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Why MI5 sanctioned the murder of a pensioner
By Harry McGee Sunday Tribune (23.6.02)

The UFF killers who pulled into Whitecliff Parade in republican Ballymurphy on the morning of October 9, 1987 believed they were about to "whack" a top Provisional. The two gunmen, dressed in boiler suits and balaclavas, broke into the terraced house at around 7.30 and rushed up the stairs, bursting into the bedroom. Their intended victim was still in bed but his wife had made it as far to the bedroom door after hearing the crash downstairs. They pushed her aside and shot him in the chest before shooting him twice in the back. He died immediately.

But Francisco Notarantonio could never have fitted the profile of a leading IRA man. He was a republican sympathiser, sure, and a close friend of Gerry Adams’ father. But he was now a 66-year-old grandfather who had retired from taxi driving about two months beforehand. Forty years beforehand, he had been interned and may have had some low-level involvement with the IRA in the past. But that had been three decades beforehand.

His murder by the UFF, a cover name for the UDA, was put down as another targeting by loyalist paramilitaries of an innocent Catholic civilian at a time of when sectarian killings were frequent occurrences. But from the start, there were rumblings about the singling out of Notarantonio by loyalists who usually shot Catholics on the street or close to their own patches. This killing had clearly involved a huge amount of planning and intelligence-gathering; the gang also had to run the considerable risk of leaving their own turf to travel deep into enemy territory, with the added risk of being stopped at a security checkpoint.

Why would the UFF/UDA have gone to such inordinate lengths to kill a pensioner who had last been involved two decades before the Troubles began. In time, his family’s suspicions would be borne out about the unsettling nature of Notarantonio’s death. As evidence began to emerge about the intelligence services colluding with loyalist paramilitaries, it became apparent that Notarantonio, in effect, was a substitute target, his details given to the UDA to prevent it assassinating a leading figure in the republican movement.

The Force Research Unit _ the shadowy British Army Unit _ had learnt from the double agent it handled, Brian Nelson, that the infamous UDA C Company from the Shankill Road, had decided to kill this senior IRA member in 1987. But what the UDA was unaware of was that this IRA member was also an FRU agent. Code-named Steak Knife, this agent has gained huge notoriety, and generated massive paranoia, within the IRA and is believed to be the most valuable IRA agent the FRU and MI5 have handled. The 1987 murder of Notarantonio has again come to the fore as a result of the BBC Panorama two-part special investigation into collusion between British security forces and loyalists, ‘A Licence to Murder’. Reporter John Ware travelled to the Far East to interview Brigadier John Gordon Kerr, the head of the FRU between who has since been promoted to Brigadier and is now British military attaché in Beijing.

Kerr has stated that the FRU had no prior knowledge that the UDA/UFF were going to target Belfast solicitor, Pat Finucane. Ware’s secret recording of his interviews with a leading member of that UDA company, Ken Barrett, seems to contradict that assertion. Barrett - who is now in hiding after the murder of fellow gang-member and special branch agent William Stobie - admits in the interview that he was one of the two gunmen who murdered Finucane in his north Belfast home in February 1989. In his conversations with Ware, he talks candidly about secret meetings with a member of the security forces who wanted Finucane killed, and who told him the route to his home would be "clean"; without any security checkpoints. He also says that Nelson _ who was the UDA’s head of intelligence - provided the identifying photograph and also drove Barrett and another member of the gang by Finucane’s family home. According to Barrett, Nelson told him Finucane would be home if his car was in the driveway because he never went anywhere without his car. When detectives in the Stevens team finally came to examine the FRU’s secret files _ after their existence was revealed by a former FRU soldier whose alias is Martin Ingram _ they were surprised to find there was a lack of any information or intelligence on Finucane. "It was almost as if it was a non-event," says a former member of the team. Kerr has said that Nelson thought the intended target was Patrick Mc Geown, a client of Finucanes. It is believed that the Stevens inquiry has also concluded that Nelson knew that Finucane was the intended victim.

"I am not prepared," says Pat Finucane’s son, Michael, also a solicitor, "to accept [the FRU’s] story that they only knew the half of it." One intriguing aspect of the first part of the investigation was that MI5 was not mentioned at all. Agents and informers in the North were handled by three separate, and competing, agencies, military intelligence (the FRU); police intelligence (the special branch) and MI5, all of which vied against each other for the influence and kudos that came with recruiting an important agent.

According to informed observers of the activities of intelligence services, MI5 _ at its base in office buildings near the old speaker_s house in Stormont - would have received a copy of every FRU document that was generated. The three separate services held regular ‘tasking and co-ordinating group’ meetings to ensure that routine security operations (such as checkpoints and patrols) did not interfere with any intelligence operations that were under way. It would have been inconceivable that MI5 was not aware of the that Brian Nelson was a double agent.

In late 2000, The Sunday Tribune revealed that, according to sources, the murder of Notarantonio was an intelligence operation which had been sanctioned at the highest levels of the British Army and the British Security Service, MI5. Quoting sources with a "working knowledge of British military intelligence at this time", Northern Editor Ed Moloney wrote that 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, attended by senior officers from MI5 and the FRU. The 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 said, have been known about and agreed by MI5's then Controller in Northern Ireland. One of the former members of the Stevens team, Det Sgt Nicholas Benwell, has said that they came to the conclusion that there was an agreement between Nelson and his handlers that the loyalist should target what they described as the "right people", IRA members rather than Catholic civilians. However, many of the top IRA members survived and were never targeted. One theory posited is that the primary purpose in running Nelson wasn_t to protect civilian lives (and ergo, go after known IRA men) but was to ensure that the UDA did not accidentally target IRA agents _ a strategy that was allegedly pursued with Notarantonio’s murder. And so who is Steak Knife? Virtually all of the IRA’s leadership has been mentioned as possible suspects in recent years. According to informed sources, the person who is believed to be Steak Knife didn’t have a high profile in the movement. His importance to the FRU was such that a separate section was set up specifically to handle the large volumes of intelligence that emanated from him and his debriefing were important enough to have been read by British cabinet ministers.

Steak Knife, it is rumoured, went to the military intelligence of his own volition and wasn’t ‘turned’ after an arrest, which is the normal recruiting process for agents and informers. Believed to be a double agent since the mid-1980s, his primary motivation may have been a monetary one. It has long been suspected that he was instructed by his FRU and MI5 handlers to direct the IRA into a number of embarrassing operations, which resulted in the loss of civilian lives.