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20 February 2003 Edition

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Have you heard anything, John Stevens?

BY LAURA FRIEL


London Metropolitan Police Chief John Stevens, who has headed three consecutive inquires into the question of collusion over a decade, was photographed last week holding a "Crimestoppers" poster. Can you help? Ran the poster's headline appeal for witnesses.

"On Sunday 12th February 1989 at about 7.25pm," read the poster caption, "Patrick Finucane, a Solicitor was fatally shot in his home at Fortwilliam Drive, Belfast. Can you help?"

In a way, the photograph said it all. A blank faced John Stevens staring out of the image with his jaw gripped tightly shut. Britain's most senior police officer reduced to holding an appeal 14 years too late, just another act in the travesty of his so-called investigation.

Timed to coincide with the anniversary of Pat Finucane's murder and the announcement that the already rescheduled deadline for the 'delivery' of the Stevens' team's inquiry report will not be met, British spin-doctors were busy working their magic.

But all they could come up with was a police chief appealing for assistance with a number for a 24-hour answer phone and yet another stalling tactic of promising the possibility of someone being charged.

"Have you heard anything about the murder since?" read the poster's appeal. Well in actual fact, we've all heard rather a lot, so much in fact that most people believe Stevens' difficulties lie not with a lack of information but in his determination to explain the detail away.


STATE ACCUSED



The British state stands accused of one of the most serious crimes levelled against any body politic, that of soliciting the murder of citizens within its own jurisdiction. Amongst those believed to have been killed as a result of state collusion are two human rights lawyers, Rosemary Nelson (1999) and Pat Finucane (1989).

While campaigns around the issue of collusion have focused mainly upon these high profile killings, the outcome will inevitably impact on many others believed to be victims of state collusion. To date, relatives of over 200 people killed in suspicious circumstances have called for an independent public inquiry.

Fourteen years ago this month, a masked gang smashed their way into the Belfast home of Pat Finucane and shot him dead in front of his wife and children. As in the later case of Rosemary Nelson, the Finucane killing followed a period of sustained harassment and death threats issued by Special Branch to the solicitor through his clients.

Shortly before the Finucane killing, Special Branch had travelled to England to brief the then Junior Minister of Defence Douglas Hogg, precipitating a statement in the British House of Commons in which Hogg accused some defence lawyers of being unduly sympathetic to the IRA.


COLLUSION



An agent working for Special Branch, William Stobie, supplied and disposed of the weaponry used by the gang in the killing. Stobie informed his Special Branch handlers of the gangs' impending operation and named Finucane as the target.

Despite the fact that a simple road block would have thwarted the killers, Special Branch did not intercept the gang prior to the killing, did not warn the Finucane family and despite knowing the names of all those responsible, made no arrests after the killing. Special Branch subsequently claimed it could not act because Stobie had not revealed Finucane was the intended target.

A Special Branch officer, believed to be one of Stobie's handlers, was involved in a cover up after a member of the gang, Ken Barrett, admitted to two members of the CID that he had shot Finucane. The admission had been secretly taped.

The Special Branch insisted that the two CID officers reinterview Barrett but this time without mentioning Finucane. The incriminating first tape was later replaced by the second. Instead of prosecuting Barrett, the Special Branch put him on their payroll as an agent.

In the aftermath, one of the CID officers inadvertently involved, Johnson Brown, was threatened by Special Branch, who suggested they might set him up to be killed or plant evidence to incriminate his son. Years later, when Brown told the Stevens' team about the incident, Special Branch almost succeeded in discrediting the CID officer. Brown narrowly avoided being charged with perjury.

But perhaps the most telling thing about this incident is the way it demonstrates how unionist paramilitaries understand their relationship with British Crown forces. Barrett approached the two CID officers because he was short of money and wanted to augment his income by working as an agent.

