The serrated edge of Britain's dirty war

Paul Donovan reviews Stakeknife - Britain's secret agents in Ireland by Martin Ingram and Greg Harkin, O'Brien Press, £8.99 pbk

THE MEDIA silence that has greeted the publication of the book Stakeknife in Britain has been truly astonishing. The book, co-written by former army Force Research Unit (FRU) agent Martin Ingram (pseudonym) and journalist Greg Harkin, lifts the lid on much of the mechanics of the dirty war in Northern Ireland.

Ingram first rose to prominence when his initial revelations about the activities of the FRU in Northern Ireland were published in the Sunday Times and People newspapers. The Ministry of Defence immediately reached for injunctions to stop further revelations. The newspapers fought on valiantly against the attempts being made to gag them. Clearly Ingram still believes his life is in danger as he states that "if you are reading this book and I am still alive then I count my blessings."

Ingram was co-operating with the Stevens Inquiry but when it became apparent that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner was not going to offer the sort of protection required to keep the whisleblower alive he withdrew his co-operation. In fact, Ingram has little time for the Stevens Inquiry which he describes as "a vehicle for delay". His accusation carries more weight given the government's refusal to order a public inquiry into the death of solicitor Pat Finucane until the ongoing prosecutions of minor figures are completed.

Stakeknife focuses on the activities of the agent of that name inside the IRA and Brian Nelson the British army agent inside the Ulster Defence Association. The book does have something of a changing focus throughout with Ingram writing some chapters and Harkin others while a number are joint enterprises.

Ingram lays out the intelligence structure in Northern Ireland with the Royal Ulster Constabulary taking on the primary policing and intelligence role. The army ran 22 Squadron SAS, which took "executive actions", 14 Company who were specialists in covert surveillance and the FRU. MI5 brought agent handling and electronic technical expertise to the operation, according to Ingram.

A strength of the book and no doubt an irritation for those in republican circles is the pride Ingram takes in the work of the FRU most of the time. He defends 99 per cent of what the FRU did but insists that the other 1 per cent must be brought out into the open. Ingram has little time for the RUC who he criticises for having "poor handling and case management techniques".

For Ingram "the 'acceptable line' of operational ethics was crossed in the 1980s". When discussing Brian Nelson, Ingram is more definite about the periods claiming that from 1983 to 1985 Nelson was still itching to kill Catholics but his handlers used his information to save lives rather than take them. From 1987 to 1990 Nelson was actively encouraged to kill. "The game had changed. Nelson was now used for what one senior FRU officer called proper targetting and his victims were largely innocent Catholics," writes Ingram.

There is a detailed chronicling of the terrorist career of Nelson from when he first joined the Blackwatch in the 1960s up to his death last year. Ingram suggests that until his imprisonment as a result of the charges brought by the Stevens inquiry in the early 1990s Nelson was permanently a member of the HM armed forces. Officially Nelson left the Blackwatch in 1969 prior to starting his terrorist career in earnest.

There is a detailed description of how Nelson and other Loyalists kidnapped Catholic man Gerry Higgins on 25 March 2003. He appears to have been the nearest Catholic to hand so Nelson and his mates grabbed him and tortured him in a loyalist club. His assailants were trying to bundle Higgins into a car when the army were alerted and blocked the way with landrovers. Everyone involved was put up against the wall and Higgins explained what had happened.

Nelson got seven years for his crime while Higgins died in 1980. His family believe he never recovered from the beating and electric shock treatment he received at the hands of Nelson.

Harkin nicely summarises Nelson. "It is my contention that Brian Nelson was always a sectarian bigot who enjoyed targeting and killing Catholics; that the Brian Nelson who beat, burned and electrocuted Gerry Higgins in 1973 was psychologically the same man who sent paramilitary gunmen out to take the lives of up to eighty people a decade-and-a half later," wrote Harkin.

Among other interesting revelations about Nelson was how the FRU used him to foil an attack on Gerry Adams in 1984. The attack was launched by UFF gunmen on the Sinn Fein leader as he approached the court building in Belfast. According to Ingram "FRU officers 'jarked' the weapons - which involved reducing the charge in the bullets and thereby reducing their impact when fired."

The reason given by Ingram for the actions taken over Adams were "better the devil you know." A question that does obviously arise from this episode was who took the decision to play with the weapons and act God over Gerry Adams life? Was such a decision taken by an intelligence officer or were politicians involved? The question who was running the troubles comes back time and time again throughout this account.

An interesting reflection in the book is the perceived damage that the existence of the agent Stakeknife was doing to the peace process. Ingram and Harkin claim that in republican circles for many years people knew of Stakeknife but did not know who he was. Damaging rumours began to run rife that he was part of the main negotiating team on the peace process. So by extension the British were now manipulating the republicans to get the peace they wanted. This element of the Stakeknife allegations is probably overstated but it is an interesting point none the less.

Much of the material about the agent Stakeknife is already in the public domain but the book runs through the history of his career working for the security forces. Ingram claims that there were 35 deaths during the period of Stakeknife's time in the IRA's internal security unit (dealing with informers). Many of these deaths were said to have been of entirely innocent people whose lives were allowed to be taken to protect the identity of Frederick Scappaticci as the agent Stakeknife.

Possibly the most controversial allegation made in the book concerns the role played by Stakeknife in luring Sinn Fein publicity chief Danny Morrison to be arrested in 1990. Morrison was lured to a house and then set up on a kidknap charge.

Ingram comes up with some interesting observations regarding the culture of the IRA. He contends that the most damaging assumption in the republican movement was that if you got your hands dirty - ie hands on killing - you were clean. "This was the single most damaging assumption the movement made in the present campaign. This assumption was played upon by the security forces, " said Ingram. "I suppose the belief was that even the Brits wouldn't allow people to get away with murder, especially multiple murders. How wrong can one be?"

A nagging question that runs throughout this book is who was in charge, at what levels. In the past it has been easy for the state to brush away claims of organised collusion and killing as being down to rogue elements. The evidence of this book together with more and more information that is flowing out via avenues such as the Stevens, Cory and Saville inquiries make such a contention completely ludicrous.

It must be worrying for some in the Ministry of Defence that Ingram states there are more former agents considering whether to come forward. Now there is so much information out in the public domain the question that needs answering is just how high did the authorisation for this mass killing go - who indeed was running the troubles?

The book Stakeknife provides another important piece in the puzzle of how the killing machine run by the British state in Northern Ireland worked. There are though still a number of links that have to be made to the senior politicians of the day. It will be making these final links that could yet prove the greatest challenge.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-08-24 13:29:51.
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