Last week the Irish Times ran a fascinating story by Ian Cobain about the 1989 murder of Pat Finucane called “Secrecy and Northern Ireland’s Dirty War.” The article was based on reporting from Cobain's upcoming book "The History Thieves."
Cobain is one of the finest investigative reporters in Britain, currently working for the Guardian. He reveals cold-blooded conspiracy reaching to the top of the British government to cover up, obfuscate and hide the truth of Britain’s dirty war in Northern Ireland.
Although Finucane’s murder in itself, to this day, is still shocking, the diabolical machinations that brought about the murder are beyond shocking; they are horrendous. A British minister had singled out Finucane in a speech in the House of Commons accusing him of acting for the IRA. As SDLP Deputy Leader Seamus Mallon said prophetically, they might as well have signed his death warrant.
The murder of Finucane, how it came about, and the government-wide cover-up, show the British government still adheres to their centuries-old belief: when it comes to the Irish, any means are justifiable.
The last great example of British-murder-without-consequences was Bloody Sunday 1972 when thirteen innocent civil rights protesters were gunned down by the British army. It only took 40 years for the British to admit their guilt as stated in the Saville Inquiry. When it comes to the Irish, British justice works slowly, but mostly, not at all. Even though they have a freedom of information act it is trumped by the Official Secrets Act which means that events, even 100 years ago are still not released. God Knows when the real Finucane file will see the light of day.
The Pat Finucane Murder
Pat Finucane was a Belfast defense attorney who defended and advised many in the Republican movement, including Gerry Adams and Bobby Sands. Although he had IRA members in his family and often defended IRA defendants in court, he also defended Protestant militants against terrorist accusations. In the best sense, Finucane was a true officer of the court.
On the night of Sunday February 12, 1989 while Finucane and his family were eating their dinner, men burst through the door and murdered Finucane. Cobain’s piece graphically described his murder: “His dining fork was still in his left hand. He had been shot six times in the head, three times in the neck and three times in the torso.
One of the first detectives at the scene would later recall: ‘I had attended the scenes of some two hundred murders, suicides and sudden deaths, but what lay before me was a picture of ferocity the likes of which I had encountered few times before.’ The gunmen had downed Finucane with shots to the chest before standing over him and shooting him in the face. ‘His face was heavily covered in powder burns, which indicated that he had been shot several times at a range not greater than 15 inches.’ Finucane’s three young children [and wife] had been watching.”
A year later as independent British detectives were making progress on the case and getting close to an arrest, their headquarters in a secure RUC complex outside of Carrickfergus went up in flames. Papers and computers were turned to ash. The suspects were not the nationalists or the loyalists, but the British army and secret services. But Finucane is the murder that will not die..
Brian Nelson, Agent 6137
Thus we come to the filthy story of their top secret agent, one Brian Nelson. Nelson is not a character out of an Ian Fleming or John le Carré novel. He was not debonair, nor cultured. By his agent number—6137—it’s apparent he was no James Bond. What he was, was a thug from the Shankill Road. He was already a felon when recruited by the British as an agent.
He is described in the Times article as “A thin, nervous-looking man, a drinker and a chain smoker, Nelson was the most unlikely-looking terrorist and intelligence agent: ‘not an inspiring specimen,’ according to [Detective John, later Lord] Stevens. Born in 1947 in the loyalist Shankill district of west Belfast, he joined the Black Watch regiment of the British Army as a teenager, serving in Cyprus and Germany.
But his disciplinary record was poor, marked by repeated periods when he was absent without leave, and in 1969 he was discharged. Back in Belfast, Nelson joined the UDA, and in 1973 was sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in the kidnap and torture of a disabled Catholic man.” Apparently, Nelson’s psychopathic behavior set off no red flags for the British.
A Shift in Strategy Results in Get-Out-of-Jail Cards
British Intelligence is made up of several agencies. What is surprising is that it is not much different than it was a century ago when the same groups went up against Michael Collins’ intelligence services in Dublin. There is MI-5 (domestic intelligence), MI-6 (foreign intelligence), RUC (special branch political intelligence), plus Military Intelligence, in this case known as the Force Research Unit, or “FRU.” Starting in 1980 under Jack Hermon, the Chief Constable of the RUC, it was decided to shift priorities from interrogation (some would say torture) to intelligence. A pact with the devil was made. Loyalist sectarian killers would be allowed to kill and maim at will long as they were doing the bidding of the FRU and other secret sources
According to the Irish Times “The RUC’s Chief Constable had decided, with the encouragement of MI5, that the gathering of intelligence would take priority over the apprehension and prosecution of people responsible for killings, kidnappings and bombings. And, on occasion, the people who were responsible for these acts would remain at liberty, if they were also working as informants for the police or the Army, and their usefulness to the state was assessed to outweigh the danger that they posed to the public. This was just the beginning. As the decade progressed, informants were recruited before they joined paramilitary organizations.
These individuals would be killers for hire given privileged access to selected police and Army intelligence material, which would enable those organisations to select targets for murder. Police and Army agent-runners were effectively deciding who was to live and who was to die, no legal niceties needed; and while such decisions were being taken, MI5 hovered nearby.”
Put in simple language, this act was a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for many loyalists who had been targeting the Catholic population. As Cobain put it, the British and RUC had become “managers of terrorism.”
A loyalist bank heist in Portadown netted £325,000 which was eventually put to use for purchasing weapons for the various Protestant paramilitary organizations. These weapons had a draconian effect on the IRA’s ability to wage war. According to the Times “Whatever the truth about the FRU’s role in the arms-smuggling operation, the consequence was that loyalists’ access to high-calibre weapons—and their ability to slaughter both republicans and uninvolved Catholics—changed immediately…Today, loyalists boast that the IRA was forced eventually to ‘sue for peace’ because of the pressure it came under as the killings mounted in the aftermath of the largely successful South African smuggling operation.”
