20 June 2002 Edition
Licensed to kill
British agent admits RUC targeted Finucane
"Finucane would be alive today if the peelers hadn't interfered." These are the direct words spoken by Ken Barrett, former RUC Special Branch agent and one of the two loyalist gunmen said to be involved in the 1989 killing of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane.
The explosive admission came in the first of a two-part Panorama documentary screened by the BBC on Wednesday night. It found that at least four British Crown forces agents are implicated in the solicitor's killing, British Army agent Brian Nelson and RUC Special Branch agents Billy Stobie, Tommy 'Tucker' Little and Ken Barrett.
Barrett went into hiding in England last year after he was exposed as a Special Branch informer by the UDA. He agreed, however, to meet with Panorama reporters.
They secretly recorded conversations over a dozen meetings.
Barrett is heard recalling that loyalists arrested would be primed with Finucane's name by the RUC: "...young fellows, you know... They'd have come out and said to us, they said about Finucane, they say this and they say that, and they must have said it because kids wouldn't come out and say, 'they said about Finucane', because why would they mention Finucane? You understand what I mean? Finucane wouldn't have been a name in their head."
Barrett says that Pat Finucane would not have been targeted by loyalist death squads were it not for the actions of the RUC Special Branch: "Finucane would have been alive today if the peelers hadn't interfered... Solicitors were kind of way taboo, you know what I mean? Like we used a lot of Roman Catholic solicitors ourselves. They were kind of like taboo at the time like. You didn't touch like. Do you understand me, because they came in and seen us and all like."
Barrett also recalls his meeting with the Special Branch officer who encouraged him to target Pat Finucane: "He says, 'He'll have to go. He'll have to go. He's a thorn in everybody's side. He'll have to go'... He was determined on pursuing that like. That's the one he wanted. They didn't want any fucking about. They didn't want to wait months. They wanted it done."
According to Barrett, British Army agent and UDA intelligence officer Brian Nelson supplied him with Finucane's photograph six days before the assassination and showed him where the solicitor lived.
"By copying his targeting files to murder gangs all over Northern Ireland," Panorama reveals, "[Brian] Nelson had bequeathed a deadly legacy. The officer ultimately responsible for this was Colonel Gordon Kerr. He had recruited Nelson; he was commanding officer of the unit that ran him. He never hid his contempt for the Stevens Inquiry."
Barrett's evidence undermines claims by the former Commanding Officer of the Force Research Unit, now Brigadier Kerr, who said that Nelson thought the intended victim was one of Finucane's clients, the late former hunger striker and Sinn Féin Councillor Pat McGeown. The BBC programme that his claim "cannot be true".
Reacting to the Panorama programme, Sinn Féin MP Martin McGuinness said: "Tony Blair's worst fears have now been realised. This is massive. This could be even bigger than Bloody Sunday." He said the documentary makes a compelling case for a full international public inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane.
Stevens finds evidence of widespread collusion
The search for scapegoats is on
According to The Guardian, the Stevens report will find collusion was endemic but, in what looks like a damage limitation exercise, there was no "web of conspiracy" and no evidence that British ministers officially sanctioned any policy of collusion. FERN LANE investigates.
After 13 years and two suppressed investigations into collusion - three if you include that by John Stalker - John Stevens' report into the assassination of Pat Finucane will be published in a few weeks. It will contain, according to a report in The Guardian newspaper last Friday, "explosive" allegations that there was "widespread collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland [which] continued unchecked for years because a culture of 'gross unprofessionalism and irresponsibility' allowed officers to create a climate in which Catholics could be murdered with near impunity". In addition, there was, says the report, a "culture of incompetence" within the RUC "that left junior ranks effectively making up the rules as they went along".
The report continues that during his three-year investigation, Stevens found "in many cases the relationship between Special Branch, army intelligence officers and loyalist paramilitaries was so unprincipled and lacking in accountability that it bordered on 'institutionalised collusion'". While Stevens does not "estimate the number of shootings that resulted from collusion", he does believe "that loyalists were incapable of carrying out targeted assassinations without significant help".
According to one source, there are "many anecdotes of Special Branch officers, when interviewing loyalists, saying 'you are targeting the wrong people' and then walking out of the room, leaving photographs and other details on the table".
Superficially at least, The Guardian's report suggests that Stevens' investigation will vindicate much of what republicans have been saying since the mid-1980s about the activities of the British forces, particularly the shadowy Force Research Unit and the way in which they assisted loyalist killer gangs. But until it is actually published, it is difficult to assess the precise nature of the accusations to be levelled at the RUC, and particularly Special Branch.
A closer examination of some of the phraseology of the leaks to The Guardian suggest that the accusations and recommendations contained within it, whatever they are, may be qualified. For example, saying that the activities of Special Branch "bordered on institutional collusion" is, if one wants to get into the semantics of it, is not the same as saying, unequivocally, that there was institutionalised collusion. According to The Guardian, Stevens says that the RUC made itself "extremely vulnerable" to charges of collusion because of the failure to keep records of meetings between its officers and loyalists. Again, being "vulnerable" to a charge of collusion is quite different from simply being charged with collusion.
