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The first cracks in the wall of silence round security forces

No prosecutions despite 14 years of allegations

(Barry McCaffrey, Irish News)

As Sir John Stevens this morning (Thursday) delivers the report from his four-year investigation into alleged security force involvement in the murder of Pat Finucane, the one certainty is that calls for a public inquiry into the solicitor's murder will not go away.

The British government has consistently rejected calls for an independent inquiry, claiming it would prejudice Stevens's criminal investigation.

However in 1999 Amnesty International commissioned three eminent human rights barristers to ascertain if an independent inquiry could indeed prejudice a criminal investigation.

Robert Owen QC, Ben Emmerson, and Tim Otty concluded that an inquiry in the Finucane case would not prejudice any criminal investigation, noting that the British government had set up a public inquiry into Stephen Lawrence's murder while the Metropolitan Police was still publicly proclaiming its hope to prosecute those responsible for the teenager's death.

At an estimated cost of nearly £8 million Sir John Stevens has conducted three investigations into alleged security force collusion with loyalist paramilitaries over the last 14 years.

In 1989 Stevens was called in by then RUC chief constable Sir Hugh Annesley to investigate allegations of collusion.

Contrary to public opinion Stevens's remit was primarily to investigate collusion not Pat Finucane's murder.

Stevens I was established after the UDA showed journalists security force montages it had received from soldiers and policemen.

Flaunting the files backfired on the UDA causing a public furore which led to the Irish government demanding immediate action from the British.

When in May 1990 Stevens I was completed, its findings were delivered to the chief constable but never made public.

A published summary found that while there had been collusion, it had been neither "widespread nor institutionalised".

Pat Finucane's murder was not even mentioned in the published summary.

Although the report concluded that collusion had not been widespread it later emerged that nearly 2,000 security force files were in loyalist hands.

Some 47 loyalists were convicted, mostly of possession of information likely to be useful to terrorists.

No RUC officer was prosecuted.

Stevens said he found no evidence to substantiate police collusion.

It was later claimed that Stevens had recommended that two RUC officers face charges, but was overruled by the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP).

In 1992 Sir John claimed that time, resources and limitations to his terms of reference prevented him from properly investigating the Finucane murder.

But while Sir John found no evidence of police collusion in 1991, evidence from Special Branch informers Billy Stobie and Ken Barrett was later to cast serious doubt on his findings.

Stevens did, however, inadvertently stumble across evidence that another branch of the security services was heavily involved with loyalist paramilitaries.

In January 1990 Stevens arrested Brian Nelson when his fingerprints were found on leaked security force documents.

While Stevens may have known that Nelson was a senior UDA intelligence officer, it wasn't until Nelson admitted being an agent for the British army's shadowy Force Research Unit (FRU) that the first crack appeared in the state's wall of silence over who was behind Pat Finucane's murder.

However any prospect that Pat Finucane's killing, or the murder of eight others would be open to public scrutiny at Nelson's trial, was ended when agent 6137 pleaded guilty to a series of lesser charges.

It has long been claimed that Nelson's guilty plea was part of a deal with the government.

By agreeing to plead guilty the full extent of the FRU's involvement in dozens of murders was kept from the prying eyes of the public.

As the UDA's most senior intelligence officer Nelson was privy to practically every killing which the loyalist group carried out from 1987 to 1990.

Inexplicably, no effort was made to use Nelson as a witness to bring any UDA killer to justice.

As Nelson settled down to five years in jail, Sir John settled back into humdrum routine policing in Cambridgeshire. He could not have known that he would be back in Northern Ireland almost immediately.

Stevens II was set up after a BBC Panorama programme, The Dirty War, revealed how Nelson had warned his army handlers in late 1988 that Pat Finucane was being targeted by the UDA.

It further revealed that far from being a lone 'bad apple' Nelson had been assisted by his handlers in collating intelligence and had been provided with the personal details and photographs of intended targets.

Concerned at the public outcry, the DPP wrote to Sir Hugh Annesley asking whether the Finucane case should be reopened.

Although Stevens II lasted nearly three years little is known about what new evidence – if any – was uncovered. It is known that three reports went to the DPP, but failed to result in prosecutions.

Neither the terms of reference nor the actual report, have ever been published.

