‘Stakeknife’ cuts both ways

Now that the war in Northern Ireland is over, the British establishment is finding it harder to hold the line.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

‘If it’s true that Stakeknife was the head of [IRA] internal security, then it’s a major coup for the British. It would mean they have been steering republican strategy for years….’ (1)

So said Anthony McIntyre, a former member of the Provisional IRA, in the wake of Sunday’s revelations that ‘Stakeknife’ – the British military’s top mole in the IRA, who has been the subject of speculation for years – is allegedly one Alfredo Scappaticci.

Scappaticci was reportedly the deputy head of the Provisional IRA’s internal security team from the late 1970s through to the ceasefire of 1994. This would have made him central to the IRA – responsible for rooting out alleged informers and for scrutinising every new recruit who entered the IRA’s ranks. At the same time, he was apparently passing information to the British army for £80,000 a year.

The Stakeknife revelations, if true, will certainly deliver a massive blow to the IRA. Scappaticci’s intelligence is said to have played a role in some of Britain’s major attacks on Irish republicans in the latter half of the ‘Troubles’ – including the Loughgall ambush of 1987, where the SAS killed eight active members of the IRA, and the killing of three IRA members in Gibraltar in 1988.

Yet for the shock that must be sweeping through IRA circles, the Stakeknife episode reveals as much about contemporary British politics as it does about the 25-year war in Northern Ireland. From the internal British squabbling that led to Stakeknife’s identity being revealed to the post-Stakeknife handwringing over Britain’s dirty war, it is the British elite’s inability to hold a line on any issue that has made this into such a big deal. The Stakeknife debate shows that, today, the liveliest clash over Northern Ireland is within the British elite itself.

It was the British authorities that made Britain’s underhand tactics in the Troubles – its use of paid informers in the IRA and its collusion with loyalist paramilitaries – into a major focus over the past five years. Irish nationalists and republicans have been kicking up a stink about Britain’s so-called ‘dirty war’ for the past 25 years, especially British forces’ links with loyalist paramilitaries – but their protestations were largely sidelined.

Now, the British-backed Stevens Inquiry into collusion – which has been running for 14 years but has only recently made a big impact – has published a 3000-page report; the Stevens team has committed itself to further investigation of British tactics in Northern Ireland; and newspaper editorials demand ‘a full public inquiry’ into the ‘murky secrets’ of Britain’s war (2).

British judges, politicians and, indeed, journalists weren’t always so keen to debate British collusion and infiltration. During the Troubles, if any inquiry got too close to the uncomfortable truth of the war, it was simply shut up. The Stalker Inquiry into the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s alleged ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy, led by John Stalker of Greater Manchester Police, was closed down in 1986, after Stalker was accused by British sources of ‘associating with known criminals’.

Even earlier versions of the Stevens Inquiry into collusion were intimidated by British military forces. In January 1990, the Stevens team launched a dawn raid to arrest Brian Nelson, a British military agent who had infiltrated the loyalist Ulster Defence Association, enabling it to target prominent Irish republicans. When the Stevens team returned from the raid, they found their secure investigation headquarters in flames (3).

The infamous Brian Nelson court case of the early 1990s was more an attempt to take the heat off the British military, rather than anything like a real investigation into the ‘dirty war’. By allowing Nelson to be arrested and tried for passing sensitive information to loyalists, British forces in Northern Ireland hoped that collusion would appear as the dodgy work of a handful of out-of-order British agents, rather than as a British policy in the war against the IRA.

Yet now ‘dirty war’ talk is everywhere, instigated, not by anti-British elements in Ireland, but by sections of the British elite itself. It seems to have been this process of British self-investigation that led to the unveiling of Stakeknife’s identity by Irish and Scottish newspapers over the weekend. Scappaticci’s name was apparently revealed to journalists by a former British agent who once infiltrated the IRA, and who is now unhappy about Britain’s failure to offer him proper protection.

Yet members of the Stevens Inquiry have been talking up the prize of Stakeknife, and their desire to interview him, for months. And when Andrew Jaspan, a journalist at the Glasgow Sunday Herald, informed government sources that he intended to reveal Stakeknife’s identity, they didn’t warn him off. According to one report: ‘[I]n two previous cases, when the Herald was on the brink of naming British spies, a Treasury solicitor had threatened the paper with legal action…. Jaspan said he received no such warning this time, leading him to speculate that the government might have decided it wanted Stakeknife’s identity to be in the public domain.’ (4)

Stevens officials and sections of the British government may have wanted Stakeknife’s identity in the public domain, but the British military and the Department of Defence most certainly did not. Military commanders are said to be ‘furious’ with the Stevens Inquiry (5), while defence secretary Geoff Hoon has spent the past few weeks slapping injunctions on anyone who attempted to name Stakeknife – even as other government sources apparently turned a blind eye to Stakeknife’s eventual unveiling.

