Stakeknife’s Dirty War: The Inside Story of Scappaticci, the IRA’s Nutting Squad, and the British Spooks who ran the War, by Richard O’Rawe, Merrion Press, 254 pp, €18.99, ISBN: 978-1785374470
The Padre: The True Story of the Irish Priest who armed the IRA with Gaddafi’s Money, by Jennifer O’Leary, Merrion Press, 256 pp, €18.99, ISBN: 978-1785374616
In his novel The Human Factor (1978), the wartime MI6 officer turned novelist Graham Greene takes us on an exploration of the motives of those involved in secret intelligence. The plot revolves primarily around a mole hunt for a spy leaking classified information, though what really drives the story forward is the rivalry between different intelligence agencies. Greene’s depiction of a conference held between MI5, which had responsibility for running agents in former British colonies, and MI6, which was meant to deal with threats outside Britain and the Commonwealth, speaks to how intelligence work was akin to what would pass for office politics in normal workplaces. ‘Rivalry,’ C said, as he opened the conference, ‘is a healthy thing up to a point. But sometimes there is a lack of trust. We have not always exchanged traces of agents. Sometimes we have been playing the same man, for espionage and counter-espionage … To me espionage is a gentleman’s job, but of course I’m old-fashioned.’
For Greene the gentlemanly nature of intelligence came down to the idea that bonds forged between people run much deeper than any surface commitment to some abstract ideal or, for that matter, their loyalty to their country. In a letter to Rufa Philby shortly after the death of her husband, Kim, the high-ranking MI6 officer turned KGB spy, Greene referred to him as a ‘good and loyal friend’. Greene attracted criticism for remaining friends with Philby despite the latter being unmasked as a double agent in the early 1960s. Philby fled first to Beirut and, finally, to Moscow. In selling out his friends as well as his country Philby exemplified the moral conundrum at the heart of spying – exemplified in the character of Maurice Castle, who is suspected of being a traitor in The Human Factor. It is implicit in the language of those who disliked him that he ‘cultivated friendships – and the friendships took over’.
This is a story that travels well to other places. In his final book, Tomás Nevinson (2023), renowned Spanish novelist Javier Marías follows the infiltration of one intelligence operative into the lives of the locals of a small town in the Basque country. Posing as a schoolteacher, Nevinson is sent to uncover the person responsible for ETA bombings in Barcelona and Zaragoza. An undercurrent in the book is that Nevinson is never certain who has issued the orders for his mission. ‘The high-ups of MI5, MI6 and CESID, organisms of the Crown in all cases,’ Nevinson says, ‘would know nothing of my activities … and would never have authorized them. Or perhaps they did know about them and were pretending not to, those labyrinthine orders do not always begin at the top, but do always end up at the bottom.’
The idea that ordinary people – whether spies or their targets – are victims of an overly-bureaucratic state presided over by shadowy figures is one that Greene would have had much sympathy with. It is an idea explored in Richard O’Rawe’s Stakeknife’s Dirty War, a major new biography of leading Provisional IRA member turned British agent Freddie Scappaticci. For twenty years Scappaticci was the subject of considerable controversy after it was leaked to the press that he had been a long-time spy at the heart of the IRA’s internal security department, known colloquially as ‘the nutting squad’.
The Provisional IRA ran a determined campaign against the British state between 1970 and 2005. It was responsible for killing around 1,800 people during the Troubles. For much of the 1970s the British state and its security forces struggled to contain the IRA’s violence, with thousands of members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the British army deployed onto Northern Ireland’s streets continuously for over three decades.
For many of these police officers and soldiers, their operations were principally reactive. Their purpose was to detect crime, arrest perpetrators and deter violent acts. Like fire-fighters, they only responded when contacted. For a smaller number of specialist intelligence practitioners within their ranks, however, there was a need to get ahead of the curve and prevent attacks from happening in the first place. As one of their number, a former RUC Special Branch officer, once told me in interview, this was ‘not an exact science’ and relied upon experienced people who had the psychological resilience to incur risk, to think laterally, to innovate and, above all, to adapt under fire and in the absence of an overarching strategic and legal template.
One of the most controversial strategies that the British state had tried and tested in various contexts in its long imperial history was employing paid informers and agents to infiltrate insurgent groups. In his account of counter-espionage operations against German spies in England during the Second World War JC Masterman, the great architect of MI5’s counter-espionage strategy, wrote in his book The Double Cross System in the War of 1939 to 1945 (1972): ‘The high-souled fanatic may repudiate even the suggestion that he would be capable of giving way to pressure and of acting as a double agent, but the majority of spies are not of this Spartan breed, and many, perhaps a majority, of them are ready and even willing to commit treachery either under pressure or for simple reasons of self-preservation.’
O’Rawe’s book on Scappaticci demonstrates how the British turned one high-souled fanatic in 1970s Belfast, perhaps under coercive pressure, perhaps even because he judged working for the British to be a guarantee for self-preservation. Scappaticci was once a committed IRA volunteer who rose steadily through the group’s ranks to become their officer commanding in the Markets area of Belfast. At the heart of O’Rawe’s book is a paradox: How could Freddie Scappaticci, a trusted member of the IRA, betray his comrades and, moreover, live with the knowledge of such betrayal?
