Police 'failed to investigate 18 murders in Northern Ireland to protect IRA mole'

Tom Batchelor
Armed British soldiers patrolling the streets of Belfast during the Official IRA's unconditional ceasefire in 1972: Getty

Police failed to properly investigate the murders of more than a dozen people during the Troubles in Northern Ireland to prevent the identity of a key agent from being revealed, according to a report.

Officers covered up a British spy’s alleged links to as many as 18 murders to prevent a mole known as StakeKnife being outed to the IRA, an investigation by the BBC claims to have found.

An on-going criminal inquiry named Operation Kenova has been launched to probe whether StakeKnife’s fellow spies were sacrificed so that he could continue as a double agent.

However, research by BBC Panorama suggested that StakeKnife’s protection as a prized agent was prioritised over the lives of some agents.

​StakeKnife, referred to as the “golden egg” by senior British officers due to the calibre of information he provided, led the republican organisation's infamous ‘nutting squad’ in the 1980s, which interrogated and murdered suspected spies.

In one case, Panorama said an agent for police in Northern Ireland was killed by the IRA despite another British spy warning his handlers he would die.

Joe Fenton was secretly providing information to the Royal Ulster Constabulary's special branch and was suspected by the armed group of being an informer.

He was shot in February 1989 shortly after StakeKnife left the house where he was being held by the nutting squad.

Panorama said StakeKnife told his own Army handlers Fenton would not survive but no action appeared to have been taken to prevent the killing.

The programme claims around 30 people were “executed” as British spies by the nutting squad while StakeKnife was active in it – and many weren’t thoroughly investigated.

Northern Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions Barra McGrory QC said “the people who carried out these murders were not properly investigated or brought to justice”.

"What we're talking about here are almost parallel processes,” he said.

"We have one in which there's a police investigation, but all along there is an entirely secret dimension to these events.

"Now that drives a coach and horses through the rule of law.”

Panorama said British spy agencies were forced to make a choice between protecting its key agent, StakeKnife, and with him the flow of intelligence that was saving many other lives, or probing fully each death and risk outing him as a mole.

Former head of Belfast Special Branch Ray White, asked if the intelligence services sometimes had to “play God” in deciding whose life should be saved, said: “Those decisions were thankfully rare in terms of having to make that particular determination. In the one or two circumstances that I do have a recollection of, we did our utmost.”

In 2003 StakeKnife was widely named as west Belfast man Freddie Scappaticci but he has always strongly denied the allegation.

Almost 50 detectives are working on the StakeKnife investigation and have uncovered significant new evidence.

The investigation was launched after Mr McGrory referred the multiple allegations to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

Panorama will be broadcast on BBC One on Tuesday night.