Four Shots in the Night: A True Story of Espionage, Murder and Justice in Northern Ireland by Henry Hemming; Stakeknife’s Dirty War: The Inside Story of Scappaticci, the IRA’s Nutting Squad and the British Spooks Who Ran the War by Richard O’Rawe - review by Malachi O’Doherty

Malachi O’Doherty

Belfast Confidential

Four Shots in the Night: A True Story of Espionage, Murder and Justice in Northern Ireland


Quercus 352pp £22

Stakeknife’s Dirty War: The Inside Story of Scappaticci, the IRA’s Nutting Squad and the British Spooks Who Ran the War


Merrion Press 304pp £17.99

Henry Hemming has written one of those books that get to the heart of the Northern Ireland Troubles. If I were asked by an outsider, say an English friend, to recommend a work that goes deep into the machinations of the conflict and the shift from violence to political negotiation and at the same time entertains, it would be Four Shots in the Night, albeit with some caveats.

The ‘four shots’ of the book’s title were fired by an IRA assassin into the head of Frank Hegarty in May 1986. Hegarty was a Derry man recruited by a British Army agent handler to infiltrate the IRA and pass back information on the locations of arms stores. Hemming describes how this hapless and decent man was seduced into a life of espionage and deceit. He worked alongside IRA commander Martin McGuinness to move and store guns and explosives. Eventually, he was uncovered and – according to the widely accepted account – killed on McGuinness’s orders. 

A further twist in the story is that the assassin who probably dispatched Hegarty was also a British agent: Freddie Scappaticci, code-named ‘Stakeknife’. Scappaticci was a ruthless gunman who became the IRA’s head of security, leading the ‘Nutting Squad’, which was tasked with rooting out informants and killing them. He was somehow turned by the Force Research Unit, the agent handlers in the British Army. He became, most assume, their biggest asset.

The story, Hemming suggests, may be more complicated still. Hegarty was exposed after telling his agent handlers about secret IRA arms dumps in County Sligo in the Republic of Ireland. Once these caches had been raided by the Garda, the finger of suspicion pointed at Hegarty, who fled to England. Hemming has a theory for why Hegarty’s handlers allowed him to be uncovered. His exposure came not long after Margaret Thatcher had signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. She was beginning to express concerns that the Irish government was not delivering the security cooperation she had expected. Did, as Hemming suggests, someone pass on Hegarty’s information to the Irish so that they could seize the weapons and impress Thatcher? It’s an unnecessarily convoluted theory. For those involved, jeopardising one agent can’t have seemed an unreasonable price to pay for capturing tons of weaponry.

Hemming explores the moral and tactical dilemmas facing the spymasters and accepts that at times they had to let innocents and even their own agents be killed to preserve secrets that might save the lives of others. He has spoken to retired agent handlers and clearly admires them, to the extent of describing them as super-intuitive seducers (they called themselves ‘Fishers of Men’). Poor Hegarty, we are told, was won over by an extraordinary charmer of a man while walking his dog and within minutes had been coaxed into this stranger’s van. There must have been more to it than that.

While unfolding Hegarty’s story, Hemming provides digressions on the history and theory of intelligence-gathering and on IRA strategy. These are often superficial and read suspiciously like efforts to pad out the book. He claims that the IRA insurgency might not have been broken but for the group’s infiltration by the intelligence services. But bailing out into political negotiations was always going to be the sensible thing to do once Sinn Féin had built itself up sufficiently to have a seat at the table. Hemming himself says that some in British intelligence understood that and cultivated relations with the likes of McGuinness to help the IRA’s leaders evolve into politicians.

The big question regarding Hegarty is why, after he had fled to England under the protection of the British Army to escape the Nutting Squad, he eventually returned home to Derry. Hemming’s assumption is that he was such a homeboy that he could not contemplate living away. But if McGuinness had been his patron throughout his IRA career, that might explain why he accepted at face value his assurances that his life would be spared, even though these ran contrary to the IRA’s publicly declared position that the penalty for informing was death.

I was generally impressed by the style of Hemming’s book, which is written with novelistic verve. In places, however, he overdoes it. Describing Hegarty being escorted to the place at which he would be shot, Hemming has him steadying himself as he is helped out of a car. Well, unless Hemming was there, he can’t know that, and if he was there the police will want to talk to him.

Hemming presents himself as an authority on the Irish psyche, but he gets important details wrong. He tells us that the IRA hunger strikes of 1981 awakened feelings about the Irish famine of the 1840s. No they didn’t. He says that the Maze Prison was often called H-block. In fact, the H-blocks were components of the prison – cell blocks built in the shape of the letter H. Then there is the little inaccuracy that ten men volunteered to take part in the hunger strikes. The number was much higher, but ten died before the queue for the grave was dispersed. Some of the details are borrowed from elsewhere, like the claim, which originated with Kevin Myers, that people in the Markets area of Belfast were ‘adept at rigging the scales’ with ‘slyly intrusive fingers’. I worked in the fruit market as a boy and know how scrupulous the dealers around me were. They would have regarded this as a foul calumny.

These may seem overly picky criticisms of a well-written and well-researched book, but they alert the knowing reader to Hemming not quite having the pulse of the place. Nothing in his book will be new to the student of Northern Ireland, but all of it is presented in a manner that will fascinate the general reader. Hemming has brilliantly marshalled the material of other writers and raised vital questions about agent-handling.

Richard O’Rawe comes at the same subject from a different direction. He is a former IRA man and his book includes interviews with other ex-terrorists and people
who knew Hegarty and Scappaticci. His style is punchy and journalistic. There are no meandering digressions here. He seeks to explain why Scappaticci rose within the IRA and why his British handlers allowed him to commit multiple murders. 

As head of security for the IRA, Scappaticci vetted new recruits – you couldn’t actually join the IRA unless he let you in. All the while, he was working for the British Army and passing details of volunteers back to his agent handlers. Scappaticci had attained his position in the IRA through the same man who had sponsored Hegarty’s rise and later ordered his killing: McGuinness. Some of the old Provos O’Rawe has talked to are now convinced that Scappaticci was not Britain’s top agent in Northern Ireland after all. That person, they believe, was McGuinness himself. Arguments for McGuinness’s duplicity centre on claims that he promoted Hegarty within the IRA against the advice of others who saw him as untrustworthy.

O’Rawe says that Scappaticci himself was long suspected of being an informant by the IRA. One of his interrogations of a suspected informer was even interrupted by the security services, yet he was not arrested. This would have alerted his IRA comrades to him being a protected person. Yet for some reason he was never formally investigated by his comrades in the Nutting Squad. Ultimately, he was sidelined rather than killed off. He seems to have accepted the kinds of assurances that had lured Hegarty to his death, but survived.

Both books are timely, for they coincide with the release of the interim report of Operation Kenova, the police investigation into Stakeknife and his handlers, which was compiled by Jon Boutcher, now chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The report undermines some of Hemming’s arguments, rejecting entirely the idea that the intelligence services acted correctly in allowing Stakeknife to kill because of the value of the information he provided. O’Rawe takes a very dim view of the intelligence services, particularly the Tasking and Co-ordinating Group, which consisted of senior MI5, military, police and government officials and took the final decisions on who was killed and who was spared. 

Boutcher has called on both the Republican leadership and the British government to apologise for the atrocities committed by Stakeknife, with the complicity of his handlers. He passed files on over thirty IRA members and agent handlers to the Crown Prosecution Service, convinced that there was enough evidence to bring charges of abduction and murder. The Director of Public Prosecutions disagreed with him on that. It’s now clear there will be no prosecutions.

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