We get a glimpse into the divided loyalties of some IRA volunteers in the words of a former MI5 officer who wrote in the Daily Telegraph on February 9th, 1992 how it was essential for deep penetration agents to ‘join enthusiastically in the activities of the organisation even if they are seriously criminal. To succeed, a deep-cover agent must become the ultimate method actor. He must firmly believe in the organisation penetrated while at the same time remembering who he really works for. Dedication to both sides has to be absolute.’
There have been plenty of memoirs written by former British agents inside the Provisional IRA which speak to what Kim Philby called a ‘cover personality’. Many are high-octane, testosterone-fuelled books written principally by men – never women – who were recruited by one or other branch of the security forces. From Sean O’Callaghan’s The Informer to Martin McGartland’s Fifty Dead Men Walking and Kevin Fulton’s Unsung Hero, they give first-person perspectives on feats of derring-do by silent warriors operating ‘deep behind enemy line’. Upon closer inspection these books are hugely formulaic. Their character arcs typically take us from childhood broken homes to even tougher military and/or paramilitary regimes, strained personal relationships and, finally, to the principal arena of bombs, bullets, and betrayal. Here we encounter larger than life comic book heroes and villains. Deeper, more serious, themes explored in some of the better additions to this sub-genre include the psychological pressures triggered by betrayal, though they all too easily sidestep the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by those involved in spying, the often mundane nature of their recruitment and handling, and the inevitable disillusionment that follows their ‘retirement’ from the game of intelligence collection.
|Those who deal with intelligence matters are confronted with lies on an everyday basis. In a state like the United Kingdom, with its insistence on ‘neither confirming, nor denying’ media reporting on intelligence matters, the truth is obfuscated by the kind of bureaucratic silence written about so eloquently by Greene and Marías. As Winston Churchill put it in conversation with Stalin at the Tehran conference in late 1943, ‘In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.’ And the same can be said of that genre of boastful semi-fictional memoir that J. Bowyer Bell once called ‘Troubles trash’.
In interviews I conducted with former agents for my book Agents of Influence they often spoke of living with the constant fear of being unmasked. Willie Carlin, who worked for MI5, put it best when he told me how his handler, Michael Bettaney, a drunk and something of a Walter Mitty character, almost got him killed by trying to visit Martin McGuinness at his home. Carlin intercepted him just in time. ‘I’d love to meet McGuinness and I’ll tell him what’s going on behind his back,’ an inebriated Bettaney shouted. ‘That was personal,’ Carlin told me. ‘Bettaney knew that McGuinness was chatting with … MI6 … MI6 and MI5 never spoke to one another. Suspicions about McGuinness’s connections with British intelligence remain a source of contention, with some of his former comrades expressing serious concerns on that score in O’Rawe’s book.
Disappointingly, the intersection between human rivalry and bureaucratic rivalry is not fully explored in O’Rawe’s work, nor is the rationale for tasking agents to get closer to intelligence targets like McGuinness. According to secret correspondence between secretary of state for defence Tom King and the attorney general Patrick Mayhew on March 19th, 1991, revealed by Sir Desmond de Silva in his review into the murder of Belfast solicitor Patrick Finucane, agents were ‘the key to the fight against terrorism, both in Northern Ireland and elsewhere … without good intelligence, [King said], we are be [sic] unable to target our limited resources to best effect. It is the single most potent force in countering the activities of all paramilitary groups. The information which we obtain from agents and informers is critical to our assessments of their policy, plans and psychology.’ For the IRA, agents – or ‘touts’ in their parlance – were seen as the greatest inside threat for this very reason.
In the wake of the nutting squad’s brutal torture and murder of alleged informer Paddy Flood in July 1990, the IRA released a statement in which it said informing was ‘abhorrent and is unjustifiable’, though it also claimed that the organisation understood how ‘those who give information to the British forces are often victims themselves. People whose vulnerability is used in the most cynical manner by the Crown forces to trap them into informing on their neighbours and fellow nationalists.’
It is difficult to impress upon people who remain deeply suspicious of the British security forces that the human factor is a key determinant in their operations. One has only to review the evidence in the de Silva review on the loose nature of intelligence operations which goes some way to explaining how the Finucane murder could have happened in the way that it did. For former members of the Provisional IRA like O’Rawe, there is much more damning evidence of British state complicity, leaving London ‘open to the charge that they aided and abetted in British citizens being executed by both the IRA and the UDA’. For other former Provos, including Anthony McIntyre, serious questions remain about the role of the British state in utilising informers and agents. As he told me in interview a few years ago, ‘Special Branch will tell you about the killings they stopped, but they are not prepared to tell us about the killings that they didn’t stop, that went ahead. It now has to be considered joint enterprise on many of those operations. Freddie Scappaticci’s killings: was it the IRA? Was it the British and the IRA? Then it was joint enterprise. How can we now say that it was the IRA that was responsible for this? I think the British state were much more involved at some levels …’
McIntyre points to another hidden dimension in British intelligence operations against the IRA that rarely gets an airing and that is the central role of human agency and, specifically, the complacency of intelligence officers. ‘Overall … the British state strategy in terms of the IRA was remarkably successful but even if you watch a great football team, like Liverpool or Manchester United, you know, they might score great goals but they might have Martin Škrtel in the back line scoring own goals and you might have a leaky defence, you know. You come out on top and your greatness is talked about. It doesn’t minimise your efficiency but when you see how sausages are made, you might just say, “hmm I don’t really want to eat them.”’
