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Stakeknife report a ‘damning indictment’ of role of state in NI Troubles

Stakeknife report a ‘damning indictment’ of role of state in NI Troubles

A major investigation into the operation of the British Army’s top agent inside the IRA is a “damning indictment” of the actions of the state during the Troubles, a lawyer representing victims has said.

The interim findings of Operation Kenova found that more lives were probably lost than saved by the actions of Stakeknife.

The probe, which was undertaken by Bedfordshire Police and ran for seven years at a cost of approximately £40 million, examined the role of the Army’s prized agent embedded in the heart of the IRA’s Internal Security Unit (ISU).

The agent Stakeknife was widely believed to be west Belfast man Freddie Scappaticci, who was 77 when he died last year.

Kevin Winters, who represents a number of victims’ families directly impacted by the report, said there now needed to be a public inquiry into the state level of penetration of the IRA.

Mr Winters said that Scappaticci was “not the only Stakeknife”.

He said the report was a “damning indictment on the state”.

He added: “We are left with the horrendous conclusion and takeaway message that both the state and the IRA were co-conspirators in the murder of some of its citizens.”

The Operation Kenova report stops short of confirming Scappaticci as Stakeknife, noting that the Government’s Neither Confirm Nor Deny (NCND) policy prevents the identification of agents.

However, it says that the Kenova team had passed “strong evidence of very serious criminality” by Scappaticci to prosecutors in Northern Ireland prior to his death.

The report also dismisses rumours that Scappaticci might still be alive.

It further branded as “wild nonsense” claims that Stakeknife met Margaret Thatcher and other cabinet ministers and had visited Chequers.

Among 10 recommendations in the 208-page report, is a call for the UK authorities to review the application of NCND, linking the “dogmatic” policy with a failure to secure prosecutions in some Troubles cases.

It said a review was needed to ensure the “totemic status” of the policy is not allowed to “obscure wrongdoing by the security forces or serious criminality by agents”.

The report also calls on the UK and the republican leadership to apologise to bereaved families and victims of the ISU, the security forces for failings amid a “maverick” culture for handling agents and intelligence; and the republican leadership for the IRA’s abduction, murder and torture of people it suspected of being agents, and linked campaigns of intimidation against their families.

In response, Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill apologised to the victims’ families and said republicans could not disown the suffering and hurt inflicted during the Troubles.

The UK government said it could not comment in detail on the Kenova probe until the final report was published.

Operation Kenova report
Solicitor Kevin Winters, at the offices of KRW Law in Belfast, speaking to the media on behalf of his clients following the publication of the Operation Kenova Interim Report into Stakeknife (Liam McBurney/PA)

The Kenova investigation was originally headed up by former Bedfordshire Police chief constable Jon Boutcher.

Mr Boutcher is no longer part of the Kenova team, having left the role last year to become chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), however he authored the report released on Friday and he presented its findings.

“Stakeknife’s identity has been disclosed to Kenova subject to obligations of confidentiality, which I remained bound by and I cannot make his name public without official authority,” Mr Boutcher told a press conference in Belfast.

“Thus far, the Government has refused to give such authority and so Stakeknife is not named in this interim report.

“However, this position in my view is no longer tenable.

“I expect the Government to authorise Kenova to confirm Stakeknife’s identity in the final report.”

Last week the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland announced that no prosecutions would be pursued after consideration of the last batch of files from the investigation.

Some 32 people, including former police, former military personnel and people linked with the IRA, were considered for prosecution on a range of charges from murder and abduction to misconduct in public office and perjury.

However, the PPS found there was insufficient evidence to pursue cases.

Scappaticci died before any decision was made on the evidence files related to him.

In the report, Mr Boutcher said “various myths and erroneous stories” have built up around Stakeknife.

