Twenty years ago, I unmasked the highest-placed spy for British military intelligence inside the IRA. It took me years of investigative work for the Herald to finally gather enough evidence to name Freddie Scappaticci as Agent Stakeknife on our front page.

When the story was published it rocked the IRA to its foundations, and exposed the full, horrific extent of Britain’s ‘Dirty War’ in Northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles’.

Scappaticci was at the very heart of the IRA. He was leader of its Internal Security Unit (ISU), known as the Nutting Squad due to its taste for executions with a bullet to the head.

The wing of British military intelligence which ‘ran’ Stakeknife was the Force Research Unit (FRU), led by the Scottish officer Brigadier Gordon Kerr from Aberdeen, later the UK’s military attache to Beijing. Kerr is deemed among Britain’s most powerful spymasters.

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The Herald ran extensive investigations over years revealing how the FRU colluded with paramilitaries in murder. Double agents in loyalist terror groups like the UDA were passed information by their FRU ‘handlers’ which was then subsequently used to target suspected republicans. Innocent civilians were caught up in the killings. One victim was the solicitor Pat Finucane.

When it came to the IRA, the FRU allowed its double agents, like Scappaticci, to continue operating as terrorists in order to maintain their cover and keep passing top grade intelligence. That meant members of the British security forces effectively sanctioned murder.

I spoke to the FRU officer who was Stakeknife’s ‘handler’. He described the ‘Dirty War’ as a “numbers game”, claiming informers like Scappaticci saved more lives than they took. Another FRU whistleblower told me the Dirty War was like a game of chess, with intelligence officers infiltrating Republican and loyalist terror groups until British spies were able to “move their pieces to end game: peace”.

There have been repeated claims - from intelligence sources - that information on Dirty War operations were passed to Whitehall and all the way to Number 10, directly implicating the British government in collusion and killings.

However, my investigations into Stakeknife left key questions remaining. Why had Scappaticci ‘turned’? What went on within the IRA after we named him? What happened to Scappaticci following his exposure? He died in April this year - one month before the 20th anniversary of the Herald naming him.


Today, some of those unanswered questions can be resolved. A former senior member of the IRA, Richard O’Rawe, has written a book uncovering Scappaticci’s story from a Republican perspective. It’s called ‘Stakeknife’s Dirty War: The Inside Story of Scappaticci, the IRA’s Nutting Squad, and the British Spooks Who Ran the War’.

Speaking at his Belfast home, O’Rawe told me he first met Scappaticci while they were both interned in 1972. Internment was the British policy of imprisoning suspected IRA members without trial at Long Kesh, which later became the Maze Prison. “We were in enclosures called ‘cages’. I was in Cage Five, he was in Cage Three,” O’Rawe explains. 

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O’Rawe joined the IRA, aged just 17, in the wake of loyalist ‘pogroms’ in 1969 which targeted Catholics in Belfast, burning families out of their homes. His father was an IRA Belfast commander in the 1940s. As sectarian violence spiralled, O’Rawe felt “there was no alternative to armed struggle.”

Following his release from internment, O’Rawe remained an IRA ‘volunteer’ and was jailed in 1977 for bank robbery. He was sent to the Maze and took part in the infamous ‘Blanket Protests’ and ‘Dirty Protests’, and was there during the Hunger Strikes, when ten prisoners, including Bobby Sands, starved themselves to death.

Released in 1983, he left the IRA two years later following an ultimatum from his wife. He went on to write a number of books about the Troubles.

Given his history, O’Rawe has gathered unprecedented detail on the Stakeknife saga for his new book. 


Scappaticci was born in 1946. Although a bricklayer by trade, he was a good footballer and tried out with Nottingham Forest in the early 1960s. “He was very mercurial and bad tempered, he’d put the fists up - get into rows.”

‘Scap’, as he was known, came from a Belfast Republican family, and like O’Rawe joined the IRA following loyalist attacks on Catholics. “He stood out from the get-go. He’d a presence about him.” Noticeably, Scappaticci never got drunk. “He’d have two pints and sit back watching everything.”

Scappaticci soon became OC [officer-commading] of the IRA in Belfast’s Markets area. Later interned and released, he briefly became Belfast OC in 1973. “That’s number one in Belfast.” He was re-interned and released once more.

Read more: Inside story: Why the IRA never attacked Scotland

“He was known as a ‘squirrel’ - someone involved in intelligence gathering.” By now, no longer Belfast OC, Scappaticci’s tasks involved “setting up targets for explosions” and, with grim irony, “interviewing suspected informers”.

O’Rawe adds: “He wasn’t on the frontline with rifles. He was a very efficient administrator.”

Come 1978, the IRA was redesigned, adopting its infamous ‘cell structure’. This saw individual IRA ‘active service units’ (ASUs) operate in isolation, keeping contact only with the organisation’s ‘General Headquarters’ (GHQ) - its military command - in order to minimise risk from informers and British intelligence.

Simultaneously, the IRA’s Internal Security Unit was created “to hunt down and execute informers, and vet all new recruits”. Scappaticci became its second-in-command. The ISU has been called “the IRA’s junction box”.