It is a reasonable assumption that all organisations, even secretive ones, have those who are good tacticians and those who might be better utilised in different positions than the ones they have been allocated to. Intelligence historians may well complain that intelligence is the ‘missing dimension’ in our understanding of decision-making in war but for McIntyre incompetence should not be discounted. ‘The British have made lots of mistakes,’ he told me. ‘I mean, you’re bringing guys in – I mean, what’s their pay grade? Lance Corporal – [they] might even be a Private? And they’re brought into something called the F.R.U., same way with Constable Plod … Back in the 1970s and 1980s, what were they really producing?’
In the British secret state, where special national security clauses still inhibit the declassification of much intelligence product under the Freedom of Information Act (2000), it is impossible to determine if the allegations made by McIntyre and O’Rawe are true. The de Silva review certainly suggests that there is merit in further exploring them as new evidence emerges. However, it goes without saying that few individuals are going to own up to incompetence or poor decision-making. Conversely, it also raises the question of whether British failures were often attributable to the IRA’s own counter-intelligence efforts and the suggestion that its own operatives proved highly resourceful in furthering the armed struggle.
One IRA associate who posed considerable dangers to British national security was the Catholic priest Father Patrick Ryan, the focus of Jennifer O’Leary’s fascinating biography The Padre. Born in 1930, Ryan spent much of the 1970s and 1980s raising money for the IRA as well as becoming active in terrorist activities. He used the cover of his clerical collar to groom people into helping him help the IRA. ‘Belief can be a powerful persuader,’ Ryan tells O’Leary. He used the power of religion and the aura that his priestly role gave him, even winning over a Protestant woman who attended his Masses in London and turning her into a money mule for the IRA.
Throughout his time as an IRA agent, Ryan criss-crossed Europe planning operations, obtaining bomb-making equipment and even engaging in surveillance of targets. He worked indirectly with the IRA, using an intermediary who, on his behalf, would meet face-to-face with IRA volunteers operating on the continent. ‘The IRA hit team never saw me, that was the whole point of using … the intermediary, because I was convinced that if I made direct contact with the IRA, especially in Belfast or Dublin – well, I thought I may as well be talking directly to the Brits,’ Ryan tells O’Leary.
By the mid-1980s Ryan had been sent to Libya on behalf of the IRA, where he built up a firm relationship with key figures in Libyan intelligence. He would serve as the central intermediary between the IRA and Colonel Gaddafi, who shared Ryan’s hatred of the British.
Ryan, whose ‘nationalism was more important to me than the Catholic Church’, he saw no problem in committing the mortal sin of murder. As he infamously told O’Leary in her instalment of the award-winning BBC Spotlight series, The Secret History of the Troubles, which is also repeated in her book: ‘The only regret that I have was that I wasn’t more effective; that the bombs made with the components I supplied, didn’t kill more. That is my one regret.’
Ryan had come to the IRA of his own volition and worked with them only so long as they shared his commitment to armed struggle. As the IRA leadership began to wean itself off its strategic dependency on violence, courtesy of Martin McGuinness, Ryan began to doubt their commitment to the cause of freeing Ireland by force. Following a fractious meeting with McGuinness in St Stephen’s Green in Dublin in the late 1980s, Ryan broke off formal contact with the IRA leadership. After returning to the continent, he was arrested by the Belgian security services and extradited to the Republic of Ireland.
Writing to the New Zealand-born Caribbean-based journalist Bernard Diedrich in April 1988, Graham Greene observed how his close association with Panama’s dictator General Manuel Noriega had provoked criticism. ‘If I had to choose between a drug dealer and United States imperialism, I hope I would be brave enough to prefer the drug dealer,’ he remarked. Greene’s binary thinking probably originated more from his late conversion to Catholicism than his involvement in wartime intelligence. It suggests he had not fully returned to the fold of moral certitude and was more comfortable with Philby’s betrayal than he should have been. After all, he wrote the foreword to Philby’s memoir, My Silent War (1968). The upside-down world that Philby inhabited was shared with those like Scappaticci, Ryan and others who donned ‘cover personalities’ to perpetrate a long-term deception. The human factor ultimately played an important role in helping them come to terms with the enormity of what they had done.
Aaron Edwards is the author of Agents of Influence; Britain’s Secret Intelligence War Against the IRA and A People Under Siege: The Unionists of Northern Ireland, From Partition to Brexit and Beyond, both published by Merrion Press.