Why have Britain’s dirty war tactics become such an explosive issue now? And why are sections of the British elite seriously clashing over their 25-year war in Northern Ireland? This squalid infighting among the British authorities is less an effort to see justice done in Northern Ireland than a bad dose of post-conflict confusion and uncertainty. It is British self-loathing that has made dirty war tactics such a focal point.

From 1969 to 1994, the British authorities fought a war against the Irish republican movement, which was demanding a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland. Britain denied that the ‘Troubles’ was a war at all, instead claiming to be simply upholding law and order against the criminals of the IRA. Yet it was broad-based support for the IRA within nationalist communities that allowed it to conduct a 25-year campaign against British forces, and which undermined the British authorities’ claims that the IRA was just a small gang of thugs.

Despite Britain’s claims about the Troubles, on the ground its security forces and judiciary operated as they normally do in war time: combating, killing and imprisoning the enemy. As during any war (as opposed to your average clampdown on ‘criminals’), all sides did nasty things – including, on Britain’s part, colluding with pro-British paramilitaries, and allowing British agents within the IRA to kill and torture in order to protect their cover.

As in any conflict, differences of opinion that army majors, judges, soldiers or politicians might have had about army tactics would have been settled behind closed doors. The threat posed by the IRA to the stability of the United Kingdom forced the British establishment to close ranks against its common enemy, and to settle problems in private. So Northern Ireland was the one issue that enjoyed bipartisan agreement in parliament. From the army’s point of view, it would have been unthinkable to have a political debate about underhand tactics.

It was the end of the Irish conflict in 1994 – in the absence of the common enemy of the IRA, who at least reminded the British authorities what they were all against – that led to serious cracks in the establishment over Northern Ireland. With the winding down of the conflict, debates that once would have taken place in private emerged into the public arena.

So the Stevens team launched its most serious investigation into collusion in 1993, as the British and Irish governments kickstarted the peace process and just months before the IRA declared its ceasefire. In the 1990s, against the wishes of the military, the Stevens Inquiry has had its remit extended.

It wasn’t just the issue of collusion that exploded in the aftermath of the war. The events of Bloody Sunday, when 14 Catholics were killed by British paratroopers in Derry on 30 January 1972, became a live public debate in British political and military circles in the 1990s. The ongoing Bloody Sunday Inquiry has forced British soldiers and commanders to reveal all about Bloody Sunday – and some in the military have responded by claiming that Downing Street, not the military, gave the ultimate orders to open fire in Derry.

Sections of the British elite are at each other’s throats over the events of the Troubles, publicly passing the blame and the buck among themselves. It would have been unthinkable for such divisive debates to have taken place during the conflict, when the state displayed a solid and united front against the IRA. But with the end of the conflict, and the instability of the peace process that followed, nothing seems certain – except that the British elite finds it difficult to close ranks or act in a singular or determined fashion on just about any issue.

Even worse than the internal clashes over who should take responsibility for the dirty war, British politicians and commentators are now taking part in some serious self-flagellation over the Irish conflict. The Stevens Inquiry accuses British soldiers of doing ‘terrible’ things; British soldiers confess their feelings of guilt and regret at the Bloody Sunday Inquiry; prime minister Tony Blair talks up Britain’s responsibility to the ‘victims’ in Northern Ireland. If there’s anything more off-putting that the British elite’s squabbling, it is its self-loathing.

Beyond the immediate focus on Northern Ireland’s ‘dirty war’, some in the British elite appear to questioning the very drive that enabled the British authorities to contain the IRA for 25 years. With the loss of any clear sense of what the British elite represents or what it fought for, what would previously have been seen as acts of war are now seen as being problematic or even shameful.

The current tensions over Northern Ireland are internally generated. Anybody who thinks that justice will come out of this internal war, for either community in Northern Ireland, should think again.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Ireland

(1) Top IRA killer revealed as British spy, United Press International, 12 May 2003

(2) Stakeknife’s dirty war, Guardian, 13 May 2003

(3) The Stevens Inquiry: Chronology, BBC News, 17 April 2003

(4) How Stakeknife was unmasked, Guardian, 12 May 2003

(5) Top double agent in IRA guilty of ‘up to 40 murders, Belfast Telegraph, 12 May 2003

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Topics Politics


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