Stakeknife: Kenova team got access to millions of intelligence documents withheld from other inquiries

British soldiers in south Belfast in 1981. File photo from Wikicommons

British soldiers in south Belfast in 1981. File photo from Wikicommons

A long-awaited report into state agent Stakeknife’s involvement in 18 murders is due to be published today. Barry McCaffrey reports on how Operation Kenova investigators were able to access millions of state intelligence documents, held in a London facility known as the ‘Vault’, but questions why these secret files were previously withheld from other major inquiries.


IT is more than 20 years since Belfast man Freddie Scappaticci was publicly identified as Stakeknife - a key state agent who also worked in the IRA’s internal security unit, interrogating suspected informers.

Scappaticci, who died last year aged 77, was linked to the murders of up to 18 people who were shot dead by the IRA.

The double agent worked for both the British Army’s Force Research Unit (FRU) and RUC Special Branch, with MI5 also having access to his intelligence.

Scappaticci is not thought to be named in today's interim Operation Kenova report, although it is expected to reveal that many of the murders were preventable, if British intelligence agencies had acted upon the information they had.

The report is expected to conclude that many of the murders were linked to revenge, internal jealousies within the IRA, and in some cases involved innocent people being shot dead as informers, to cover-up extra marital affairs by other IRA members.

The Kenova team forwarded dozens of files to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) for potential criminal prosecutions relating to murder, kidnapping, torture, and other serious crimes.

However, the PPS recently confirmed that none of the 32 people considered for prosecution would be charged due to "insufficient" evidence.

The 32 included 16 people, understood to have been IRA members; 12 retired military personnel, including Stakeknife’s handlers; two with links to MI5; one former police officer, and one former PPS prosecutor.

It is understood Kenova investigators have already met the individual families of Stakeknife victims to provide them with more specific information and detail about their loved ones’ cases.

While the report may leave victims’ families with more questions than answers, the £40 million seven-year investigation was given unprecedented access to intelligence files which were not made available to other major inquiries into state collusion.

The Detail understands that Operation Kenova was given access to a database of 16.5m highly secretive intelligence documents held by MI5 in a secure facility in London known as the ‘Vault’.

Kenova investigators secured access to the intelligence agencies’ databases after agreeing a series of protocols and information handling arrangements with MI5 chiefs.

It is unlikely this access will be granted to any similar investigation again, particularly in light of the British government’s Legacy Act, which has halted any new Troubles-era cases and inquests and offers a conditional amnesty to those accused of killings.

Former Bedfordshire Chief Constable Jon Boutcher, now chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), headed the Kenova operation.

He told a United States Congress hearing in February 2022 that his team had “recovered records that other investigations, previously commissioned, were not provided access to”.

“We have access into MI5, into the military and into the PSNI, direct access,” he said.

“It’s something I insisted upon, having spoken to a lot of those who previously led legacy investigations.

“It’s realistic to suggest that some of the access that wasn’t provided years ago was because of the proximity of those investigations to the conflict.

“There (were) a lot of people in those organisations leading those organisations who were affiliated to a side in the conflict and therefore they made it hard to get the material.”

In 2015 then PSNI Chief Constable Sir George Hamilton spoke to RTÉ's Collusion programme, confirming the existence of the intelligence archive.

“If the Vault was to be opened, I know there will be literally millions of documents,” he said.

“I’m not just talking about intelligence documents. I’m talking about plans for covert operations. I’m talking about minutes of meetings.

“My understanding is that the IRA, the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and the other players in this didn’t keep notes or minutes of meetings or records of decisions. We did. And I think all of that has left us somewhat exposed.”

Highlighting the potential embarrassment to key individuals and agencies if the secret files were ever made public, he added: “If we’re sitting on millions of pages of intelligence documents from a very busy time, when there were killings happening almost on a daily basis, and some sort of atrocity happening on a regular basis, you would expect that there will be material that will present challenges for individuals.”

Jon Boutcher headed the Operation Kenova probe. File photo by Stephen Hamilton, Press Eye

Jon Boutcher headed the Operation Kenova probe. File photo by Stephen Hamilton, Press Eye

Mr Boutcher said in 2020: “I recognise this can be challenging for agencies, given the volume of sensitive and classified material they hold.”

“However, this issue goes to the heart of families having confidence in legacy processes,” he said.

“Many do not trust the security forces to give complete voluntary disclosure and the experiences described to me by previous legacy investigators and my own findings with Operation Kenova have shown that these fears are well-founded.”

However, Mr Boutcher’s admission that crucial intelligence documents were withheld from previous court cases and public inquiries raises serious concerns.

Questions are now being asked as to what intelligence information may have been withheld from a long list of previous inquiries into Troubles-era atrocities including Loughinisland, Enniskillen, Omagh, McGurk’s Bar, Shoot-to-Kill, Pat Finucane, Kincora and dozens of others.

In a written submission to Westminster’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in 2020, Mr Boutcher said families need to know what happened to their loved ones.

“We have already obtained official contemporaneous records identifying those responsible for murders and other crimes which were not shared with the original or subsequent investigations,” he said.

“I well understand why our security and intelligence agencies guard their information so jealously, where the culture of secrecy and withholding information comes from.

“However, the bereaved deserve to know what happened to their loved ones and where the state holds information revealing the truth it should be disclosed or if this is genuinely impossible, the decision to withhold it should only be taken by an independent judicial body and not by a limb of the executive.”

Why was Operation Kenova set up?

Calls for an investigation into the Stakeknife affair had originally begun seven years before the establishment of Kenova in 2016.

In 2009, former Sinn Féin director of publicity Danny Morrison and six others had convictions for kidnapping an IRA informer overturned after it emerged that intelligence agencies had withheld information from their 1990 trial.

The decision to withhold information from the kidnapping trial is understood to have been made to protect Stakeknife’s secret role as a double agent.

When Morrison’s conviction was overturned, the PPS announced its intention to investigate whether Stakeknife’s handlers or their agencies had broken the law to protect the agent.

Over the following six years a series of government organisations, including the PPS, Police Ombudsman’s Office and PSNI, were tasked to investigate if the security agencies had protected Stakeknife from prosecution.

But it was not until June 2016 that a major investigation was finally launched.

Victims’ families

Solicitor Kevin Winters represents several families whose loved ones were killed as a result of the actions of Stakeknife.

Mr Winters said the report will provide more information to victims’ families.

“The residual stigma surrounding the next of kin of murdered informants or alleged touts meant they always kept their heads low,” he said.

“This report will now give them a collective voice and the sort of detailed information which the vast majority of other Troubles bereaved families won’t have.”

However, Mr Winters said the British government’s Legacy Act has meant that hundreds of other families may never know the truth about their loved ones’ deaths.

“Kenova will earn its status as probably the most uniquely intensive Troubles investigation ever,” he said.

“It will book-end an era of consistently impoverished state examination of unresolved killings and herald the arrival of a new legacy process designed to make sure we never see a repetition of the Kenova model in other sectors (of Troubles killings) crying out for a thematic approach.”

Mr Winters also questioned whether the codename Stakeknife actually relates to more than one double agent who was working within the IRA – with other agents not being investigated by the Kenova inquiry.

“Whether or not the state’s input into the decision to make Kenova a deliberately Fred Scappaticci-centric inquiry, to the exclusion of all other purported ‘Stakeknives’ who were part of a wider psyops operation, remains to be seen,” he said.

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