Stakeknife: The inside story of IRA double agent Freddie Scappaticci

Almost two decades after the agent known as Stakeknife was outed as an informer, many interviewees for this book still opt for anonymity, as if they don’t trust reports of his death

In the preface to his new book, Stakeknife’s Dirty War, Richard O’Rawe says he had a nodding acquaintance with Freddie Scappaticci when the two men were both IRA internees exercising around the perimeters of their respective ‘cages’ inside Long Kesh jail in the 1970s.

The biographer knew his subject, the man now widely identified as the British army’s ‘golden egg’ inside the IRA, with the codename Stakeknife, but is quick to clarify that “I didn’t know him very well”. “Aren’t I the lucky man, that I didn’t know him better than that?” O’Rawe muses with a chuckle. “There’s some people in life you would love to have had a drink with and while away the hours. But not Scappaticci. If we’d ended up talking at a bar about IRA stuff, then I wonder what he would have reported back? So I’m delighted I barely knew him.”

That lack of personal rapport makes Stakeknife’s Dirty War a very different project for O’Rawe from his previous biography In The Name of the Son, in which he documented the life of his childhood friend Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four. Conlon asked O’Rawe to write about the struggles he experienced coming to terms with life after his release as the victim of an infamous miscarriage of justice. Conlon died three years before the book was published in 2017, but O’Rawe’s inside track meant Conlon’s friends and family, including the film star Johnny Depp, were happy to contribute.

There was no chance Scappaticci’s extensive Irish-Italian clan would cooperate in the same way with Stakeknife’s Dirty War.


Instead, O’Rawe has used his remaining contacts within the tight-knit Northern republican community to unearth nuggets about the notorious double agent.

A few speak of Scappaticci with admiration. One ex-IRA member tells O’Rawe that when Scappaticci commanded the Provisionals in Belfast’s Markets area during the early Troubles, he personally took part in bombings in the city centre and had “balls to burn”. “Here’s the thing you’ve gotta remember about Scap: when he was your mate, he was your mate… he’d have faced Goliath for you”.

However, it’s fair to say Scappaticci’s admirers are in a vanishingly small minority. Almost two decades after he was outed as an informer, many of O’Rawe’s interviewees still opt for anonymity, almost as if they don’t trust the report of Scappaticci’s death in England back in April. (He denied he was the high-ranking double agent right until his death at the age of 77.)

The picture these former acquaintances paint is of a short stocky man with a volcanic temper and a propensity for unprovoked aggression.

In the early 1960s there was a “what might have been” moment when the young Scappaticci, a talented footballer, secured a month’s trial for Nottingham Forest. But the club rejected him, apparently for being overweight. Instead, he worked as a bricklayer, but earned a reputation in the Markets district for being a vicious bully. “I spoke to quite a few people from the Markets and by all measures he was quite violent,” O’Rawe says. “Scap always tooled up, he had this thing about a sock, a battery wrapped in a sock or a brick in a sock. He would hit someone over the head with it without warning.”

You might assume Scappaticci’s aggressive nature made him ideally suited to the job the IRA later gave him as interrogator and “executioner” of suspected informers. His so-called “Nutting Squad” (named because they invariably put a bullet in their victim’s head) did indeed resort to physical torture. But O’Rawe says Scappaticci’s speciality was psychological pressure. “Scap’s party piece was to say ‘You have an hour in which to make your mind up whether you’re going to tell me everything. If you don’t tell me everything within the hour, then I can’t do anything for you. I’m washing my hands of you. I can put your case to the [IRA] army council. I can probably get you out of this, as long as you tell me everything. But after that hour, I’m gone and other people will take you away and they are going to hang you upside down in a barn, skin you alive and crucify you.’ As the hour counted down, he would say ‘you have 10 minutes to go, five minutes to go, two minutes to tell me everything’. That often worked. People talked, hoping they wouldn’t get tortured.”

