7 August 2003 Edition
Tell the truth about collusion
BY LAURA FRIEL
This weekend, tens of thousands of people, from all over Ireland and further afield, will be marching in Belfast in support of the families of hundreds of people believed to have been killed as a direct consequence of Britain's collusion strategy.
Collusion has been part of the Six-County state since its creation. British forces and unionist paramilitaries have traditionally shared intelligence, weapons and personnel. But in the 1980s, under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, members of the British cabinet and their military intelligence agencies developed a specific collusion mechanism that established state sponsored murder as a formal strategy at the heart of British policy in Ireland.
This weekend, tens of thousands of people, from all over Ireland and further afield, will be marching in Belfast in support of the families of hundreds of people believed to have been killed as a direct consequence of Britain's collusion strategy. But this isn't just a march of solidarity and remembrance.
The British government would like us to believe that collusion is simply a matter of past grievances outside the new dispensation of the current peace process. But until the mechanisms have been dismantled, the strategy denounced and the truth revealed collusion cannot be consigned to the history books.
The death of Belfast defence lawyer Pat Finucane and the subsequent exposure of British collusion in the killing has shocked the world. Ten years later and in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, the death of Rosemary Nelson, in almost identical circumstances, is more than shocking.
The recent killing of William Stobie, a loyalist who knew too much, just days after he supported the call for a public inquiry into the Finucane murder further suggests collusion is far from a thing of the past.
The British state, through agencies like the FRU and Special Branch, rearmed, reorganised and redirected loyalist death squads. Supplying unionist paramilitaries with modern weaponry had an immediate and deadly impact on the number of killings in the north of Ireland. Within six years of the arrival of weaponry, procured in South Africa and smuggled into the Six Counties by British agents, loyalist murder gangs had increased their capacity to kill by 300%.
Through a network of agents, like Brian Nelson, the British state identified targets, supplied intelligence and provided back up to the killers. The FRU had the authority to ensure loyalist gunmen on a 'hit' a clear run to and from their target while Special Branch ensured any investigation into the killing did not result in prosecutions.
In other words, the British state established an effective murder machine that enabled them to commission the killing of citizens within its own jurisdiction. The British justified collusion to themselves by promoting the notion that they were 'taking the war to the IRA' but in fact once the machinery of murder was up and running, no one was safe.
They killed politicians, civil rights activists, election workers, defence lawyers and Catholic civilians. They killed to cover their agentsí tracks. They killed agents who had outlived their usefulness and loyalists who knew too much. And they sacrificed their own soldiers and members of the RUC to retain their agents' cover.
But by the late 1980s the secret operation of the collusion strategy began to be exposed. In August 1989, the UDA killed Loughlin Maginn and claimed that he was a member of the IRA. To support their claim, the UDA produced classified British Intelligence documents that identified Maginn as an IRA Volunteer. In the months that followed, thousands of British Intelligence documents in the hands of loyalists were shown to the media.
British police chief John Stevens was quickly dispatched to investigate the subsequent allegations of collusion. Stevens' investigation was initially based on the premise that collusion was nothing more than the leaking of documents. But the inadvertent arrest of the British agent at the heart of UDA Intelligence network, Brian Nelson, and his admission that he was working for the FRU further exposed the nature of British collusion.
As a consequence of Nelson's exposure, the British state was no longer able to completely hide its hand. Covert attempts by the FRU, the hiding of Nelson's paperwork at Palace Barracks and the mysterious fire at Stevens' offices failed and Nelson's prosecution proceeded.
The British feared that the information that might be exposed during a lengthy court case so much that they had to deploy 'public' mechanism to curtail the trial. The subsequent cover up involved the then British PM John Major, who met the trial judge Basil Kelly and the head of the British judiciary in the North, Chief Judge Brian Hutton.
It involved the then Attorney General Patrick Mayhem and British Defence Minister and former NIO Secretary of State Tom King, who provided a character reference for Nelson. And it also involved the partial exposure of the FRU and its operation by the trial attendance of Colonel 'J', now Brigadier Gordon Kerr, the then head of the FRU. Kerr remains a key military and political figure under Tony Blair as British military attaché to Beijing.
The most politically dynamic revelation to come out of Stevens' investigation was the exposure of Nelson's involvement in the killing of Pat Finucane. The killing of a defence lawyer attracted worldwide attention and created an international lobby in the campaign to end collusion.
To date, the British government has initiated three probes by John Stevens. All three have been little more than exercises in damage limitation and a mechanism to stem the growing tide of international opinion which supports the families' call for an independent public inquiry.