It’s around now, says O’Rawe, that Scappaticci “became a British agent”. There’s still no definitive answer to why Scappaticci turned. O’Rawe presents four theories: first, Scappaticci was a “walk-in”, someone who just approaches the security forces, offering to work for them. That’s unlikely as Scappaticci was an ideological republican. “I don’t think for a second he was a walk-in,” says O’Rawe.

Second, there’s the theory he was beaten badly by other IRA figures and “wanted revenge” so turned informer. Again, it’s unlikely that a figure so high up in the IRA would resort to these tactics. “I don’t think this would’ve made him change sides, it was something far more extreme, something that absolutely terrified him and forced him to turn.”

Theory three is that Scappaticci ‘turned' when police caught him for offences related to “paedophilia”, says O’Rawe. “He was a porn fanatic.” In 2017, long after his cover was blown, Scappaticci was arrested, while in hiding, for possessing extreme pornography including bestiality.

Theory four is that Scappaticci was caught in a complex tax scam and that was used to ‘turn’ him. 


British intelligence now had its highest-placed spy inside the IRA. As ISU second-in-command, Scappaticci knew the name of every new ‘volunteer’ as well as the workings of the IRA leadership. Scappaticci attended “GHQ meetings”, and eventually became ISU OC. British intelligence called him their “golden nugget”.

With grim irony, Scappaticci, as ISU commander, conducted interrogations of all suspected informers, called ‘touts’, despite being the IRA’s biggest traitor.

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Interrogation meant being “dark-roomed”, says O’Rawe. Suspected touts were stripped naked, placed in a blacked-out room and given one hour by Scappaticci to tell everything they knew. Scappaticci’s “party piece” was to count down the hour, telling suspects that unless they divulged everything within 60 minutes they’d be taken to South Armagh - known as ‘Bandit Country’. Scappaticci told victims: “We’ll hang you from a beam and skin you alive. You’ll be down there for weeks, naked, and we’ll break you’.”

Nutting Squad victims were even forced to sit on electric cookers. Bodies were found wrapped in bin-liners, and dumped in country lanes. “Many guys were taken away and crucified,” O’Rawe says, “they were used as ash-trays. The IRA was guilty of absolute psychological and physical torture to break people and nobody knows how many were innocent.”

Not only were confessions extracted under torture, but FRU sources told me that if there were IRA targets they couldn’t ‘get’, then agents like Stakeknife were used to frame them as informers.


Come 1986, Scappaticci gained even greater access to IRA secrets. It was then the IRA leadership decided to alter its tactics due to a backlash within the republican community over ‘operations’ which had killed civilians. The IRA Army Council - its ruling body - decided all operations would now be “vetted by the Northern Command OC, Martin McGuinness”, rather than go-ahead simply on the orders of local commanders.

McGuinness made Scappaticci, as ISU chief, the person who would “vet” all IRA operations in Belfast. O’Rawe says: “He’s in control of the IRA in Belfast. But if he’s in control, then his handlers are also in control.” In other words, the FRU, under Gordon Kerr’s command, turned the IRA into its puppet.

It’s here we get to the moral and political heart of the Dirty War. British intelligence was effectively running terrorist organisations through the handling of senior double agents like Stakeknife.

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To keep agents in situ, the FRU had to let informers operate as terrorists: in other words, murder and bomb. To do otherwise, would risk exposure and cut off access to top-grade intelligence. 

One FRU whistleblower once told me that “in order to beat terrorists we had to act like terrorists”.

There’s suspicion Scappaticci may have passed on intelligence which led to the so-called ‘Death on the Rock’ SAS operation when three members of an IRA ASU were shot dead in Gibraltar.

At least 35 suspected ‘touts’ were ‘executed’ during Scappaticci’s time running the Nutting Squad. Many IRA operations were foiled, and significant numbers of IRA members killed and captured.


“Scappaticci told his handlers” about every informer he interrogated. The information was passed “up the line” to the Tasking and Coordinating Group (TCG) - a network of intelligence organisations running Northern Ireland security operations. 

“They were aware beforehand about who was about to be shot, where they’d be shot and who would shoot them. They were aware because Freddie told them. That was his job, and they allowed those 35 killings to go ahead.”

Although some victims weren’t informers, others were indeed working for British intelligence but seemingly disposable for organisations like the FRU. “They played god, they were the arbiters of life and death,” says O’Rawe.

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Sometimes if double agents were identified by the IRA, British intelligence chose not to rescue them as they were simply seen as of no more use: with their cover was blown, they’d be unable to pass any more high grade information. 

One senior Special Branch officer, Raymond White, said he asked Margaret Thatcher personally for “legally clarity” on running double agents and was told by the Prime Minister “don’t get yourselves caught”.

The unanswered question is this: which IRA operations - aside from executions of suspected informers - did British intelligence learn about from Scappaticci but then allow to proceed in order to protect him?

“If you want to use the word ‘terrorist’, then everyone’s a terrorist,” says O’Rawe. British intelligence “decided whose life was worth saving”.

