By Jack Holland
Geraldine Finucane remembers she was in the kitchen of her home on Fortwilliam Drive in North Belfast on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 1989 listening to the evening news when it was reported that a junior minister in the Conservative government, Douglas Hogg, had said during a debate on the renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act: “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.”
Geraldine’s husband, Patrick, was a prominent lawyer, involved in many controversial cases, including representing the families of IRA men killed in disputed circumstances by the security forces.
“When Pat had been going to the interrogation center to see his clients there had been a number of comments against him,” she said. “They sort of started off as not very pleasant, derogatory comments. Over a period of time they had escalated into death threats.” His clients were telling him that during questioning, the police told them, ‘Get another solicitor, yours isn’t going to be around here for very long.’
“Pat had actually noted those on the legal aid forms,” his widow continued, “until it became so common that instead of actually noting what the comments were, he just said, ‘comments made.’ ” She said that Patrick Finucane felt it was “more an interrogation technique designed to frighten his clients than something that was directed at him.”
She paused. “Then Douglas Hogg made the statement under parliamentary privilege. It was like hitting a big brick wall at full force,” she recalled. “It was a very frightening statement. What was even worse about the statement was, I know there was a Northern Ireland debate going on, but he didn’t get up and make a long speech in which he incorporated this. He just got up and said this, and repeated it, and refused to answer any questions about it. I thought that was odd in itself.
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“It suddenly registered that this was not an interrogation technique that was being carried out in a holding center. This was ministerial level. Douglas Hogg had been briefed by senior members of the RUC, including then Chief Constable Jack Hermon. It raised it to governmental level and it made it something that needed to be looked at much more seriously and reappraised.” However, her husband never got the chance.
“Within three weeks Pat was dead,” she said.
On Sunday evening, Feb. 12, two masked gunmen burst into the Finucane home while the family was at dinner and shot him dead. In September 1990, Geraldine Finucane told an inquest, that she had heard a loud bang coming from the front door. A figure wearing “gauntlets” dressed in black appeared in the kitchen.
“The shooting started immediately, very fast,” she said. “I landed up in the corner, then there were more shots, very slow and deliberate. Pat was lying on the floor on his back.” A ricocheting bullet hit her in the ankle.
Finucane’s murder took place in the kitchen where Geraldine had listened to the report of the Hogg statement.
It was, a policeman told the inquest, “the most ferocious murder I have come across. Every shot seemed to strike home and I believe the gunmen involved had murdered before.”
“Immediately Pat was murdered, I started to ask questions,” Geraldine Finucane said, mainly because of the Hogg statement. But there were other things aroused her suspicion.
“There were patrols on the Antrim Road all day,” she recalled of Feb. 12, 1989. “But the roadblocks were removed 40 minutes before the murder.”
Suspicion to conviction
In the 13 years since Patrick Finucane was murdered, her suspicions that the killing was more than what it seemed have hardened into a fierce conviction. A year after the shooting, which was claimed by the Ulster Freedom Fighters, the cover name of the Ulster Defense Association, an investigation by an English policeman, John Stevens, led to the arrest of Brian Nelson to face murder charges. Nelson was the UDA’s chief intelligence officer, who, it was learned, also worked for the Force Research Unit, an intelligence branch of the British army. Nelson claimed that prior to the assassination, he had told his handlers that Finucane was being targeted. At around the same time, UDA quartermaster William Stobie was arrested and admitted that he supplied the guns that were used in Finucane’s murder. Stobie also claimed he was working for the RUC Special Branch. He said that he knew that the UDA’s “C” company (based around the Shankill area of West Belfast) was planning a hit on Feb. 12, but that he did not know the target. He also claimed that he had kept his police handlers informed of the movements of hit squad. Notwithstanding Stobie’s admissions, the Director of Public Prosecutions decided on Jan. 16, 1991 not to proceed with the case against him.
Nelson’s trial ended in early 1992 with the accused pleading to a lesser charge and receiving a 10-year sentence without having to appear in court to face cross-examination. Stobie, arrested again in 1999, during a subsequent (and ongoing) Stevens inquiry walked free on Nov. 26, 2001 when the only witness against him refused to appear in court. Stobie was murdered by the UDA just over two weeks later. In the meantime, a former police detective has claimed that one of the gunmen involved in the murder confessed to him on tape, but the tape was subsequently “lost” by the Special Branch, which decided to recruit the gunman as an informer instead of prosecuting him. The suspect, Ken Barrett, fled Belfast after the Stobie murder and reports suggest that he is ready to talk about the shooting in return for some sort of protection.
In the 13 years that followed the murder, a battery of human rights organizations, as well as the UN, the Irish government and the U.S. House of Representatives, have called for a public inquiry, which has so far not been granted. Instead, in July last year, during the negotiations to save the Good Friday agreement at Weston Park, the British government and Irish government agreed to appoint an international judge to look at the Finucane case, and five other controversial cases, including the 1974 bombings of Dublin and Monaghan.
Geraldine Finucane said that the family were not consulted, and fears that the move is another delaying tactic. The New York-based Lawyers Committee on Human Rights agrees with her. This week, with the publication of a 70-page report entitled “Beyond Collusion: The UK Security Forces and the Murder of Patrick Finucane,” it called on the Irish and UK governments to “abandon the Weston Park proposal.”
“The Lawyers Committee is deeply unsatisfied with this proposal. How is one judge — with currently undefined powers — to review the papers and interview witnesses in all six of these complicated cases?” the committee asked. It too calls for a public inquiry.
When asked why she thinks her husband was targeted, Geraldine Finucane replied: “I don’t know why. Pat Finucane was a lawyer. The majority of people he represented came from the community he was brought up in,” which was nationalist and working class. She points out that her husband also defended loyalists, and on one occasion she recalls that he received a telephone call from a police officer looking for his help. Was she optimistic that the reiterated calls for an inquiry will be eventually met?
“I was optimistic on the 10th anniversary when the British-Irish Human Rights Watch report came out,” she replied. Reportedly, it contained sensitive military documents, which the family saw. They included contact forms (drawn up by the handlers of informers). The family and the British-Irish Human Rights Watch thought the evidence was convincing enough to warrant a public inquiry.
Two thousand lawyers signed a petition supporting the call. She met with President Clinton. The momentum seemed to be building.
Thirteen years later, however, a public inquiry is still not even on the horizon.
“It’s far past being about the murder of one man,” she said. “Everybody knows who did the murders. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about a strategy that was carried out by the British government in Northern Ireland.”