(left to right) Former police ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Baroness Nuala O’Loan, Officer in charge Operation Kenova, Sir Iain Livingstone, Chief Constable Jon Boutcher, Temporary Deputy Chief Constable Chris Todd, and former victims commissioner Judith Thompson
(left to right) Former police ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Baroness Nuala O’Loan, Officer in charge Operation Kenova, Sir Iain Livingstone, Chief Constable Jon Boutcher, Temporary Deputy Chief Constable Chris Todd, and former victims commissioner Judith Thompson (Liam McBurney/PA)

He said those within the security forces are defensive about the agent, viewing through “rose tinted spectacles” and claiming Stakeknife potentially saved “hundreds of lives” while people outside the establishment overestimate the number of crimes the agent was responsible for.

Mr Boutcher said the suggestion Stakeknife saved countless lives was not grounded in fact.

“In reality the claims are inherently implausible and should ring alarm bells: any serious security and intelligence professional hearing an agent being likened to ‘the goose that laid the golden eggs’, as Stakeknife was, should be on alert because the comparison is rooted in fables and fairy tales,” he said.

“Stakeknife was undoubtedly a valuable asset who provided high quality intelligence about PIRA at considerable risk to himself, albeit that this intelligence was not always passed on or acted upon and, if more of it had been, he could not have remained in place as long as he did.”

Mr Boutcher said Kenova reviewed around 90% of intelligence reports attributed to Stakeknife.

He said he was involved in “very serious and wholly unjustifiable criminality, including murder”.

The police chief estimated the number of lives saved as a result of intelligence provided by Stakeknife was in the high single figures or low double figures and “nowhere near” the hundreds that have been claimed.

“Crucially this is not a net estimate because it does not take account of the lives lost as a consequence of Stakeknife’s continued operation as an agent,” he added.

“And, from what I have seen, I think it probable that this resulted in more lives being lost than saved.

“Furthermore, there were undoubtedly occasions when Stakeknife ignored his handlers, acted outside his tasking and did things he should not have done and when very serious risks were run.”

Jon Boutcher
Jon Boutcher originally headed up the Kenova investigation (Liam McBurney/PA)

The PSNI chief said the use of agents undoubtedly saved lives during the Troubles.

However, he said there were occasions when preventable crimes were allowed to happen and went unsolved as a result of efforts to protect agents.

He identified several cases of murder where the security forces had advance intelligence but did not intervene in order to protect sources.

He acknowledged the “exceptionally stressful” operating climate the security forces worked in, and said handlers often faced dilemmas where there was “no right answer”.

The report said mistakes and questionable decisions were “inevitable and understandable”.

But it said a lack of legal framework to govern the use of agents during the Troubles created a “maverick culture” where agent handling was considered a high stakes “dark art” that was practised “off the books”.

“State agents do need to be protected through anonymity and secrecy, but that protection cannot confer de facto immunity or a right to act with impunity as that would be wholly incompatible with the rule of law and human rights,” the report said.

“Agents may sometimes engage in criminal conduct, but they do not have a free licence to break the law and should not be led to believe otherwise.”

Mr Boutcher said the security forces repeatedly withheld and did not action information about threats to life, abductions, and murders in order to protect agents from compromise.

“As a result, murders that could and should have been prevented were allowed to take place with the knowledge of the security forces and those responsible for murder were not brought to justice and were instead left free to reoffend again,” he said.

Operation Kenova report
Michelle O’Neill said the hurt and suffering of the Troubles could not be disowned by republicans (Liam McBurney/PA)

“Indeed, we could not find any Troubles-related cases where a prosecution was brought in connection with a victim who was murdered because they’re accused or suspected of being an agent.

“That of itself should have sounded huge alarm bells to those in charge of the agencies involved.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said the Government could not comment on the detail of the report until the final version was published.

“There can be no doubt that the way Operation Kenova has conducted its work since being commissioned in 2016 has gained the trust of many families who have long been seeking answers as to what exactly happened when their loved ones were so brutally murdered by, and on the orders of, the Provisional IRA,” he added.

Stormont First Minister Ms O’Neill, speaking to reporters in her role as Sinn Fein vice president, was asked if she accepted that the murder of alleged informants was wrong and if she wanted to take the opportunity to apologise to their families.

She replied: “Yes.

“I’ve said it before and I’m going to repeat it again today for all those families out there that lost a loved one.

“I am sorry for every single loss of life and that is without exception.

“That’s for every person who was hurt or impacted by our conflict.”