The words above were spoken by the Bedfordshire Chief Constable Jon Boutcher at a news conference in Belfast on Friday June 10th.
Sitting beside him was the PSNI’s most-senior officer George Hamilton.
They were setting out plans for a new investigation – Operation Kenova: an investigation that will enter and explore the moral maze of the so-called dirty war.
Boutcher’s investigation will examine the hidden corners of intelligence – military, MI5, RUC Special Branch – as well as the activities of IRA internal security.
It was within that IRA department, that the Army ran the agent codenamed Stakeknife, a role denied by Freddie Scapatticci, who was interned in the 1970s. He does not deny involvement with the republican movement, but in a brief interview in May 2003, suggested that involvement had ended 13 years earlier – in 1990.
Boutcher and his senior investigating officer Keith Surtees will find that they are about to enter places of trespass, places where their investigation will not be welcomed.
The wars may well be over, but this police probe will ask many awkward questions – questions that those across the various intelligence agencies and within the IRA will not want to answer.In Belfast, on June 10th, the focus of the investigation was explained:
- Whether there is evidence of the commission of criminal offences by the alleged agent known as Stakeknife, including but not limited to, murders, attempted murders and unlawful imprisonments.
- Whether there is evidence of criminal offences having been committed by members of the British Army, the Security Services or other Government agencies, in respect of the cases connected to the alleged agent known as Stakeknife.
- Whether there is evidence of criminal offences having been committed by any other individual, in respect of the cases connected to the alleged agent.
- Whether there is evidence of the commission of criminal offences by any persons in respect of allegations of perjury connected to the alleged agent.
Boutcher promised “an absolute commitment to pursuing the truth” – that difficult and elusive prey that he described.
He will know that inside intelligence and inside the IRA, that truth will not easily be found. Much of it will be buried.
“My principal aim in taking responsibility for this investigation is to bring those responsible for these awful crimes, in whatever capacity they were involved, to justice,” he said.
Think of those words “in whatever capacity”. They describe the wide frame of this investigation.
That means not just an investigation of the agent Stakeknife, but an examination of all information available within that intelligence world. Who knew what and when?
It also means an investigation of those operating inside IRA internal security and at a leadership level above.
When the interrogations and executions of suspected informants/agents were happening, the IRA did not know that its internal security department had been compromised, did not know it had such an agent in its midst.
Those interrogations, the killings and the orders were IRA actions – IRA activities that will be investigated by the Boutcher team.
Stakeknife is a revelation in the “peace”, not something that was known to the IRA in the “war”.
“Our most important secret”
Then, there is the question of how the Army explains and justifies running an agent inside IRA internal security – an agent described as their “golden egg”.Those words were used by a former Army GOC (General Officer Commanding) in Northern Ireland General Sir John Wilsey in a telephone conversation recorded by a military intelligence whistleblower, who had claimed to be a television news researcher.
“He was our most important secret,” Wilsey said. “He was a golden egg, something that was very important to the Army. We were terribly cagey about Fred,” Wilsey said in what is considered to be a clear reference to Scapatticci, the Belfast man who denies he was Stakeknife.
The Army will have known the role of IRA internal security, will have known it was about the culling of agents/informers, questioning/interrogations, torture and executions, bodies dumped at the roadside, or on country lanes or elsewhere – left in that way as a final humiliation and as a warning to others.
This is what happened when agents were found out, and the Army cannot in any credible way deny knowledge of the activities and role of IRA internal security.
So, what, is now required of the Army and other intelligence agencies is an explanation of the role of an agent in that scenario.
One agent involved in that culling and interrogation of other suspected agents often leading to execution. In the dirty war, this is when the puppets and the strings became a tangled mess.
“It’s far bigger than Nelson,” one source commented last October. “It’s colossal.” Brian Nelson was also an Army agent, not working inside the IRA, but within the loyalist Ulster Defence Association. Nelson became a headline case, but may well be reduced to smaller print as the Stakeknife story is revealed in more detail.
“Every time we use a source (an agent), we take a bit of their life.”
Several years ago, that comment was made by someone with years of experience inside the Special Branch. He was explaining the fine lines between life and death; that, every time an agent provided a piece of information that meant an IRA or loyalist operation was interrupted or failed, then the closer that agent was to being revealed. There are many statements that explain the IRA practice of interrogation and execution – statements that are intended as the last word.
From IRA statement 1989 Joseph Fenton:
“We are not prepared to state how we eventually detected him, but clearly the RUC are lying when they stated that Joseph Fenton had no connections with them.”
From IRA statement 1990 Patrick Flood:
“The investigation was exhaustive and thorough and revealed the extent of Flood’s activities as a British agent. Had he come forward at any time and admitted to his actions, Flood would not have been executed.”
From IRA statement 1992:
“The three who have been executed are Gregory Burns, a British Intelligence agent since 1979, and RUC informers John Dignam and Aidan Starrs. All three were IRA volunteers…”
This is but a small sample of statements. They would often include the names of handlers and telephone contact numbers and much more detail often lost in the reporting of actual-time events. It is now, in the transition from conflict to peace, that there is a much closer examination of this information.
It is part of the fine print that will be scrutinised as part of the Boutcher investigation – this look into the darkest corners and practices, a peering into the war from a place of relative peace.
Take other lines from one of those statements quoted above.
