One of the impossible contradictions of the Provisionals' long and bitter war against the British occupation of Ireland, was their superb military achievements whilst harbouring a viscous cancer in their soul. This is an utterly depressing and uncomfortable book for anyone who supported the republican struggle in the 70s and 80s.
How could such a heroic and disciplined team rooted so deeply in working class Republican communities have been penetrated perhaps from its inception by a British army agent positioned at the very heart of the organisation or if the book is correct a number of agents acting independent of each other?
This is the expose of Freddie Scappaticci as told by Richard O Rawe, a one time comrade.
Scappaticci was from the Italian emigree community who fleeing starvation and social collapse at home had flocked to the heavy industry of Belfast from the 1870s.
Scappaticci was head of the IRA's internal security unit, the man ostensibly charged with rooting out agents such as himself. His team was known as the Nutting Squad for its deadly summary executions.
The book follows the style of an investigation with members of Scappaticci’s team and other former comrades. It is ruthlessly researched with gruesome detail of many of the operations which had resulted in former comrades “being nutted” - shot in the head - often after merciless torture.
He had like many young men been born into the anti-Catholic pogroms of the late 1960s joined the newly emergent Provisional IRA. Keen and intelligent he was soon made an Officer Commanding. He was interned in 1971 then again 1974. Sometime around 1975 he was acquired by British state and wormed his way into the very heart of the Provisional army structure. Former Volunteer Dr McIntyre states:
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 (Scappaticci) became crucial.
Other volunteers swore that he wasn’t alone, that an even more senior figure in the structure may have been a British asset. Harry McCallion in his Under Cover War which amazingly reveals many of the black ops of Britain’s Special Forces in Ireland, basically a murder squad, alleges Gerry Adams himself was an agent of the British state, especially in derailing the armed struggle. O'Rawe reveals a number of fingers pointed at Martin McGuinness but draws back in his conclusions from finding a case against him proven. For me the jury is still out on both of them.
What is clear is that all the victims interrogated punished and murdered by ‘Scap’ - and the death toll is said to be 18 - his British handlers were informed of in advance. Its clear a number of these were former comrades who had realised his true role.
His degeneration seems to have started after being released from internment for a second time. He discovers a major money-making tax dodge capitalising on the British states encouragement of commerce particularly building contracts with tax exemptions and relief.
The author notes that one could make £5000 a week, and “Scappi” suddenly developed a taste for new cars, upmarket residences and the latest electrical gadgets well out of the reach of your average worker.
In the Autumn of 1978, the Internal Security Unit of the IRA was formed with Scappaticci second in command. Oddly they had chosen John Joe Magee to head the unit, odd because he was an ex-member of British Special Forces the SBS. It was at once of immense importance to the British state, who correctly seen it as a direct counter move to their own intelligence and infiltration work. It was the most powerful body of the whole IRA operation, with virtually sovereign powers and all-seeing insights. How many of their many victims were actually informers or assets of the British no one can now really tell, although many of relatives of executed men swear they were loyal republicans and not guilty.
One of the suggestions as to why he went over to the enemy, is that they discovered his criminal tax fraud scam. He knew someone else who had been caught and got eight years for it. The offer of an amnesty and lavish bribes were strong inducements in keeping the life to which he had become accustomed. His treachery was one of the most important achievements of the British army in the whole operation.
Another suggestion made by fellow volunteers close to him, is that he was blackmailed owing to his predilection for pre-pubescent girls. That he may have been caught and threatened with exposure and prison time from the state and possible death from the IRA, he capitulated. Such an accusation requires more than speculation or rumour. The pornographic material ultimately seized from home was not of young girls however but bestiality. The author Richard O Rawe admits he doesn’t know the reason Scappi was turned but there is absolute certainty he was, and with devastating impact.
The author says:
. . . the FRU (Force Research Unit) ran rings around the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s. This was not because the Provisional IRA were stupid, but rather because the British had learned the folly of allowing spies with English accents and foreign habits to live in local, sometimes hostile communities . . . Nobody knew of Freddie Scappaticci’s treachery. Nobody.
