NORTHERN IRELAND: Murder most foul



Britain's top cop has found that the country's security forces passed intelligence to loyalist terrorists in Northern Ireland, which allowed them to kill republicans. This had long been suspected by republican activists, but this is the first public admission by an official British source of the link between London and loyalist killers.

In the summary of his 3000-page report, published on April 17, (London) Metropolitan Police Chief Constable Sir John Stevens found that paid agents of the army and security services were involved in terrorist crimes in the 1980s and 1990s, either by setting up the crimes or by committing the murders themselves. Stevens stated bluntly that the "security forces sanction[ed] killings".

The extraordinary thing about the report is the seniority of the person who wrote it. Stevens is Britain's most senior police officer. The report is based on documentation weighing four tonnes, including 10,000 statements.

Clearly, many in the British security forces did not like the investigation which Stevens has conducted. The first Belfast offices used by an investigation team were gutted by arson. Stevens is of the view that the arson was committed by rogue elements within the army. Stevens has admitted that he came within minutes of being killed by a loyalist hit squad. "From day one, my inquiries have been obstructed in its work — by the FRU [Force Research Unit] and Special Branch in particular", Stevens stated.

The Special Branch is a political police force, initially set up in England to counter Irish republicanism in the 19th century. Less well known is the FRU, a secret British army intelligence unit. Its members were trained by the British SAS and worked closely with the domestic spy agency, MI5. Officially it did not exist and its funding was secret. The FRU has since been "abolished", replaced by a new army unit called the Joint Services Group.

Apart from the FRU and Special Branch, the investigation was also obstructed by Northern Ireland's police chief Sir Hugh Annesley, head of the then-named Royal Ulster Constabulary. Annesley allegedly instructed the army not to provide the Stevens inquiry with any intelligence information. During the initial investigation, Stevens repeatedly requested documents from the army, only to be told that the requested documents did not exist. Such "non-existent" documents later turned up.

One of the major findings of the Stevens report concerns the killing of solicitor Patrick Finucane. Finucane had been accused by loyalist terrorists of being an Irish Republican Army member, even though there was no proof of this. Finucane was a civil rights lawyer who represented the most marginalised in society. He represented both Catholics and Protestants.

In February 1989, 39-year-old Finucane was shot dead in his kitchen, in front of his wife and children. One man shot him in the chest. After he fell to the floor, another stood over his body and shot him 12 times in the back.

In 1989, British cabinet minister Douglass Hogg told parliament that there were solicitors in Northern Ireland who were "known to be sympathetic to the cause of the IRA". This was an obvious reference to Finucane, who was the most widely known "republican solicitor" at the time. The assassination of Finucane happened three weeks later. Stevens said in his report that there was no basis for Hogg's statement and the minister had been "compromised" by misleading Special Branch briefings.

Sections of the British media were briefed by "security sources" as recently as the week of the release of the Stevens report, repeating the lies about Finucane's "illegal terrorist connections".

It had not been revealed officially until now that Finucane's murder was planned using intelligence gathered by the FRU. A FRU intelligence dossier was passed to a paid agent, a man now confirmed to be Brian Nelson, and he in turn passed it to the two gunmen who shot Finucane.

Rather than being a one-off leak, the dossier given to Nelson was part of a pattern which included "hundreds" of intelligence dossiers. These included photos, addresses and the travel habits of known republicans. At one point, Nelson said he had so many secret documents that he didn't know where to keep them. He then passed them to known terrorists and, thus equipped, Republicans could be selected, targeted and killed.

The person who pulled the trigger that killed Finucane, according to his own confession, was Ken Barrett. The other gunman is said to be William Stobie, a man known for other terrorist connections.

As a matter of law, criminal charges could be laid against the FRU officers who provided the information to assist the killing and against the surviving alleged shooter. However, it seems that no-one will be punished for Finucane's murder. Nelson died in prison on April 11.

Barrett, the self-confessed killer, has since "withdrawn" his confession. Normally, when a suspected criminal withdraws a confession which implicates others, the details of the original confession statement are compared with the statement withdrawing the confession, to see if the withdrawal was prompted by threats from those implicated. This can no longer happen as the original audio-tape of Barrett's confession has been "lost".

Finucane's second alleged murderer, William Stobie, cannot now implicate anyone from the security forces as he was shot dead before he could give evidence at his trial.

That only leaves the FRU officers who handed over the intelligence that facilitated Finucane's murder. However, London's Daily Telegraph, which has a reputation for its access to British intelligence circles, reported on April 17 that it is unlikely that any of the former or current members of the British army or security services will face prison, because the secrecy of the details "surrounding the collusion may be so sensitive that no-one is ever prosecuted".

Many republicans are encouraged by the findings of the astounding report. Still, it has many deficiencies. Other than the summary, the report remains secret. It will be read by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, his trusted colleagues and the security services. At first, a 45-page summary was going to be released publicly. After further scrutiny, the summary was reduced to 15 pages. Also, this is the third report produced by Stevens. The first was carefully worded and said little. The second didn't include a public summary.

Clearly, much information has not been revealed. The British media have openly commented that the trail of blood may reach back to government ministers, possibly even then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher chaired the cabinet intelligence committee which received reports from FRU; presumably, she also issued orders to the FRU.

The "whitewash" of Stevens' findings has already begun in the British media. The Daily Telegraph has turned the Stevens inquiry's finding of "sanctioned killings" by the security services into mere "collusion". The Guardian, which presents itself as a liberal alternative to the rest of the British mainstream press, referred to a "few" rogue officers in the FRU in its editorial on the report.

Will a public inquiry into state-sponsored killings be the solution? The Finucane family has campaigned for the establishment of an inquiry like the public inquiry into England's police force in 2000. Such an inquiry would have royal commission-like powers to compel witnesses to give evidence, subpoena documents and jail people who refuse to cooperate.

Calls for an inquiry have come from lawyers' professional bodies in England, Ireland and the USA, as well as from the UN Human Rights Committee and Amnesty International. However, Labour Prime Minister Blair has repeatedly refused to hold such an inquiry, saying it is "not justifiable".

Even if every piece of evidence was uncovered, the underlying political conditions which led to this disgraceful episode of state-sponsored terrorism still exist. Almost a majority of Northern Ireland's inhabitants do not accept the Northern Ireland/British state as legitimate, and state-sponsored assassination could rise again if the movement for Irish national self-determination revives.

These conditions can be removed by granting the long-standing call of the republican movement: a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland and a waiver of any territorial claims to the island. Only when state-sponsored killings can no longer take place can it then be said that Finucane and others like him did not died in vain.

A full copy of the interim summary report and other useful material can be found at the site of the Community Legal Centre, named in honour of Pat Finucane, at <>. Also see the British Irish Rights Watch site at <> and Amnesty International's coverage of the Stevens report at <>.

From Green Left Weekly, May 14, 2003.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.