BBC Panorama – The Spy in the IRA – Review


The Spy in the IRA, a BBC Panorama production, examines the role of Freddie Scappaticci as a British Military Intelligence informant operating at the heart of the IRA’s informant assassination team. Code-named “Stakeknife” by the Military Intelligence, his direct role in at least 18 murders is currently subject to a police investigation. The British state’s role in these murders is implicitly under scrutiny, for Scappaticci was their “golden egg” in the IRA.

Ian Hurst, a former British Military Intelligence employee, who features in the documentary, leaked the role of “Stakeknife” and, then, the identity of Freddie Scappaticci. It is thanks to Hurst that this aspect of likely British state collusion in IRA murders has reached the public, though Scappaticci is now protected from media contact by a court order.

The former Head of Special Branch in Northern Ireland, Ray White, presented in the documentary, acknowledges that his team had to, on “rare” occasions, play God. That is, to sit and watch torture and murder of an individual going ahead in order to preserve their informants in the IRA – and to save other lives.

Yet, how many lives were saved by this policy used by both Special Branch and Military Intelligence and how many sacrificed remains unknown. The IRA assassinations of Mike Kearney, Vincent Robinson and Joseph Fenton are directly addressed by the documentary. Kearney, a 20 year old alleged to have disclosed the location of an IRA explosives dump to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was shot in the head. Vincent Robinson’s body was brutally beaten and dumped. Joseph Fenton, who was paid by Special Branch to provide bugged properties to the IRA, was allegedly interrogated directly by Freddie Scappattici and, eventually, shot in the back and the head.

The documentary claims that Scappattici’s Army handlers were informed of the IRA’s internal security unit or “Nutting Squad’s” planned interrogations and murders and, yet, in the main, did nothing to protect men who were also in the pay of the British intelligence services. In the case of Sandy Lynch, highlighted in the documentary, an intervention was made and he was rescued from the IRA.

“This is the story of how far the intelligence services compromised their peace-time values in an effort to beat the IRA – a story, some have been determined, should never see the light of day,” is how reporter, John Ware, introduces the documentary.

Yet, the story is incomplete. When John Stevens, now Lord Stevens, was first brought in to conduct a police investigation into the undercover war, he was told that Military Intelligence had no agents in the IRA. He also found that related documents had been destroyed as part of normal procedure.

Moreover, Military Intelligence was working for MI5 and, the role of that agency remains unknown. “I think Scappattici has the potential to pull the roof down – on all sorts of people, whether at the top of the Republican leadership or whether in the intelligence community and beyond. And, I’ll be amazed if we get to that point,” Barney Rowan, a former BBC correspondent says.

An ongoing police investigation, known as Operation Kenova, lead by Chief Constable John Boutcher from Bedfordshire Police, is examining the role of Stakeknife and the surrounding circumstances. Many of the sources in the documentary are anonymous. It is likely that more people like Ian Hurst will be needed to come out with evidence for justice to be done.

British state collusion in paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland involved paying and, even, arming informants and culpability for murders and cover ups continues to be argued.


Loyalist Murder Weapon Found at IWM

VZ58 assault gun found at the Imperial War Museum (BBC)

VZ58 assault gun found at the Imperial War Museum (BBC)

A potentially important piece of evidence of British participation in loyalist paramilitary terrorism in Northern Ireland has been discovered in a display case in the Imperial War Museum London.

A BBC panorama show has revealed that a VZ58 automatic assault gun, until recently held on display by the Museum, has been identified by investigators as a weapon used in the loyalist paramilitary attack on a bookmakers in south Belfast. On 5th February 1992, two gunmen entered Sean Graham Bookmakers’ on Lower Ormeau Road and gunned down five civilians, including a fifteen year old who died from his injuries in hospital.

The unsolved killings have long been suspected as a case of collusion by state forces, including the Royal Ulster Constabularly (RUC) and British Army military intelligence, with the paramilitary force that claimed the killing, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), also known as the Ulster Freedom Fighters.

Investigations by Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET) and the Stevens Inquiry III  had discovered that, in 1989, RUC Special Branch had received a 5mm Browning handgun from an agent who operated in the UDA, only to return it to the group, supposedly in a deactivated state. However, the gun was then used in two further attacks which killed six people, including the five innocent civilians in Sean Graham Bookmakers’ on Lower Ormeau Road.

The other murder weapon, the VZ58 Czech-made assault gun was allegedly destroyed by the RUC. However, Darragh McIntyre in his BBC Panorama show reveals that the gun has been on display in the Imperial War Museum in London. Officers from Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman have reportedly taken possession of the weapon for tests.

