By Jack Holland
BBC television’s “Panorama” documentary on collusion between the security forces and loyalist killers has, as expected, further deepened a controversy that has been raging for years. But it has left some important questions unanswered.
The two-part documentary broadcast last week has been enthusiastically greeted by those who have been alleging all along that such collusion was rife, indeed institutionalized, and that it led to the deaths of many — some say hundreds — of nationalists.
The program dealt with events during a period from the summer of 1987 to late 1990, when the Ulster Defense Association was deeply penetrated by agents of the security forces. The most prominent was Brian Nelson, who worked for the Force Research Unit, a British army intelligence-gathering squad. The other was William Stobie, who was a UDA quartermaster and worked for the Special Branch of the now defunct Royal Ulster Constabulary.
Nelson became a high-ranking member of the UDA’s Belfast organization after his return to the city in the summer of 1987. The documentary gives some details on four murders to which Nelson was allegedly linked — those of Michael Power, Terence McDaid, Gerard Slane and Patrick Finucane — and one attempted murder, that of Sinn Fein activist Alex Maskey. Stobie was also linked to the Finucane killing, providing the weapons for the murder.
“Panorama” repeats claims that have appeared in the press that FRU intended Nelson to help the UDA make its targeting “more professional” and to ensure that “the proper targeting of Provisional IRA members . . . prior to any shooting.”
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These claims, that a branch of the security forces actively encouraged the targeting of people who were suspected members of the IRA are given weight by testimony from former members of the Stevens Inquiry team, who, on three occasions since 1989, have investigated collusion claims. Det. Sgt. Nicholas Benwell says that “that was the conclusion we came to . . . there was certainly an agreement between his handlers and Nelson that the targeting should concentrate on what they described as the ‘right’ people.” One of these was Maskey, now the Sinn Fein lord mayor of Belfast, but the attempt to kill him failed. This is the strongest part of the “Panorama” story, as it is backed up by two policemen involved in the Stevens investigation who agree that FRU did not supply the police with sufficient information to prevent such targeting and that the conclusion is that the army was “prepared to allow events to take their course.”
However, the most sensational material in the program comes from Ken Barrett, who is identified as one of the two gunmen who shot Patrick Finucane. He claims that ” Finucane would be alive today if the peelers [police] hadn’t interfered.” Barrett goes on to allege that a police officer told him in relation to Finucane, “He’ll have to go. . . . He’s a thorn in everybody’s side. He’ll have to go.”
Later, when the hit team is ready to strike, it waits for a telephone call. It comes and the message is passed on to the hit squad that “the roadblock had been taken down.” According to Barrett, the call came from the police officer who had originally said Finucane would “have to go” and (presumably) referred to a vehicle checkpoint near the Finucane home.
This part of the program also contains claims from a former member of the RUC Criminal Investigation Department, Johnston “Jonty” Brown, that the Special Branch threatened him after he tried to follow up claims from Barrett that he had assassinated Finucane. Brown had been present, along with a Special Branch officer, during an October 1991 interview with Barrett in a car when Barrett allegedly confessed to the attack.
The claims concerning FRU and Nelson, while disturbing, do not answer one of the fundamental questions concerning the allegations of collusion. “Within a year Military Intelligence were reporting that, thanks to their agent, the targeting by loyalist murder gangs was ‘more professional,’ ” states the program’s narrator, John Ware. But as “Panorama” notes, “nothing could be further from the truth.” Indeed, UDA targeting was completely ineffective against the IRA. During the entire period when Nelson was active, that is between mid-1987 and late 1990, the UDA (using its cover name of Ulster Freedom Fighters) succeeded in killing one known republican — Caoimhin MacBradaigh. But he was killed when Michael Stone raced into a republican funeral, hurling hand grenades and firing wildly. His death can hardly be attributed to collusion. Of the 24 Catholics murdered by the UDA in Belfast and the surrounding area during that period, none other than MacBradaigh had any links to the IRA. If FRU was supplying Nelson with information, one thing is clear: it did not improve the accuracy of the organization’s targeting abilities. In two of the murders examined by “Panorama,” those of Terence McDaid and Gerard Slane, the information the UDA was acting on was inaccurate. McDaid’s address was mistaken for that of his brother — an alleged republican. In fact, in 1989 a corporal in the Royal Scots Regiment and a woman member of the Ulster Defense Regiment admitted to passing along information linked to McDaid to loyalists and were given 18-month suspended sentences. This is not mentioned in the program.
In Slane’s case, he had served time in prison for arms offenses in the 1970s and in 1983 had been questioned by police. The photograph that appeared of Slane in a UDA magazine after the murder and which had been used to target him had been taken on that occasion. Clearly, the UDA was in possession of intelligence information, but it was very low grade, and out of date, consisting it would seem mainly of ID kits of terrorist suspects such as are given to military foot patrols. Both the Special Branch and Military Intelligence had much more accurate and detailed information of high-ranking republican activists, yet they remained among the least likely to die at the hands of the UDA or the UVF.
The statistics show, for instance, that between 1969 and 1994, only 30 active members of the IRA and republican groups such as the INLA died at the hands of loyalists, under 3 percent of the total killed by loyalist organizations. But only 15 of those seem to have been specifically targeted.
The part of the program dealing with Finucane is based mainly on Barrett’s testimony. It is perplexingly vague about the operation in which he claims to have played a leading role. He tells the viewers little about the murder that has not appeared elsewhere in recent years. Even the tantalizing scraps he does offer raise questions the program does not address. For instance, Barrett’s claim that before the gang left to kill the solicitor, they got information via a telephone call about a roadblock being lifted. He says it came from the police officer who originally encouraged him to “whack” Finucane. This clearly implies that the policeman knew the date of the proposed murder, which means he must have been deeply involved. Yet Barrett says nothing about the extent of that involvement, which is odd, given that he is clearly keen to show (as is the program) the extent of police collusion with the UDA. Later, Barrett tells the reporter as proof that he was involved that the gun he used was a .38 with magnum rounds. Yet Stobie, who provided the weapons for the murder, claims that he handed over two 9-mm. pistols to the hit squad. These inconsistencies are not addressed.
Finally, the fact that the police who are investigating the murder have not so far charged any of the officers against whom Barrett makes serious allegations indicates that the only evidence they have is Barrett’s word, and that such testimony would not stand up in court. Nor have they charged Barrett.