Interviews March 2006

From Belfast With Love

Matthew Teague talks about "Double Blind," his extraordinary profile of a double agent who helped undermine the IRA

Last September, the Irish Republican Army scrapped its arsenal and ended its long, bloody campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland. The disarmament was a response to many things—progress made by its political wing, Sinn Fein; slackening of American funds after 9/11; and the many reforms triggered by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, to name a few. But even as all these events unfolded publicly, in the shadows a devastating cancer had metastasized within the IRA's leadership.

As the British government realized in the mid-1970s that it was fighting a tenacious and increasingly lethal terrorist organization, it adopted new, top-secret counterinsurgency tactics—and began an all-out infiltration of the IRA's rank and file. A furtive military intelligence outfit, the Force Research Unit, created a network of spies and informers, undercover British agents and well-bribed IRA men. Bit by bit, lie by lie, they built an insidiously effective operation—one that was so successful that it's credited with crippling the IRA's once-impregnable leadership, and so secretive that, although the program's existence has come to light, some of its top operatives are thought to still be working, undetected, in the field. It was also an operation so morally fraught that recent revelations about it have sparked a state criminal inquiry and spurred legions of interest groups to demand accountability from Downing Street.

For more than a decade, this "Dirty War" raged, with the British government handing bundles of cash to its clandestine informants, many of whom were still killing and plotting for the IRA. There was a perverse logic to this: the more they killed, the more their brothers in arms trusted them—and the better the intelligence they could provide their British handlers.

One of the agents on the British payroll for much of that time was a man named Freddy Scappaticci, whose nom de guerre, "Stakeknife," has come to serve in the British press as shorthand for the whole affair. Scappaticci is now in hiding. Another agent, now known by the name of Kevin Fulton, was trained as a British soldier before being offered a covert position as a spy within the IRA. He rose through their ranks and eventually became one of the IRA's deadliest bomb makers. He too is in hiding.

In The Atlantic's April cover story, "Double Blind," Matthew Teague relates the tales of both these men. He follows them through their childhoods in Northern Ireland, down the very different paths they traveled into the IRA and the world of espionage, and, finally, to their climactic final meeting in a Belfast safe house in 1994: two IRA men, two British spies, one likely to die. The author managed to track down Fulton and met with him several times recently in London, eventually earning his trust.

Teague is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, and elsewhere. We spoke by phone in mid-February.

Timothy Lavin

You got extensive access to a source in hiding from terrorists. Can you explain how you got in touch with Kevin Fulton, who's a former British spy and high-ranking IRA bomb-maker?

I got in touch with a colleague of his who worked in British military intelligence with him during his days as a spy. He passed messages back and forth between Fulton and me for about a week and a half, until eventually Fulton agreed to meet me at the train station. The story was something I had been thinking about for a while. I noticed some articles about it in the newspapers on a previous trip to the U.K.—the codename "Stakeknife" jumped out at me. It stuck with me for a while—the idea of these men, spies, who have to make policy on the fly, who are sort of one-man colonies. Where the weight of a whole country's moral decision-making is on their shoulders in a moment of duress.

Once you got in touch with Fulton, was he pretty amenable to meeting with you?

Yeah, we met at the train station and stayed around there and took a little walk. We met just briefly and he was really jittery and vaguely suspicious. But, after meeting me a few more times, he sort of got used to seeing me and everything slowed down a little bit. He opened up.

He opened up quite a bit; I mean, he disclosed a lot of pretty damning information to you. He all but admitted that he had had a hand in many murders. What did you do to earn his trust?

I think just showing up is a big part of it. I asked him at one point why he was talking to me about all these things and he said that he hasn't been allowed to have therapy—or that the government hasn't paid for therapy for him because it would be a kind of admission of all of the things he's done. So I think it was sort of a relief for him to talk to anybody—even a magazine writer—about this.

You mention that he was jittery the first few times you met him, and in the article you describe the many precautions he takes to keep out of sight and low key. But he's also been quoted a lot in the British press—to the point where he might be considered a bit of a publicity hound. If he's afraid for his life and stays in hiding, why does he keep this high media profile?

I can't read his mind and I don't want to try, but I think he feels abandoned by the British government and that this is his way of revealing all the things that happened – both good and bad. He wants people to know what happened, but he doesn't necessarily want to be known as an individual. I believe that I'm the only reporter he's ever actually had to his home.

The man you describe in the piece seems pretty vulnerable—and as you just mentioned, he might view talking to people like you as almost therapeutic. But he's also a guy who's pretty wise in the ways of espionage. How do you know that he wasn't abusing your trust in him?

He's not vulnerable immediately. It took a long time, a lot of hours together walking around the city and talking, just sort of growing closer, before he started to reveal that side of himself. At first he was a pretty hard-shelled guy. And it's true that I couldn't be sure at first that he was being straight with me; once he started opening up, the things he was talking about seemed absolutely outrageous. As a reporter, I kind of kept one eyebrow cocked until I started tracking down the details. And every single detail checked out, down to the most minute peripheral details, such as his trip to New York. Everything was confirmed.

Regarding that trip to New York, he actually makes an extraordinary claim—that the British military helped and even encouraged the IRA to build more sophisticated bombs, and that they set up this trip for him to go to New York to buy infrared triggers for them. Can you explain how you were able to check that out?

Sure. There were several ways. One was just checking the physical things he described. He described the Murray Hill Inn, for instance, the place where he stayed. It's still there, just as he described it. Another is that he referred to an F.B.I. agent as being involved. So I called the agent and he confirmed his involvement, although he couldn't discuss details or accuracy. Thirdly, he described the deportation of an Irish man in Queens which had resulted from a meeting with him during that trip. And the INS records show that the man was deported exactly the way Fulton described. So everything sort of triangulates. It really happened.

For other people, you weren't able to check in such great detail. For instance, you interviewed Denis Donaldson, another famous IRA leader, in his living room. And you only discovered later that he had been a British agent for twenty years. Did you ever get the feeling that everyone you talked to could have been a double agent?

I did, and I asked Fulton at one point. I said, is there anybody in the IRA who's not a British spy? And he just sort of held out his hands and he said, "You tell me." I think that cuts right to the heart of the British strategy. They interwove themselves so profoundly with the IRA that it became hard to distinguish between the British and the IRA members. And by that point you've diluted the movement, or at least seeded mistrust so deeply that it just can't stand anymore.

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Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic Monthly staff editor.

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