(by Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune)
Billy Stobie is a short, bald gingerish man with a bit of a paunch. When I first met him nearly nine years ago he was lying on a couch in in the living room of his small flat in the fiercely Loyalist Forthriver estate at the top of Belfast's Shankill Road. He was covered in a blanket and was shivering from a fever brought on by a bout of tonsilitis.
We spoke on that first occasion for about two and a half hours and met several times since, most recently in May last year during an unsuccessful attempt to get his extraordinary story about the killing of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane into the public domain. Deep down both of us knew that the story he told me that day would never go away.
Stobie was an ill man that day but he was also frightened. He had confided his story to another journalist who had then blurted it out to senior officers in the RUC press office, to a senior Special Branch officer and to colleagues at work.
The result was that he had been arrested and given a tough time by detectives in Castlereagh interrogation centre from which he emerged scared that his role as a police agent might be revealed to his paramilitary superiors. He feared that his life was in danger and he needed reliable insurance, someone who would make his story public if anything happened to him.
More than that he claimed that the Special Branch had fitted him up by planting guns in his apartment in a bid, he believed, to force his silence over the Finucane killing. At the time of our first interview he was facing charges of possessing guns with intent and the prospect of a lengthy spell in jail. He would consider going public if the alternative was the Maze prison. That's why we were talking.
The account that follows is based upon contemporaneous notes made of interviews in the autumn and winter of 1990 with Stobie and others, conversations and court hearings at the time.
Stobie joined the Ulster Defence Association when the Loyalist group was at the height of its popularity in Protestant Belfast, in the early 1970's. Like many others in his situation he had no difficulty combining membership of a violent Loyalist paramilitary group with a part-time commission in the Ulster Defence Regiment. Not until he was convicted and given a suspended sentence for arms offences in 1987 did the authorities insist he sever his connectuons with the UDR
Stobie was a low level member of the UDA for most of his paramilitary career but by the time of the Pat Finucane killing he had risen to become the organisation's quarter-master in the Glencairn district of North Belfast, home of some of the city's toughest Loyalist gunmen. As such he was responsible for supplying the UDA's local murder squads with weapons.
He enjoyed the job and delighted in thinking up new ways of hiding the UDA's weapons caches from the prying eyes of the security forces. With a grin he once told me that his favourite trick was to break into neighbours' apartments when they were away and hide guns in their attics. That way he could be sure he was the only one to know where they were hidden.
Stobie had another even darker secret. From late 1987 onwards he had been living a double life as an agent for the RUC Special Branch. Like so many other informers he had been blackmailed into working for the police after they learned of his involvement in a murder.
Stobie had been part of the UDA team which on November 9th, 1987 had shot dead a 19 year old Co Fermanagh Protestant called Adam Lambert at a building site in the Highfield area of North Belfast not far from Stobie's home. The previous weekend had witnessed the IRA slaughter at the cenotaph in Enniskillen and the UDA was looking for Catholics to kill in revenge. Someone said that Lambert with his strange country accent must be a Catholic and so he was chosen to die.
Stobie provided the getaway van used by the gunmen and the weapons which cut Lambert down. But afterwards one of the UDA team confessed everything to RUC detectives and told in detail the story of Stobie's involvement. Stobie was arrested and put under pressure by the Special Branch to work for them. The RUC couldn't prove the charge but, as he put it at the time "the Branch were leaning very heavily on me".
Once freed he managed to evade the attentions of the Special Branch for a time but they pestered him and eventually he agreed to give them information. The factor that seemed to change his mind was the offer of money, £20 a week with bonuses for good information. His code name was 'Sam' and he was to contact his handlers by ringing a Belfast number, 450034. Last week that number connected to a fax or computer line.
THE KILLING OF PAT FINUCANE
Stobie has recounted his version of the Pat Finucane killing and the role played by the RUC Special Branch at length at least three times since we first met in September 1990.
Never once has he claimed that he actually knew the name or identity of the UDA's target but he insists that he gave his Special Branch handlers enough information and in sufficient time for them to have prevented Pat Finucane's death.
The fact that he has resisted the temptation to gild the lily by claiming he did know that Finucane was the target or that he had informed the Special Branch of this serves if anything to add credibility to the rest of his story. The major features of his story have remained consistent over the nine years of our association.
