By Jack Holland
An interesting game of speculation is currently being played in republican circles in Belfast. It concerns the identity of "Steak Knife" — allegedly a high-ranking informer who has been working within the Provisional IRA since the 1980s, at least according to reports in The Sunday Times.
In a rather macabre Belfast touch, some betting shops in the city are even accepting bets as to who among prominent Provisionals the most likely candidate might be. Many well-known figures find themselves in the race, including Gerry Adams, Danny Morrison, Pat Doherty, Martin McGuinness, among others. It is a race no one wants to win, since the prize is very likely to be a hole in the head.
One Sunday newspaper has threatened to publish information about this alleged agent, who it is said has done much damage over the years to republican operations. But the British have imposed a gag order, preventing its publication for "security reasons."
The Sunday Times story was based on information which apparently came from a former agent of the Field Research Unit, a shadowy branch of British military intelligence. It first emerged in 1992, during the trial of Brian Nelson, the UDA man-turned-informer. The FRU also ran him, and has therefore been linked to the murder of human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane.
The FRU came back into the news when its former agent, speaking to Sunday Times journalist Liam Clark, alleged that the agency had deliberately set up an innocent Catholic for targeting by the UDA in order to protect "Steak Knife," who the loyalist organization had originally planned to murder. The victim, 66-year-old Francisco Notarantonio, was murdered early on the morning of Oct. 9, 1987 as he slept in bed at his home in the Whiterock Road area of West Belfast.
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The allegations have, of course, led to further speculation not only about who "Steak Knife" might be but also about the extent of the collusion which existed between intelligence agencies and their informers within paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland.
The identity of informers is the most closely guarded secret of all. Over the years, few have been exposed. Republicans have "executed" perhaps 66 people, in the belief that they were working for the police, army or MI5, the British intelligence organization responsible for internal security.
In no case did the authorities ever confirm or deny the allegations that the victims were working for the security forces. It was clearly not in the interest of the police or army to provide any crumb of information to the paramilitaries which might help them determine the accuracy of their speculations. Even if the authorities know that the so-called informer was innocent, they will say nothing. So it is not known what percentage of those murdered as informers were actually guilty of the offense. But at least one high-ranking member of the IRA was shot dead in the 1980s by his colleagues in the mistaken belief that he was supplying information to the police when in fact it was coming from a technical source. It is safe to assume that this has happened more than once.
When information starts to come in from either a newly recruited human or newly established technical source, the Special Branch launch an operation, which is code named. The code name is taken from a directory held at RUC police headquarters in Belfast. The name must never have been used before, even if it was employed as far back as World War II. It must consist of one word, and cannot be a proper name.
If the information is coming from an informer, he or she is usually referred to by the operation’s code name.
"Steak Knife" does not sound like an operational name, but it could be a nickname used by his handlers.
Other questions arise about him. If the UDA were dissuaded from assassinating him in 1987, then some members of that organization must have an inkling as to who he is. If this is so, then it is truly remarkable that his identity remained a secret for so long. This is made more surprising since between about 1982 and 1988, Jim Craig and Tommy McCreery, high-ranking members of the UDA, were supplying information on a regular basis to the Belfast IRA’s intelligence chief. McCreery and Craig’s informing led to the deaths of several leading loyalists, including Lennie Murphy, the leader of the Shankill Butcher gang, and John McMichael, who was in charge of the UDA’s hit squads. Both were assassinated by the Provisional IRA, Murphy in a shooting in 1982 and McMichael in a booby-trap car bomb in 1987.
Craig and McCreery were both pure gangsters, and doing it for their own financial gain. Think of what they could have earned from the Provisionals for identifying "Steak Knife."
Another peculiarity of the "Steak Knife" story is why the FRU, in order to deflect the UDA’s plans to murder their top informer, set up someone as harmless as Francisco Notarantonio. Notarantonio had been an active member of the IRA in the 1940s. In 1969-70, following the IRA split, the RUC at one period had him under surveillance and identified him as being linked to the Provisionals. He was reportedly interned in 1971. But by 1987 he was merely an aging taxi driver, waiting to go into hospital for a bypass operation.
As his daughter said to the Irish News: "Who in their right mind would shoot an old man of 66? What harm could an old man do?"
The FRU’s decision to set him up is all the more puzzling given the claims about the banks of information it is said to possess on leading IRA men. Surely, that would have enabled them to provide a real target for loyalist gunmen — one to compensate them for having to give up "Steak Knife," whoever he is. However, as always, the problem with collusion allegations has been the fact that the information swapping has led to remarkably few deaths of IRA activists. The end of result of the FRU’s complex machinations to preserve the identity of their big informer was the death of an old-age pensioner. During the whole period when their other highly placed informer, Brian Nelson, was active, circa 1985-1990, the UDA did not succeed in killing one member of the IRA, other than Caoimhin Mac Bradaigh, who was killed in Michael Stone’s berserk attack on the funeral of the Gibraltar Three.
Something just doesn’t add up.