In terms of executions, Scappaticci personally shot at least two men as “alleged informers”. As a former senior republican, O’Rawe doesn’t in any way defend IRA methods of dealing with so-called ‘touts’. 

He says the families of everyone killed as informers “deserve an apology from the Republican movement for the murders of their sons and daughters. The Republican movement has human rights abuses on the brain, if it’s happening to them, but they were the perpetrators of massive human rights abuses themselves”.


After Scappaticci was unmasked as Stakeknife, he initially decided to “brass neck it” and denied everything, but as evidence piled up his claims of innocence collapsed and he went underground. “It’s accepted now beyond all doubt,” says O’Rawe, “that Scap was Stakeknife: one of the major British agents in the IRA. Nobody can deny that.”

The IRA, however, could never bring itself to publicly acknowledge that fact as it would be an admission the organisation was the puppet of British intelligence.

“It’s so embarrassing for them. Scappaticci was in such a position of influence. He was the embodiment of the IRA. People were shit scared of him. IRA volunteers I spoke to during the writing of this book shuddered at his name. They hated seeing Scap come into their areas - that mean trouble.

“For the IRA to say ‘the head of our Internal Security Unit was a tout’, would’ve been just too much. It would’ve had an absolutely devastating effect.”

O’Rawe believes Scappaticci kept files on senior Republicans “as insurance for the day his comrades realised he was an informer”. That would have been his bargaining chip to avoid execution. O’Rawe speculates these files are “in a vault somewhere”.


Once the game was up for Scappaticci, he fled to Manchester. The FRU is believed to have helped him rebuild his life. His wife, who O’Rawe says is a “saint, a lovely lady”, visited him regularly. Scappaticci eventually moved near London by 2017.

By now he’d suffered heart attacks and strokes, and was later caught with bestiality pornography. Scappaticci was “a wee old man, living on his own, estranged from the society in which he lived”. However, he’d made “a fortune”. It’s thought his payment from British intelligence ran to £1million.

“I’ve an image of him like Osama bin Laden, watching TV in his overcoat. Never once did he express remorse.”

O’Rawe says members of British intelligence like Brigadier Kerr “were callous to the point of inhumanity” in the way they conducted counter-terrorism operations. “They didn’t give a shit about people. All that mattered were results.”

Read more: Stakeknife: Why did Scotland’s Lord Advocate grant immunity from prosecution to a notorious IRA leader and British double agent?

Acts of collusion by British intelligence amounted to “a slaughtering process”, says O’Rawe. “It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the FRU, Special Branch, MI5 and those involved with the Tasking and Coordinating Group were guilty of aiding and abetting murder. These guys were supposed to be the forces of law and order. The first principle is the preservation of life. They totally and absolutely violated that again and again.”

The Stakeknife saga has been under investigation by detectives working for Operation Kenova, headed by Jon Boutcher, former chief constable of Bedfordshire, for years. The team - who I’ve spoken to - is, according to its own remit, tasked to “look at whether there is evidence of criminal offences having been committed by members of the British army, the Security Services or other government personnel”.

Kenova detectives had arrested and questioned Scappaticci prior to his death. In 2019, high level security sources told me Gordon Kerr would be questioned under caution. It’s unknown where Scappaticci is buried or how he died. Certainly, says O’Rawe, he can “never give evidence or be brought into a witness box now. He’s out of the way”.

Kenova detectives are believed to be readying the release of their Stakeknife report. However, it’s unlikely justice will ever be done. The UK government’s Northern Ireland Legacy Bill became law this week. It offers conditional amnesty to anyone accused of killings during the Troubles. Victim groups are outraged. “That’s British justice for you,” says O’Rawe.

If no charges emerge in connection to the Stakeknife case, O’Rawe says Britain will effectively be saying “it’s okay” for security forces to “collude in the murder of dozens of UK citizens”.

Historically, Scappaticci’s role cannot be underestimated. O’Rawe says his spying activities were “crucial” to the peace process. “Stakeknife was the means whereby the armed struggle was run down,” he says. “Stakeknife provided the British with crucial information relating to the IRA leadership’s thinking.”

Thanks to Scappaticci the “British were totally on top of the armed struggle”. O’Rawe adds: “The British were actually running it”. The more degraded IRA operations became due to Scappaticci “the easier it was” for Republican leaders like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to “sell the idea that we need to pull the plug and go a different direction”.

O’Rawe says Scappaticci “helped defeat the IRA”. In turn, defeat led the IRA towards peace. “It’s strange how things turn out,” he adds. “Because of the peace process, Sinn Fein is now in a position where it’s the largest party in the south, the largest party in the north, and the largest party on the island of Ireland”. Sinn Fein could soon be in power in both the Dail, the Irish parliament, and Stormont, Northern Ireland’s assembly.

The Dirty War, says O’Rawe, was “dark and filthy, the state’s moral compass absolutely collapsed, but at the end of the day, the result of it was the Republican movement moved from a war footing to a political footing”.

That, he adds, is ‘Stakeknife’s legacy’.