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22 November 2001 Edition

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Stobie trial on brink of collapse

BY LAURA FRIEL


If there ever was any hope of justice for the Finucane family arising out of the Stevens inquiry it was fading fast this week with the immanent collapse of the trial against William Stobie.

William Stobie, the self confessed UDA quartermaster and RUC Special Branch informer, supplied and disposed of the weapons used by the loyalist gang who killed Belfast defence lawyer Pat Finucane in 1989. Stobie also knows the identity of the gang members who carried out the shooting.

At the time of the killing, Stobie was working as an agent for RUC Special Branch. Stobie claims he informed his handlers at least twice of an immanent loyalist attack and identified the well-known gang involved in the plot just prior to the killing.

No one disputes these facts. What is in dispute is whether Stobie knew the identity of the gang's intended target and if this information was passed onto his handlers.

Stobie claims he did not know Pat Finucane was the intended target and therefore could not alert his handlers specifically of the threat against the solicitor‚s life.

His RUC handlers claim, somewhat spuriously, that they could not prevent the killing because of insufficient information. In fact, a simple roadblock could have thwarted the gang, whose identity was known. This also doesn't explain why the killers were never subsequently arrested or charged with the murder.

Crucially, over a decade ago, in a statement to a then journalist, Neil Mulholland, Stobie is believed to have admitted knowing Pat Finucane was the intended target.

Shortly after making this admission, Stobie was arrested and interrogated by RUC Special Branch but released without charge. Significantly, after his release Stobie contacted Sunday Tribune journalist Ed Moloney, with whom he made a lengthy statement with one difference - this time he claimed not to have known Finucane was the target. At the time Moloney described Stobie as a very frightened man.

Conveniently, the second statement effectively absolved both Stobie and his RUC handlers of any responsibility in the murder. Stobie was arrested and charged with murder by the Steven‚s team after Mulholland, then working as an NIO press officer, made a statement confirming the initial admission.

So the case must establish one of a number of scenarios. First, Stobie did not know Finucane was the target and therefore told his handlers all the information available to him. Second, Stobie did know but didn't pass the information onto the RUC. Thirdly, Stobie did know and did pass the information on but his handlers refused to act to save Finucane's life.

Clearly, Mulholland is the key prosecution witness but since shortly after Stobie‚s arrest he has repeatedly attempted to withdraw his evidence. Two years ago Mulholland signed himself into a psychiatric unit and has remained on sick leave ever since.

At the trial's opening at Belfast Crown Court, lawyers acting on behalf of Mulholland signalled that he would oppose any attempt to call him as a witness on health grounds. The court was told Mulholland had previously suffered a series of health problems arising out of pressure because of the case.

Aware the trial would probably collapse with the loss of the main witness, the Director of Public Prosecutions has already ordered Mulholland to appear. Challenging the DPP's witness summons, lawyers acting for Mulholland this week appealed to trial Judge Carswell to set aside the order on the basis of new medical evidence. The trial has been adjourned while the judge refers the case back to the DPP, who will reconsider the summons compelling Mulholland to appear.

Stobie is not the only link that suggests Crown forces collusion in the Finucane killing. A British Intelligence agent, Brian Nelson, supplied intelligence, which included a photograph and personal details, to the loyalist gang.

The weapon used in the killing was British Army issue and from a cache missing from a UDR barracks. A UDR soldier was later charged in connection with the 'stolen' weaponry but only after the Gardaí caught him over the border.

Shortly before Finucane's death, RUC Special Branch travelled to England to brief junior British defence secretary Douglas Hogg, precipitating a statement in the British House of Commons in which the minister accused some defence lawyers of being unduly sympathetic to the IRA.

Meanwhile, five major human rights groups, Amnesty International, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, the Committee on the Administration of Justice and the British Irish Rights Watch, have written to British Secretary of State John Reid, calling upon Britain to implement the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Committee.

The committee has just issued a series of recommendations including some relating to controversial killings including those of Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson.

The committee described itself as "deeply disturbed" that a considerable time after murders have occurred a significant number of such instances have yet to receive fully independent and comprehensive investigations. The committee goes on to recommend that Britain should ensure "a full, transparent and credible accounting of the circumstances surrounding violations of the right to life" in the North of Ireland "as a matter of urgency.".

The trial is set to resume on Monday.

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