Northern Ireland: State Sponsored Murder

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'A service to be proud of' declares the Police Service of Northern Ireland website. The RUC may have been renamed, but the 'service' this force provides is one of which only sectarian bigots can be proud, as the recent Stevens report concluded.

That collusion existed between Loyalist paramilitaries and the RUC is no surprise to anyone familiar with the British state's role in Ireland, but to read the clipped tones of one of its high ranking officers spelling it out is a revelation.

The focus of this inquiry was the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane, shot dead in front of his family in 1989. It is now known that several members of the UDA squad that murdered Finucane were police agents at the time and had warned their handlers in advance of the plan. The blandly named Force Research Unit (FRU) recruited and ran the agents involved, who included Brian Nelson, one of the state's most valued undercover agents, William Stobie, the UDA man who provided the weapon, and Ken Barrett, a UDA assassin who admitted to BBC's 'Panorama' that he was one of the two gunmen who actually shot Finucane.

Far from denying passing intelligence details of individuals to agents in murder gangs, the FRU defend it. They say that their informers had to protect their cover at all costs, including taking part in terrorist activities. So if they were going to have to murder people, then it would be better if they were 'real' Republicans rather than 'innocent' Catholics. So they provided photographs, descriptions and addresses of individuals to be targeted. As one official document, dated 3 May 1988, states, '6137 [Nelson] wants the UDA only to attack legitimate targets and not innocent Catholics. Since 6137 took up his position as intelligence officer, the targeting has developed and is now more professional.'

So as Pat Finucane's son Michael has pointed out, his father's murder was not some aberration or slip-up by police handlers. It was part of the logic of a deliberate plan to use Loyalist murder gangs to take out troublesome individuals: 'Simple policy, simple operation, simply chilling.'

This simple policy was known at the highest levels of government, and political influence was used with great effect. Home Office minister Douglas Hogg reported to parliament in January 1989, 'I have to state as a fact but with great regret that there are in Northern Ireland a number of solicitors who are unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA.' Pat Finucane was murdered three weeks later.

At every point the inquiry was blocked. Twice the inquiry team unsuccessfully tried to arrest Brian Nelson. The first time he was tipped off and was spirited away by his FRU handlers. Then in January 1990, the night before the second attempt, the inquiry's headquarters were burned down. The RUC investigation blamed a 'discarded cigarette'.

Nelson was eventually charged with 35 serious terrorist offences and served ten years. During the trial the officer running the FRU, Colonel Gordon Kerr, testified on Nelson's behalf. Nelson died days before the publication of the Stevens report from a reported brain haemorrhage.

Kerr was awarded a military OBE in 1991. He is currently the British military attache to Beijing. Such are the rewards for those who provide the British state with a 'service to be proud of'.

Such also is the experience of policing Northern Ireland that the British government cites when it claims it is especially suited to intervene in postwar Iraq.