Pat Finucane was sitting down to dinner with his wife Geraldine and three children on Sunday evening, February 12th, 1989 in their Antrim Road home. Geraldine remembers the shooting - "a bang followed by blood and horror" - as having taken place between 7.25 and 7.30 pm. Two hooded gunmen were involved, one using an automatic rifle, the other carrying a 9mm Browning pistol. One bullet from the rifle was fired at Finucane but the killing was done with the pistol. All 13 bullets in the magazine were emptied into his body.
The guns had come from one of Billy Stobie's hidden caches of UDA weapons.
The story of Pat Finucane's death began nearly a week before the horrific events at his home when Stobie was summoned by his UDA commander and told to provide guns for an operation that was being planned. Stobie believes it was the Monday or Tuesday before the killing.
Notes made after the first interview with Stobie record the following account of what happened next: "He (Stobie) brought along a Heckler and Koch but the commander said that wasn't good enough - an H & K only holds 9 rounds - he wanted a Browning 9mm because it has 13 bullets. Assassins prefer more bullets because (of the) better chance of hitting (the) target.
"Commander told him: 'This is for a special job, we're going to hit a top Provie'. He phoned the SB (Special Branch) and told them all (of the) above - he said he didn't tell them it was Finucane because he didn't know, only that it was a top Provie. He said that the commander was well known to the cops and that they would have known that at most two teams under him would have been tasked with the killing - all would have been known to the cops - included well known characters like McK, S, GK, KL and WD."
Stobie's point was that he had given the Special Branch enough information for the police to put the UDA commander and the potential assassins under surveillance. If this had happened, he believes, they could either have been arrested carrying the weapons supplied by Stobie or the police would have been able to frustrate the operation and thus spare Finucane's life.
Stobie delivered the guns to the UDA killers on the Sunday afternoon/evening of February 12th, the day of Pat Finucane's death. The rendezvous was the Highfield Glasgow Rangers supporters club and the tell tale signs were there that the 'hit' was imminent.
The notes record: "...he saw S, McK and K along with three others in the club - all are heavy drinkers but that evening they were only drinking Coke - this was a sure sign that something was on because they only drink Coke when they're on a job."
He then saw three of them get into a van and realised they were beginning the operation. He headed to his Forthriver Road flat, stopping for a brief visit to his mother en route and as soon as he reached home phoned his Special Branch handler to tell them what he had just seen. He remembers this as happening between 7pm and 7.30 pm.
Stobie subsequently complained to the Special Branch about their inaction. According to his account "....they said they hadn't time to get things organised and 'anyway he (Finucane) was just an IRA man' ".
A STORY OF GUNS
It is a moot point as to whether Stobie's Sunday evening phone call to his RUC handlers was made in time to have stopped the shooting of Pat Finucane - but only if that was the sole information the RUC had. The evidence from Stobie's prior contact with the Special Branch on the Monday or Tuesday is that altogether the police did have, or should have had enough information to have saved Finucane's life.
According to Stobie's account the RUC Special Branch knew, thanks to his tip-off's, three vital elements in the days before Pat Finucane was killed. These were: that a UDA 'hit' against a high level target was planned, that the identity of the UDA commander in charge of the operation was known and that there was full official awareness of the precise route through which the UDA gang was going to get the murder weapons.
Yet, according to Stobie, he was given no special instructions by his handlers to inform them of developments as they unfolded nor, as has happened in many IRA operations, did the Special Branch make any attempt to bug the weapons so they could track the killers' every move.
More alarming are two more allegations from Stobie. The first was that even if his Sunday call was too late to stop the shooting from happening it was not too late to apprehend the gunmen on their way back from the killing while fresh forensic, ballistics and weapons evidence was still on them.
The second sensational allegation is that the Special Branch, acting on Stobie's nformation, mounted a covert operation several days after Finucane's death during which they calmly watched the principal murder weapon being safely disposed of by the UDA commander in charge of the Finucane operation.
After the killings the two murder weapons, the Heckler and Koch and the Browning were delivered to a safe house in Loyalist North Belfast. The house, ironically, was in the same street as the home of the UDA commander.
On the Tuesday after the killing Stobie picked up the guns and on the following day he arranged to hand the Browning, the hottest of the two weapons, over to the UDA commander who then drove the gun over to another part of North Belfast where it was stashed in a safe house.
In July that year three young Shankill Road men, none of them involved in the Finucane killing, were charged with possessing two weapons one of which was the Browning pistol used to end Pat Finucane's life.
It may be that they were arrested and charged because the police knew precisely where the Browning had been secreted. According to Stobie, the information he gave Special Branch meant that the RUC was fully aware of the pistol's journey across Belfast.