The gun could directly connect British intelligence to the Sean Graham Bookmakers’ killings, as well as the murders of two Catholic men in 1988 to which the gun is linked. British military intelligence are known to have hired a UDA operative, Brian Nelson, to travel to South Africa in 1985 to meet an arms dealer. Two years later, in December 1987, a shipment of weapons, including a large quantity of VZ58s, arrived at Belfast.

British sources say that the shipment slipped through the radar of their surveillance. Whilst some of the weapons were recovered by the RUC, the rearmament intensified loyalist attacks. According to The Guardian, in the six years before the shipment, loyalists had killed around 70 people. In the subsequent six years around 230 were killed.

The VZ58 assault gun found at IWM is also linked to the 1988 murders of Seamus Morris and Peter Dolan by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), as well as the attempted murder of Gerard Burns in March of that year. The UDA were in possession of the weapon when their members carried out the Bookmakers killings before the RUC supposedly destroyed it.

As in a number of other cases, it is suspected that not only was at least one of the murder weapons procured with direct British assistance but that a British agent was amongst the murderers. One of prime suspects in the Bookmakers killings was never arrested or publicly identified, despite being known to intelligence.

In 2012, relatives of the six victims of the 1994 loyalist attack in Loughinisland, County Down, brought legal action against the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Police Service in Northern Ireland (PSNI) over collusion in the deaths. A VZ58 assault gun was used in the shootings and part of the families’ claim focuses on British involvement in arming the killers.

This year, families of more than 100 victims have brought a challenge to the chief constable of the PSNI in the courts. The High Court heard from a HET senior investigating officer that a draft report into collusion during the 1970s between state forces and loyalist paramilitary groups had been shelved without explanation.

The discovery of the gun at IWM could support such cases, as well as justify the re-opening of the Sean Graham Bookmakers’ killings case. The position of the victims’ families has also been strengthened by the legal victory last year that forced the handing over of intelligence files on informers by the PSNI to the Police Ombudsman.

Amnesty International have called for an independent investigation into a “policy where the police, army and MI5 worked with illegal paramilitary groups, resulting in the deaths of perhaps hundreds of people.”


Voices of Victims and Dissidents

General Reginald Dyer ordered the Amritsar massacre on 13 April 1919.

Some defenders of British imperial crimes argue that empires have always existed and, if the British hadn’t been dominant, someone else, perhaps, even more brutal, would have. Empire and its engine of aggression and exploitation, is, they imply, a fact of life. Be grateful it was the British rather than the Soviets or the Germans. Just as now, be grateful it is the Americans, rather than, for example, Putin’s Russia.

But, who said that exploitation by the strong amongst nations is inevitable? The nature of imperial exploitation has changed dramatically, even in recent times. Whereas, for example, the US could once brutally attack Vietnam without so much as a peep from the US population, the proposal to invade Iraq drew unprecedented crowds opposing the aggression. As a result, US actions in Iraq, vicious as they have been, have been restrained compared to the wild assault on Indochina.

The terrible crimes of the empires are fact which only silence can make inevitable to be repeated. As with most empires, British aggression was driven by dominance and desire for economic exploitation and expansion. That some sections of subjugated populations derived some benefits from this domination cannot feasibly justify the repression. If the primary intent is to dominate and extort, incidental benefits, whatever their size, cannot change the moral character of the crime.

The subjugation of people for self-gain in the systematic way it occurs with empire can only be disguised as benevolent by keeping quiet the victims and dissidents. This sadly goes on, today.

Many people have heard of the Amritsar massacre of 13th April 1919, in which a crowd of Indian protesters were fired upon on the orders of Brigadier-General Reginald E.H. Dyer, killing hundreds of defenceless individual – in ten minutes of shooting.

But how many of us know the context of the Amritsar massacre? World War 1 had a great toll on India. Some 43,000 Indians died fighting for the British and trade in the region was disrupted. The resulting fall in living standards and renewed drive for independence gave rise to a surge in social unrest and trade union militancy.

The British sought to placate to dominate in 1918 with limited provincial self-government reforms and the Rowlatt proposals of greater police repressive powers, including two years imprisonment without trial.

