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Britain's top IRA spy likely cost rather than saved lives

March 8, 2024

The actions of the British government's top IRA spy, known as "Stakeknife," likely resulted in more lives lost than saved during the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland, according to an independent inquiry.

People walk pass a IRA mural in the Bogside area of Londonderry, Northern Ireland, 23 March 2017
The "Troubles" still cast a shadow over Northern Ireland today, such as here in the Bogside area of Londonderry.Image: ZUMAPRESS.com/picture alliance

An independent inquiry in the United Kingdom has concluded that the actions of the British government's highest-ranking informer within the Irish Republican Army (IRA) likely cost more lives than they saved during the 20th-century sectarian conflict known as the "Troubles."

The IRA was an Irish republican paramilitary force that was responsible for the deaths of over 1,700 people between 1969 and 1997, including roughly 1,000 British army and police personnel and over 500 civilians, as it sought to end British rule in Northern Ireland.

The group was designated a terrorist group by the United Kingdom and an unlawful organization by the Republic of Ireland.

The British government had a top informant within the IRA codenamed "Stakeknife," who was allegedly a leading member of the group's notorious internal security unit (ISU), which interrogated suspected informers.

According to a 212-page report released on Friday, the eight-year probe known as Operation Kenova found that British security forces frequently failed to prevent a number of abductions and murders despite having been informed that the victims were at risk.

Did IRA informer 'Stakeknife' save lives?

The report said a widespread belief that the intelligence provided by "Stakeknife" saved "countless" or "hundreds" of lives is exaggerated and that the number of lives the information actually saved was likely around a dozen.

While stating that the ultimate responsibility for the torture and murder of victims lay with the IRA, the report highlighted the lack of a legal framework to properly govern the use of agents, whose work was too often seen as a "dark art" practiced "off the books."

As a result, it said, preventable deaths occurred with the knowledge of British forces and those responsible were not brought to justice and instead left free to reoffend.

It recommended that more than 30 individuals, including alleged paramilitaries, former police and ex-members of the intelligence and security forces, should face criminal charges.

The United Kingdom's Public Prosecution Service decided in recent months not to prosecute, citing "insufficient evidence," but former Kenova lead Jon Boutcher said in a statement:

"This report leaves little doubt that the Republican leadership was responsible for numerous dreadful crimes, many of which the Government failed to prevent."

IRA: Who was 'Stakeknife'?

The identity of the informant known as "Stakeknife" has never been officially revealed, although British media in 2003 named a Northern Irish IRA volunteer called Freddie Scappaticci.

Scappaticci always denied any links to any British intelligence services but lost a legal bid to force British ministers to publicly clear him of being a double agent before dying in 2023 after suffering a series of strokes.

Investigator Boutcher, who was appointed the head of the Northern Irish police force last year, said he expected the British government to allow him to name "Stakeknife" in Kenova's final report, which will be published after specific reports are provided to families in the months ahead.

Sinn Fein now heads Northern Ireland government

Three decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland ended with an IRA ceasefire in 1997, the so-called Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the official decommissioning of IRA weapons in 2005.

Since then, the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, has continued the campaign for a united Ireland by peaceful and democratic means, standing for election in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

In February 2024, Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill was elected First Minister of Northern Ireland, becoming the first Irish republican nationalist to hold the office after 11 successive unionists. She and the DUP restored the power-sharing government in Stormont recently following a two-year gap attributed partly to Brexit-related disputes.

Earlier this week, Britain lowered its terror threat level in Northern Ireland to "substantial", nearly a year after raising it to "severe." The change means that the UK domestic spy agency MI5 now believes an attack to be "likely" rather "highly likely."

Unionists, in particular, are opposed to any political or economic developments that could see Northern Ireland treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom or that could see the province drift closer to a union with the Republic of Ireland.

mf/msh (Reuters, AFP)