Police chief who led Stakeknife inquiry condemns MI5 for stalling investigation

The police chief who led the inquiry into a murderous British spy in the IRA known as Stakeknife has condemned MI5 for stalling his investigation, as his report was hailed by victims’ families as proof that the British state and the IRA had been “co-conspirators” in murder.

Jon Boutcher criticised attempts “to undermine me and the investigation” and spoke of a delay strategy deployed by the secret services as he revealed that agent Stakeknife had probably killed more people than he saved in the service of the British state.

Freddie Scappaticci, the IRA enforcer named publicly as being Stakeknife, a British secret agent accused of horrific torture and murder during his time in an IRA enforcement unit, died last April aged 77 before he could be charged and prosecuted for his alleged crimes.

Boutcher, who was also scathing about the “glacially” slow efforts of the prosecution service in Northern Ireland, said he could not name agent Stakeknife yet but disclosed that files containing evidence of “very serious criminality” about Scappaticci, who was from west Belfast, had been referred to prosecutors in Northern Ireland before his death.

Boutcher, who first sought to submit the evidence about Scappaticci to prosecutors in October 2019, said: “It will never be known whether he would have been prosecuted and, if so, pleaded guilty or been convicted at trial, but it is my view that he could and should have been.

“I believe that we found strong evidence of very serious criminality on the part of Mr Scappaticci and his prosecution would have been in the interests of victims, families and justice.”

He told a press conference in Belfast: “Stakeknife’s identity has been disclosed to [Operation] Kenova subject to obligations of confidentiality, which I remained bound by and I cannot make his name public without official authority.

“Thus far, the government has refused to give such authority and so Stakeknife is not named in this interim report. However, this position in my view is no longer tenable. I expect the government to authorise Kenova to confirm Stakeknife’s identity in the final report.”

Kevin Winters, who represents 12 families of victims, said there needed to be a public inquiry into the state level of penetration of the IRA and claimed Scappaticci was “not the only Stakeknife”.

He said: “We are left with the horrendous conclusion and takeaway message that both the state and the IRA were co-conspirators in the murder of some of its citizens.”

After seven years, 1,000 witness statements, 50,000 pages of evidence and £40m, the police inquiry known as Operation Kenova has not resulted in a single prosecution but the report published on Friday offered disturbing evidence of the state’s complicity in murder and apparent attempts to delay justice.

The report examined 101 murders associated with the IRA’s “nutting squad”, a unit in which Stakeknife was a leading figure that was responsible for interrogating and torturing those suspected of passing information to the security services. Sources close to the investigation said Stakeknife could be personally linked to at least 14 murders and 15 abductions.

It reported that:

  • The army’s claim that Stakeknife saved “hundreds” of lives was “implausible”, “rooted in fables and fairy tales” and should have rung “alarm bells”. He said it was probable that the handling of Stakeknife “resulted in more lives being lost than saved”.

  • Stakeknife was involved in “very serious and wholly unjustifiable criminality, including murder”.

  • There were several cases of murder where the security forces had advance intelligence but did not intervene in order to protect sources.

  • Boutcher had “extremely fractious spells” with the secret services. He was forced to hold several meetings with MI5 to raise “concerns regarding access to information, its decision to classify as ‘top secret’ an accumulation of ‘secret’ documents, the fact that solicitors representing former security force personnel had been given greater and unorthodox access to MI5 materials and my concern that its strategy was one of delay”.

  • When Operation Kenova tried to submit evidence files in October 2019 to prosecutors on Scappaticci and members of the security services relating to cases of murder, abduction and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, that “MI5 informed us that the building’s security accreditation had expired and we therefore could not proceed”. The evidence was finally submitted in February 2020.

Boutcher, a former chief constable of Bedfordshire police who has recently become chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, published his “interim” report on Friday due to the slow progress of prosecutions and the families’ need for information after so many years, he said. He described the IRA’s actions as “the most shameful evil I have encountered”.

The report recommended that the UK government and the republican leadership acknowledge and apologise for their failures.

The UK government said it could not comment in detail on the Kenova investigation until a final report was published.

The Sinn Féin vice-president, Michelle O’Neill, apologised to the victims’ families and said republicans could not disown the suffering and hurt inflicted during the Troubles.

During his press conference, Boutcher paid tribute to the dignity of the families of victims. He said the Kenova team, now led by Iain Livingstone, a retired chief constable of Police Scotland, could now proceed to its final report.

Asked whether the army or secret services could be running agents similar to Stakeknife today, Boutcher said he believed modern processes would not make that possible within the UK.

The report dismissed rumours that Scappaticci might still be alive and described as “wild nonsense” claims that Stakeknife, as a prized spy, met Margaret Thatcher and other cabinet ministers and had visited Chequers.

Boutcher said that 21 June, the longest day of the year, should be “designated as a day when we remember those lost, injured or harmed as a result of the Troubles”.

Last week, the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland said there was insufficient evidence to prosecute seven alleged IRA members and five former soldiers who worked with the army’s Force Research Unit, which was responsible for running agent Stakeknife. Three of the soldiers had been handlers and the other two were more senior.