By Jack Holland
Last week, when former UDA man William Stobie walked free from a court in Belfast, after facing charges in connection with the 1989 murder of lawyer Patrick Finucane, it marked another controversial twist in a case that has been steeped for years in Northern Ireland’s dirty war of counter-terror and double agents.
Since that Sunday evening in February 1989 when the 38-year-old human rights lawyer was shot to death as he sat down to dinner with his family, the case has provoked more controversy than almost any other in the history of the Northern Ireland Troubles. It has given rise to two police inquiries, both headed by John Stevens, commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, and two sensational trials, both of which have produced more questions than they have answered.
In the latest, Stobie, a self-confessed police informer, who had been the quartermaster for the UDA’s notorious “C” company, which carried out the murder, was acquitted after the chief witness against him, a former journalist now working for the Northern Ireland Office, could not testify for mental health reasons.
Almost 10 years earlier, the trial of Brian Nelson, the UDA’s intelligence officer who also doubled as an agent for the Field Research Unit of British army intelligence, ended in controversy. Nelson had been charged with two counts of murder and 13 other charges. In exchange for pleading guilty to 20 lesser charges, including five of conspiracy to murder, Nelson received a 10-year sentence. The plea arrangement meant that he did not have to take the stand and face questioning on his role as among other things, the man who had provided the information to the UDA that enabled them to murder Finucane.
Two subsequent investigations by Stevens, the second of which led to the arrest of Stobie, and is ongoing, have done nothing to satisfy Finucane family members and human right’s activists who have been calling for a full, public inquiry into the case.
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Last week, the Northern Ireland secretary of state said he would appoint an international judge to review the case along with five other murder cases to determine if such an inquiry is warranted.
Jan. 17 1989: junior Home Office Minister Douglas Hogg remarks in the House of Commons that “a number of solicitors in Northern Ireland are known to be sympathetic to one or other of the terrorist organizations.”
Feb. 12 1989: Patrick Finucane murdered at home in North Belfast. UDA’s front the Ulster Freedom Fighters claim responsibility.
July 1989: Three youths from the loyalist Shankill Road charged with possession of one of the weapons — a 9mm pistol used in the murder. They are not thought to be linked to the killing itself.
1989: John Stevens heads investigation into collusion allegations, as a result of which Brian Nelson is arrested. Stevens launches a follow-up enquiry into the Finucane killing.
1990: On a promise of confidentiality, William Stobie tells reporter Ed Moloney of his involvement in the murder and names the hit squad. Stobie is charged for the first time with possession but charges are subsequently dropped by the Director of Public Prosecutions.
October 1993: Committee for the Administration of Justice in a submission to the United Nations special rapporteur on summary or arbitrary executions describes the killing as “significant beyond its immediate circumstances and consequences” and said Finucane had died as a result of “intimidation of defense lawyers in Northern Ireland.”
January 1995: Stevens’s follow up inquiry concludes but yields no new public information.
April 1998: A UN report calls for an independent enquiry into the killing. It says: “Outstanding questions surrounding the murder demonstrate the need for an independent judicial enquiry.” The RUC responded by claiming that the report paid “scant regard to measurable facts.”
April 1999: The RUC asks Stevens to begin a second investigation into the murder.
May 1999: A confidential Irish government document concludes that elements of British intelligence colluded with loyalists in a murder campaign against nationalists.
June 1999: As a result of Stevens’s inquiry, Stobie is arrested for the second time and charged in connection with Finucane murder.
Nov. 26, 2001: Stobie is acquitted. British announce that an international judge will be appointed by April 2002 to decide whether to hold a full public inquiry into the Finucane murder and five other controversial cases.