Indians, lead by Gandhi, revolted against the Rowlatt proposals in a series of strikes which lead to clashes and deaths. John Newsinger describes the lead up to the Amritsar massacre in his excellent book, “The Blood Never Dried:

“When Gandhi was arrested (he was soon released) to stop him travelling to Punjab, however, serious rioting broke out. In Ahmedabad the textile workers took to the streets, fighting with the police and burning down government buildings, offices and police stations (51 buildings were destroyed). By the time the police had regained control of the city, 28 people had been killed including a British police sergeant. There was a two-day general strike in Bombay on 10 and 11 April (1918) that went off without violence, but in Calcutta on the 12th troops machine gunned a crowd, killing nine people.”

“In Amritsar, in Punjab, the general strike on 6 April had been peaceful. When news arrived of Gandhi’s arrest on the 10th, however, large crowds took to the streets and clashed with troops, who opened fire. After between 20 and 30 people had been killed, an outraged crowd set about destroying British property, killing five Britons (three bank managers, a railwayman and an army sergeant) in the process. A British schoolteacher, Marcella Sherwood, was badly beaten and only rescued by the parents of some of her schoolchildren. An uneasy calm returned to the city and the protesters decided to proceed with an anti-Rowlatt rally on the afternoon of 13 April at the Jallianwalla Bagh, an enclosed space. The meeting was banned but they decided to defy it. General Reginald Dyer decided to make an example of them. He marched a detachment of Gurkhas to the rally and without any warning opened fire on the 20 to 25 thousand people peacefully listening to speeches. The troops continued firing for over ten minutes with Dyer only ordering a ceasefire when they were nearly out of ammunition. By the time they had finished the bodies were piled ten to twelve deep around the exits. Dyer made no attempt to help the wounded and dying. Indeed, the curfew came into effect soon after he ceased shooting so the wounded and injured were left screaming, moaning and dying all through the night.”

The official estimate of 329 dead, including 42 children, is likely to be too low. Nonetheless, Dyer was unrepentent, stating that it was not simply a case of dispersing the crowd but inflicting “sufficient moral effect” to terrify the Punjab into obedience.

Dyer went on to order that any Indian seek to pass through the street in which Marcella Sherwood had been attacked must do so crawling on their bellies, on pain of death. A regime of public floggings, reprisals and bombings were also instigated in Punjab.

The context of the Amritsar massacre is not simply 13th April 1919 or even the events of the years, 1918-19. The fuller context of all imperial crimes spans the entire history of the particular empire. It would be inaccurate to view General Reginald Dyer as a mere ‘bad apple’ – even if the Amritsar massacre did cause something of an outcry in Britain. What the perpetrators and defenders of police brutality in the British Raj in the 20th century kept repeating fearfully was the so-called Indian Mutiny of 1857-58, in which a violent uprising in India was put down with great brutality by the British. The 1857-58 rebellion had its own General Dyers, or worse – such as Colonal James Neill who conducted a mass pillage and hanging campaign of hundreds, including children. The death count of his troops finally stood at 6,000 – far outweighing the violence committed by the rebels, including the Kanpur (Cawnpore) massacre in which a small British force was massacred after a negotiated settlement for them to evacuate had been agreed, after which the rebels killed the 180 survivors, mainly women and children.

Imperial history should acknowledge the crimes of all concerned but, in doing so, a truthful account cannot but find the crimes of the subjugated population to pale in comparison to that of the aggressor. The aggressor doesn’t just aggress but creates an environment from which anger and violence is bound to unleash, engulfing innocent civilians. As British commander and chief, Henry Rawlinson, put it in 1920: “You may say what you like about not holding India by the sword, but you have held it by the sword for 100 years and when you give up the sword you will be turned out. You must keep the sword ready to hand and in case of trouble or rebellion use it relentlessly. Montagu (secretary of state for India) calls it terrorism, so it is and in dealing with natives of all classes you have to use terrorism whether you like it or not.”

The Amritsar massacre would be followed by a further 28 years of British rule before India won independence on 15th August 1947. This would be another 28 years of strikes, riots, imprisonments and police brutality which successive British governments had direct responsibility for.

The 20th century atrocities of the British Empire occurred in India, Ireland, Kenya, Malaya, Palestine, Vietnam, Indonesia and so on. The repressed people of the empire were not prepared to accept continued direct domination and exploitation by a foreign government. Imperial exploitation continues with the US relegating Britain to a junior role but peoples’ resistance has made it more awkward for acts of open brutality and criminality to occur.

That the British empire is still held up by some as benign or, even, admirable, reveals our ignorance of the history of the victims and dissidents. Likewise, the acts of imperial aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan. The victims and dissidents continue to be kept largely silent. The Imperial War Museums must do more to tell the truth about the victims of the massacres, revolts and resistance created by the repression of the British empire.