Irish Examiner

13/09/2004 - 12:56:46 PM

Finucane murder plumbed depths of dirty war

The dirty war British intelligence waged against the IRA sank to its murkiest depths with Pat Finucane’s assassination.

When loyalist gunmen burst into the solicitor’s north Belfast home 15 years ago and riddled his body with bullets, they carried out a crime that has festered and gnawed at the system like few others in three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland.

Covert police and Army units who ran informers on the sectarian streets of Belfast were warned of terrorist plans to kill Finucane but did nothing, according to exhaustive investigations into the case.

Instead, the security services preferred to protect prized agents embedded deep within the ranks of Protestant paramilitary organisations bent on an unrelenting murder campaign. That was how far RUC Special Branch and military intelligence were prepared to go in their war against the IRA.

Pat Finucane's death became the most notorious result of this chilling policy.

Even now, with Ken Barrett’s admission that he killed the 39-year-old Catholic solicitor, the story remains shrouded in mystery.

Two men carried out the hit as the victim sat down for dinner with his wife Geraldine and their three children on February 12, 1989.

One security source has claimed: “The second gunman is still working undercover for the Branch.”

It is these unrelenting suspicions that the authorities have turned a blind eye to heinous crimes in the battle to defeat terrorism that have forced Britain’s top police officer, John Stevens, to mount three exhaustive inquiries.

Both the Scotland Yard chief and a retired Canadian Judge, Peter Cory, have found damning evidence of collusion.

And yet the Finucane family’s wait continues for the public inquiry they argue will shine a blinding light on to the most outrageous levels of state collaboration in murder, with the British government resisting their demands for fear of undermining any related criminal proceedings.

For loyalists, Mr Finucane was a prime target.

He came from a staunchly republican family, with one brother a convicted IRA man.

But it was Mr Finucane’s appearance in high-profile terrorists’ legal cases, including that of the hunger striker Bobby Sands, that sealed his fate.

More infuriatingly for loyalist terror bosses, he was successful more often than not.

It did not matter that no evidence linking him to the IRA has ever been produced, or that he also represented Protestants.

A statement in the UK Parliament by Home Office Minister Douglas Hogg weeks before the killing may not have helped the perception of Mr Finucane.

“Some lawyers are unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA,” he claimed.

Mr Finucane’s details, regular movements and photograph were compiled for one of the so-called personality cards the Ulster Defence Association drew up on intended victims.

The man who prepared the dossiers was Brian Nelson, a former soldier and chief intelligence officer within the UDA who was recruited as a key agent by the Army’s ultra-secret Force Research Unit (FRU).

Nelson insisted he kept his handlers fully briefed on the Finucane plot, yet they ignored his warnings.
Eventually his undercover work was exposed and in 1992 he was jailed for 10 years on five counts of conspiracy to murder.

When Nelson pleaded guilty, it stopped the allegations of security force collusion in his work being aired in court, although his former boss in the FRU, Colonel Gordon Kerr, described him as a lifesaver.

Col Kerr, who went on to become Military Attache in Beijing and served in the Gulf conflict, would later become a focus for Scotland Yard chief Sir John Stevens’s investigation into the Finucane shooting.

Nelson, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer last year in Wales where he lived in hiding from both loyalists and republicans.

Few doubt that he took a stash of sordid secrets with him to his grave.

Nearly 18 months earlier, another British agent and UDA man central to the Finucane case died. For William Stobie, the end came at the hands of former paramilitary associates out for revenge.

Stobie, a squat balding figure who once served as the terrorist group’s quartermaster, was gunned down at his home on the fiercely loyalist Forthriver estate in December 2001.

He had walked free from charges of involvement in the Finucane murder when his trial collapsed.

But paramilitaries, enraged by his claim that he twice warned Special Branch about the threat on the lawyer’s life only for them to do nothing, were not prepared to forgive.

Stobie said he told police he gave the murder squad a 9mm Browning pistol, believed to have been stolen from an Army weapons dump, and that Mr Finucane was almost certainly the target.

The agent was stunned with disbelief when news of the killing reached him, he claimed.

In the same year Stobie was executed, pressure on the British government intensified when United Nations special investigators launched a scathing attack on the continued failure to establish an independent public inquiry.

The clamour became deafening when Stevens issued his devastating third assessment in April 2003 of the circumstances surrounding Mr Finucane’s killing.

He effectively accused rogue elements of the security services of being a law unto themselves, withholding intelligence and evidence, and allowing innocent Catholics to be sacrificed as part of the war on republicans.

Meanwhile, fresh progress was also being made in the murder investigation.

Days after Stobie’s killing, the Stevens team had whisked Barrett and his family out of Belfast and into a safe house in England.

But for the menacing loyalist hitman, it was only a temporary reprieve.

He was charged with the Finucane murder in May 2003 after two of Sir John’s undercover detectives posed as international drug dealers in a sting operation mounted to secure a confession.

In covert recordings he told the officers that he “f****** massacred” the lawyer.

“He was an IRA man. He thought he couldn’t be touched,” Barrett claimed.

Judge Cory, brought in to study the Finucane case and five other controversial murders on either side of the border as part of a political deal to aid the peace process, was equally damning.

Earlier this year, he concluded there was documentary proof that MI5, the Army and Special Branch knew about a plot to kill Mr Finucane before his murder.

They failed to act because they preferred to protect their loyalist paramilitary informers, the judge decided.

With confidence in the security forces on the line, he insisted that only a public inquiry into the case would satisfy the demands.

“Without public scrutiny doubts based solely on myth and suspicion will linger long, fester, and spread their malignant infection throughout the Northern Ireland community,” he warned.

Judge Cory even stressed that a judicial investigation may be of greater importance that criminal prosecutions.

As Barrett’s guilty plea removed the British government’s reason for holding off on setting up a tribunal, the murdered lawyer’s family were left waiting to see if they finally achieve their goal, 15 years later.

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