There’s no doubt heinous crimes were committed. O’Rawe reckons Scappaticci was involved in 35 murders. But if Stakeknife was a double agent carrying out the IRA’s bidding while reporting back to the British military, where does O’Rawe believe the ultimate moral responsibility lies? “Both were responsible. The IRA was vocal about the ‘hooded men’ and other British or RUC abuses, and rightly so. But the IRA were up to their hollyhocks in human rights abuses, particularly with those suspected of being informers. Morally what the IRA did was wrong, but the Brits were also absolutely culpable. Yes, an IRA army council guy usually came and passed judgment and told a suspected informer you are going to be executed. But there was another army council above that: the RUC tasking and co-ordination group, the umbrella group through which all British intelligence was relayed and actioned. Invariably they did not save the lives of those who were about to be murdered. They just sat back and let it happen.”

The brutal crimes of IRA double agent Freddie Scappaticci

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One of Stakeknife’s handlers claimed the agent saved hundreds of lives, but O’Rawe isn’t convinced. He thinks information Scappaticci passed on saved only one agent, Willie Carlin, who died in February this year. In another case, he reckons a Scappaticci tip-off led to an unsuccessful attempt to rescue a suspect. When former Bedfordshire chief constable Jon Boutcher’s Operation Kenova inquiry reports, potentially as early as next month, O’Rawe believes it will confirm Scappaticci tipped off his handlers before all the murders he was involved in. This is – in O’Rawe’s view – the real reason why Westminster pushed through its contentious legacy bill providing conditional immunity for the perpetrators of Troubles-related crimes earlier this month.

O’Rawe wants the IRA to publicly apologise to the families of its so-called “Nutting Squad” victims and has also called for an inquiry into the role of the RUC tasking and co-ordination group, the group he accuses of being the ultimate arbiter of who lived and died. It’s an even-handed approach, but one which would have been anathema to O’Rawe back in the days when he was fiercely partisan – an IRA man, robbing banks or acting as spokesperson for the hunger strikers, then later a Sinn Féin worker helping Gerry Adams get elected in West Belfast.

All that changed in 2005, when O’Rawe published his prison memoir Blanketmen, which included the bombshell claim that the republican leadership outside the Maze/Long Kesh jail kept the 1981 hunger strike going longer than necessary in order to garner political dividends, in particular a byelection victory for Bobby Sands’s former agent Owen Carron. O’Rawe maintains an offer acceptable to the prisoners was made by the British after the death of four hunger strikers. He insists that, if it hadn’t been for political expediency, the six subsequent deaths could and should have been avoided.

O’Rawe’s decision to go public led to an angry backlash from former comrades such as his IRA jail ‘OC’ [officer commanding], Brendan “Bik” McFarlane and former Sinn Féin publicity director Danny Morrison, who took to the airwaves to speak against him. As O’Rawe walked the streets of West Belfast, the former IRA prisoner found himself ostracised – “guys I’ve known all my life don’t speak to me and guys who were in the same cell as me in the H-Blocks won’t have anything to do with me”.

Does he have any regrets about telling all, in defiance of the IRA code of silence? “Not at all. I have to say it was probably the greatest thing I ever did other than marrying my darling Bernadette and having my children – it was the greatest thing I achieved in my life because as far as I was concerned, by telling the truth, I put right a terrible wrong.”

In 2017, he published In The Name of the Son, in which he documented the life of his childhood friend Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four. Conlon asked O’Rawe to write about the struggles he experienced coming to terms with life after his release as the victim of an infamous miscarriage of justice. Conlon died three years before the book was published, but O’Rawe’s inside track meant Conlon’s friends and family, including the film star Johnny Depp, were happy to contribute.

O’Rawe’s wife Bernadette is watching as we chat in their front room. Before I get my tape rolling, I joke that she’s the real celebrity in the room, a reference to a striking contribution she made to the BBC’s landmark documentary series, Once Upon A Time In Northern Ireland, which was broadcast on RTÉ recently. She told the documentary makers about her anger when her husband rejoined the IRA without telling her, then got arrested for taking part in a bank robbery within months of their marriage. She went on to express her annoyance over being ordered what to do by the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin, and her sense of disgust when asked to kiss O’Rawe while he was taking part in the prisoners’ dirty protest in order to smuggle out “comms” made of tissues wrapped in cling film to the leadership outside.

Bernadette, who is naturally shy, now finds herself being recognised when she goes out to the shops. O’Rawe says female TV viewers seem to have been particularly struck by her strong-willed contribution.

Stakeknife’s Dirty War: The Inside Story of Scappaticci, the IRA’s Nutting Squad and the British Spooks who Ran the War is published by Merrion Press (€18.99)