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10 April 2003 Edition

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Stevens: yet another collusion cover up?

BY LAURA FRIEL


For over ten years, An Phoblacht's repeated assertion that British Crown forces were actively colluding with loyalist death squads was widely dismissed as republican propaganda. Next week, an interim report to be delivered to the PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde by John Stevens, the current head of London's Metropolitan Police force, will conclude that a secret British Army intelligence unit (FRU) and the RUC Special Branch colluded with loyalist gunmen in the summary execution of republicans and others regarded as 'undesirables'. Stevens will also accuse British intelligence of obstructing and sabotaging his investigation into collusion.

Ten years ago, raising the issue of collusion was like crying in the wilderness, but the unremitting quest for justice pursued by some families of the victims has ensured that the pending report will face a worldwide audience. While Stevens' confirmation that there was official collusion in the killing of Belfast defence lawyer Pat Finucane will ensure scrutiny by leading international human rights and legal justice groups, this is far from being the end of the story.

For a start, the document Stevens is to present to the PSNI Chief Constable is far from complete. Plans to deliver the report in its entirety were abandoned in favour of presentation of what is euphemistically called an 'interim' report. In this case, the term 'interim' may be understood as a report in which Stevens has already admitted he may "omit sensitive findings".

It may also be understood as literally 'inconclusive' and therefore 'ongoing', because one difficulty facing the British government is that should their internal 'inquiries' into the Finucane murder ever be concluded, there would be no excuse left to stall the widespread call for a fully independent international inquiry into collusion.

The fact that Hugh Orde before taking up his post as PSNI Chief Constable was a former senior member of the Stevens team conducting the inquiry is an indication of just how 'in-house' this whole process has become.

This is the third inquiry in response to mounting evidence of collusion conducted by John Stevens. The two previous inquiries have never been published in full. In a moment of shared clarity after Stevens 'presentation' of his first report to the then RUC Chief Constable Hugh Annesley, the British Secretary of State of the day, Peter Brook told the media "it will be up to the Chief Constable what he tells me and then a number of us will decide what to tell everyone else."

And "deciding what to tell everyone else" could be said to be exactly what Stevens' remit has been ever since. Each occasion when Stevens has been called upon by the British government to conduct another 'investigation', it has been preceded by a release of evidence of collusion within the public domain.

The first call came shortly after loyalist paramilitaries took to publicly displaying hundreds of Crown force documents in their possession containing personal details, including photographs of their targets and victims. Stevens pursued the loyalist receivers of Crown force intelligence, leaving the Crown force operatives who were disseminating the material off the agenda and conveniently, off the hook.

To this day, northern nationalists informed that their personal details are in the hands of loyalist paramilitaries will be told that their files are 'missing', implying no active Crown force collusion in passing details to loyalist death squads. We have Stevens to thank for that continuing fudge.

Stevens was called in a second time following public revelations during the trial of British agent Brian Nelson. As an agent working for one of the British Army's most covert units, the FRU, Nelson reorganised, redirected and rearmed the UDA. Following Nelson's arrest, the British judicial establishment had worked hard at curtailing what was set to be an enormously compromising trial for the British government.

At the behest of the then British attorney general, Patrick Mayhew (later to become British Secretary of State), the DPP dropped the most serious charges against Nelson, who agreed to plead guilty to a series of lesser charges. All opportunity to cross-examine the defendant on the serious issue of collusion was avoided in court and what was left was given to Stevens to mop up.

The latest inquiry arose after attempts to silence the increasing peace process clamour for an independent public inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane were exposed as nonsense. The British government pooh-poohed allegations of Crown force collusion in the killing of the Belfast defence lawyer, claiming that Stevens had already investigated the matter. Stevens admitted he had not. He was duly dispatched.

Throughout more than a decade of investigations, Stevens' role has been to explain away rather than explain, to obscure rather than enlighten the operation of collusion. And even before the presentation of his latest installment, the stage has been set for him to do so again. In selected leaks to the press Stevens has made it known that while his report will conclude that there was collusion by elements of the British Army and RUC, he will claim that the hands of the British government and, wait for it, MI5, are clean.

If it were not for the tragedy of lost lives, such an assertion in the face of evidence already within the public arena would be comic. But over the years, keeping a straight face has been one of John Stevens' abiding assets as far as the British government is concerned. Here are just a few details to keep the smile wiped off his face.

* In 1987 Nelson travelled to a London hotel to meet his former FRU handler and an MI5 agent, who persuaded him to return to Belfast and take up a role within the UDA.

* According to former FRU operatives, MI5 received a copy of every FRU document generated by the covert unit.

* The FRU, MI5 and Special Branch held regular meetings to coordinate their strategy and operations.

* According to the Walker Recommendations, MI5 controlled the RUC through the operational primacy of Special Branch.

* MI5 had officers in the FRU office at Thiepval barracks in Lisburn who sat in on all decisions made by military intelligence.

* Copies of intelligence reports and other FRU documents were routinely sent to MI5's Stormont office.

* Members of the British Cabinet routinely sat on the Joint Intelligence Committee, a body that oversees the operation of both MI5 and covert British Army units like the FRU.

* The then British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, is reported as having taken a 'personal' interest in the operation of the FRU.

* A former FRU agent claims that after his cover was blown, he was flown out of the north of Ireland in the British PM's personal jet.

Of course, to save face for the British government, Stevens might have considered ditching members of MI5 but for one small imperative. MI5 is currently being mooted as the agency that will take over from the already discredited Special Branch to control future counter-insurgency operations in the north of Ireland.
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