"Just as every cop is a criminal, and all the sinners saints" - Sympathy for the Devil, The Rolling Stones.
Before getting into the second part of this review, I must confess to getting distracted by the content of the book and researching personalities and events around Scap. I delved into a number of these areas, two of which are included at the end of the review. I may well add more in the comments in the coming days/weeks.
As always, I welcome questions/comments about what I have written.
O'Rawe writes in some detail about the role of the Tasking and Co-Ordinating Group, and in particular, the group's role in deciding who, if anyone, should be saved from among the unfortunates that Scap decided was guilty of informing and due to die. As O'Rawe put it::
the TCGs did not seem to have any trouble turning a blind eye to Scappaticci's involvement in the serial murder of British citizens.
Interestingly, O'Rawe also names some of Scap's FRU handlers. I have a list of some of Brian Nelson's FRU handlers. I can't see any crossover between the two in terms of handlers. But the book is accurate when it states that "the Belfast TCG … were just as ruthless as the IRA."
As a civil servant, I can imagine the rationales the TCG may have applied. They could rationalise their decisions with theories about the risks of raiding a house holding an informer – they could lose their own personnel, and about IRA operations against others following a rescue operation. These rationales would be highly questionable, but from a bureaucratic point of view, the TCG must have a paper trail somewhere that doesn’t state the probable reason: protecting a more senior informer.
The book looks again at incidents that will be familiar to students of the conflict – Frank Hegarty, Loughall, Sandy Lynch, and Joe Fenton. The book also reports on speculation over whether Martin McGuinness was an agent of some description (I do not believe that he was). These chapters are detailed, but may not contain much that is not already in the public domain. The murder of the Mahons loses none of its shock value, and some added detail makes the double killing seem just that little bit more sordid. This double murder, in my opinion, hasn’t received as much media attention as I think it’s probably due.
Later chapters in the book deal with the later chapters in Scap's life. His standing down as an agent, outing as "Stakeknife" and life on the run. The book is strongest when looking at Scap the man, and makes a highly complex story readable and pacey. I felt the book left some themes not fully explored. Why, for example, was Eamon Collins recruited into the ISU? A move to recruit him as an agent? Or a way of removing him from his IRA "day job"?
Reviewing this book has led me to look into several other books and articles about the conflict. One of the great strengths of O'Rawe's book is that it allows for a fresh look at some incidents written about elsewhere.
Dan McCann, the FRU, the ISU and IRA Court Martials
In a chapter aptly named "Torturers" a raw and disturbing account of the torture and brutalisation of a man named McDade by two members of the ISU nicknamed "Burke and Hare" is given. Interestingly, this led to an IRA court martial. The driving force behind the court martial was IRA man Dan McCann. Described as "a volunteer's volunteer" McCann was also one of the most lethal IRA men in Belfast, hated and feared by the RUC - who briefed the UDA that he was going to kill their leading members - and by loyalists. It may surprise some to know that the IRA did indeed hold the court-martial, find "Burke and Hare" guilty and then dismiss them from the IRA. It may not surprise others to know that they made their way back to the IRA and the ISU, but not with the same power that they had before.
O'Rawe doesn't make the following links but adds to existing knowledge that allows for speculation. A militaristic, highly effective, and popular IRA member took on the ISU and scored a victory. McDade's torture took place in 1986, and the court martial probably in late 1986 or sometime in 1987. On the 16th of March 1987, Scottish soldiers left a cross bearing McCann's name at his door, a sinister symbol of their wishes for him. Dan McCann was a target for the UDA via the FRU agent Brian Nelson, and a typically botched assassination attempt took place on the 18th of March 1987. 12 days earlier, the 6th March 1987, the McCann family home was raided by the RUC who told the family that loyalist paramilitaries would kill Dan.
O'Rawe notes that the court martial led to John Joe Magee being stood down from his leadership of the ISU and Scap being promoted to lead it. One of the initiatives Scap introduced was to insist on vetting all operations in advance. One operation that was not given to Scap for vetting was the killing of two RUC Special Branch officers, and the wounding of a third, in the Liverpool Bar on the 26th of August 1987. Dan McCann has been linked to these shootings. We can only speculate as to what the FRU agent Scap thought of McCann's circumventing him, and indeed what FRU agent Brian Nelson thought. Remarkably, exactly one year after the UDA attack on McCann's home, Dan McCann was shot dead with two other IRA volunteers by the SAS in Gibraltar. Even more remarkably, Michael Stone's attack on the IRA funeral processions in Milltown took place exactly one year after Scottish soldiers desecrated McCann's home.
O'Rawe noted that most ISU members were drawn from the Belfast Brigade's 2nd Battalion, D Company – the "corps d'elite" who inflicted severe casualties on the British army in the early days of the conflict. These included the head of the ISU until the court martial scandal, John Joe Magee, and Paddy Monaghan (known as "PM"). Magee was a former member of the Special Boat Service, and he and PM were charged with possession of ammunition in 1970. They went way back, as the saying goes. PM discusses the parts he and Magee played in the 1970 Falls Curfew in this video.
Sentenced to five years in prison in 1970 for possession of ammunition and bomb fuses, Monaghan also had in his possession "documented headed General Headquarters of the Irish Republican Army" laying down penalties, including the death penalty, for members who broke the rules. An RUC sergeant described PM as "small fry." That status wouldn't last.
Magee, PM, and "Hare" were widely known as being heavy drinkers. Many of their operations were planned from two pubs at the function of Clonard and the Falls Road, with some interrogations carried out at a house nearby. The drunken nature of some of these ISU members, though not Scap (he was not a hard drinker), caused many volunteers to look down on the ISU.
Intriguingly, PM was charged with conspiracy to murder James Gerard O'Rawe – Richard O'Rawe's cousin who was, for a time, an IRA supergrass. Other IRA men were charged with false imprisonment and wounding James O'Rawe.
As is widely known, PM was reported as an informer in the media earlier this year. I think the case against Scap is conclusive. I am not sure about PM. What I do know is that he was targeted by Brian Nelson and the UDA, who attempted to kill him in his home. I have read some speculation that PM’s handlers tipped him off and told him not to be home when the attack was going again. I don’t believe that, if PM was an informer, his handlers would have taken that risk – the UDA were so haphazard and unpredictable that they could have launched a repeat attack at any time, or carried out the initial attack not at the time Nelson understood it was to take place. Nelson was actually charged with conspiracy to murder PM at his 1992 trial.
I’ll leave the final word on this article to TPQ’s Anthony McIntyre who said this in the book:
“The organisation’s weaknesses and strengths, the unquestioning or critical approaches to leadership … would all have been known to (Scap). He damaged the IRA irreparably and helped pave the way for its defeat … a seriously compromised IRA campaign would reinforce a peace lobby within republicanism. Arguably, this is where the role of (Scap) became crucial.” (O’Rawe, pXV).
This book is an excellent read and a welcome addition to the debates and history of the Troubles.
Richard O'Rawe, 2023, Stakeknife's Dirty War: The Inside Story of Scappaticci, the IRA's Nutting Squad and the British Spooks Who Ran the War. Merrion Press. ISBN-13: 978-1785374470.
⏩ Brandon Sullivan is a middle aged, middle management, centre-left Belfast man. Would prefer people focused on the actual bad guys.