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17 April 2003 Edition

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Nelson dies


Whether by accident or design, the death of British agent Brian Nelson, just days before the publication of a report into the assassination of Belfast defence lawyer Pat Finucane and British state collusion with loyalist death squads, will be viewed as remarkably auspicious by some.

As a British agent working undercover within the UDA, Nelson had provided a vital lynchpin between loyalist gunmen tasked with carrying out the killings and the British agencies that selected the targets, supplied the arms and intelligence and provided the political and judicial climate within which collusion could operate.

Born in the Shankill, Nelson had joined the British Army in 1965 but it was only after conflict broke out in the North that his potential as a covert operative emerged. Nelson joined the UDA in 1972, within a year of it being formed.

In 1974, Nelson was involved in the sectarian kidnapping and torture of a disabled Catholic Gerard Higgins from North Belfast. But his conviction in connection with a brutal sectarian crime appears to have been immaterial to the FRU commander and MI5 agent who recruited Nelson.

In June 1987, Nelson travelled to South Africa where, with the assistance of another British agent, Charles Simpson of MI5, he successful procured a shipment of illegal arms for loyalist paramilitaries. It is estimated that this weaponry has been used in well over 100 subsequent killings.

Working with the FRU, Nelson selected targets and provided loyalist killers with the intelligence necessary to successfully target their chosen victim. Although it may never be known exactly how many people Brian Nelson helped to kill, it is known that at least 80 people on his files were attacked, 29 of which were shot dead.

At the time, the procurement of killings by the British state was described as 'taking the war to the IRA' but in fact those targeted included anyone deemed a threat to British occupation or convenient scapegoat. Amongst those killed was Belfast defence lawyer Pat Finucane and retired Catholic taxi driver Francisco Notarantonio.

As I listened to an announcement of Nelson's death on the BBC World Service in the early hours of Sunday morning, I wondered if the transmission had reached British Brigadier Gordon Kerr, recently spirited away to 'the theatre of war' in the Middle East.

Kerr is the most senior figure within the British establishment currently threatened with prosecution following the Stevens investigation. The key witness in any trial would have been Brian Nelson.

As head of the now infamous FRU, Gordon Kerr, his identity shielded by screens, had appeared at Nelson's trial in 1990, as the mysterious 'Colonel J'. Speaking in defence of his agent, Kerr had described Nelson as "a very courageous man" and claimed that his role within the UDA had been "to save lives".

The FRU was a covert British Army unit that, together with MI5, rearmed, reorganised and redirected loyalist paramilitaries as state assassins by proxy. The collusion conspiracy was initially exposed after loyalist killers, accused of random sectarian murders, published scores of official montages of their victims.

A decade later, the British state stands accused of one of the most serious crimes of any body politic, commissioning the murder of citizens within its own jurisdiction. And according to official leaks of the Stevens' report, not only Nelson but also Kerr was facing prosecution.

But when it comes to agents and soldiers of the British state, facing prosecution and actually being brought before a court are two very different things. As Beatrix Campbell, writing in the British Guardian, pointed out, "there is talk of Stevens recommending charges against 20 members of the [British] security services, but he won't". Instead, reports will be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions, "notorious for not pursuing cases against the [British] security forces".

As Campbell points out, the only cases the British state has been eager to pursue have been against "potential witnesses for the prosecution". Amongst those have been Nicholas Davis, whose book about Brian Nelson exposed the operation of collusion and who "was allowed no defence, no appeal and warned never to tell what had happened to him"; and Tribune journalist Ed Moloney, prosecuted for refusing to hand over interview notes with William Stobie.

Stevens is to present the PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Order with a 3,000-page document this Thursday but it is believed that only a 15-page summary will be released to the public. Stevens had been tasked with 'investigating' the killing of Pat Finucane but it is unclear how much of his report will actually deal with this. According to some media reports, the main focus will be on ethics, practices and procedures.

Sinn Féin Assembly member Alex Maskey, who survived an assassination attempt involving Nelson in 1988, has asked the British government to detail Brian Nelson's status within the British military in the period leading to his death.

An Phoblacht
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