Double Blind

The untold story of how British intelligence infiltrated and undermined the IRA

Kitson rolled into Northern Ireland in the early 1970s with considerable experience battling insurgencies in Kenya, Malaya, and elsewhere. He had learned valuable lessons, particularly in Kenya in the 1950s battling the Mau Mau, a band of rebels fighting for independence. He had rounded up suspected Mau Mau supporters, who then endured interrogation and torture at the hands of the British authorities. The Mau Mau couldn’t match the British militarily, so they resorted to guerrilla tactics, hiding in the hills and striking from the shadows. But Kitson followed them there, recruited locals with money and idealism, and infiltrated the insurgent ranks. With layer upon layer of sabotage, subterfuge, and duplicity, he obliterated the Mau Mau.

Kitson’s methods proved so effective that he wrote a now-classic counterinsurgency book, Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency, Peacekeeping, which laid out principles now being followed by American forces in Iraq. By the time Kitson arrived in Northern Ireland, Low Intensity Operations had become his instruction manual for war there. He stayed for only about two years, but in that brief period he set a new course for the British army that, for better or worse, carried it through the Troubles. By 1978, using tactics endorsed by Kitson, the army had for years been regularly stopping vehicles at checkpoints and randomly arresting drivers to screen them. One of the men hauled in that year was Freddie Scappaticci, fresh from his beating by the IRA.

The account of why Scappaticci entered into intelligence work—whether he was driven by a desire for vengeance after his beating or wooed by his handlers over time—varies depending who recounts it. Regardless, he entered into it with vigor, ultimately signing on to work for a secret intelligence outfit called the Force Research Unit. Through the FRU, Scappaticci served a host of agencies, among them MI5, a paramilitary police unit called Special Branch, and army intelligence. Eventually he became one of the most important spies in Britain’s history, working his way toward the IRA’s heart.

His handlers gave him the code name Stakeknife.

Fulton resisted British intelligence work at first. After joining the army, he was sent to Berlin for Ranger training, where he learned to follow orders, to shoot, and to work with explosives. All the while, intelligence officers hovered nearby, whispering, promising, making appeals. Finally Fulton came around.

In 1981, two years after leaving his hometown of Newry, Fulton returned. If anyone asked about his absence, he rolled up his sleeves and showed them tattoos from his brief stint as a teenager in the Merchant Marines.

Evening after evening he showed up at the Hibernian Club, where IRA men unwound in their spare time. Fulton never asked where they went, or what they did. Never asked so much as the time of day, because questions made IRA men nervous. So he faded into the walls, just another son of Newry with working-class parents and a priest for a brother. He played pool. Drank pints. Laughed at tall tales. Drank more pints. Watched. Waited.

In time, with jokes told and pints drained, Fulton became one of the boys. And after several months, it finally happened: “Kevin! C’mere, boyo. Got an errand for you.”

So it started. He delivered a package—a pistol and bullets—across town. He made another delivery, then another. Always on time and dependable. The jobs escalated in subtle increments, and as his errands reached farther, the packages grew deadlier. Bullets became pipe bombs, and pipe bombs became car bombs.

In carrying out his early errands, Fulton followed instructions handed down by his handlers in British intelligence. Whenever he overheard some tidbit of valuable information, some snippet about an IRA mission, he dialed a toll-free line and arranged a meeting. Usually his handlers told him to drive to an obscure parking lot, or a spot on a country roadside, and to wait there for a white delivery van. When it arrived, a side door would fly open and Fulton would climb in, typically greeted, he told me, by men representing the various agencies he served: MI5, military, Special Branch, all working with the secret Force Research Unit—the same group handling Scappaticci. They’d speed off to a safe house, often in a grand upscale neighborhood.

If the plan ever kinked—if his cover blew and he had no time for a phone call—he would follow an emergency plan. He’d drive out of town immediately and press a button that his handlers had installed under his dash. The button would send a tracking signal to British forces, who would then sweep in and extract him to safety.

Each night Fulton rocked himself to sleep repeating the mantra his handlers had given him: “The greater good. The greater good. The greater good.” He and Scappaticci engaged in a difficult mathematics, a calculus of souls. If a man kills thirty people to save 3,000, has he done right? What about thirty for 300? Or thirty for thirty-one?

At one point I asked Fulton whether, in light of the human toll he would exact in the course of his career, someone could have served the greater good by killing him as a young man. I meant the question to be rhetorical. But Fulton just nodded.

“Yes,” he said.

In 1980, after a couple of years working as a British spy—arranging meetings, handing over tidbits—Scappaticci joined the IRA’s internal security unit, which IRA men called the Nutting Squad. “Nut is Irish slang for the head. When the Nutting Squad found a snitch or a British spy, its interrogators typically tortured him, squeezed him for information, then “nutted” him with a pair of bullets to the brain.

