Come spy with me (part 2)

John O'Neill johnfergaloneill at
Mon May 19 10:43:56 MDT 2003

He had served twice in the North, once in Derry and once in Co Fermanagh,
but he left the FRU and the British army in the early 1990s. It was during
his stint in Derry that he came across the existence of Steak Knife. He was,
he recalled, sitting in the FRU office in Ebrington Barracks when the phone
rang. At the other end was a junior police officer who said a man in RUC
custody had given them the number after claiming that he worked for a
soldier identified as an agent handler in the FRU. Ingram consulted the
FRU's files and quickly confirmed that the arrested man was who he said he
was. He was released.

The arrested man was Steak Knife, whom Ingram described as possibly the most
important IRA informer ever recruited by the authorities in the North - so
important that the RUC Special Branch constantly tried to poach him. The
phone call that night was evidence of another unsuccessful attempt.

In the parlance of the intelligence world, Steak Knife was a walk-in. The
vast bulk of informers are blackmailed into service; walk-ins volunteer.
Ingram did not know what motivated Steak Knife to offer his services but
speculated that it was down to greed or a grudge. He was paid, at that time,
about stg£60,000 (?85,000) a year, transferred into a secret account.

By the time Ingram was briefing the media about him, Steak Knife was a
wealthy man who yearned to leave Ireland to enjoy his money. Ingram said he
wanted to tell the world about Steak Knife because he symbolised the moral
sewer the intelligence agencies had created in the North in their pursuit of
the Provisional IRA. Steak Knife, he said, had been given carte blanche by
his FRU handlers to murder almost indiscriminately. He estimated that
several dozen people had died as a result of his activities.

He then told the story of how Francisco Notarantonio (66) met his death, how
he had been sacrificed to save Steak Knife. It was a chilling tale. It began
with a warning from Brian Nelson, the UDA double agent, that his colleagues
planned to assassinate Steak Knife, whom they had identified as an important
IRA figure. Alarmed, the FRU's senior officer convened a case conference
with colleagues from MI5 at Thiepval Barracks, the British army's HQ in
Lisburn, south of Belfast.

They all agreed, said Ingram, thatsuch was his intelligence value that Steak
Knife must be saved at all costs and that the UDA should be steered to
another target instead, who would be presented as a more important IRA
figure. Notarantonio, a friend of Gerry Adams's father and an IRA member in
his youth, was chosen. Notarantonio had long ceased to be a significant IRA
member, and whether the real reason he was chosen was because he had an
Italian name, and whether the UDA was told it had chosen the wrong Italian,
can only be matters of speculation.

According to Ingram, the FRU-MI5 decision was endorsed by a senior British
army officer unconnected to the intelligence world and by MI5's then
Northern Ireland controller. Notarantonio's fate was sealed. At 7.30 a.m. on
October 9th, 1987, UDA gunmen broke into his Ballymurphy home and shot him
dead. Locals commented that the usually heavy security presence was
strangely absent from Ballymurphy that morning.

Ingram has always refused to identify Steak Knife, but he has excluded
certain republicans, an important point given the widespread speculation
that someone involved in shaping the IRA's peace strategy was the double
agent. Steak Knife, he always said, was not a public figure, an assertion
given credibility by the UDA's willingness to switch its attack to

But republicans and their sympathisers have gone to great lengths to
puncture Ingram's claims, not least because of the perceived link between
Steak Knife's sabotage of the IRA and the peace process. In Ingram, however,
they have chosen a target who is difficult to discredit. He has publicised
many embarrassing and damning details of the FRU's handling of Nelson and of
its efforts to impede the investigation of Finucane's death. The UK Ministry
of Defence has gagged his memoirs in the High Court in London, British
intelligence has burgled his home and he has given evidence at the Saville
Inquiry challenging military claims that the IRA planned to fire on troops
on Bloody Sunday. These are hardly the actions of a person motivated by a
desire to advance the interests of the British security establishment.