However, Sir John Stevens wrote to the solicitor's partner Peter Madden in April 1999 stating that Stevens I and II had: "Primarily related to the activities of the so-called 'double agent' Brian Nelson.

"At no time," wrote Sir John, "was I given the authority by either the chief constable of the RUC or the DPP to investigate the murder of Pat Finucane."

At his time of writing Sir John was back in Northern Ireland for a third inquiry.

Stevens's third inquiry was established after a report into the murder by another non-governmental organisation.

The report, 'Deadly Intelligence', was drawn up by British Irish Rights Watch (BIRW) and was sent to both governments.

While the inquiry was officially called for by RUC chief constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan, then secretary of state Mo Mowlam is understood to have been instrumental in bringing Stevens back for a third time.

Since Stevens III began, almost four years ago, approximately 50 people have been questioned by the inquiry team.

While Stevens has recommended a number of prosecutions to the DPP, not one person has been successfully prosecuted in relation to Pat Finucane's murder, although one man was charged with the killing.

In June 1999 RUC Special Branch agent Billy Stobie was charged with the solicitor's murder.

Many observers found it ironic that Stobie was charged when he had informed his Special Branch handlers on two occasions on the night of the murder that the UDA was preparing a major attack on a high-profile nationalist.

Stobie insisted that he had told police the names of the UDA men planning the attack and the day after the murder had told his handlers that one of the main suspects was collecting the murder weapon from him.

At his trial Stobie's lawyer, Joe Rice, asked why his client had not been charged with the offences when he admitted his role during questioning in Castlereagh 1990.

A PSNI detective inspector replied that it was not for him to "judge" or "pass comment".

Stobie's trial collapsed when the crown's main witness refused to give evidence.

It is understood that Hugh Orde, who was in day-to-day charge of the Stevens inquiry, had personally ordered a risk assessment to be carried out on Billy Stobie after his trial collapsed on November 26 2001.

But on December 12 Stobie was shot dead by UFF gunmen outside his north Belfast home.

It is not known if the risk assessment was ever completed.

What also remains a mystery is why Ken Barrett, the self-confessed UFF gunman who admitted murdering Pat Finucane, has never been charged despite having confessed to three RUC detectives 12 years ago.

On October 3 1991 Barrett met CID men Johnstone Brown, Trevor McIlwrath and a Special Branch officer named 'Ian'.

The RUC officers secretly recorded Barrett admitting Pat Finucane's murder.

While Barrett's confession was inadmissible, as no caution had been given, the officers felt it could be used if Barrett was subsequently arrested and questioned.

Brown claims that not only were they blocked from pursuing the case but that the taped confession mysteriously went missing.

It later emerged that 'Ian' had also been Billy Stobie's Special Branch handler.

Further evidence to suggest that Barrett could have been arrested for murder came in June last year when he was video-taped admitting not only to having shot Pat Finucane, but revealing how a Special Branch officer had asked him to carry out the attack.

Despite the fact that Barrett later fled Northern Ireland and was placed in the protective custody of the Stevens team, no charges have ever been brought against the self-confessed killer.

Why the Stevens inquiry has failed to bring anyone to justice for Pat Finucane's murder has remained a mystery for 14 years.

While concerns over the failure to secure prosecutions have come from nationalists and international human rights groups they have also come from government bodies.

Northern Ireland Human Rights Commissioner Brice Dickson said last year: "My main concern would be that again it indicates that there has been a degree of control over the prosecution system exercised by the handlers of informers.

"That's the impression I get anyway, that the Special Branch or MI5 or whoever it has been, has in some way made it clear that a prosecution just isn't possible or isn't feasible and that's been apparent over a number of years in this whole Pat Finucane fiasco."

Pat Finucane's widow Geraldine has insisted that the family's call for an independent inquiry has never been about revenge: "Well certainly I would like to see them being brought to justice but throughout this whole period of time they have never been my primary motive for furthering this case and for moving along.

"I have always been more interested in the people behind the scenes.

"The ones who sent these guys out, the ones who encouraged them to go and the ones who watched while they did it, watched while they got rid of their weapons afterwards and still did nothing about it."

Despite reports that the DPP had received files from the Stevens team in recent months it is understood the first files were delivered on Tuesday.

It is further understood that the DPP has received no recommendations for prosecution from Sir John Stevens.

The DPP last night made no comment.

April 18, 2003

This article appeared first in the April 17, 2003 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News