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14 October 1999 Edition

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Is Stobie still shielding his RUC handlers?

by Laura Friel

In 1990, William Stobie, the RUC Special Branch informer and UDA quartermaster who supplied the weapons used in the killing of Belfast human rights lawyer Pat Finucane, shivered with fright as he was interviewed at his own request by Sunday Tribune journalist Ed Moloney. At the time, Stobie was faced with the possibility of being charged with murder.

Yet nine years later and actually charged with the murder of Pat Finucane, Stobie appeared at Belfast High Court last week calm and relaxed. Perhaps he had good reason to be. During the two-hour bail hearing, presiding Judge Shiel confirmed Stobie was acting as an RUC Special Branch informer at the time of the killing and granted bail.

During the hearing, Stobie's barrister, Arthur Harvey, referred to RUC Special Branch interrogation notes taken during Stobie's arrest in 1990. Many of the points raised by Harvey reiterated the account given to Moloney by Stobie in interviews with the journalist shortly after being released from Castlereagh.

Stobie was in contact with his RUC Special Branch handlers a week before (when as UDA quartermaster he received a request for weaponry) and on the day of the Finucane killing (after handing over the guns in the afternoon and again later when he saw the loyalist gang ready and leaving).It was also confirmed that Stobie gave details of how the principle weapon, a Browning pistol, was to be disposed after the killing.

Most significantly, Harvey reiterated Stobie's claim to Moloney that he did not know who the loyalist gang intended to target. The RUC claim that they couldn't intervene to stop the murder on the basis of information given by Stobie because there was no specific name. But did Stobie know all along that Finucane was the killers' target?

There is sufficient evidence to suggest he did. Stobie apparently admitted he knew Finucane was the target to Neil Mulholland during interviews with the former journalist over nine years ago. Indeed it was Mulholland's indiscretion in discussing Stobie's claims which led to the loyalist's arrest in 1990.

Mulholland asked an RUC Press Officer and also spoke to a Special Branch representative about Stobie's revelations. Stobie was arrested a short time later and held in Castlereagh for seven days. In 1993, further confirmation that Stobie knew Finucane was being targeted came to light in a report by the New York-based `Lawyers Committee for Human Rights'.

Loyalist sources claimed that a couple of months before the murder, a file containing Pat Finucane's details was brought by Brian Nelson to a meeting of the UDA gang at which Stobie was present. It appears that the file was subsequently handed over by the main assassin to Stobie for safe keeping.

When a week before the killing the same loyalist gunman requested weapons, specifically a Browning, ``for a special job'', to kill a ``top Provie'' Stobie must surely have had a fair idea that the Finucane murder plot was going ahead. If Stobie knew Finucane was the intended target but did not pass this information onto his handlers, then clearly he could be charged with murder.

By the same token, if Stobie knew the target and alerted his handlers, then the RUC face charges of collusion. There is evidence to suggest that the RUC at the very least knew a plot to kill Finucane was underway involving the very gang seeking weapons from Stobie. Shortly after the meeting with Brian Nelson, Stobie is believed to have handed the UDA file targeting Finucane on to his handlers in RUC Special Branch.

For many, the story of Pat Finucane's death begins with the threats made by RUC Special Branch officers to the lawyer's clients during interrogations in Castlereagh. Initially, Finucane himself dismissed the threats as unpleasant but not endangering. But later he began to take them seriously, particularly after comments by British minister Douglas Hogg which linked defence lawyers to the IRA. Hogg made his House of Commons comments shortly after a briefing by senior RUC Special Branch officers.

Loyalist Tommy Little has claimed while being held in Castlereagh he was told by an RUC Special Branch officer to concentrate on the ``brains behind the IRA'' by targeting three named defence lawyers, including Pat Finucane.

It is unlikely that Stobie was the RUC Special Branch's only source of information. The art of intelligence is the cross referencing of information. For the RUC Special Branch, it's a matter of routine. Could the RUC have known Finucane was being targeted from other sources? There was a second crown force agent involved in the murder plot.

Brian Nelson was a British Military Intelligence agent. More specifically, he was working for a unit called the Force Research Unit (FRU). According to British journalist John Ware, the FRU was set up for the sole purpose of running agents in the North of Ireland. It consisted of around 50 officers and soldiers running about a hundred agents.

A directive issued in July 1986 by the British Commander of Land Forces said the FRU's role was to ``compliment the efforts of the RUC's Special Branch who are responsible for the exploitation of all intelligence.'' The FRU was disbanded in 1990 after Brian Nelson's role as their agent had inadvertently been exposed by the Steven's inquiry team. It has since been reconstituted under another name.

At the time of Finucane's murder, in theory at least, the final say on how the FRU ran its agents lay with RUC Special Branch.

However, during Nelson's trial, FRU Commander Colonel `J' did little to dispel the impression that information between the FRU and RUC did not always flow effectively. In a BBC documentary by Panorama, the then RUC Chief Constable Hugh Annesley claimed the RUC received only limited information from British Military Intelligence.

But a recent revelation suggests a significantly different relationship between the FRU and RUC Special Branch. In a submission to the Patten Commission by the police authority it was revealed that compensation was secretly paid by the NIO on behalf of the RUC to the widows of Terence McDaid and Gerard Slane.

McDaid was shot dead by loyalists in May 1988, Slane in September of the same year. In 1992, charges against Brian Nelson relating to the killing of McDaid and Slane were dropped in a last minute deal with the DPP but during the subsequent trial the MOD revealed that Nelson had played a pivotal role in the two killings. The families successfully sued the MOD and received payments of £50,000 each. Unknown to the families, RUC Special Branch was liable for half of that compensation award.

Clearly just a few months before the plot to kill Pat Finucane, the FRU and RUC were working so closely together that liability accrued by the actions of an FRU agent was equally the responsibility of the RUC. The FRU knew Finucane was being targeted. It seems more than likely that RUC Special Branch also knew.

As with Brian Nelson, how the case against William Stobie develops now rests with the DPP. Stobie's apparent optimism may flow from recognition of the enormous influence the RUC Special Branch can apparently wield with the DPP.

At the heart of the case lies the difference between Stobie's account to Neil Mulholland before his arrest in 1990, and his account to Ed Moloney afterwards. Before his arrest did Stobie claim he knew Finucane was the target? Afterwards he certainly claimed he did not. Any difference suggests that Stobie is still shielding his RUC handlers.

There is sufficient evidence to suggest he did. Stobie apparently admitted he knew Finucane was the target to Neil Mulholland during interviews with the former journalist over nine years ago.

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