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Existence of top IRA mole Stakeknife was known in police circles three years before his unmasking

State papers: ‘British intelligence are reportedly fearful that this disclosure could dwarf the Rosemary Nelson scandal,’ note Department of Justice files

The existence of a high-level IRA informer code-named Stakeknife, his alleged roles in high-profile murder of Louth farmer Tom Oliver, and his collusion in the murder of Belfast man Francisco Notarantonio, were widely known in policing and republican circles three years before he was publicly outed as Freddie Scappaticci in 2003.

Previously classified records released by the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Justice include specific files on Stakeknife (or Steaknife) and references to his status as a leading figure in the republican movement.

A senior police officer confirmed in late 2000 that Stakeknife was a real person and had colluded in the death of an innocent Belfast man. This was done ostensibly to prevent himself from being unmasked.

Senior officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs met the children of Notarantonio in Dublin in April 2001. The Belfast man was killed by loyalist paramilitaries as he lay in bed in October 1987.

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The purpose of the meeting was to discuss allegations Notarantonio was killed on the basis of false information given to Brian Nelson (then the UDA’s intelligence officer) by members of the British Army’s Force Research Unit (FRU) to divert the UDA from a planned assassination of the FRU’s top agent in the Provisional IRA, Stakeknife.

The family believed Notarantonio, who had no involvement with paramilitaries, was killed on the basis of his Italian surname, which was intended to deceive his killers into believing he was Stakeknife, rather than Scappaticci, who was also of Italian extraction.

At the meeting in Iveagh House, Notarantonio’s daughter, Charlotte, told officials she had met Hugh Orde in December 2000. He was then a senior officer in the Stevens Inquiry investigating allegations of collusion between paramilitaries and state security forces and services. He later became chief constable of the PSNI.

“At that meeting, Mr Orde confirmed that ‘Stakeknife’ existed and that there was collusion in her father’s murder, but that there was nothing in ‘black and white’,” the report stated.

“However, Charlotte contended that black and white evidence does exist, contained in files on ‘Stakeknife’ and another British agent, Tommy ‘Tucker’ Lyttle (a loyalist paramilitary who allegedly organised a party after the murder of Notarantonio). Charlotte said that ‘Stakeknife” was still active as a member of Sinn Féin’s ‘peace process team’.”

Scappaticci was publicly unmasked as Stakeknife 2½ years later, in May 2003.

Department of Justice files from the immediate aftermath of his public identification note reports that he was a senior member of the IRA’s interrogation unit, or “nutting squad”, and that he was linked to the triple murder of three alleged IRA informers in 1992 – Gregory Burns, Aidan Starr and John Dignam – and that he murdered the Co Louth farmer Tom Oliver in 1991.

“British intelligence are reportedly fearful that this disclosure could dwarf the Rosemary Nelson scandal ... Gerry Kelly of Sinn Féin has described the disclosure as extremely serious.”

The report also said that an inquiry led by John Stevens, examining collusion with the security forces, also intended to interview Stakenife.

The meeting between the Notarantonio family and the Department of Foreign Affairs was set up by SDLP MLA Alex Atwood. Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams had also written to taoiseach Bertie Ahern in January 2001 requesting him to meet the family.

Charlotte Notarantonio told officials the family was not interested in interventions made by Adams on its behalf. That was partly attributed to the fact that her sister, Margaret, was the mother of Joe O’Connor, the Real IRA leader, shot dead by the IRA in October 2000.

The information provided by the family suggested their father being targeted to protect Stakeknife indicated they were close to knowing his identity. They also referred to him as a “member of Sinn Féin’s peace process team”.

Charlotte said the family had been subject to intimidation and harassment, including receiving bullets in the post.

“No matter how the family approached the issues, they are likely to rattle someone’s cages, whether it be loyalists, republicans or the British government.

“They are in a uniquely difficult situation because they do not enjoy the support of the nationalist/republican community. ‘Stakeknife’ is alleged to be a top IRA mole (and prominent in the peace process) so people are reluctant to get involved.”

Operation Kenova was launched in 2016 to investigate the activities of Scappaticci. Earlier this month, the North’s Public Prosecution Service announced there was “insufficient evidence” to prosecute 16 people who had been investigated as part of the inquiry.

Scappaticci died last April.

At the 2001 meeting, Charlotte described the murder of her father as a “state-sponsored execution” of a totally innocent man. She said her father had been “active” in the 1940s – serving three years in prison – and then been interned in 1971.

Based on her own information, she added, she knew who his killers were. “In fact, they had bragged about it to her brother, when they were imprisoned with him,” stated the note of the meeting. (Files: 2023/153/22 and 2023/155/23).

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