Spooks, Sleuths and the Nazi Origins of the War on Drugs

In the years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought an end to decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, it gradually became clear that intelligence work — not military units or heavy policing — had been the key to the peace. But cloak-and-dagger tactics have their price, especially for those seeking truth in the wake of terrible violence. In FOUR SHOTS IN THE NIGHT: A True Story of Spies, Murder, and Justice in Northern Ireland (PublicAffairs, 338 pp., $32), the journalist Henry Hemming tells the story of a murdered British spy and considers the sometimes tragic choices made by people in the employ of government agencies like MI5.

The facts make for an exciting, at times astonishing read. By the mid-1990s, there were hundreds of intelligence officers in Northern Ireland trying to infiltrate the Irish Republican Army, the paramilitary organization that had fought British rule since World War I. Eventually, one in three senior I.R.A. operatives was compromised in some way.

The ethical demands on British handlers were never straightforward: “They had to ask themselves repeatedly the same question,” Hemming explains. “Will I save more lives if I act on this intelligence, or if I don’t?”

Perhaps the most fraught response to that question came in the form of Freddie Scappaticci, one of the book’s antiheroes. In the 1980s, Scappaticci reportedly served as a leader of the Nutting Squad, an I.R.A. group responsible for rooting out and, often, killing suspected informers. Scappaticci was also alleged to have been a British mole and double agent, code name Stakeknife, who oversaw the torture and murder of dozens of I.R.A. informers, including a fellow British agent named Frank Hegarty, all of which, Hemming suggests, he may have done with the British government’s blessing in the name of protecting other sources.

Scappaticci, who denied everything, died in 2023, before his crimes could be fully investigated. That same year, the British Parliament passed a bill granting amnesty to militants accused of killings during the Troubles on the condition that they cooperate with an investigatory commission. Hemming’s book is an evenhanded account of the clandestine murders that still haunt so many. “The truth will not always lead to peace or reconciliation,” he writes, “but it is hard to heal without it.”

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