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Wednesday, December 12, 2012 

From Finucane to Mohamed, the story remains the same.

The report by Sir Desmond de Silva into the murder of Patrick Finucane in 1989 by the Ulster Defence Association is a truly remarkable document.  Rather than follow the pattern of whitewashes and missed opportunities we've come to associate with past inquiries, it does something quite different and quite extraordinary.  

Helped by previous inquiries by Peter Cory and the now Lord Stevens, it collates a massive amount of evidence, all of which points towards something a lot of people would define as a conspiracy, and then reaches the flat conclusion that it was collusion, and nothing more.  Unlike with Hutton and Leveson, where the media was blamed and the politicians involved all but exonerated, de Silva assigns responsibility only to organisations which no longer exist and individuals who are dead.  As for those who were at least somewhat aware of the RUC's interest in the Finucane, they couldn't possibly have anticipated what would happen.  The way the establishment conducts itself changes, but the result seems to stay the same.

As David Cameron acknowledged in the Commons, de Silva's report is shocking in the picture it builds up of a security state that was a law unto itself.  He finds that none of the agencies running agents in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s had an adequate framework for handling them, with the result being that in some instances they made up the rules as they went along.  The Royal Ulster Constabulary's Special Branch had no workable guidelines at all; the Army's Force Research Unit had ones which were contradictory; and MI5 had no effective external guidance as to how far their agents could go in breaking the law in order to keep their cover and continue passing on intelligence.  Despite officers from all of these organisations repeatedly raising their concerns with the cabinet ministers of the day, it wasn't even recognised as necessary until 1993, and statutory legislation wasn't passed until the RIPA act of 2000.

At the heart of the collusion which led to Finucane's murder was Brian Nelson, an FRU agent who managed to become the intelligence head of the UDA thanks to the backing of the British state.  He was recruited despite his role in the kidnap and torture of a partially sighted Catholic man, for which he served three years in prison, and then recruited again after leaving the force in 1985, having spent the previous year involved in a plot where a Sinn Fein councillor was targeted and attacked.  Nelson's supposed remit was to target Provisional IRA activists, individuals who would take time to track down, thereby giving the authorities the necessary time to intervene to save lives.  

In practice, as de Silva finds, only very rarely were these counter-measures initiated.  Nelson's role was in effect to provide the UDA with the identities of those the British state had decided were expendable.  When Gerry Adams entered the sights of the UDA in 1987, MI5 was clear in how damaging a repeat could be, a senior officer sending a telegram suggesting that it could be seen as conspiracy to murder if Nelson's role became known.

Despite this, MI5 only decided against running Nelson themselves, having become aware of how he wanted the UDA to attack "justifiable" targets.  They did nothing to intervene with the FRU, nor offer guidance to them on how Nelson should be run.  This turning of a blind eye was carried over to the RUC, who claimed that the FRU didn't pass on the intelligence Nelson supplied them with, only for de Silva's conclude this was a lie; the FRU nevertheless didn't concern themselves with how the RUC wasn't doing anything to protect those Nelson said the UDA were to target.  Indeed, de Silva's own research leads him to believe the RUC were influenced to a certain extent as to whether they acted on intelligence by their links, real or fictional, to paramilitaries, as supported by the failure to act on threats against another lawyer, Oliver Kelly.

Also worthy of note is that MI5 included Finucane in the "propaganda initiatives" they conducted in Northern Ireland during the 1980s.  That Finucane was a lawyer, and that no credible evidence has ever been presented to suggest he was a member of the IRA (he married a Protestant and also represented loyalists, regardless of his brothers' links to the IRA) was seemingly irrelevant; he was best known as acting for republicans, and had been Bobby Sands' lawyer.  De Silva performs somersaults to clear MI5 of any responsibility, saying there was no intention on their part to incite loyalists to attack Finucane.  It just so happened that two previous threats had been made against him, neither of which he was informed of.  All these initiatives were meant to do was "unnerve" republican paramilitaries, nothing more.  They just should have foreseen the effect they might have had.

So too should Douglas Hogg, the then under secretary at the Home Office (now best known for being the MP who claimed expenses for the cleaning of his moat).  Hogg made a highly provocative comment in the Commons just a month before Finucane's murder, stating there were a number of solicitors in Northern Ireland who were "unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA".  He based this on a briefing he had received from the RUC, who told him some lawyers were "effectively in the pockets of terrorists".  Four days before his comments he received profiles from the RUC of Finucane and Oliver Kelly, neither of which de Silva finds even began to prove they were in the pockets of the IRA.  De Silva nonetheless exonerates Hogg, as he can find no basis for any claim this was active encouragement to loyalists to go after solicitors known for representing republicans.  He does say however that his comments, "albeit unwittingly", could have increased the vulnerability of solicitors in NI at the time.  This can't help but remind of Lord Hutton's finding that the Joint Intelligence Committee may have been "subconsciously influenced" by Tony Blair and others into producing the strongest possible dossier on Iraq's imaginary weapons of mass destruction.

De Silva does find that, on the balance of probabilities, Finucane's name was suggested as a target to the UDA by an RUC officer.  He does not however find that Nelson informed his handlers of his role in handing over a photograph of Finucane to his killers.  Nonetheless, he concludes that since the FRU was well aware of how Nelson withheld information from them if he believed the target was a "justifiable" one, this means the army must bear " a degree of responsibility" for Finucane's murder.  All but unbelievably, the man who was eventually convicted of Finucane's murder, Kenneth Barrett, was recruited by the RUC as an agent after he had confessed on tape to the killing, the case against him dropped.

Nor did the attempts to pervert the course of justice at the very highest levels of the state stop there.  The then attorney general, Sir Patrick Mayhew, was lobbied by the Northern Ireland secretary, the defence secretary and other senior government officials to drop any prosecution against Nelson, according to de Silva due to the highly inaccurate and factually misleading briefings they were given by the Ministry of Defence and the RUC.  He doesn't however accept any ministers at the time had foreknowledge of Finucane's murder, nor that they "encouraged or directed any form of collusive activity with the UDA".

Little wonder then that Finucane's family have reacted with incredulity and anger to the report.  As it has been so many times before, no single person in a position of authority has been held responsible.  Even if we accept de Silva's conclusion that there was no "overarching State conspiracy" to murder Finucane on the evidence he was able to collate, what he does find is that agents of the state were involved in abuses up to and including murder.  No individuals other than Nelson or Barrett though have any responsibility for this.  Can it really be true that ministers weren't aware of the policies being pursued by the police, the army and MI5, or if they were, that they condoned them even if they decided they didn't want to know?  As the Guardian argues, the only way to be certain is for these questions to be asked of those in power at the time, at an open public inquiry.

The same applies to the more recent cases of apparent collusion in rendition, where there is similar evidence of the security services acting in concert with foreign intelligence agencies to transfer "terrorist suspects" to countries where they faced torture.  The axed Gibson inquiry would have at least provided us with a starting point; at the moment there's no guarantee we'll get the promised inquiry during this parliament.  At the same time, the government is still looking to push through its secret courts bill, specifically designed to stop the security services being embarrassed again by their failure to do anything about a British resident being horrifically tortured.  When after three inquiries into the death of one man we're still little nearer to the truth, what chance uncovering the reality behind our role in a worldwide conspiracy?

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