Barrett wasn't tricked into making an admission about his role in the Finucane killing but rather he judged it to be a significant part of his 'work experience' in his quest for a job with Special Branch. He expected to be recruited, not prosecuted, on the basis of his admission. Subsequent events show Barrett's evaluation was absolutely correct.

But Special Branch wasn't the only British agency involved in the Finucane killing. A covert British Army unit, the Force Research Unit, supplied intelligence, including a photograph of the intended target through their agent, Brian Nelson, to the killer gang. The FRU also accompanied Nelson to reconnoitre the Finucane home prior to the killing.

A senior member of the FRU organised a 'clear run' for the killers by ordering the removal of all routine RUC and British Army patrols from the area at the time of the killing.

The weapon used in the killing, a Browning 9mm pistol, was British Army issue and later described as part of a cache 'missing' from Palace Barracks.

Despite the fact that the British claim that the Finucane murder investigation is ongoing, the weapon was 'returned' to the British Army and 'reconditioned' in 1995 - effectively destroying any forensic evidence.


IMPEDING JUSTICE



To date, all attempts to bring those responsible for the Finucane killing to justice have been thwarted by the British state. Brian Nelson was brought to trial in 1990 but after a last minute plea-bargaining deal, the DPP dropped the most damaging charges. The trial was curtailed to ensure further details of state collusion were not exposed.

In 1990, charges relating to possession of 'leaked' Crown force documents were dropped against a leading loyalist linked to the Finucane killing after the DPP refused to call Brian Nelson as a chief prosecution witness. The charges against Jim Spence and four other loyalists were dropped with explanation. In 1993, extortion charges against Jim Spence and Ken Barrett were dramatically dropped.

In 1990, Stobie was also facing trial after illegal arms were 'discovered' at his home. Stobie claimed that the weaponry had been 'planted' by Special Branch. Fearing for his life as well as his liberty Stobie told his story to a journalist Neil Mulholland.

Significantly, Stobie told Mulholland that he had informed his Special Branch handlers that Finucane was the intended target prior to killing. After Mulholland attempted to check out the story with the RUC, Stobie was arrested and interrogated for seven days.

During detention, Stobie signed a 200-page confession detailing his role in the Finucane killing. He was released without charge. After his release, Stobie contacted another journalist, Ed Moloney, and retold his story with one significant difference. He claimed he did not know Finucane was the intended target, effectively letting his Special Branch handlers off the hook. Stobie told Moloney only to print the story if he was jailed or murdered.

In 2002, conspiracy to murder charges against Stobie were dropped by the Director of Public Prosecutions after he threatened to expose the role of his Special Branch handlers. The trial collapse after the DPP decided not to call the chief prosecution witness, Neil Mulholland, on medical grounds. Stobie was shot dead a few weeks later.


KERR



Given the history of aborted trials and failed prosecutions, it comes as no surprise that the Finucane family have greeted John Stevens' announcement of pending charges with derision.

Stevens announced that he is to compile a file on the former head of British military intelligence in the North, Brigadier Gordon Kerr. Kerr is currently the British government's military attaché in Beijing.

According to Stevens, as well as Kerr, head of the FRU at the time of the Finucane killing, up to 20 other serving and retired British soldiers and RUC/PSNI officers could be prosecuted for conspiring with loyalist killers.

Stevens said he hoped to hand over the papers on Kerr and others to the DPP by the end of next month.


FINUCANES UNIMPRESSED



But, Stevens warned, it would be up to the DPP and British Attorney General to decide whether to press charges. The British government has repeatedly stated that there can be no public inquiry while the 'investigation' is ongoing.

"We now have the scenario where Stevens will hand these papers over to the DPP, who can then come out and state that there is not enough evidence for prosecutions and there is no case to answer," said Michael Finucane. "That would be another four years down the drain.

"John Stevens' revelations are empty headlines and as far as we are concerned the work of a spin doctor. I wonder who he is trying to impress, because my family is certainly not impressed."

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