By Jack Holland
Ten years ago, on Feb. 12, at around tea time on Sunday, the sound of gunfire shattered the tranquillity of the quiet middle-class neighborhood of Fortwilliam in North Belfast. UDA gunfire had claimed the life of the Catholic solicitor Patrick Finucane as he and his family got ready for their evening meal. The murder has never been solved and the disturbing issues that it raised have never gone away.
It was an unusual murder by Northern Ireland standards. To begin with, Finucane was not the typical loyalist victim. Working-class Catholics make up about 99 percent of all those who have died at the hands of the UDA and UVF. It was almost unheard of for loyalists to strike in a middle-class neighborhood, even though by the late 1980s, Catholics were to be found in growing numbers in areas like Fortwilliam, and in south Belfast, the Malone Road and the Upper Ormeau. Middle-class Catholics were seemingly regarded as being "above the fray" for the most part. Finucane was also the first and last lawyer to die at the hands of loyalists. The IRA often targeted judges, magistrates and solicitors. But it was not a feature of loyalist violence.
Finucane, however, was seen as fair game. He came from a prominent republican family. His brother Dermot had escaped from the Maze Prison in 1983 and was known as a leading member of the Provisionals in the south, where he became the head of the IRA’s Southern Command. Another of his brothers was prominent on the Provisionals’ Belfast Brigade.
Patrick himself was one of the leading defenders of people charged with IRA offenses. He represented the families of the hunger strikers at the inquest into their deaths. He was the lawyer for the widow of an IRA man who, along with two others, was shot dead in a controversial incident in November 1982. The incident and two others which followed in December led to allegations of a police "shoot-to-kill" policy and investigations by two English detectives, John Stalker and Colin Sampson.
Finucane took the government to court over the ban on Sinn Fein representatives that prevented them from being interviewed on television. A month before his death, Finucane had brought a successful case challenging the government’s right to hold prisoners in solitary confinement. The case involved both Protestant and Catholic paramilitaries. But that did not help to improve his image with the UDA.
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On Jan. 17 1989, Douglas Hogg, a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government, made a statement in the British parliament in which he said that "a number of solicitors in Northern . . .are unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA." There were no names mentioned, of course, but there was no doubt about whom Hogg was thinking — Finucane and Paddy McGrory. McGrory was also well known for his work with republicans. In 1988, he began representing the families of the three IRA members the SAS shot dead in Gibraltar.
As it turned out, McGrory also ended up on a UDA death list, as did Mary McAleese. Then a prominent legal expert at Queen’s University, she has gone on to become Ireland’s president. Perhaps the UDA was intent on avenging the series of murders and attempted murders on judges and lawyers that had claimed four lives, beginning with that of Judge William Doyle in January 1983.
The murder of Finucane is unusual in another way because it helped open to view the undercover war army intelligence officers and the Special Branch conduct against the paramilitaries. Rarely have people been afforded a view of the murky and deadly goings on in this frequently brutal struggle. But soon after Finucane’s death, allegations began to swirl around the circumstances of the killing. Within months, the UDA murdered Loughlin Maginn, whom it alleged was also a prominent republican. When his family denied this, the group released a security forces file on Maginn which showed that he had been a suspect and was frequently stopped for questioning. This led to a flood of other files being displayed by both the UDA and the UVF to prove that they were acting on official information.
An enquiry was launched into the affair, headed by a senior English police officer, John Stevens. The Special Branch and military intelligence were furious, as they had been when Stalker was prying into their business. They feared vital sources of information would be disturbed. They were right. Stevens’s worked resulted in the arrests of 28 members of the Ulster Defense Regiment in October 1989. But they were small fry. Stevens also uncovered Brian Nelson, the chief intelligence officer for the UDA and a British army agent who, since 1987, had been providing key intelligence to his handlers on UDA activities. Nelson was linked to incriminating documents. He was initially charged with two murders and four counts of conspiracy to murder. But before he came to trial in January 1992, he pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was given 10 years.
It was revealed that while Nelson gave information to his handlers, they did not always act on it. In December 1988, for instance, Nelson had information that the UDA was planning to assassinate Patrick Finucane. The RUC claims it did not receive this information from Nelson’s handlers, so no counter-surveillance operation was mounted, and Finucane died. The army said it received information from Nelson about plans to murder 217 individuals, of whom four were actually assassinated — three by the UDA. The fourth was Danny McCann, an IRA bomb maker. The UDA did not succeed in killing him. That was left to the SAS. He was shot dead in Gibraltar in March 1988 along with two other IRA activists.
It was learned also that army intelligence knew about Nelson’s part in a whole series of crimes. This shocked many people. But it was fairly common practice for both police and army intelligence officers to ignore their agents’ actions in order to protect them. Sometimes, too, the handler had to make a vital judgment — when and how to act on the information given without leaving clues as to its source. Though in theory the handler was working to save lives, in practice he often felt that his first duty was to protect his source. Occasionally, this undoubtedly put innocent lives at risk. It may be that army intelligence decided to protect Nelson at the expense of the life of Patrick Finucane.