Scappaticci’s history as an IRA sharpshooter gave him an advantage as an agent, and he quickly made his way to the top of the Nutting Squad. The achievement reveals either a tactical brilliance or a profound stroke of luck. The position gave him access to the IRA’s innermost secrets: missions completed and upcoming; arms storage sites; travel and security details; bombing and assassination targets. Over several years he helped foil numerous killings and kidnappings, and the information he provided to the British so dazzled his handlers that they passed it along to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher herself.

Moreover, his position atop the Nutting Squad made him untouchable. If the IRA leaders ever suspected an infiltration, they reported it to the Nutting Squad—and so to Scappaticci. If his own activities ever drew suspicion, he could simply divert attention by fingering an innocent man. Some British press reports estimate he killed as many as forty people. A former British spy handler who worked at the time of Scappaticci’s rise—a man who now goes by the name Martin Ingram—puts the death toll lower, but still “well into the tens,” including other agents. He said it all fit into the larger British strategy. “Agents have killed, and killed, and have killed,” Ingram told me. “Many, many, many people.”

Under Scappaticci’s close direction, the Nutting Squad killed dozens of people, including:

Seamus Morgan, 24. Abducted, shot in the head, and dumped by a road in 1982.

John Corcoran, 45. Told his shooter, “Go easy,” just before a bullet entered above his left ear, from behind, in 1985. He had eight children.

Paddy Flood, 29. Held captive for two months and tortured, then killed and left on a roadside. Twelve years later, it came out that Flood’s murder was a mistake; he had been innocent.

The list goes on.

Scappaticci’s handlers themselves went to extremes to protect their prize agent. Take the case of Francisco Notarantonio, the father of Scappaticci’s childhood acquaintance Victor. In his day, the elder Notarantonio—who had been interned with Scappaticci at Long Kesh—had enjoyed a reputation as a tough IRA man. “Even when the queen came here,” Victor told me, striking a certain triumphal tone, “before the Troubles started, my father got arrested and put away for a couple of days to make sure no harm came to the queen.” But by 1987, the old man had mellowed and retired, both from driving his taxi and from the IRA. About that time, a powerful Protestant gang got a description of a man working high in the IRA. The gang suspected Scappaticci and dispatched a hit squad to execute him. As the squad moved toward Scappaticci, the alarmed British directed the killers toward another Italian IRA man: old Notarantonio. Shortly thereafter, Notarantonio lay dead in his bedroom, shot to death in front of his family.

I put it to Martin Ingram, the former spy handler, that in the case of Scappaticci, the British strategy had gone amok.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “I think it went very much to schedule.”

“So you think—”

“I don’t think, I know. He was acting to orders.”

So the British government knew of Scappaticci’s killings?

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “The one preconception the IRA had is that if you are dirty—that is, if you have killed—then you cannot be an agent.” Scappaticci exploited that misapprehension. “His best protection,” Ingram continued, “was to keep killing.”

If that’s true, the British spy services beat the IRA by appealing to a belief that the United Kingdom wouldn’t sacrifice its own subjects—especially its own agents.

In Belfast I met with Denis Donaldson, a Sinn Féin party leader and an IRA veteran alleged to have run the IRA’s intelligence wing. He’s a folk hero who led hunger strikes early in the Troubles, and British investigators say he traveled the world, cultivating terrorist contacts in Spain, Palestine, El Salvador, and elsewhere: a hard IRA man if there ever was one.

We sat at his kitchen table as he smoked, cursing British “interference” and “collusion.” We had talked for a couple of hours before I noticed that the discreet television in the corner near the ceiling wasn’t a television at all. It was a security monitor, and at the moment, it showed the front door through which I had entered. I noticed, too, a wrought-iron door that sealed off the upstairs, forming a redoubt.

When I mentioned the names of Scappaticci and Fulton, Donaldson’s shoulders slumped. “I still can’t believe it,” he said, shaking his head. “My God.”

His face seemed thin and gray, the face of a man who senses an end looming. A couple of weeks after we talked, the IRA laid down its arms, defeated by a confluence of circumstances: a change in the world’s view of terrorism; apparent gains made by its political partner, Sinn Féin; and the steady infiltration of British spies.

Fulton worked as a painter by day, whitewashing the pocked walls of County Down, Northern Ireland. But secretly he made bombs, as part of a small team of demolitions experts who operated in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Some of their bombs blew up military targets. Others blew up civilians. Fulton could sometimes sabotage missions. Often he could not.

By early 1993, Fulton and his team of bombers had found something less clumsy than wires to use in bomb and rocket detonation. They rigged bombs with photo sensors, which they triggered by popping off camera flashes. The results were lethal. Trouble was, other lights—bright headlights, or a tourist’s disposable photo flash—could set off a bomb prematurely.

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Matthew Teague is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Esquire, GQ, and Philadelphia.

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