It is said the IRA underestimated the forces arrayed against them, and one can see how their popularity among the community and grass roots membership among neighbours, relatives and friends might blind them to it. They would never expect given the cause, given the repression, given the close knit weave of the community that folk they knew could be informers, or worse. The test of loyalty was the commitment to fight, die and kill and the trust in those who made that commitment was unshakable. There was also a contrary equally erroneous belief that the British would never have an agent who could coldly kill his own handlers forces while working for them. At least one did. That same man, was a man who sat in on recruitment interviews of young IRA volunteers, quizzing them on their suitability, their conviction and advising them how to remain below the radar and keep their membership secret. Then pass on all the information to the security forces within hours of their joining.
One of the most odious feature of FBU work was to pass onto Loyalist death squads information on republican communities and activists, murdering literally hundreds of innocent Catholic men women and children. That this was an official body of the British state exposes the ruthless nature of that machine. It might be added that FBU played a similar role of murder and treachery and betrayal within the Loyalist militias and communities too. To an extent the state through its secret assassins and spies and agents played the conflict and war between and within the divided communities.
Were there suspicions? South Armagh IRA sussed out during the interrogation of an IRA suspected of betrayal that Scappaticci’s questions of the man James Young were aimed at discovering his unit's operations and volunteers, not the alleged crimes, and contacted Belfast IRA that he was not to be trusted and was of concern. They ignored the warning.
The greatest achievement, if one can use such an expression without inducing nausea, was that the British state was most of the time actually directing the IRAs internal security operations, and who was to be executed, many of whom were important sometimes vital members of the organisation. They also presided over the killing of their own actual agents rather than involve civil authorities on either side of the border to save them. Indeed all of the executions under Scappaticci’s direction were with the indulgence of the British states forces.
The book strongly suggests the most leading figures such as Adams himself may have been playing some game with the British state's secret state, a suggestion made in other similar works. The book shows how Martin McGuinness alleged by many to have been a prominent member of the IRA Army Council, was caught on camera preparing and helping plant a bomb as well as demonstrating weapons to younger people. That the evidence was sent to British Intelligence and they chose not to act on it, when McGuiness could have been banged to rights.
There are tales of betrayal and set ups. The commander of North Derry, and other active units of the IRA, had been forced by Franco Hegarty another subsequently outed British agent to pass on details of an attack on the RUC to McGuiness, which they duly did but were suspicious of. They then did a careful check on the area prior to the attack and discover an SAS ambush waiting in place at the time and location they had planned. They called it off and then were summoned to explain why it had been called off to which they replied that Hegarty and others were ‘touts’ or spies for the British Army. Such a public accusation resulted in Hegarty’s interrogation by the ISU led by Scappi and he was subsequently executed. If Hegarty was indeed an agent then the British allowed him to be disposed of to protect the bigger operation, and that this would have been a decision made by a senior Cabinet member. Scappaticci was to later argue that he wasn’t the person who carried out that interrogation and subsequent execution was carried out by McGuinness not him. It was McGuinness who had rapidly promoted Hegarty to positions of trust and office much to the resentment of longer serving more honourable volunteers, so once exposed, getting rid of his protégée might have been an attempt at covering his tracks.
After reading this book one could be forgiven for pondering how it was the IRA continued to conduct such a devastating war against the British Army and the Six County state with such an albatross of treachery round its neck. Scappi occupied the Sinn Fein office and presided with others over the civil administration of Belfast. But the truth is the IRA had deliberately decentralised their operations and units had a great deal of operational autonomy and internal control. They jealously guarded their plans and strategy. South Armagh was particularly guarded in what it shared with anyone from the Belfast organisations and rightly so.
By 1989 McGuiness had reasserted the right of the Army Council, actually himself in particular, to vet all operations and plans. It was the greatest asset the British State could have hoped for, the most damaging development since the formation of the Provos. It was the breaking of the code which accessed the whole operation to British forces. It necessitated allowing some operations to continue, it necessitated their own plants and touts being executed to cover tracks, it allowed for double cross games of setting up unsuspecting loyal volunteers to assassination. It means of course the British State effectively sanctioned the killing of its own troops and agents. In reality many units realised they were being monitored and withheld information on some of their operations or false flagged them as some other faction.
