(by Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune)
December 2, 2001
Amid the calls for a public inquiry into the 1989 assassination of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane last week few people noticed that the mechanism chosen to deal with the scandal - the appointment of a judge to decide whether to hold a public inquiry - is a device that British prime minister Tony Blair can thank Taoiseach Bertie Ahern for suggesting and the officials in the Republics Department of Justice for dreaming up.
The same strategem is being used in the Republic to deal with two festering controversies both of which feature allegations of dirty tricks by British intelligence south of the Border. One is the 1974 bombing of Dublin and Monaghan by Loyalists and the other the 1976 murder of Dundalk man, Seamus Ludlow whose killing by Loyalists is alleged to have been covered up by an unholy alliance of British intelligence and the Garda Special Branch.
A High Court judge, Mr Justice Barron has been appointed to investigate both incidents and must report to the Oireachtas whose members will decide whether a public inquiry should be held. But the ploy has failed to satisfy all the relatives of the victims, whose campaign obliged Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to take the action.
Members of Seamus Ludlows family are having nothing to do with the investigation on the grounds of its inadequacy while relatives of the dead of Dublin and Monaghan are said to be increasingly frustrated by theirs and in particular by the refusal of the British authorities to furnish vital documents to Mr Justice Barron.
Mr Justice Barrons inquiry, upon which presumably the new Finucane investigation will be modelled, suffers a number of serious disadvantages according to legal sources. He does not have the power to sub poena witnesses or documentary evidence; he can only request them and can do nothing if refused. His hearings are held in private - hotel rooms are said to be a favourite venue - and none of the relatives are allowed to have legal counsel present to cross-examine witnesses. The process is both private and secret - not the way to deal with matters that have caused public concern say civil liberty lawyers.
Nor is Mr Justice Barron time-limited in his deliberations. Nobody knows when he will report nor if the published part of his report will include the vital record of witness evidence. The recent Abbeylara court decision curtailing a Dail probe into the controversial Garda killing of John Carty last year also casts doubt on the powers of the Oireachtas to decide on what action to take when they do receive his report.
With lawyers and relatives suspicious that the strategem is merely a way to buy time or even to sideline the controversies altogether it was this solution which was presented by Blair and Ahern at this summers pro-agreement party summit at Weston Park in Shropshire, England as a way of handling not just the Finucane affair but five other simmering scandals as well. These were the murders of Robert Hamill and Rosemary Nelson in Portadown and the INLA jail killing of LVF leader Billy Wright which all involve allegations of British security force collusion. And two sets of IRA killings - Judge Gibson and his wife and two senior RUC officers - which involve allegations of rogue Garda Special Branch collusion with the south Armagh-based IRA.
A judge of international standing will, under the Weston Park agreement, be appointed in April to investigate these deaths. But who that judge will be, what his or her powers will or will not be, the format of the investigation, how long it will take to complete what is bound to be a mammoth task and how much of his/her report will be made public are still not known. The parties at Weston Park agreed in principle with the two governments proposal but left these vital details for later negotiation - evidence perhaps of their eagerness to patch up the Good Friday Agreement.
Should the appointment of an investigating judge buy several more years of delay before hard decisions have to be made in these six cases there will be many people and organisations on both sides of the Border quite content to sit it out. As far as the Finucane scandal is concerned the list of those breathing heavy sighs of relief that there will not be a public inquiry in the immediate future is already a long one.
THE BRITISH ARMYS FORCE RESEARCH UNIT (FRU)
The FRU specialised in running undercover agents in the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries. A public inquiry would have to investigate the way the FRU ran Brian Nelson, a former soldier who became the UDA head of intelligence. There have been well-documented allegations that his FRU handlers gave him intelligence and a photograph of Pat Finucane before the killing and that they knew of the murder plot but did nothing to stop it. Allegations that the FRU used the UDA to assassinate other Republicans and that its members sabotaged the Stevens inquiry into Army-Loyalist collusion, including setting fire to Stevens office, would also have to be probed.
