By Anne Cadwallader and Ray O’Hanlon
BELFAST — In a development that could have far-reaching ramifications in the Pat Finucane murder case, Northern Ireland journalist Ed Moloney is this week awaiting a court judgment to hear if he will be fined or sent to jail for refusing to hand over notebooks to detectives hunting the killers of the Belfast attorney.
In the first legal tussle for many years between the rights of journalists to confidentiality, and their obligation to assist the police, Moloney refused, for both principled and practical reasons, to agree to RUC demands.
The case centers on notes of an interview that Moloney conducted with loyalist William Stobie nine years ago. Stobie was recently arrested in connection with the 1989 Finucane murder. Moloney has stated his belief that the arrest was intended to shroud the recently renewed investigation into Finucane’s murder under Northern Ireland’s sub judice laws.
Moloney, who is Northern editor of the Dublin-published Sunday Tribune, says he is willing to go to jail rather than break confidentiality with his sources. If fined, he will refuse to pay the fine, rendering him liable to further fines or imprisonment for contempt of court.
"This is not just about me, it’s about journalism in Northern Ireland," he said. "If I were to hand these notes over, we would all theoretically become information gatherers for the RUC.
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"That is not our job. Our job is to report the news and nothing else. If we do that, then no one will talk to us and the implications of that for free speech are immensely grave."
He said the case also had personal implications for him, as his sources would almost certainly dry up and his career could be over. He would also be at risk from paramilitaries anxious to make an example of him.
Moloney told the Echo after Monday’s hearing that he expected the judge to rule against him — the ruling was expected by this Friday — but that this was no longer the only issue.
Moloney said that the hearing had also served to reopen the Finucane case, which goes back to the slaying of the lawyer in his Belfast home in February 1989.
"Under cross-examination from our lawyer, a detective from the [Deputy Commissioner John] Stevens team admitted that back in 1990 Stobie had been arrested and questioned by RUC detectives," Moloney said.
"During his questioning he [Stobie] admitted to detectives that he had supplied the guns used to kill Finucane and had disposed of the principal murder weapon afterward. A report was submitted to the director of public prosecutions, but, despite these admissions, the DPP directed against prosecution. The Stevens team man was unable to answer why.
"The revelations beg obvious questions. Why was Stobie not prosecuted back in 1990? Was it because he was telling the truth about warning the special branch about Finucane? Why is he being prosecuted now? Is it because, with the Patten report [into the RUC] due, his indictment makes the Finucane affair sub judice?
"And what of the role of the DPP? Why did he recommend against prosecution despite Stobie’s admission? This is the second time the DPP has been embroiled in this affair. Don’t forget when Stobie was arrested on what he says were trumped-up arms charges, he threatened to reveal his dealings with the [RUC] Special Branch unless he was found not guilty. The DPP agreed to his deal. Why?
"The Finucane affair now firmly involves three branches of the law-and-order apparatus in Northern Ireland: military intelligence, the RUC Special Branch and the prosecuting authorities."
Meanwhile, with regard to the primary issue in court, Moloney’s refusal to comply with a "disclosure order," the last cases of this kind before the Irish courts, North or South, were in the 1970s when RTE journalist Kevin O’Kelly, in the Republic, refused to reveal his source after interviewing a leading member of the IRA. He served two days in jail.
In the North, BBC journalist Bernard Falk, who interviewed a leading Belfast republican, also spend a short time in jail for refusing to tell the RUC who his interviewee was.
Since then, the police have evidently decided not to press similar cases as journalists have gained significant political and public support for taking a stand against acting, as Moloney put it this week, as "coppers’ narks."
Moloney said after the court hearing that he had won the moral argument and that there had been a "stunning revelation," which confirmed his claim that the police knew for years about Stobie’s involvement in the Finucane murder.
Despite Stobie’s confession, the RUC had not charged him with any offense in connection with the Finucane murder until this year, and followed this up by demanding Moloney’s notes, papers that contain Stobie’s confession — a statement investigators apparently had in their possession nine years ago.
Outside the court journalists and trade unionists from across Ireland gathered to support Moloney’s stand against being forced to break confidentiality with a source.
Detective Chief Inspector Richard Turney of the London Metropolitan Police, who is part of the Stevens Inquiry into the Finucane murder, told the court that Moloney had only used initials when identifying some individuals in the Sunday Tribune.
He said it would be of substantial interest to police investigating the case to discover from Moloney’s notebooks what the full names of those persons were.
Moloney interviewed Stobie in 1990, when he made a full confession of his part in supplying guns for the Finucane killing. The former British soldier and RUC informer also said he had told his RUC handlers twice that a killing was imminent before the shooting.
The condition Stobie gave about the interview was that it was not to be used until he agreed to publication. By the time Stobie spoke to Moloney, he suspected he had outlived his usefulness to the RUC as an informer and was worried something "might happen" to him.
In the U.S., reaction to Monday’s hearing was both of concern for Moloney but also heightened interest in the new questions raised during the court hearing about the Finucane case.
"The case if now lifting the cover once again off a pattern of RUC misbehavior which we have suspected all along," said attorney and Brehon Law Society member Frank Durkan in New York.
"This is dynamite for the Finucane case," was the immediate comment of another attorney, Larry Downes, former president of the society, which has led the campaign in the U.S. for a full independent inquiry in the Finucane assassination.
Another Brehon member, attorney Richard Harvey, said the hearing focused new attention on RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan.
"The case raises fundamental questions about the role of Flanagan. It looks now as if Flanagan was in charge of the RUC Special Branch informers unit in Belfast at the time Pat Finucane was killed, Feb. 12, 1989.
"It that turns out to be the case, he has to be a target of the Stevens investigation, not the man who Stevens is reporting to," Harvey said.
Harvey said that Flanagan’s biographical material indicated that he attended a police training college in England in 1989, but not until the summer of that year.