By Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune, Publication Date: Nov 19 2000
The UDA assassination of a Ballymurphy pensioner, Francisco Notarantonio, whose killing in 1987 is rapidly emerging as potentially the most serious security scandal of the Northern Troubles, was an intelligence operation which had been sanctioned at the highest levels of the British Army and the British Security Service, MI5, the Sunday Tribune has learned. According to sources with a working knowledge of British military intelligence at this time the decision to persuade the UDA to target Notarantonio, who at the time was an uninvolved civilian, was taken at a case conference at British Army headquarters in Thiepval barracks, Lisburn, which was attended by senior officers from MI5 and a specialist military intelligence body known as the Force Research Unit.
Their decision to get Notarantonio killed was then sanctioned by a high ranking British Army officer, not attached to any of the intelligence agencies, whose decision would also, the sources say, have been known about and agreed by MI5's then Controller in Northern Ireland. He was shot dead in his Ballymurphy home on October 9th, 1987 amid allegation from SF leader, Gerry Adams that the security forces had withdrawn from the area to facilitate the UDA gunmen.
Notarantonio was offered to the UDA because its north Belfast units, including members of the now notorious 'C' Company on the Shankill Road, had decided to try to kill a senior IRA figure in the city who, unknown to the UDA, was working as a highly placed secret agent for the FRU. The agent, codenamed "Steak Knife", is believed to have been one of the most valuable IRA agents ever recruited.
Using the UDA intelligence chief and Force Research Unit double agent, Brian Nelson, military intelligence officers and MI5 fed the UDA false intelligence material suggesting that Notarantonio was the head of the IRA in Ballymurphy and a key Republican activist. The aim was to tempt the UDA with a more accessible and also valuable target.
In fact he was, as one source familiar with the case put it, a "completely innocent" man. A retired black taxi driver and a friend of the Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams' father, Notarantonio had been involved with the IRA at a low level twenty years earlier but had long since ceased to be a figure of any interest to the security forces.
The use of Nelson as a conduit for this operation illustrates the great value he had for British intelligence. While there are allegations that Nelson was used to direct the UDA towards Republican targets the authorities wished to have removed it seems, according to these well-placed sources, that he was also used to ensure that the UDA did not kill or injure British agents working in the IRA.
Sources familiar with the case say that the decision to get the UDA to kill Notarantonio instead of "Steak Knife" involved not just Nelson's handlers but also senior operational officers serving with the FRU as well as MI5 which had at the time a female officer permanently stationed inside FRU's operational headquarters at Thiepval barracks.
She sat in on FRU case conferences and then would have reported directly to the then MI5 Controller whose own office was only 100 yards away from FRU's operational headquarters and only thirty feet away from that of the FRU's operations officer.
"In practice he (MI5's Controller) was in and out of the FRU office all the time",
said the source. Sanction for the Notarantonio operation then came from a senior British Army operational officer based at Thiepval barracks.
The IRA agent codenamed "Steak Knife" whose life was saved by the FRU and MI5 has been described by former military intelligence officers as the most important intelligence asset the British Army had and still has inside the IRA. According to the sources a separate section of the FRU with its own office, exclusive handlers, drivers and other resources was set up specially to deal with the voluminous intelligence coming in from "Steak Knife". His debriefings were considered so important that they would be included in reports read by Cabinet ministers, the sources have said.
"Steak Knife" was, in the parlance of his trade, "a walk-in" who unexpectedly turned up at a military barracks far from his home and offered his services as a double agent. Unlike the majority of Republican informers his decision to betray his colleagues appears to have been voluntary and motivated possibly by considerations such as money or spite against IRA figures.
He has been paid up to £60,000 a year since the mid to late 1980's and is now quite a wealthy man. His "fees" have been paid into a secret account but efforts by him to quit the IRA and his dangerous double life so that he can enjoy his wealth have been successfully resisted by the intelligence community.
With speculation about his identity now said by locals to be "rampant" in Republican areas of Belfast it appears that "Steak Knife" was not just a source of information on the IRA to the FRU and MI5 but was also employed to direct the IRA into certain operations, some of which may have caused the loss of civilian life with consequent considerable embarrassment for the IRA and its political partners, Sinn Féin.
"Whatever Brian Nelson did - and he was involved in some dastardly acts - 'Steak Knife' was involved in far worse situations",
said the source.
"These were much worse than what Brian Nelson did. In effect 'Steak Knife' used the IRA as an FRU tool to carry out its dirty tricks".
The Notarantonio case is being investigated by a team of Scotland Yard detectives under the command of London Commissioner John Stevens and there are unmistakable signs of anxiety within the security establishment at what might emerge. At best British intelligence could be accused of allowing killings to take place unhindered but at worst the accusation could be that it directed and initiated murder.
Already the British Ministry of Defence has successfully gagged the Sunday People newspaper and is threatening to prosecute Sunday Times journalist Liam Clarke under the Official Secrets Act because of stories he has written. Also targetted is a former FRU operative known by the pseudonym, 'Martin Ingram' who likewise is threatened with prosecution.
Information on FRU activities originating from 'Ingram' was given to the Stevens team after which FRU documents, including those dealing with the Notarantonio killing, were confiscated. Former senior FRU officers, including its one time head, Colonel 'J' whose real name is Brigadier John Kerr, now British military attache in Beijing, are expected to be interviewed by the Stevens detectives about their contents.
There are however signs that the Stevens inquiry may be an extremely lengthy affair and it is possible that this delay may take the sting out of the scandal. The team's investigation into the related UDA killing of Pat Finucane which also involved the FRU agent Brian Nelson, is now not expected to end for another two years, according to informed sources. If this is correct then it may be much longer before there is an inquiry into the Notarantonio assassination and other dubious activities allegedly carried out by the FRU.
The trial of the former UDA quarter-master and RUC Special Branch agent, William Stobie on charges connected with the Finucane killing is expected to start soon but Stobie's allegations, which may figure in his defence, that his handlers were aware of the plans to kill Finucane but did nothing to stop it may add to demands for an inquiry into the affair.
One other set of co-inciding interests may also come into play. Neither the British government nor the Irish government, which may have fears about the implications of the affair for the Republican leadership and the peace process, have anything to gain by the Notarantonio and Finucane scandals becoming public. And, at least in the case of Francisco Notarantonio, the leadership of the Provisional IRA may come to the same conclusion.
© Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune, 01/10/2000.
Force Research Unit