These subtleties, crucially, allow Stevens to conclude, according to The Guardian, that there was no "web of conspiracy" between the police, the army and loyalists. Without them there would have been an inherent and probably unresolveable contradiction at the heart of his report, since the unqualified phrase "institutionalised collusion" must, surely, mean exactly the same thing as "web of conspiracy". If not, what is the difference, in practical terms, between the two?
It seems that Stevens is also likely to say that he could find no evidence that British ministers officially sanctioned any policy of collusion. Such a conclusion, it could be argued, depends on how one defines "official policy". True, using the state's forces to take out its republican opponents without observing the niceties of due process was never in any Conservative Party manifesto, nor was any legislation allowing political assassinations steered through the British parliament. It hardly needs pointing out that if a government is going to systematically break its own laws, it is really very unlikely that it is going to commit the decision-making process to record.
If, however, one defines "official policy" as being the actions of servants of the British state, actions which were known about, were unchecked and which continued over a significant period of time - not an unreasonable interpretation - then surely Stevens need look no further than Brigadier Gordon Kerr, now military attache to the British embassy in Beijing, who is due to be questioned under caution as part of the investigation. Kerr was Brian Nelson's handler and, according to Panorama journalist John Ware, regarded Nelson as the "jewel in the crown" of the Force Research Unit. Panorama, which goes further towards pointing the finger at the British military establishment, rather than concentrating the blame, as Stevens seems to do, on the police, has acquired some of the FRU's records of its meetings with Nelson, known as agent 6137.
One, dated November 1987, says: "Once all the information has been gathered and checked by 6137, it will be passed on to the various UFF commanders for action." Another, dated August 1988 says, "6137's appointment enables him to make sure proper targeting of PIRA members takes place prior to any shooting". In February 1989 it wrote: "6137 initiates most of the targeting - of late 6137 has been more organised and he is currently running an operation against selected republican personalities." Kerr himself is said to be outraged that he is expected to answer questions about his involvement. In response to the Stevens team's first inquiries about Pat Finucane in 1990, he said: "I find it incredible that I should be expected to account for our handling of the case."
How and why the Stevens' report has been leaked merits some further examination. Given that British governments, through their agents, have successfully stifled previous investigations from John Stalker onwards, using criminal means when necessary, it would be fair to suppose that there are reasons why this latest is likely to see the light of day. Firstly, it had a relatively narrow remit, which has not allowed for Stevens to investigate very far above the confines of the RUC and Special Branch. Is there, for example, any inquiry into Douglas Hogg's comments about Pat Finucane to the British parliament which preceded the killing contained in the report?
Secondly, there is now a political imperative on the British side, or part of it at least, for getting rid of Special Branch - its reputation, if not its personnel - and a slow process of publicly discrediting the department has been underway for some time. Disbanding it, on the basis of the contents of Stevens' report, would bring the SDLP more completely on board on policing matters and, they hope, isolate Sinn Féin on the issue. By coincidence, it seems that Sir John Chilcott, the "former Whitehall spymaster" currently charged with investigating the Castlereagh 'break-in' is coming to the conclusion that the role of intelligence gathering should be removed from Special Branch and passed entirely to MI5.
That said, the prospect of Stevens' report has frightened other people within the British securocracy enough for them to come up the fantasy, as seen on the BBC Six O'Clock News on Thursday - strangely enough, the day before The Guardian story broke - of the IRA testing a new mortar in Colombia. On cue, the Unionists, led (if one can use that word in this context) by David Trimble, create a new crisis around the Good Friday Agreement and the continuance of the assembly. David wants Sinn Féin excluded or he'll resign, etc, etc. All very useful for deflecting from the allegations contained in The Guardian report. And, the backlash by the British right wing has already begun with an interview with one of Special Branch's officers in The Telegraph on Tuesday, pleading innocence on charges.
It would be unwise to come to any conclusions about Stevens' report based on selective, and perhaps politically motivated, leaks to the press, but thus far it is fair to say that nothing in any of the reports says anything which the republican community in the Six Counties has not known about, and spoken about at length, for at least 15 years. And, from what we have seen so far, what it does not include may be at least as important as what it does. If Stevens does, in the end, retreat from the charge of straightforward, institutionalised collusion and promote a quite-a-lot-of-bad-apples conclusion, then we will be no further forward than we were the day after Pat Finucane was murdered.
Apparently Stevens "hopes" to recommend charges against a number of police and army officers. Who knows if these hopes will ever be realised? If they are, it is a good bet that those charged will be pretty far down the food chain. And they are likely to be local.
As the British establishment is undoubtedly content for the 'moment of madness' and 'uncontrollable' paras to take the entire blame for Bloody Sunday, now that it has comprehensively lost the argument on the innocence of those killed, so it would have little compunction, now that the fact of collusion can no longer be denied, in sacrificing a few of its RUC, British Army and loyalist employees in the Six Counties in order to avoid any embarrassing exposure of ministerial involvement in London ˆ and, of course, to try and buy off nationalist opinion.