By Piers Mostyn
In 1989, Belfast solicitor Patrick Finucane was murdered by Loyalist gunmen. They forced their way into his home, shooting him 14 times as he was eating dinner with his wife and three young children.
He had represented Republican detainees, including hunger striker Bobby Sands MP, but also Loyalists.
An Ulster Defence Regiment weapon was used – passed to Loyalist paramilitaries by a soldier.
Credible threats to Finucane’s life had been passed on to police and security forces. But those same police and security services had themselves been smearing him as a terrorist. And a few weeks before the murder, Home Office Minister Douglas Hogg twice repeated in Parliament that some lawyers in the North of Ireland were “unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA”, leading Social Democratic and Labour Party MP Seamus Mallon to respond that there were lawyers “walking the streets … of the North of Ireland who have become targets of assassins’ bullets as a result of the statement.”
Successive governments have accepted state collusion in the murder. But there has been no accountability. How was it organised? Who was responsible? How far up did it go? And certainly, no justice.
Senior police officer John Stevens conducted three investigations, initially concerning a broader pattern of murders in which security intelligence files were handed over to armed Loyalist groups who used them to target individuals. Brian Nelson, Ulster Defence Association leader and intelligence officer responsible for directing attacks, was an agent controlled by the British army’s “Force Research Unit”.
59 were arrested, including Nelson, following the first Stevens report in 1990. But shortly before Nelson’s trial, 15 of the most serious charges, including two of murder, were dropped on grounds that included the supposed “interests of justice”.
There matters stood until a critical juncture in the “peace process”. In 2001, following the Good Friday Agreement, nationalists were refusing to implement police reforms unless Prime Minister Blair agreed to a public inquiry into the Finucane murder. Under pressure Blair made a limited concession.
The 2001 Weston Park agreement between London and Dublin established an investigation by retired Canadian Supreme Court Judge Peter Cory. He had no power to subpoena witnesses or compel the production of documents. His task was simply to determine if there was sufficient evidence of collusion to warrant a Public Inquiry, in which case both governments committed to holding one.
In April 2003 a 15-page summary of Stevens’ third investigation was published. He concluded that members of the police and army had colluded in the murder. This was followed by the arrest and guilty plea to murder of UDA informer Ken Barrett. Stevens stated he was aggressively pursuing new leads about who had obstructed his three inquiries. Hinting that a cover-up reached the highest echelons of government, he refused to rule out former ministers being questioned.
Meanwhile a legal case by Finucane’s wife Geraldine in 1995 had worked its way up to the European Court of Human Rights. In July 2003 the ECHR ruled that the British state had violated article 2 of the European Convention that upholds the right to life and obliges the state to mount an effective investigation.
In October that year, Cory presented his report to the two governments. But the Blair government dragged out publication, forcing Dublin to publish it unilaterally to safeguard its own credibility.
Cory stated there was documentary proof that MI5, the army and Special Branch knew about a plot to kill Finucane, MI5 knowing of a “very real and imminent threat” as early as 1981. They failed to protect him for fear of compromising their Loyalist paramilitary informers.
The police (RUC) kept a file on Finucane, including on his “legitimate activities” as a lawyer and supporter of human rights. Cory described Finucane as a “law-abiding citizen” who was killed because he was a solicitor. The police investigation was thwarted by Special Branch which was “controlling the situation” and withheld vital information.
Cory described a “cumulative picture of possible army, MI5 and Special Branch collusion”. He concluded a Public Inquiry was required to determine how much Nelson’s handlers knew about the targeting of Finucane and whether security services gave, “tacit encouragement or even active facilitation” to UDA operations and targeting that led to murder.
Under the Weston Park Agreement, the two governments were committed to holding a Public Inquiry. But a further seven years of Labour government passed without this occurring. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Paul Murphy in 2004 referred to potential prejudice to prosecutions as justification – a lame excuse at the outset that became risible by 2010.
Fast forward to October 2011. Tory PM Cameron appointed Desmond Da Silva QC to “conduct an independent review of the evidence to establish the truth as quickly as possible”.
Da Silva’s report, 14 months later, concluded that he was “in no doubt that agents of the state were involved in carrying out serious violations of human rights up to and including murder”, but was satisfied there was no over-arching state conspiracy. This despite, fresh revelations that included:
- MI5 propaganda initiatives identifying Finucane with his Republican clients.
- 85% of UDA intelligence used to target people for murder originated from army and police sources.
- 270 separate instances of security force leaks to the UDA between January 1987 and September 1989.
