In 1989, a Belfast solicitor named Patrick Finucane was murdered by two gunmen who had burst into his living room, having sledgehammered down his front door. He was hit by a over a dozen rounds in front of his wife and children. His killers were members of a loyalist organisation, The Ulster Defence Association. Finucane came from a family steeped in the republican tradition, although he had never been convicted of any offence. His status as a UDA target extended from his role in representing IRA members in the courts. A lot of terrible things happened before Finucane’s murder and after. At a human level, his death was sadly only one of many carried out by organisations on both sides of the republican/loyalist divide. From the point of his death, however, there was strong evidence that state security forces had colluded with the killers. Finucane’s death has special political significance, even now.
I spent a while as an army private in The Black Watch, a few years after Brian Nelson. Later, I served as an officer alongside some of the best people you could meet, in Derry, Northern Ireland. The office of the Force Research Unit (FRU) was above one of mine. Nelson and the FRU were at the heart of the Patrick Finucane murder case, along with the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). It was 1992 and Finucane’s death was, three years later, still raw. Some years later, a couple of years ago, I was the shadow minister for Northern Ireland when Owen Patterson was Secretary of State. It was Patterson, a decent man, who announced a(nother) inquiry into the murder. While I have no special knowledge of the Finucane murder nor the events which surrounded it, my life’s meanders have given me a modest sense of some of the issues. So, when the latest Finucane Inquiry reported last week, I took a keen interest.
The report, not a public inquiry but essentially a review of two previous inquiries, concludes that there was no state conspiracy in respect of Finucane’s murder. You can read it for yourself and make up your own mind, but I was struck by the view of the report’s author that 85% of the Ulster Defence Association’s intelligence at that time was coming from state security service sources. It’s also clear that the FRU was deliberately operating outside the control of the special branch and of security services, as ‘police primacy’ dictated – this was widely known at the time, of course. The FRU avoided appropriate control by being labelled a ‘force protection’ asset. That is, it was not subject to proper state oversight because it was flagged as a unit that protected troops, rather than being recognised as one that gathered intelligence for wider use. The ‘wider use’ was in theory to help prevent attacks on individuals. There is some evidence that the FRU helped prevent one likely fatal attack on prominent Sinn Fein politician Gerry Adams. However, it is clear that in its search for good intelligence, and its facilitating of double agents like Brian Nelson inside the UDA, the FRU moved beyond political, and perhaps even full military, control and onto its own agenda. In the world of intelligence, you have to give some to get some. But this new report argues that 85% of the UDA’s intelligence came from the FRU and other state sources. That was too much to give, whatever it got in return. Does that amount to a state consipiracy, though?
Well, as the report makes clear, politicians of all colours failed to provide legislation which covered agent-handling in Norther Ireland. I’m afraid to say that that seems to me a kind of ‘zen’ organising, or organising without organising. If you keep your eyes averted, it might go away, sort of thing. That was a significant failing. Does that amount to a state conspiracy?
Here’s what I think. Politicians didn’t ask enough questions – how do we handle double-agents, General? Or how about, ‘why is the Army handling agents at all’? Military chiefs, I”m afraid, probably knew more than the report suggests. The FRU was run by a Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier) – his immediate boss was a Brigadier or even arguably the Commander Land Forces, a Major General. And I remember another thing, myself….
The soldiers of the FRU were, for the main part, not very impressive – most were second or third grade personnel destined for perhaps one more promotion in their careers, if they were lucky. This much was obvious through personal contact with them, and it was well known in the military and police communities at the time. Sure, they were managed by an Intelligence Corps Lt Col, and I’ve no doubt they saved the lives of some soldiers and civilians alike. But what in God’s name were such ropey individuals doing, in numbers and over time, running agents like Nelson who, it is now clear, were actually themselves ‘running’ the FRU?
The failure of the state in the Finucane case was colossal. That’s obvious. But was it a state conspiracy? Well: pay your money and make your choice. A unit in effect dedicated to handing information to the UDA, an MI5 which knew of the direct threat on Finucane’s life but decided not to tell him? I’d call that a secret state conspiracy at the very least.
It’s time for a full, independent inquiry.