THE RUC SPECIAL BRANCH
The old RUC Special Branch would have to explain how much information William Stobie did give to his handlers and, if it was as complete as he says it was, why they did nothing to warn Finucane, to intercept and arrest the killers beforehand or catch them afterwards. In particular why was no attempt made to stop one of the killers as he was moving the principal murder weapon, a Browning pistol to a new hiding place days after the killing? Why did they not act on the information about the gun given by Stobie? Did Special Branch, as Stobie says they did, become aggressive to him after the Finucane killing when Stobie ended his relationship with them? Did they plant weapons in his flat so he could be arrested and charged? Did they doctor UDA weapons, as he says they did, so that his paramilitary superiors would grow suspicious of him and even harm him? At a lower level Castlereagh detectives would have to answer allegations that they suggested to notorious UDA gunmen that they should kill Pat Finucane.
The British intelligence agency MI5 had officers in FRUs office at Thiepval barracks in Lisburn outside Belfast and sat in on all the decisions made by FRU. Copies of intelligence reports and other FRU documents were routinely copied and sent to MI5s office near Stormont House. MI5 had full access to FRU files. According to one former FRU member it is inconceivable that MI5 knew nothing about FRUs relationship with Brian Nelson and the inquiry would have to examine this. MI5 also had a seat on the joint RUC-Army-MI5 Tasking and Co-ordinating Group (TCG) which helped make sure that UDA gunmen had a free run when on a mission to kill. The inquiry would also have to establish whether MI5 made the Joint Intelligence Committee at Downing Street aware of this activity and whether the prime minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher also knew.
THE NORTHS DIRECTOR OF PUBLIC PROSECUTIONS (DPP)
The Norths DPPs office would have two hard questions to answer at a public tribunal. Why did the DPP not charge Stobie in 1990 but agree to do so in 1999? Was this because in 1990 the authorities knew Stobie was, on the whole, telling the truth about his dealings with Special Branch over Finucane? What role did the then British Attorney-General, one Sir Patrick Mayhew play in this decision? Did the DPP succumb to blackmail when at his 1991 trial on arms offences Stobie threatened to spill the beans about the Finucane killing unless his prosecution was halted? If not what was there another reason for abandoning his trial? Did the Attorney-General play any part in this decision?
SINN FÉIN AND THE PROVISIONAL IRA
Although Sinn Féin leaders like Gerry Adams last week called for a public inquiry into the Finucane murder the party did not publicly demur from the Weston Park agreement which proposed a private judicial inquiry instead. Observers of the affair have also noted that Sinn Féin have left most of the running on the issue to the SDLP, a puzzling stance given Finucanes role as a prominent lawyer for IRA members.
Suggestions that Sinn Féin and the IRA leadership would, like the RUC, the FRU and MI5, rather long finger the Finucane inquiry have their basis in another murky part of the FRUs activities. The FRU ran Brian Nelson but there was an IRA equivalent to him, a Belfast-based IRA double agent known only as Steaknife. There have been allegations from ex-FRU personnel that Steaknife pinpointed targets for UDA assassination and compromised many IRA operations. It has also been alleged that when the UDA unknowingly targetted Steaknife the FRU steered them to another target, an uninvolved Ballymurphy civilian, Francis Notarantonio who was shot dead in his home so that the double agent could live. Irish diplomats have expressed grave fears that if Steaknifes full role was disclosed it might harm the Sinn Féin leadership by suggesting that the IRA campaign was deliberately sabotaged in order to nurture the alternative peace process strategy. FRU was acutely conscious of the importance of the Sinn Féin leadership to the infant peace process in the 1980's. According to the account of the Stevens inquiry compiled by BBC journalist John Ware only two people were saved from assassination because of Brian Nelsons intelligence. One may have been Steaknife. The other was Gerry Adams. According to Ware: "Nelson said his handlers told him the assassination of Adams would have been totally counter-productive . . . Adams and his supporters [in the Sinn Féin leadership] were committed to following the political path ".