In an intriguing recent radio discussion on BBC last week, John Ware, presenter of a Panorama programme on Stakeknife and Kieran Conway, a self-described former Provo intelligence officer and author of “Southside Provo”, discussed the significance of the now accepted belief that Fred Scappaticci was simultaneously a British spy and the IRA’s chief counter-intelligence interrogator, torturer, and executioner in respect of persons suspected of being lower level informants within the IRA.
Strikingly, Conway, who is now a lawyer practising in Dublin, advanced the view that the British had, by their dirty war, “defeated” the IRA.
That, in his view, explained why the IRA called a ceasefire in the aftermath of the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993. He personally had opposed the IRA’s 1994 ceasefire and the subsequent indorsement by the IRA of the Good Friday Agreement in combination with the abandonment of the “armed struggle”.
The deep penetration by British intelligence of the IRA’s central structure, as evidenced by Denis Donaldson and Scappaticci’s enlistment by MI5, is remarkable by any standard.
I have no reason to assume that they were by any means the only British “assets” at the core of the IRA; on the contrary, I strongly suspect that the British penetration went higher and deeper in the Provo command structure. Otherwise, greater efforts would have been made to protect Donaldson from exposure in the course of the Stormontgate affair in 2002.
Scappaticci deserves close consideration as a phenomenon.
Here he was, violently interrogating suspected touts in the Provo ranks. When their “operations” were foiled or went wrong or when senior Provos were arrested or arms caches seized or arrested members were released from police custody, a debriefing process would follow. Volunteers and sympathisers suspected of “grassing” were detained by Scappaticci’s Internal Security Unit (the ISU or colloquially the “Nutting Squad”) and the truth was coaxed or tortured out of them.
Scappaticci was at the centre of this process. He knew what lesser Provos knew. He reported ISU findings to those at Army Council level. He could protect valuable British “assets” and sacrifice other informants to the bullet in the back of the head. He had “access all areas” in the course of his ISU “duties”. He could identify those Provos who were innocent of informing as much as he could choose life or death for those who were not.
While reporting to the Provos’ top brass, he was also reporting to his MI5 handlers. Whether and to what extent his reports to these bodies differed we will never know. But he was an astonishing catch and valuable asset for British intelligence.
Scappaticci was later implicated as a weak link in the Provos by giving his 1993 interview for a programme called the Cook Report, an interview he did not realise was being recorded. In that interview, he implicated Martin McGuiness in the infamous killing of Frank Hegarty.
It is not clear when the Army Council first suspected or fully believed that Scappaticci was a double agent. But it must have become an issue for them in or about the ceasefire in 2004.
Once his double-role became known to the Army Council’s members, they must have known that the game was up.
That is not to imply that the British handlers knew everything. One has to assume, for instance, that the Army Council somehow kept the later 1996 Canary Wharf bombing secret from MI5. The bombing could hardly have been permitted to happen just to protect sources. But some of the British sources within the Provos may nonetheless have known of the Canary Wharf operation and kept it back from their handlers as a form of self-protection.
On Kieran Conway’s view, the peace process was in reality an acceptance by the IRA of their “military defeat” and the coldly calculated “exit strategy” for the Provisional movement into politics.
The ultimate imperative from the British point to view was to ensure that Adams and McGuinness “took the IRA with them” largely intact and that the armed struggle would effectively end by a decisive option in favour of the ballot box over the Armalite. That was what the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 were all about. Adams and McGuinness shared that British aim.
Assuming, as I do, that there were other very senior Provos in effective collaboration with the British in pursuit of that goal, the peace process must now be seen to a large extent as Kieran Conway describes it – as a military capitulation disguised as a political transformation. And it is hard not to see it as a sort of parallel with the pragmatic 1921 compromise that led to the Irish Free State – however unpalatable that parallel may seem to modern Sinn Féin supporters. Collins saw himself as having delivered the substance of an Irish republic in 1921 – albeit within the framework of the Commonwealth. So did the then Supreme Council of the IRB.
The maximum that could be achieved in 1998 without an Orange-Green civil war in the North was traded by the British in exchange for giving the Provisional movement a share in the executive power in the North. Whether, to use Collins’s phrase, the settlement amounts to the “freedom to become free” is as yet unknowable.
It must also be remembered that the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 sealed forever the impossibility of continuing the armed struggle in Ireland. Terrorism and urban guerrilla warfare anywhere in the West in pursuit of separatist causes was doomed by the actions of Osama Bin Laden. There was no prospect of success for the Provos’ armed struggle. It was proven in Kieran Conway’s words, to be a “waste of time”.
All of it – the armed struggle, the dirty war, the killing, the maiming, the bombings, the economic destruction, the MI5 double agents, the kidnappings for ransom, the financial extortion, the torture, the hunger strikes and the appalling misery – was devoid of moral value at best and the pit of depravity at worst. There was nothing heroic or brave or patriotic to be found there.
Did stopping it from within amount to statesmanship or did it betoken the crudest and most selfish instinct for power and self-preservation?
Were any of those who “ran” Scappaticci – whether Provos or MI5 – any better than the rest or better than him?
We will never know the truth – or the half of the truth. And investigating these matters with a view to criminal prosecutions as is currently happening, is also, to borrow Kieran Conway’s phrase, “a waste of time”.
Who is less worthy of office – those who ran Scappaticci’s Nutting Squad or those who bungled the “ash for cash” affair?
Can we not just restore power-sharing? Especially as Brexit looms larger and larger.