The inquiry by the Historical Investigations Directorate is focusing on one of the darkest episodes of the Troubles and the role of the double agent known as Stakeknife, who ran the republican movement’s so-called “nutting squad” or counter-intelligence section.
Stakeknife has been identified as Freddie Scappaticci, a republican activist who fled Belfast after being unmasked more than a decade ago.
He has always denied working for British military intelligence and continues to deny being Stakeknife.
Relatives of those interrogated by the IRA have recently launched compensation cases against the government.
In some instances, the families of murdered informers have alleged that their loved ones were “set up” in order to provide cover for one of the British government’s most important spies inside the IRA.
The ombudsman’s office has written to solicitor Kevin Winters to confirm that a “thematic approach” inquiry is under way.
The letter says: “The police ombudsman [Dr Michael Maguire] is investigating a number of referrals from the chief constable and complaints from members of the public, relating to the preventability of murders, alleged to have been perpetrated by republican paramilitaries, of individuals accused of having acted as informants for the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and the conduct of related police investigations.”
The letter, sent earlier this month, adds: “Material gathered during the investigation of the referral from the director of public prosecutions in relation to the James Martin et al matter is held within this parallel, ongoing ‘complex’ investigation.”
Martin, who is represented by Winters, was originally convicted in 1991 of imprisoning and interrogating of Sandy Lynch, a Special Branch informant abducted by the IRA in west Belfast.
During that case, Scappaticci’s name first emerged in open court when he was described as a senior IRA commander.
Martin’s conviction was eventually quashed in 2009 because the participation of informants was deemed to have tainted evidence against him.
A spokesman for the ombudsman’s office has told the London Guardian newspaper: “ [We] can confirm that [we are] carrying out a major investigation into matters connected to a significant number of murders and other terrorist incidents in Northern Ireland during the 1980s and 1990s.
“The murders were carried out by the IRA, which alleged at the time that its victims were informants for the security forces.”
The investigation started, the spokesman said, following a number of separate complaints made to the ombudsman’s office by members of the public and from matters referred to it by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
The allegations include claims that some murders could have been prevented and that people were subsequently protected from investigation and prosecution.
The spokesman said: “While most of the complaints we receive concern allegations relating to individual incidents, in this case we identified wider issues connected to a series of murders which needed further investigation. We then broadened our investigation to look at those themes and issues.
“That larger investigation has been under way for more than a year now. It is making good progress but there is still work to be done. We are at a stage where we can now confirm that we are carrying out such an investigation. The issues involved are extremely sensitive and we will not be providing any further information at this stage, either publicly or to any individuals.”
There has been growing pressure on the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland to launch a full-scale inquiry into the security forces’ handling of Stakeknife amid allegations that lives were sacrificed in order to protect the army’s highest-placed intelligence asset. Scappaticci was a close friend of many in the republican leadership, including the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams.
Winters met the ombudsman this week to discuss the investigation. In a statement released afterwards, his Belfast solicitors firm, KRW Law, welcomed the development. It said other official agencies had, until now, been reluctant to look at common themes such as the use of informers and “mechanisms of collusion”.
KRW Law said: “The initiative of [the ombudsman] … makes sense on resource grounds and more importantly on the grounds that in identifying the thematic links in ‘complex’ investigations, initially regarding the operation of the RUC, the extent of collusion will be revealed and the nearer victims will be to fulfilling their quest for truth, justice and accountability.
“One of those who has instructed KRW Law is Frank Mulhern, the father of Joe Mulhern, who was killed in 1993. Frank Mulhern believes his son was killed by the IRA in west Belfast because he was suspected as being an informer giving information about the IRA to the RUC, and that one of the suspects in his murder was Fred Scappaticci, known as Stakeknife, a high ranking officer in the IRA, now considered to have been a British agent.
“Mr Mulhern hopes that the ombudsman’s thematic initiative will contribute to the truth regarding the murder of his son and the role of state agents and collusion and whether the murder of Joe Mulhern could have been prevented.”
Winters added: “As a law practice representing a substantial number of clients affected by the legacy of the conflict and having worked on their behalf with the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland since its inception, we welcome this initiative to undertake thematic investigations which we have long been advocating for.”
A former military intelligence officer who helped exposed Stakeknife has offered to give evidence about the role of the state agent within the IRA to the ombudsman. Ian Hurst, formerly a member of the British army’s Force Research Unit, told the Guardian: “The Northern Ireland police ombudsman will know very well my identity and my location and I will certainly be willing to help.”
The former NCO, who served in the covert anti-terrorist unit, has claimed that in many cases, IRA members accused of being informers were effectively allowed to be killed by the military and the RUC in order to protect their agent’s reputation within the movement.
Hurst provided critical information about two scandals involving the security forces and the running of agents inside terror groups during the Troubles: the murder of the Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane by the Ulster Defence Association in 1989, and later the exposure of Scappatticci as a high-grade informer within the IRA.
On the Finucane murder, Hurst gave evidence that showed almost all the UDA members involved in the targeting and killing of the lawyer were agents from one or more branches of the security forces. In relation to Stakeknife, Hurst was the principal source in revealing that the IRA’s chief spycatcher, who held the power of life and death over those accused of informing, was himself an agent for the British state.
In 2003, when the Stakeknife story first broke, Michael Flanigan, a solicitor for Scappaticci, threatened legal action over allegations that his client had operated as a spy at the heart of the IRA.
Scappaticci confirmed at the time that he had been involved in the republican movement but had since left.
He said he did not know why he was being accused of being Stakeknife.
The IRA allowed Scappaticci to leave Northern Ireland unharmed after being unmasked as an informant.
He now lives under a new identity somewhere in the rest of the world. Because of a court order, his precise location cannot be identified.