And his claim that Steak Knife exists has now, after years of official
obfuscation, been supported by Sir John Stevens, the commissioner of the
Metropolitan Police, who has said he wants to question Steak Knife as part
of his investigation of security breaches in the North, and by the British
Defence Secretary, Geoffrey Hoon. So it seems Steak Knife exists, but his
identity, after the week's confusing events, is as uncertain as ever.

It was, though, no surprise in republican circles that in the past seven
days suspicion has grown that Steak Knife worked in the IRA's security
department, the section of the organisation tasked with rooting out and
killing informers throughout Ireland.

The security department, whose two leaders were for years known by the
fearsome nicknames of Burke and Hare, after the 19th-century Scottish
bodysnatchers, was set up in the late 1970s as part of the reorganisation of
the IRA into cells.

Until then, counterintelligence was the job of local intelligence officers,
but the function was centralised and its members given extraordinary powers.
The department vetted every IRA recruit and so knew the entire make-up of
the IRA. It was also empowered to investigate every failed IRA operation and
interrogate operatives for signs of treachery - hence the fear and distaste
with which other IRA members viewed it.

One way or another, the department had intimate knowledge of the IRA's
activities and command structures. This gave the security department great
sway over the IRA, but it also turned it into the organisation's Achilles'
heel. A well-placed agent in the department's ranks could devastate the
organisation and give the British (and Irish) authorities enough information
to recruit scores of operational informers.

Yet the IRA's commanders never took two elementary precautions against the
subversion of the department's leaders.

The same people, more or less, ran it from its inception, meaning if one of
them was an agent, he would be a very long-term and well-informed one. And
its leaders were invariably middle-aged men whose days of active IRA service
had ended and whose vulnerability to the threat of lengthy imprisonment was
great. Also, the IRA leadership had never resolved a potentially deadly
dilemma: the security department vetted the IRA, but who would vet the
security department?

Suspicion the department had been penetrated by the British was for years
rampant at all levels of the IRA. It surfaced acutely in the winter of 1987,
not long after Steak Knife had joined the FRU's team of agents. Armed with
tons of smuggled Libyan weapons, the IRA planned to launch a huge offensive
in Ireland, Britain and Europe, beginning with the assassination in Brussels
of Sir Geoffrey Howe, then Britain's Foreign Secretary, followed in December
that year by the bombing of Gibraltar, Britain's quaint colony at the tip of
Spain. The same IRA team had been chosen to carry out both attacks.

But the attempt on Howe's life had to be abandoned on the day chosen for the
killing when his regular route to a NATO meeting was suddenly changed. The
attack on Gibraltar was similarly called off when the target, a weekly
parade by a British army band, was abruptly cancelled. It should have been
the security department's job to investigate both operations, but in the
case of Gibraltar there was neither an inquiry nor any effort to link it to
the failed attack on Howe's life.

Three months later, the IRA relaunched the Gibraltar attack. Three of its
most valued activists were shot dead in the colony by the SAS. The IRA's new
offensive had got off to the worst possible start, a dramatic high point in
a series of military reverses suffered by the IRA in these years,
theultimate effect of which was to make an alternative peace strategy

With hindsight, it was clear informers were at work elsewhere in the IRA;
they had warned the British of both attacks, giving the SAS time to prepare
for the IRA's return to Gibraltar. But the IRA would not have gone back to
the colony had the security department done its job. This ability to divert
or distract internal suspicions, to exonerate real informers and disguise
their treachery, is the real reason an agent in the security department
would be so valuable.

The shadow of Steak Knife has hung like a black cloud over the peace process
for years, threatening to destabilise the Adams leadership in the
Provisionals and to embarrass the British. But the past remarkable week has
ended happily for both. If Scappaticci is not Steak Knife, as he claims,
then the real double agent is free to resume his activities, more secure
than ever and less likely to discomfit his handlers. On the other hand, the
doubts and claims of dirty tricks surrounding Scappaticci enable the Sinn
Féin leadership to dismiss the episode as the result of the inventions of
British intelligence and the gullibility of the media. This may just have
been Steak Knife's finest hour.

. Ed Moloney is author of A Secret History Of The IRA

© The Irish Times

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