Protected by British intelligence: IRA leader Martin McGuinness

Ulster’s deadly web

What if one of the most useful British agents inside the IRA was also a mass murderer?


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Imagine you are an intelligence officer, trying to penetrate a terrorist group. The good news is that you have managed to recruit someone on the inside, persuading them to work for you with a mix of blackmail and bribes. But now they’ve told you they’re under orders to commit a crime. Do you pull them out or turn a blind eye? How bad a crime is too bad?

That is the dilemma explored in this gripping and beautifully written book: what if one of the most useful British agents inside the IRA was also a mass murderer? What if one of the people he killed as he tried to protect his own secret was another British agent?

The story of the British agent Stakeknife isn’t new. Indeed, it’s the subject of a long-running police inquiry. But one of the problems with writing about the Troubles is that the threads are so tangled that less determined readers may easily give up. 

Many of those who understand this history best have lost all track of how it feels to be an outsider, not knowing which outfit was responsible for which horror, and when it split from some other almost identical group. So Hemmings’ considerable achievement is to lay out the situation clearly for an outsider: his skill is revealed as much in what he has chosen to leave out as in what he’s included. 

Freddie Scappaticci, generally believed to have been Stakeknife, is implicated in more than a dozen murders, but here we focus on just one, the 1986 killing of Frank Hegarty, a Londonderry man who was an IRA “volunteer” and also, as it turned out, a British volunteer.

Four Shots in the Night: A True Story of Espionage, Murder and Justice in Northern Ireland, Henry Hemming (Quercus, £22)

In a narrative that weaves together four time periods decades apart without ever leaving the reader lost, Hemming tells how Hegarty, who’d had Republican sympathies as a young man, was persuaded by Army intelligence officers to go back into the organisation on their behalf. His motive was partly financial but largely, it seems, noble: he wanted to stop the killing. 

He was just one of hundreds of sources within the Republican movement. Another was Scappaticci, who had risen further through its ranks to become one of those responsible for identifying traitors within. That made him, of course, a very useful traitor himself. 

As the 1980s went on, the IRA was more and more deeply penetrated, and Hemming makes a convincing case that the men of violence were persuaded to put their guns away partly because they knew they were losing, utterly compromised by spies. But the compromising turns out to have gone both ways: determined to protect their man Scappaticci, intelligence officers appear to have sabotaged police efforts to investigate murders he was involved in. 

Scappaticci was present when Hegarty was killed and probably pulled the trigger, but the responsibility for the death goes far wider. Hegarty was pushed by his handlers to go deeper into the IRA and was then endangered by politicians who used intelligence he had supplied to deliver a quick result. Finally he was lured home by a man he trusted: Martin McGuinness. 

It’s long been believed that there was collusion between the security services and loyalist paramilitaries. What has come to light more recently is that the British were also protecting Republicans, including McGuinness and Gerry Adams, whom they’d identified as the best chances of ultimately getting to the negotiating table. The picture we get here of McGuinness is of a man capable of delivering peace, but also capable of kneeling before Hegarty’s mother Rose to guarantee her son’s safety, then ordering his murder once he’d returned.

It was a sin that would find him out. When, in 2011, McGuinness ran for the Irish presidency, the Hegarty family denounced him for his part in Frank’s death. Other families followed, and McGuinness’ campaign was derailed. 

Hemming has previously written about Second World War intelligence, where the moral lines are clearer. Here there is only confusion: junior intelligence officers try to navigate without map or compass whilst their superiors offer little more advice than “don’t get caught”. 

Hemmings’ sympathetic attitude to all his subjects may not be to everyone’s taste. His approach is to understand, explain and describe rather than judge. But the vicious behaviour of the IRA even towards the people whose side it was supposed to be on is clearly set out. The result is a moving story of people caught up in events they thought they could control. Some became murderers, some victims and some were left wondering about their own complicity in it all. 

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