As information has increasingly emerged into the public arena, Stevens has presented a rollercoaster of notions about collusion. At first collusion was presented as a matter of unofficial 'leaks' between regular and irregular pro-British forces. In this scenario, there is no guiding hand, no pattern, no strategy, just the collective result of individual acts of collusion. Stevens focused upon indigenous groups like the UDR and unionist paramilitaries.
But the 'leaks' scenario collapsed as soon as Nelson revealed himself as a British agent working for a unit of British Military Intelligence. Then collusion became the consequences of a 'rogue' agent, Nelson, who it was claimed had strayed beyond his sanctioned role with the FRU. But that proved to be equally unsustainable.
Fearing his potential as a whistleblower, the British state felt compelled to rush to Nelson's defence, manipulating the operation of the justice system and providing a British cabinet minister, Tom King and British Army officer, Gordon Kerr, as character witnesses during the trial. Nelson was described as a 'courageous hero' by Kerr and a 'valuable agent' by King.
Currently, the FRU are being presented as a 'rogue' unit that acted beyond the sanction of their military and political masters but that lie is already being exposed. The range of agencies involved in the Finucane killing and cover up shows the FRU was far from a solo player.
The increasing insight into the operation of the FRU, the unit's close working relationship with Special Branch and MI5 control of both agencies further undermines any notion that the FRU was acting alone.
Former FRU agents have already confirmed the close day-to-day monitoring of their activities by MI5 and the detailed documentation generated by the FRU suggests a level of accountability unlikely to allow operation outside the control of their political and military masters.
Through MI5 to the Joint Intelligence Committee, the collusion chain of command runs directly to Number 10 Downing Street and the heart of the British government. The JIC is directly accountable to the British Prime Minister.
But one key aspect of the collusion controversy has been successfully sidelined by the British so far. Supplying intelligence, even engaging in a cover up after the event, is one thing but supplying weaponry is quite another. The way in which British Military Intelligence rearmed unionist paramilitaries is an aspect of collusion yet to be 'investigated' by Stevens.
In 1996, relatives of some of those killed as a consequence of collusion presented a submission to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa, urging investigation into an arms shipment, organised by British agents during the former Apartheid regime to loyalists in the north of Ireland.
In 1985, Dick Wright, a loyalist from Portadown and British agent, travelled from South Africa to the North of Ireland. At the time, Wright was working in South Africa as an agent for an armaments company, Armscor. In Belfast, Wright met a leading member of the UDA, now widely believed to have been a British agent, and offered to supply loyalists with weaponry worth at least a quarter of a million pounds.
A second British agent was duly dispatched to South Africa to secure the deal. In June 1985, Brian Nelson travelled to South Africa. His trip was authorised by the British MoD and by a British minister whose identity is as yet unknown. In South Africa, Nelson was met by another British agent with loyalist connections, Charles Simpson.
Charles Simpson, an MI5 agent and former member of Tara, a loyalist paramilitary group headed by the notorious William McGrath, was then working as a member of the equally notorious South African Defence Forces. In Durban, Simpson took Nelson to inspect the shipment of weaponry that was later smuggled into the North of Ireland.
Final arrangements for the shipment were completed in December 1987. According to Nelson, he kept MI5 informed throughout, passing on all details including the method to be used to smuggle the weapons into the North.
The arms were dispatched in crates marked as containing ceramic tiles at the end of December 1987 by a Lebanese intermediary employed by an American arms dealer working for the South Africans. Dick Wright had previously worked for the same American in London.
The shipment is believed to have consisted of 200 AK47 automatic rifles, 90 Browning pistols, 500 fragmentation grenades, 30,000 rounds of ammunition and 12 RPG7 rocket launchers.
The weapons were landed in the north of Ireland in January 1988. Many of the weapons were Czech made and had been initially captured from the PLO by the Israelis, who sold them to Armscor.
The shipment was shared out between three unionist paramilitary groups, the UDA, UVF and Ulster Resistance. Part of the shipment was lost when a car carrying some of the weapons was stopped by the RUC outside Portadown and a dump raided in North Belfast but the bulk of the shipment still remains in loyalist hands.
British Military Intelligence has subsequently attempted to justify the fact that they allowed the shipment through on the grounds that seizure might have compromised an agent's cover. But such a defence is nonsense. It asks us to place the primacy of an agent's cover above the hundreds of lives subsequently lost as a direct consequence of the South African shipment.
In the 1980s, the British state adopted a strategy and developed a means by which it could commission the murder of citizens within its own jurisdiction. Thirty years later, those mechanisms are yet to be dismantled and the policy of state collusion yet to be disavowed.
The current British Prime Minister is widely recognised as a man prepared to act on his conscience. Tony Blair, on Sunday the people of Ireland will be asking you to do the right thing, tell us the truth about collusion and disengage the murder machine.