Freddie Scappaticci, a barrel-chested man in a short-sleeved shirt, emerged from hiding yesterday to deny he was the infamous Stakeknife, the Army secret agent at the heart of the IRA.
He did so at the west Belfast offices of his solicitor, confounding those who thought he had been spirited to Britain by the authorities to escape a vengeful IRA.
His appearance is the latest twist in the tale of Stakeknife, one of the Army's most valuable informers, which gained impetus at the weekend when Mr Scappaticci was named as the agent by newspapers.
His denials yesterday were comprehensive. In a filmed interview with two Belfast journalists, Brian Rowan of the BBC and a freelance, Anne Cadwallader, he declared: "I am not guilty of any of these allegations. I have not left Northern Ireland since I was challenged by reporters on Saturday night. Nobody has had the decency to ask me if any of these allegations were true."
Mr Scappaticci, a tanned, grey-haired man in his late 50s, displayed perhaps surprising composure during his interview, his hands and his gaze both steady. He said he did not know why the allegations had been made against him.
Asked whether he had been in the IRA, he said he had been in the republican movement but had not been involved for 13 years.
His solicitor, Michael Flanigan, said he had been instructed to examine all recently published material with a view to taking defamation proceedings, saying his client had never been involved in any criminal activity and had a clear record. "The media coverage of this story has been reckless and extremely damaging to my client," he added.
His client had left home on Sunday, Mr Flanigan said, not because of security force or paramilitary activity but "solely because of the media onslaught upon his character".
The republican movement raised no objections yesterday to Mr Scappaticci's continuing presence in Belfast, though it stopped short of having any of its more prominent members appear with him.
At a separate news conference, Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly said: "I have no reason to want to speak to Mr Scappaticci and I don't think republicans will want to do it either." He concentrated on attacking "faceless and nameless securocrats in British intelligence who made a raft of serious but unsubstantiated allegations against Freddie Scappaticci".
The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, has said he wishes to interview Stakeknife as part of his collusion inquiry. Mr Flanigan said his client had not been contacted by the Stevens investigation team.
While yesterday's appearance has cleared up the immediate question of Mr Scappaticci's whereabouts, many mysteries remain in the Stakeknife affair.
While the most exotic and convoluted theories abound in Northern Ireland, the west Belfast man could hardly have been evacuated to England on Sunday, then returned to the city for his media appearance without the knowledge of his family at least.
It is also difficult to know how the IRA and Sinn Fein could have absolute confidence in the man's republican loyalties, given his reported role in the movement. Stakeknife has been described by sources as one of the IRA's chief interrogators of alleged informers.
Republicans would hardly give Mr Scappaticci, or indeed any republican no matter how respected, the benefit of the doubt after such a torrent of allegations without thorough investigation.
In dealing with Stakeknife they would be questioning an individual who would be both highly cunning and skilled in interrogation techniques.
Mr Scappaticci, whatever his involvement, will be carefully watched in future not only by republicans but by his neighbours in the tightly knit west Belfast community. Any move by Sir John to question Mr Scappaticci, in the belief that he is Stakeknife, would without doubt regenerate suspicions.
The 13-year period which according to Mr Scappaticci has passed since his involvement in republican activity coincides with an incident in January 1990 in which an informer was rescued from a west Belfast house.
The informer named Mr Scappaticci at a subsequent trial as one of his interrogators, but he was not charged and had reportedly gone on the run in the Irish Republic. He was said to have returned to Belfast several years later.
Reflecting the confusion surrounding the issue, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, told the Dail yesterday that when he raised intelligence matters with the British he was usually less wise afterwards than before.
Mr Ahern said he had no new information on Stakeknife. The Irish Foreign Minister, Brian Cowen, is to raise the matter again next week with the Northern Ireland Secretary, Paul Murphy.
The Government, meanwhile, fended off a request for information from the Labour backbencher Kevin McNamara. Mr McNamara said in the Commons that if the allegations about Stakeknife were true, he would be guilty of colluding in the murders of IRA volunteers, police officers, soldiers and civilians.
He said: "If true, these allegations go to the heart of British involvement in unlawful actions in pursuit of its objectives in Northern Ireland. In light of the public naming of Freddie Scappaticci as agent Stakeknife, I urge the Government to end uncertainty around his position and to ensure that no impediments are placed in the way of his questioning by the Stevens inquiry."
Jane Kennedy, the minister at the Northern Ireland Office responsible for security, refused to comment on speculation on the whereabouts and identity of Stakeknife or on arrangements for his safety.
The Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, urged the Government to show caution, saying that while there was clamour for more information about the activities of agents, there were reasons why material had to remain secret. He said the Government must not release information that could prejudice people's safety.Reuse content