The Return of Agent 6137
After playing a pivotal role in the purchase of weapons, by 1987 Agent Nelson had had enough and was out of the game—until the FRU came knocking again. They wanted him back in intelligence and to get him back they seduced him with a new house, a car, a job, and £200 a week. In all, they would pay him £46,428 after he became the “UDA’s senior intelligence officer for the whole of the province.”
Apparently, Nelson wasn’t much of an intelligence officer so the FRU decided to help him out. Cobain describes how: “He went to work compiling a card index library detailing the home addresses, workplaces and haunts of suspected members of the IRA. Many of the cards had police photographs attached. Some of the material came from electoral registers and newspapers. Much of it came from montages of the names and photographs of terrorism suspects that were compiled by the police and issued to members of the security forces on checkpoint duty. Some information, such as car numbers, were supplied by his FRU handlers. At one point, the FRU helped him weed out material that was out of date. Copies of the cards would be handed to UDA gunmen prior to an attack, and sometimes they were also supplied to the UVF. The FRU also kept its own copy of Nelson’s entire card index library.”
“Through Nelson,” the Times noted, “the British Army was taking effective control of the UDA’s death squads, and directing them towards known—or suspected—members of the IRA.”
Murdering the Innocent
This shoot-first-and-don’t-even-bother-to-ask-questions attitude resulted in the murder of Terry McDaid who was mistaken for his brother, who was actually in the IRA.
Pat Finucane was next on the list. Like McDaid, he was totally innocent. The Irish Times states: “Three inquiries would subsequently conclude that Finucane was not a member of the IRA, but a lawyer dedicated to defending his clients, who sometimes included members of the IRA. As part of the peace process, Peter Cory, a retired judge of the Canadian supreme court, was asked by the British and Irish governments to examine allegations of collusion between the security forces and paramilitaries. Cory concluded that in the case of Finucane, ‘both military and police intelligence fundamentally misconstrued the role of solicitors and failed to draw the essential distinction that exists between lawyers’ professional obligations, on the one hand, and their personal alliances, on the other.’ ”
“Nelson was deeply involved in the murder of Finucane,” the Times concluded. “He had passed the lawyer’s photograph and address to the UDA, and may have been watching the house shortly before the attack. Cory concluded that he had seen ‘strong evidence’ of collusive acts by the FRU, Special Branch and MI5, but that the question of the FRU’s advance knowledge of the attack could be resolved only through a public inquiry.”
Death of Loughlin Maginn Breaks the Murder Machine—Agent Nelson Arrested
The UDA’s murder of 28-year-old poultry processor Loughlin Maginn was the end of Brian Nelson and the whole operation. When Maginn’s family protested that he had nothing to do with the IRA—which was true—the Ulster Defence Regiment produced a film of a police station which showed Maginn’s picture on the wall. “There was uproar among Northern Ireland’s Catholic communities,” the Irish Times said, “at this all too rare but irrefutable evidence of collusion between loyalist killers and the British state. An outside police investigation became unavoidable and John Stevens was appointed to run it.” Finally, their faulty intelligence brought the FRU down—but it was too late for Finucane, McDaid and Maginn.
Brian Nelson went on the run, but was quickly arrested in England. And in the true tradition of the quisling, he sang like a canary. “At this point,” the Times reported, “the Army and senior Ministry of Defence officials leap into action to conceal the truth about FRU’s involvement in the management of terrorism.”
But the British were not done helping Nelson yet. Although Defence Secretary Tom King thought him to be “a terrorist, thug and hooligan” they worked out a deal for hush money for Nelson and his family if he would shut his mouth.
The murder charges were dropped. He took a plea bargain—thus he did not have to testify in court and be cross-examined. The salacious work of the various British intelligence agencies remained a secret. Nelson did four years and was released. He died of a brain hemorrhage in 2003. We will never know what secrets died with him.
The British Never Charge—or Learn
Lord Stevens—one of the original independent investigators into the death of Pat Finucane—wrote three reports which led to the conviction of 94 people. However, neither Nelson’s handler or the head of FRU were indicted or reprimanded. In fact, they were both promoted. In conclusion Cobain reported that “Nelson was the most notorious of the British agents operating within the loyalist paramilitaries’ ranks, but he was far from alone. Long after his investigations into collusion in Northern Ireland were wound up, Stevens disclosed that of the 210 people his team arrested, only three were not agents of the British state. Some were working simultaneously for the police, the Army, MI5 and, he hinted, MI6. They were making handsome sums of money, frequently while fighting against each other, ‘which was all against the public interest and creating mayhem in Northern Ireland.’ ”
What’s Past Is Prologue
The one thing to remember about the British is that they never want to let go of Ireland. The recent Boston College oral history controversy is a prime example. Why go back over thirty years to dig up old hatreds when things seem to be getting better? Why? Because they are British and it still sticks in their craw that the Union Jack is not flying over the GPO in Dublin. The British, as this Irish Times article states, always hide their sins while in full pursuit of nationalists’ peccadillos. It’s the sure sign of a loser who doesn’t know he has lost—and lost big, not only in battle, but in the textbooks of history.
*Dermot McEvoy is the author of The 13th Apostle: A Novel of a Dublin Family, Michael Collins, and the Irish Uprising and Irish Miscellany (Skyhorse Publishing). He may be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on his website and Facebook page.