His account of this episode, according to notes made nine years ago, reads: "...arranged for McK to pick up the Browning on Wednesday - met McK who had arrived in landrover at local shops, handed gun over and McK then did a car switch- - he (Stobie) said he phoned SB (Special Branch) before McK arrived and after McK picked up gun - but cops did nothing except to set up a roadblock on Forthriver Road - made no apparent attempt to track or arrest McK. He believes they could have picked up the gun and arrested McK."
Afterwards the UDA commander complained that throughout the journey a British Army helicopter appeared to shadow his car. In retrospect Stobie suspected the RUC roadblock, a landrover straddled across the road, was there just to observe, not to act.
THE SPECIAL BRANCH
Stobie had no contact with the Special Branch for some six months after the Finucane killing. Then one day he was stopped at a roadblock and one of his Special Branch handlers appeared. The Special Branch wanted him to bring in all his hidden weapons for inspection. Stobie brought his guns, two Heckler and Koch's, two Brownings and two Uzi's to Knocknagoney RUC station, where they were kept for two weeks.
Some time after their return, in late October or early November 1989, Stobie was asked to supply two weapons for another UDA operation. But this time the gunmen returned to complain that the weapons had not worked. Stobie inspected the guns and realised that someone had filed down the firing pins. That someone he realised could only have been the Special Branch.
According to his account the UDA commander in charge of the Finucane killing then asked him to bring the suspect guns round to his home so that the UDA could hold an internal investigation. Panic set in. The account went on, according to the notes, "He phoned the SB (Special Branch) in distress realising that if McK discovered the ineffective firing pins he was for it".
The Special Branch saved him on that occasion. They mounted an operation designed to make it appear that Stobie had been spotted by a uniformed patrol while on his way to the commander's home and had no option but to throw the guns, hidden in a bag, over an entry wall.
He had been saved but only just. If he hadn't known enough about weapons to discover the faulty firing pins the chances are that he would have suffered a swift and brutal punishment at the hands of his UDA colleagues. There was little doubt in his mind that at the very least the Special Branch was trying to scare him.
When Stobie returned to his flat he discovered the other part of the ruse mounted by Special Branch in full swing. Uniformed police officers were searching his apartment for guns. He was confident they would find nothing because there were no weapons in his home. He was always careful to avoid keeping his own guns; he much preferred using other people's roof spaces.
To his shock and horror the police found a Browning pistol and a home made Sterling machine gun with bullets and magazines hidden in his attic. In a written statement sent by Stobie to the Sunday Tribune this week he alleges that this was an attempt by the RUC to frame him. "The guns found on the 7th November (1989) were definitely not mine and must have been planted by Special Branch", he wrote.
Stobie was arraigned on the serious charges of possessing the guns with intent but surprisingly, given that he was still on a suspended sentence from the 1987 gun conviction, he was given bail.
His trial began on October 1st 1990 but ended in bizarre circumstances on the same day. This reporter was in court that day and most of the proceedings were normal and routine, consisting mostly of evidence from the police officers who had made the arms discovery in Stobie's apartment.
But suddenly the hearing was thrown into confusion. My notes read: "D\C Cormack then gave evidence - was reading through his notes of the interview with Stobie who was denying that he knew anything about guns, that house must have been broken into, etc. Then started to read, 'I then asked him: Isn't that unlikely bearing in mind you have already been convicted....' At that point (there were) objections from defence barrister, judge retires, court reconvenes and DPP agrees there has been a mistrial. Judges admonishes cop. Stobie gets bail again."
It is perfectly possible that there is an innocent explanation for the mistrial. But not according to Stobie. When he realised that the trial was going ahead and that the prosecution was not interested in a deal he decided to make a desperate play for his freedom.
Notes of a subsequent conversation with Stobie about that mistrial read: "...it was apparent from the fact that the full panoply of witnesses were present that the prosecution was going ahead full steam - he went and sat in the toilet for 10 minutes to think things over - decided to tell his lawyers to tell the DPP's (Director of Public Prosecutions) man that he would go public and say that he warned Special Branch that Finucane's killing was going to happen..."
Whatever the impact of that threat the legal proceedings against Stobie ran into immediate problems. Within minutes the policeman made that fatal error in the witness box and the judge had no option but to rule such prejudicial evidence as reason for a mistrial.
The hearing was re-scheduled for November 7th, 1990 but at the last minute and without explanation it was taken out of the list. Again on December 4th the trial was opened but immediately adjourned. My notes record the DPP's representative making the application for adjournment on the grounds that "further police inquiries have to be made in relation to this case".
