Category: Archive

How informers forced the Provos to the peace table

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

A perusal of secret Special Branch papers, chronicling undercover operations that ran from 1979-94, shows that throughout the struggle the IRA was continually compromised, occasionally at very high levels.
Scappaticci, was has been identified as Stakeknife, appears nowhere in these materials. The Force Research Unit, not the Special Branch, ran Stakeknife, though the information he gathered for FRU might at times have been shared with the police. But the code names of numerous other informers and the operations that were based on their information show that the Provisionals were riddled with touts. This was especially true of the Belfast brigade, to which Scappaticci belonged. In 1989, it was so heavily compromised that IRA prisoners planning an escape from the Crumlin Jail in Belfast were afraid to contact their Belfast colleagues and instead approached a former high-ranking member of the Irish National Liberation Army asking for assistance.
Penetration reached high-levels in the early 1990s. Scappaticci was forced to flee to Dublin after being named in a trial about the kidnapping of another informer. But before long another, as yet unnamed, source who was close to the IRA leadership and met with them on a regular basis, had replaced him. Thanks to his role, and information from other, technical operations, after about 1993 the Belfast Brigade was unable mount major operations in the city without being intercepted or forced to abort them. This had important consequences for the course of the conflict, because the ability to fight the war in Belfast was one of the keys to the Provisionals campaign.
Reports claim that Scappaticci began informing in the late 1970s and later became a member of the Provisionals Civil Administration Team, or CAT, the name for the unit responsible for ferreting out informers. If true, his activities would have coincided with that of another informer, code named Campaign, who began working for the Special Branch in the late 1970s. Campaign, also known to the Special Branch as D.J., was able to provide detailed information on the movement of explosives around the city, which led to the disruption of several major planned bombings. His information also led to the arrest of two of the Belfast brigades top gunmen in 1981. D.J. was finally caught and executed by CAT in 1985.
At the same time, the Special Branch were able to penetrate the Provisionals intelligence-gathering unit, which by the early 1980s was under the command of Tommy Keenan, who later became the commanding officer of the Belfast Brigade. Thanks to Operation Furlong, Special Branch officers belonging to the surveillance unit E4A regularly followed Keenan around the city, taking note with whom he met. His contacts included two leading members of the Ulster Defense Association who were passing on information aimed at getting rid of their racketeering rivals. Furlong led to the disruption of the planned assassination of Judge Basil Kelly in 1983 and the arrest of several prominent IRA men, including Danny McCann, later shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar. It also resulted in the interception in July 1984 of another IRA assassination team, whose target was unknown, but one of whose members was Dominic Adams, the brother of Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president.
A third operation inside the IRA, code named Lectern, ran simultaneously and gave the police access to major IRA arms dumps in West Belfast.
The INLA was also penetrated by an informer at a high level at the time. Code named Chieftain, he or she supplied information to the Special Branch from 1981-87 and was clearly close to the Belfast leadership, knowing in detail the activities of INLA leader Gerard Steenson, one of the most feared activists the Troubles produced.
Despite the police penetration of the Provisionals, their campaign continued and was capable of nasty surprises. Even when under heavy surveillance, Danny McCann succeeded in murdering two Special Branch officers in the Belfast docks in August 1987 and, later that year, planted a lethal booby-trap bomb under the car of John McMichael, a leading member of the UDA.
Recent reports have linked Scappaticci to the exposure of the IRA operation in Gibraltar that cost McCann, Sean Savage and Mairead Farrell their lives in the spring of 1987. The secret Special Branch files show that information about the planned bombing attack in Gibraltar came from an operation code named Sedative. But the team, including a fourth woman who escaped, had all been under surveillance for years, so information about the planned attack may well have come from several sources.
Despite many setbacks and difficulties, the Provisional IRA made a major comeback in Belfast in the early 1990s. It relaunched its car-bombing tactic, causing huge damage. In late October 1991, the IRA was able to mount the biggest operation in Belfast in its history, with 100 volunteers striking throughout the city against the renegade Irish Peoples Liberation Organization. Weeks later, it struck against suspected UDA targets. Meanwhile, its car bombs were devastating the city center as they had done 20 years before. The Provisional leadership was increasing the pressure on the British militarily while talking to them behind the scenes in the hope of securing a deal that would help them move forward to their political goals. Stakeknife may have been inactive, but he had been replaced. The new man, who worked for both the Special Branch and military intelligence, enabled the intelligence services to gather information about the planning of some of the IRAs major operations. Included among these were the plans to assassinate Supt. Derek Martindale, who had been the head of the anti-racketeering squad. The Special Branch knew about the plans in October — some four months before the hit team finally struck, only to be snatched by a police squad disguised as housepainters that had been tailing them. The Belfast campaign soon ran into the ground. This was certainly one of the factors that helped convince the leadership that the time had come to end the campaign, thus allowing the current peace process a chance to take root.
By 1994, when the IRAs first cease-fire was called, the Special Branch papers show that it had recruited another major source, with close links to the IRAs financial operations, as well as several at volunteer level who allowed the police to place jarks on weapons (enabling them to be tracked). As well, several successful technical attacks on premises associated with IRA members, including the apartment of Gerry Kelly and that of a well-known Provisional gunman, had been carried out, allowing the police to monitor conversations. They also successfully obtained the car of the head of the IRA GHQ intelligence unit, Martin Lynch. (Both the Kelly device and the Lynch device were detected years later.)
When the IRA attempted to briefly go back to war, Belfast was so compromised that the one major operation undertaken — a huge robbery involving an eight-man team — was intercepted. There is no doubt that these are other successes were instrumental in pushing the IRA down the peace path.

There is confusion in the press over whether the name is Steak Knife or Stakeknife. One thing is certain, whichever way it is spelled it has to be one word, i.e. either Steakknife or Stakeknife. Code names of operations are chosen from a directory kept at police headquarters and always consist of only one word. Two words are used only when referring to an exercise, not an operation. The code name must never have been used before, even if its use went back to World War II. It cannot be a proper name.

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