Gerry Adams came to the leadership of Sinn Fein in November of 1983. How much of his agenda was formed at that time is debatable. The author argues It came at a time of the realisation that the armed struggle was unwinnable. I’m not sure whether that was a realisation or a self fulfilling prophecy imposed on the movement by stealth and sabotage. Many of the targeted killing of key IRA volunteers and units were via carefully constructed SAS ambushes and direct treachery from the inside. The militant wing of the movement was being culled and not just its military sections. Key in this change of strategy from the bullet to the ballot box was winning over the Army Council. I would say rigging the Army Council to a programme of winding down and ending the armed struggle. This had to be achieved while convincing the rank and file and the movement at large that Adams and the leadership still supported it. Sections of the movement ‘the troops on the ground’, however, started to smell a bunch of rats early on.
What is remarkable, or maybe it isn’t, is that when Scappaticci’s cover was finally blown, partially by his handlers, and the Cook Report, and three Irish newspapers did the full expose on him and the executions to his name, instead of taking the British advice and fleeing the country with his accumulated £1million, then with a golden handshake nearer £2m, he decided to bluff it out. What was worse instead of ‘nutting the nutter’ the IRA and political leadership, rallied to his story proclaiming the expose was a British Intelligence slander. That they vouched for him when so many of the fighters on the ground knew he was a traitor begs lots of questions. If they accepted his was a deep plant traitor of long standing, operating for British intelligence and executing friend and foe, what would it do their credibility and the trust of the community? If that had been their reasoning they missed the more obvious conclusion that if a British agent could sit so comfortably in the heart of the organisation without detection how many others even higher up in the movement were also playing a double game, particularly now with the abandonment of armed struggle and embracing of the policies and strategies which the movement had formed to resist ?
2003, the bluff hadn’t worked the evidence was too clear, the pile of innocent bodies too high, he flees, initially to Manchester, then a gated area of London, then Scotland then ‘north of England’. In 2006 he gets a High Court order banning any press revelation of his whereabouts. Of course such an order would block a taste of his own medicine had the IRA chosen to execute him. Again one must ask why they didn’t. We are told that the man might well have had a serious personality disorder, because instead of fleeing to some anonymous sunny shore, he fled to ‘a major Northern city’ rumoured to be Newcastle, where he takes up his profession as a builder humping bricks and making cement. That the courts and the law made little efforts to arrest him or jail him for the murders many had testified to and identified him as the main assassin shows how deep the deception runs, and runs still.
In 2015 the families of many of his victims decided to open a case with Police Ombudsman on the collusion of the British state and its agents in the death of their loved ones. How far they had acted as a cover for the ongoing assassinations and executions allowing Scappaticci to carry on his reign of terror?
On Oct 2015 the Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory ordered the PSNI to examine the roles of Scappi, Special Branch, FRU, and MI5 had played in the killing of alleged informers and agents. 2016 Operation Kenova was launched under the leadership of Chief Constable Jon Boutcher. It assembled 50 detectives from around the world to demonstrate this was to be no whitewash. MI5 was livid. Documents and files they had intended to destroy revealing much of the work of the agents were seized. True to his word Boutcher subsequently passed on 33 files on former members of the IRA, the Security forces the British Army etc in Oct of 2019. They contained evidence of murder, kidnap, torture, misconduct in public office and perverting the course of justice to the Public Prosecution Service. To this day no action has been taken on them, and we note plans to close all investigations on crimes committed during “the Troubles” by the current Government. One wonders if all of this will be buried with the victims.
On 24th May 2022 Northern Ireland Minister Brandon Lewis MP introduced a Bill to parliament which would stop members of the British armed forces being prosecuted for crimes up to an including murder. It has so far been blocked by widespread opposition. The attempts to undermine and emasculate the Kenova enquiry by introduction of such legislation excusing not just British soldiers but undercover agents and secret service operators is clear, amnesty for IRA and Loyalist military from future prosecution would be a small quid-pro-quo especially since at least some of the most pernicious of these were anyway acting on Government approved actions.
Remarkably Freddie Scappaticci lived out his life and died of natural causes in England, April 2023. The Kenova Report is yet to be published, the interim is due out at the end of the year.
Sinn Fein has shaken off the whole scandalous treachery like water from a duck's back and continues to grow its support and authority for its constitutional path to Irish unity.
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.
➽David John Douglass is a former coalminer, Tyneside Irish republican, author and working class activist.