Finally on January 31st, 1991 the Crown made a dramatic move and announced that no further evidence would be offered against Stobie. A finding of not guilty, made on the recommendation of the DPP, was entered by the judge.
Stobie has always maintained that the 'not guilty' verdict was an important part of the deal he had demanded from the legal authorities. If the charges had been dropped at such a late stage in proceedings supicions could have been aroused amongst Stobie's UDA colleagues and inevitably hard questions would be asked. The 'not guilty' verdict gave Stobie the perfect cover.
He had taken on the Special Branch and he had won.
That Billy Stobie is now in jail facing charges of murdering Pat Finucane is due in large measure to a 28 page statement made to the Stevens inquiry team by a Northern Ireland Office press officer and former Belfast journalist. It is believed the statement was made since March when Stevens was re-appointed to investigate the Finucane case.
Neil Mulholland, a regular presence alongside NI Secretary Mo Mowlam on her jaunts through Northern Ireland, is the major prosecution witness against the former UDA quarter-master. If Stobie goes to trial Mulholland will take the stand against him.
It was Neil Mulholland who introduced this journalist to the Stobie case back in 1990 when Mulholland was a reporter for the Belfast newspaper, The Sunday Life and it was he who very nearly compromised the UDA man's safety, not to say his life, at the same time. By his own admission he betrayed his source's confidence and gave RUC officers, including a senior Special Branch detective, a full account of what Stobie had said to him.
That action, a severe breach of journalistic ethics, meant that the RUC had enough evidence, essentially the same evidence that John Stevens presently has, to charge the UDA man nearly nine years ago but chose not to. The question that supporters of the Pat Finucane case will now want answered is why the RUC could not do in 1990 what John Stevens has done in 1999.
My notes record that we met at my house on September 24th that year. Mulholland said he had a story his editor wouldn't publish but I came to distrust this explanation. I was never able to work out the real reason why he had approached me but as time went on it became difficult to avoid the thought that events had spun out of his control and he just wanted rid of Billy Stobie.
Stobie had contacted Mulholland's paper, The Sunday Life and asked to speak to a reporter some time in the Spring of 1990. The Sunday Life had been serialising a book about the undercover war against the IRA and Stobie said he wanted to talk to someone about a similar story. He was put through to Mulholland. They met, strangely, outside Tennent Street RUC station on the Shankill where Stobie had just signed his bail. Stobie told his story, and said that he wanted Mulholland to write the story only if something bad happened to him.
Mulholland admitted that he had subsequently told colleagues at work about Stobie's allegations. According to his account one journalist warned him that as he was visiting the notorious Loyalist killer Michael Stone regularly in prison and was writing a book about him, he might feel obliged to tell Stone all about it.
Mulholland went on to admit that he had also gone to the head of the RUC press office, Bill McGookin. He outlined the story in general and McGookin asked would he like to "meet someone" to talk about the allegation. Mulholland agreed and eventually he had the first of three meetings with a senior Special Branch officer. The officer falsely described himself as being in charge of the Finucane inquiry.
After these sessions Stobie was arrested and held at Castlereagh where he was interviewed by the same Special Branch man then dealing with Mulholland. Within two hours, Stobie recalls, it was obvious that Mulholland had given a very detailed account of his dealings with Stobie to the RUC, including Stobie's admissions that he had supplied the Finucane murder weapons.
The implications of all this for the policing and legal authorities appear to be very serious. It now seems that two of the vital cogs in the UDA's murder machine on the night Pat Finucane was killed were in the pay of agencies of the British state.
One was Brian Nelson, the UDA's intelligence chief and British double agent who has alleged that he both provided the intelligence on Finucane for the UDA killers and kept his Army handlers fully briefed. The other was Billy Stobie, the man who provided the guns used to kill the lawyer.
With embarrassing facts like these now out in the open it may become increasingly difficult for the British government to deny the demands for a full inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane. The other victim may be the RUC, tarnished once again with scandal. Stobie's lawyer, Joe Rice may have put his finger on it when he told a court last week: "the murky web of deceit and lies in this murder" did not emanate from his client.
(When I made contact with Stobie in 1990 we made a deal. I would not publish a word of his story without his permission. The risk that the UDA would shoot him if the story surfaced in an uncontrollable fashion was too great. In return he would tell me the full story so that if the day ever arrived it could be told in full. The deal has today been honoured.)