- Agents working for MI5, RUC Special Branch and Military Intelligence participating in criminality, including murder.
Crucially, it emerged that ministers were aware that agents had been run without guidelines and that the MI5 director general had raised this with Thatcher in 1988.
Cameron accepted that there were “shocking levels of collusion” and apologised to the family in Parliament. But he refused to hold a fully independent Public Inquiry.
The report was dismissed by the Finucane family as a “confidence trick” and a sham. It is not difficult to see why. Da Silva was limited to reviewing existing evidence. Unable to demand the production of documents or subpoena witnesses, his conclusions were necessarily framed by what the state was prepared to give him.
The Dublin government and human rights groups backed the family’s continued insistence on a Public Inquiry. Vernon Coaker, Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, followed suit, though failing to justify this not happening under 13 years of Labour government.
Labour government inaction post-Cory coincided with Keir Starmer’s appointment as DPP (of England and Wales) in 2008 and from 2003 to 2007, as “human rights advisor” to the Northern Ireland Policing Board. In that capacity he reviewed the 2007 transfer to MI5 of national security intelligence work in the North of Ireland, which nationalists opposed. His reported concerns related purely to operational efficacy.
A Public Inquiry inevitably focusing on MI5’s core role in state collusion with murder would have caused major difficulties for this plan. Labour silence seems unlikely to have been a coincidence.
But the campaign wouldn’t go away. The US Congress had passed four bipartisan resolutions backing a full Public Inquiry since the late 1990s. Joe Biden, as Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, indicated his support. And in 2015, the family mounted a High Court challenge to the government’s breach of its Weston Park commitment to a Public Inquiry.
In February 2019 the Supreme Court ruled the state had failed to comply with its obligation to mount an effective investigation compliant with article 2, nonetheless leaving the question of a Public Inquiry open.
Later that year it emerged that MI5 agents had visited the Cory Inquiry offices in 2002 and took away hard drives, telling his staff they were being removed in the interests of national security and returning them with files erased. Luckily, MI5 incompetence ensured that nothing was lost. Cory had taken the precaution of printing out back-up hard copies.
More government foot-dragging followed the Supreme Court judgement. But in October 2020 Labour’s new Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh met the Finucanes and urged the government to hold a Public Inquiry “without delay”. 24 members of the US Congress also signed a bipartisan letter along these lines.
A belated statement from Secretary of State Brandon Lewis then acknowledged the “totally unacceptable” collusion, repeating Cameron’s 2012 apology but refusing an Inquiry. Incredibly he said, “To be clear this is a purely operational police matter,” and that these decisions “quite properly” were for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. PSNI Chief constable Simon Byrne stated there were no new lines of inquiry.
In the ensuing Commons debate, Haigh reiterated her previous demand, describing the government’s stance as “farcical”. The SDLP, the Alliance Party and the SNP concurred.
The Council of Europe, led by a committee of the 47 foreign ministers of member states and overseeing the ECHR, immediately issued what has been described as a “stinging rebuke” over the failure to enforce eight separate ECHR judgements dating back to 2001 and expressed “profound concern”. A formal request for further information by the end of January 2021 was made. And in March the committee underlined its “profound concern” at ongoing delays and reopened its review of the murder.
By May last year even the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a Sinn Fein/SDLP motion calling for an independent Public Inquiry.
Labour’s welcome return to the issue had huge potential at that point. The combination of the US congress, President Biden, the Council of Europe, the Dublin government, the Stormont Assembly and the Amnesty-led global human rights community lays the basis for a massive international campaign which Labour could spearhead in this country. Who better to lead from the front than a human rights QC?
Sadly, Starmer has been absent from the battlefield: not present during the 2020 Commons debate and not on record on the subject in two years as Party leader. Worse still, in July last year, he announced that, in the event of a border poll in the North of Ireland, he would argue for Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom.
Some months later Haigh stated that Labour would take a neutral stance in a border poll, mindful of the Good Friday Agreement commitment that Britain had no “selfish or strategic interests” in Ireland. Despite also saying that both she and Labour were unionists, she was immediately sacked and replaced by Peter Kyle MP, a former special adviser in the cabinet office under Blair and Brown. Starmer’s lurch into full-blooded unionism will not only push the issue off Labour’s agenda but, in consequence, discredit any attempt by Labour to spotlight other state-sponsored murders.
The grassroots mobilisation of Labour, the unions and the community becomes that much more essential. Now in its fourth decade, the continued cover-up of state murder cannot continue.
Piers Mostyn is a member of Hornsey & Wood Green CLP and writes in a personal capacity.
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