be shocked into a new perception of the Troubles? Or would the culpability of both sides simply cancel out, helped by new partisan narratives and an instinct for denial?

The latter seems more likely. Where significant impact could be felt is in the specifics of how the Troubles are being addressed.

If the British government and republicans find themselves in the dock, they will be further motivated to agree a form of Troubles amnesty. This has been their shared objective throughout the peace process – Westminster legislation for it nearly passed in 2005 – but they have been stymied up to now by legal hurdles and political embarrassment.

Boutcher says former members of the IRA have come forward to name suspects. If this has been “sanctioned” by the republican movement, it indicates a new willingness to co-operate on Troubles cases in line with Stormont’s proposed – and currently delayed – mechanisms for dealing with the past. If it has not been sanctioned, the republican movement is losing its grip over former members and co-operation should still be forthcoming.

Unionists and the Conservative Party could also be stripped of their favourite objection to investigating the Troubles: namely, that the state kept records but the IRA did not.

If the state was managing the IRA, its records will suffice.

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