From IRA statement 1990 Patrick Flood:
“One operation about which his handlers knew well in advance was the Buncrana Road ambush which resulted in two British soldiers being killed. The success of this operation prevented us for a time from identifying Flood as a British agent.”
These are words on paper, words that need to be examined to see if they stand up or fall down under scrutiny. All sorts of claims were made by all of the sides.
After the IRA killed Patrick Flood and accused him of being an agent, the RUC re-stated its policy to “not comment by way of denial or confirmation”. This had been its position since 1985.
Then, in a non-attributable comment, a senior police source said Flood was not an informer.
“I would never, never, never try to play games with you,” the source continued. They [the IRA]have got it wrong in the past, and they have got it wrong [in this case]. God only knows what a man being terrorised is capable of.”
Asked why those comments could not be attributed, the source added: “We’ve got to preserve the policy” – meaning that 1985 position of not denying or confirming. Even in death the agent was still being used. This briefing line, as we read it now, clearly intended to sow confusion.
The IRA statements quoted above are just examples of some of what that organisation said when suspected agents were killed. It is still not absolutely clear which cases will be part of Operation Kenova. For how long was Stakeknife an Army agent and for how long did he operate inside IRA internal security? The answer to that latter question will determine the exact number of cases to be investigated by the Boutcher team, which is also examining Stakeknife’s role before he entered the internal security department – his “IRA apprenticeship” to quote one source.
“I am committed to doing all I can to find the truth for the victims and their families. It is them who we should be thinking of throughout.”
Jon Boutcher made the above comment at that Belfast news conference on June 10, but he is right, that truth will indeed be a difficult and elusive prey. His investigation may well get lost in the muddled mazes of information and disinformation.
In whatever way Stakeknife is now being protected, he cannot be shielded from investigation and questioning. John Boutcher and Keith Surtees will want to interview him – but will he talk? Why would he talk? Would the intelligence agencies want him to talk? Would the IRA want him to talk?
These are more of the unanswered questions.
This investigation is happening because there is not yet in place a process and structure to address Northern Ireland’s Past.
There are continuing arguments about British “national security” and what that will mean for the work of the proposed Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) and Independent Commission on Information Retrieval (ICIR). It will mean that on occasions disclosure of information will be blocked. In their investigation, Jon Boutcher and Keith Surtees may well arrive at those walls – at those places of trespass if, indeed, they have not arrived there already.
“Any truth process which has the finger prints of the securocrats in Whitehall anywhere near it simply will not work.”
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams made the above comment in 2009 as his party rejected the proposals of the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group on the Past – a report commissioned by the Northern Ireland Office on which the British Government would decide. The report’s recommendations included a Legacy Commission with investigation and information recovery units, but Adams commented:
“Given that the British Government was the major protagonist in the conflict how can bereaved families or those seeking truth and justice, feel anything other than deep concern at the process that is being proposed by the Eames/Bradley Group?
“The British Government cannot be the objective facilitator of any truth recovery process. It also cannot with any honesty write the remit of any group tasked with that role,” he said.
These several years later, the latest talks on the Past are being chaired by the British Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and remain stuck on that question of national security. Will that change with a new Conservative Party leader with a new British Prime Minister? Whatever is negotiated now, National Security will always be determined and decided by Governments and their security and intelligence advisers. It is a hurdle that may not be cleared, but the logjam on the past is not just about national security. There is still no clear or certain indication as to what the IRA and loyalist contributions will be.
“Where would the incentive be to engage with the ICIR when one could also be the subject of an HIU investigation?”Loyalists have deep concerns about the process that is being shaped – structured without their involvement in negotiations. They also question whether investigation and information-retrieval can work side by side. The above question is posed by a former prisoner Tom Roberts of EPIC – the Ex-prisoners Interpretative Centre. In the stalemate, no process on the past means that the police continue to investigate. In other cases, the senior loyalist figure Winston Rea was recently arrested and charged with two murders dating back to 1989 and 1991. He faces a total of 12 charges all of which he denies. Then, there is the supergrass or assisting offender case involving another loyalist Gary Haggarty – an investigation that is examining murders, arms procurement, bomb incidents and a range of other activities that will put the UVF and loyalist leaderships under a microscope, but not just them. Haggarty was a Special Branch agent and this is another case – similar to Stakeknife – that will ask questions inside intelligence about who knew what and when.
These investigations happening outside an agreed process on Northern Ireland’s Past leave an impression of a conflict that is half over. Would republican and loyalist leaders have agreed to ceasefires in 1994 if they had known then that they would still be the subject of investigations in 2016? And, on another question, would people have voted in such large numbers for the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 if they had known then that in 2016 republican and loyalist organisations would not yet have left the stage – that they would still remain in some shape and form?
The Past is not the Past while it remains so large in the Present. It is long past time to decide what a process on the conflict period should be. Can it be both investigation and information recovery? That question has to be settled and sooner rather than later. And there is another issue raised by David Porter, part of the Eames/Bradley Consultative Group and now chief of staff to the Archbishop of Canterbury. His concern is found in a comment he made last year: “I personally as an Ulsterman would be very concerned that Whitehall gets away with leaving the responsibility all in the hands of those who were risking their lives to protect me – to protect others.”
In the peace, there are those who will undoubtedly try to wash their hands of the dirty war.