LONDON — So it's settled then -- one of the biggest mysteries of the 30-year paramilitary war in Northern Ireland, uncovered at last.
Or perhaps not just yet.
Secrets seem to beget more secrets in Northern Ireland, where for years there have been whispers that the British government had a paid informant in the bosom of the Irish Republican Army. Word had it that the agent's code name was "Stakeknife," and in a place where everyone on both sides of the sectarian divide enjoys a conspiracy, the alias was appropriately cryptic, vaguely threatening, even a bit romantic.
Last week, Stakeknife was finally identified. Anonymous British security sources told Irish and British newspapers that the informant in question was Alfredo "Freddie" Scappaticci, a 59-year-old West Belfast resident who lists his occupation as builder. They claimed that Scappaticci had walked into their arms off the streets of Belfast, the provincial capital, 25 years ago offering his services and that ever since, he had been feeding them some of the IRA's deepest secrets -- all while rising to become deputy of the guerrilla group's own anti-informer squad.
It was a sensational expose, and by the time the news hit the streets on May 11, Scappaticci had apparently gone underground. He was protected by his British army intelligence handlers on a secure military base in England, the reports said, safe from vengeful IRA gunmen. The IRA, it was reliably reported, was shattered by the revelation.
What, then, to make of the appearance in Belfast on Wednesday of Scappaticci himself, sitting in his lawyer's office in the IRA heartland on Falls Road and steadily denying allegations against him?
The papers were wrong, he said. They had behaved recklessly and endangered his family by amplifying comments from anonymous sources. Scappaticci said he had not been "involved in the republican movement" -- code for the IRA -- for 13 years and was "not guilty of any of these allegations."
To which the response of most observers has been: Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?
British army intelligence officials have continued to insist that Scappaticci is their man. But it has become apparent that there is very little that is clear in the Stakeknife saga.
Not even the name itself.
Stakeknife, it turns out, was originally spelled "Steak Knife" by the agent's British army handlers. Only later was it twisted in the newspapers.
And even Scappaticci claimed to be confused over how and why his name was published as Alfredo. "I'm Freddie," he told Belfast journalist Anne Cadwallader, one of two reporters invited to his lawyer's office for his protestation of innocence.
"He was confused," Cadwallader later told The Times. "He said: 'I don't know where Alfredo comes from. I have always been Freddie. It's on my birth certificate.' "
Some republicans believe Scappaticci is a victim of British army mischief. Whether the IRA believes so is another matter. The paramilitary organization suggested in a series of leaks to reporters last week that it believes Stakeknife was never actually a single agent but rather an amalgam of electronic bugs and spies -- an operation, not a person.
Meanwhile, Gerry Adams, the leader of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, offered only a qualified endorsement of Scappaticci's claim of innocence. On Friday, Adams accused journalists of falling for an "avalanche of spin" from British "securocrats." People should be considered innocent until proved guilty, he said.
At the very least, Scappaticci as Stakeknife would be an enormous embarrassment to the current republican leadership. He would demonstrate the high degree to which they had been penetrated by the British -- oxygen to hard-core elements of the republican movement who want no more truck with the sacrifices required of the IRA to keep the current peace process alive.
And Scappaticci could be particularly dangerous to Adams. It was Adams who reportedly set up the IRA's Internal Security Unit, known colloquially as "the nutting squad," in the late 1970s. The group is suspected of having tortured and killed IRA volunteers believed to have collaborated with the British, and Scappaticci, according to reports, became one of its leaders.
If so, he would have been a precious asset to the British. The unit is also thought to have been responsible for vetting IRA recruits and investigating bombing missions and assassinations that went awry, giving it access to the organization's membership lists and operational plans.
Scappaticci's reputed importance might also explain why army sources have said they went to such lengths to keep his cover. To save Stake- knife, they have said, they frequently turned a blind eye while Scappaticci and his nutting squad killed IRA volunteers who had never been informers, others who had and even innocent civilians.
Northern Ireland is a claustrophobic place, and even Protestant paramilitaries have said they knew Scappaticci, at least by reputation.
Protestant gunmen "would have known his name," said David Ervine, a former loyalist paramilitary who is now leader of the Progressive Unionist Party. "It's a very tiny society. In most areas, unionists and nationalists live cheek by jowl, and you know the -- shall we say -- troublemakers on the other side. You can spot each other in a crowd."
Ervine said he does not know for sure if Scappaticci is Stakeknife. But he believes last week's disclosure was a matter of the British "clearing the decks," getting a lot of the nasty old business from the days of the Troubles out into the open, trying to put the worst behind.
Could be. Or then again, maybe not.