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

You got a lot of information out of Fulton, but did he indicate that there was more to the story—things that he was still hesitant to reveal—despite all that he already told you?

He did. There have been a series of revelations about higher and higher ranking IRA men who were British spies and Sinn Fein men and I wouldn't be surprised to see it go even higher.

Why did he hesitate to divulge everything to you?

Because I think he knows that he needs to keep some things closer to his vest. I think it's a sort of insurance policy for him.

Freddy Scappaticci, who was also a British spy, and who was one of the top members of the IRA's internal security squad, himself fled Northern Ireland and hasn't been heard from since 2003. How did you dig up information on him?

I talked to people who worked with him, and with his lawyer, read different newspaper accounts. I just sort of pieced things together from what I could find. Freddy led a really public life outside the IRA. He was a huge supporter of soccer and things like that, so his name would pop up in various accounts from time to time connected to those involvements. But when the announcement was made that there was the existence of this agent "Stakeknife," he eventually just disappeared completely.

Any idea where he's hiding?

It varies. Some people say he's in Northern England. A lot of people say he's in Italy. It's really impossible to say. He could be moving all the time.

At one point you say of the British infiltration of the IRA that, as messy and morally dubious as it may have been, "There's this: it worked." There are a lot of factors that led to the IRA's disarmament, which you acknowledge in the piece. What convinced you that it was this covert dirty war more than anything else that led to the IRA's downfall?

The IRA was always a military organization: it's the Irish Republican Army. It was never meant to be a social program. The weight behind the IRA was military. That was the leverage that it had—its danger. So if you dull that edge with spies, as the British did, you force the Republicans to shift their weight somewhere else. Specifically, now it's shifting toward political efforts with Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein and the IRA go back a long way as the two fronts of the Republican movement. It forces them to use one and not the other.

As more information emerges and people become increasingly aware of this network of spies and informers, how do you think it will affect the peace process in Northern Ireland?

It's a blow. It's a blow each time it happens. It unravels the progress. For instance, when Denis Donaldson was revealed to be a spy it almost collapsed the entire peace process because his work was in the heart of the Northern Irish Parliament. It showed that the British were so mistrustful that they had placed a spy there to constantly disrupt Parliament affairs. I think it seriously eroded the trust of a lot of people in Northern Ireland.

The Stevens Inquiry, which has been investigating state cooperation with paramilitaries since 1989, has yet to lead to any prosecutions. Can the British government fairly investigate members of its own security forces in this case? Or do you think an independent commission is necessary?

To be honest, I just don't know. It makes sense that any time there's an investigation of misdeeds by a party it requires a look from the outside. So an independent investigation makes sense. I'm not trying to cast aspersions on the Stevens Inquiry, but some people do regard it as sluggish and ineffective.

You entered this story without having covered this conflict before. And I think you developed a very balanced article. Did you find it hard to paint an unbiased picture, especially since you interviewed people who had experienced a lot of pain—and who had in some cases lost close family members? Were you tempted to take sides?

It switched back and forth. You spend time with a Loyalist family who's suffered some awful tragedy and your heart sort of swings behind them. And then the same thing happens when you're with a Republican family who's lost a daughter or a son or whatever. It just breaks your heart as well. I've noticed this in other places I've been as well—like Algeria and Sri Lanka. As an outsider, you step into the midst of this fray where local factions are fighting. And just because they hate each other doesn't mean they hate you. The people in Northern Ireland are some of the kindest people you could ever want to meet and some of the most sympathetic. That's the tragedy of these things. You feel like, if both sides are such agreeable people, it's just awful that they can't seem to see each other that way. Sometimes things would happen that would swing me one way or the other. One was the realization that all of this graffiti I had been seeing everywhere, "KAT," meant "Kill All Teagues"—"Teagues" being a slur meaning Catholics. They pronounce it the same way they pronounce my last name. That's pretty intimidating if you just imagine K-A and then whatever your last initial is and it's painted on all the walls all around you.

When people heard your last name is that what they associated it with?

Oh yeah. Yeah. The only saving grace was that I was an American. I had an American accent—as a matter of fact a Southern American accent, which I think really confused people. But it was intimidating.

Why do you think there's been so little attention paid to this story in the U.S.?

Sometimes there's complacency among Americans about what happens beyond our borders—though less so in recent years. Frankly, that's why I wanted to do this story--because I myself am just realizing the impact of what happens on the other side of the globe. A more specific reason is that what the British did is really an ugly, ugly thing, and I think people in America know that we are facing some of these decisions too—hard decisions. Here's a case where our allies, the British, who we think of as just and fair and good, are engaging in things that are questionable. You can decide for yourself whether those things are worthwhile. They're certainly hard to look at. So that may be one reason why people have been reluctant to focus on it. It makes us face what's happening out there and recognize that it's happening to real people. These aren't actors on a stage—these are mothers and brothers and sons and daughters and fathers.

Do you think there are lessons in this story for coalition troops in Iraq? Do you think we can infiltrate the Iraqi insurgency without risking our souls?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The Secret History" (June 13, 2005)
Caroline Elkins, the author of Imperial Reckoning, talks about unearthing the sinister underside of Britain's "civilizing" mission in Kenya.

That's the heart of this story, I think. It's about us, as much as it's about the British. I suspect that in the short term infiltration works, in that it helps you penetrate and undermine a specific organization, whether it's the IRA or al Qaeda in Iraq. Long term, the methods of penetration are so duplicitous that you create a terrible perception of yourself. For instance, the British did penetrate the IRA and they did undermine it through duplicity. But everything comes out in the end. Denis Donaldson, for instance, all of these decades later, is revealed to be a spy and it undermines all of the work that the British have done. And so it is a quandary—it really is.

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Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic Monthly staff editor.

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