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Sunday 18 May 2003

Spy story lifts peace stalemate boredom

WELL, slap me vitals and stone the crows, I agree with something Gerry Adams has said. Apropos of our latest little bit of Northern Ireland excitement - the allegation that one Freddie Scappaticci was building by day, nutting by night and grassing on the side - Adams said that people should be presumed innocent until they are proved guilty. 

Well done, Gerry, you're making a little moral progress. Next thing we know, you'll be saying that, in hindsight, it was wrong of the IRA to suspend on meat-hooks and torture and murder people they suspected of being informers. 

Good grief, with another few decades to think about things, you might even graduate to realising that the scandalous allegation is not that Mr Scappaticci saved lives by giving information to the lawful authorities, but that he spent years doing dirty work for a vicious gang of terrorists. 

The timing of the Scappaticci story was perfect, coming as it did when everyone, even the Northern Irish, were bored out of their skulls by the latest political stalemate. Remember when all those years ago, a fractious John Bruton caused widespread shock by his reference to the "fucking peace process". He thought he was bored and frustrated? My God, nearly a decade on, we ageing students of the peace process could tell him a thing or two about boredom and frustration. 

I just had an email from an English friend who had been trapped in a London art gallery for two hours listening to Sinn Fein's tiny TD, Arthur Morgan, the UUP MP, Sylvia Hermon, Kevin McNamara MP, and most numbingly, John Hume giving uncut what has for decades been known as his Single Transferable Speech (all this inspired by a sculpture featuring the Good Friday Agreement, since you ask). 

"I felt such empathy with you", he wrote. "You must have sat through innumerable ghastly speeches like that." 

So it was no wonder that the hacks fell on Stakeknife (aka 'Steakknife') to liven up their bleak existences, or that scepticism and prudence were trampled in the rush to provide the jaded public with a new titillation. 

The vital principle of news-gathering - always ask yourself why this person is telling you this - was largely forgotten. I tried to stay out of it. 

As people asked me what I thought was going on, I kept bleating that I didn't know. And I still don't. I've been speculating about Steakknife for years, but among the myriad things I don't know are, a, were there one, two or no Steakknives?; b, how could the disgruntled lowly ex-agent known as Kevin Fulton have known the identity of a vital informer?; c, why should the British security forces be so keen to help blow an informer's cover. 

Sure, the story has sown confusion and panic in republican ranks, but it has played very badly for the state too. What I do know is that many people, whose lives have been spent defending the state, are in a funny mood at the moment: maybe some of them are minded to pull the temple down with them. 

Consider a few aspects of the Northern Ireland imbroglio. The police are deeply demoralised because they believe that the reward for their sacrifices over 30 years (over 300 murdered and thousands injured) has been their emasculation to appease paramilitaries. 

Special Branch in particular are enraged by the report of Sir John Stevens, whom they think is persecuting the good guys who used informers to try to protect the citizenry during what was an undeclared war against terrorism; and the British Army are furious with Stevens for similar reasons. 

All the security services share a sense of outrage that while their actions are subjected to intense scrutiny and dedicated agents are threatened with prosecution, the brutal terrorists whom they fought take tea with presidents and prime ministers; they note too with bitterness that the Irish state does nothing to investigate allegations of garda collusion with the IRA. 

This sense of injustice fuels the traditional rivalry and turf wars between the police, MI5 and the army as society seeks scapegoats: leaking and counter-leaking has become common. Bitter people make bad sources. Journalists should be very sceptical indeed. 

My father was an historian whose constant injunction to believe nothing unless you had two independent witnesses still rings in my ears. I can't always maintain his counsel to perfection, but I try hard to keep my mind open and not to jump to judgement until I have some solid evidence. 

There are innumerable questions to be asked about the Scappaticci story. Here's one we might be asking Sinn Fein: 'You talk a great deal about human rights. How do you justify an IRA internal security unit who tortured people until they confessed and then murdered them?' Most of the witnesses to the nutting squad's activities are dead, but their mutilated corpses bore eloquent testimony.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards