After a week of accusations and counter-accusations, briefings, de-briefings and outright denials, only one thing is for certain: the saga of Stakeknife will cause huge problems for both the British Government and the IRA for months and probably years to come.
At its heart is the question of just who is Stakeknife, a spy so precious to British intelligence they allowed others to die to protect him. Last week he was named in the media as Freddie Scappaticci, an accusation the man himself has vigorously denied.
While the British authorities must now dread the prospect of police investigations into the affair, the IRA faces an uphill task to convince the republican grassroots that the authorities did not use Stakeknife to shape and manipulate republican activity, and to comprehensively fool the IRA leadership.
Much of the affair remains wreathed in mystery still, as is so often the case in matters of intelligence penetration,
and many more twists and turns undoubtedly lie ahead.
As of now it seems impossible that Scappaticci can remain indefinitely in West Belfast or any other republican area, given that so many believe or suspect that he caused untold damage to the republican cause.
Sinn Fein has reacted to the affair with great caution, denouncing the authorities and the media and describing the allegations against Scappaticci as unsubstantiated.
They have, however, stopped well short of giving the West Belfast man a clean bill of health. Many read much significance into the fact that Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly staged a news conference but did not appear alongside Scappaticci.
The exact sequence of events that led to the naming of Scappaticci in a number of newspapers remains obscure, though it seems likeliest that his name emerged through a combination of journalists and "whistleblowers".
Scappaticci had, however, long been rumoured to be Stakeknife. In June of last year, for instance, the Belfast Sunday People's Greg Harkin printed a story all but naming him.
That story said the paper had discovered that Stakeknife had a role in the arrest of former Sinn Fein propagandist Danny Morrison in 1990. This clearly pointed towards Scappaticci, whose name was repeatedly mentioned in court during Morrison's subsequent trial.
At that stage, and probably long before then, the IRA must have thoroughly checked out Scappaticci. The organisation either concluded he was not an agent, or decided not to move against him.
Security sources who said that Scappaticci was helped to safety last Sunday were "dumbfounded" when he reappeared in Belfast during the week. It was said that the man must have nerves of steel.
One of the many explanations making the rounds is that, unlikely as it sounds, he might have reached a deal with the IRA to allow him to return to Belfast for a time to allow things to cool down.
While some assume the IRA has not moved against him because they believe in him, many in the grassroots wonder whether republican leaders are primarily seeking to save face and to avoid admitting they were duped for decades.
A huge problem for the IRA is that their attempts to unearth Stakeknife are hampered by the fact that the agent is so tough and so well-versed in interrogation techniques.
As one of the organisation's squad which had the task of seeking out and killing informers, Stakeknife is the veteran of hundreds of often brutal interrogation sessions. In other words, he knows every trick in the book.
IRA attempts to keep the lid on the affair seem doomed to failure, partly because of the waves of unsettling confusion coursing through republicanism but more particularly because of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens.
Sir John, who has already published one damning report on the intelligence community, has said he wants to question Stakeknife shortly. Given the complexity of this affair, he will need days rather than hours to interrogate the agent.
If Scappaticci is the man arrested by Sir John, the move will cause a fresh frenzy of excitement.
Security scandals such as this often have curiously little effect on the wider peace process, where government officials and the republicans have generally been able to steer negotiations through such rapids.In this case, however, there could be far-reaching effects.
At the moment the process is stalled, the IRA having refused to give Tony Blair the commitment he demands that it will end paramilitary activity. The Prime Minister will press the organisation again on this in the autumn.
At this delicate point, any IRA killing of a suspected agent would severely set back the chances of agreement since it would be taken as confirming that the organisation remains wedded to violence.Reuse content