Pat Finucane’s family were sitting down to Sunday dinner at their home in North Belfast on February 12th, 1989 when their door was smashed in by masked loyalist killers wielding sledgehammers.
The gunmen then shot Finucane fourteen times in front of his wife Geraldine and his terrified children. He was 39 years old.
Since that time, the Finucane family have spent decades fighting for an inquiry to establish the extent to which the security forces – the Army, RUC and British intelligence – were in collusion with the loyalist members of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) who burst into their home that fatal night.
Pat Finucane was a solicitor and had defended both loyalists and republicans but his legal representation of well-known IRA figures, such as Bobby Sands, had made him a target of loyalists and, the evidence seems to suggest, of British intelligence who are suspected in assisting UDA gunmen in planning and carrying out his murder. After the killing, loyalists – and their political supporters – insisted that Finucane was a “high-ranking” member of the IRA, but at the inquest into his death, the police said there was no evidence that this was the case.
It has already been established that collusion existed in the Finucane case, and that co-operation between loyalist killers and the British security services was widespread and contributed to the death of hundreds of Catholics over almost four decades of violence. Many of those murdered by the UDA, the UVF or other loyalist gangs were chosen for no other reason but that they were Catholic. As the ruthless UDA killer, Johnny Adair, used to boast, after a feed of drink “any Taig would do.”
The Stevens inquiry examined claims of collusion between British forces and loyalist paramilitaries in numerous killings in the north. It found that an intelligence officer with the UDA, Brian Nelson, had helped to target Finucane, and that Nelson had also been recruited as a double agent by the British Army’s secret intelligence unit, the Force Research Unit.
A BBC Panorama investigation reported that Nelson helped to set up Finucane’s murder by identifying the solicitor’s home for the killers and guiding the attack. Judge Peter Cory, in his 2004 report, said there was “strong evidence” of collusion, and found that MI5 were aware that Mr Finucane’s life was in danger. He found that a public inquiry was necessary.
But the British government kept dragging its heels. Instead of an inquiry they asked a former war crimes investigator, Dr Desmond De Silva to review the case. De Silva’s review confirmed, again, that British agents were involved, that Pat Finucane’s murder could have been prevented.
His report led then British Prime Minister David Cameron to apologise for “frankly shocking levels of collusion”. He said, the “whoe country and beyond is entitled to know the extent and nature of the collusion – and of the failure of the State.”
Yet, this week, despite a 2019 finding of the British Supreme Court that there had never been an adequate investigation into Pat Finucane’s killing, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, announced that a public inquiry would not be held at this point.
Geraldine Finucane described the announcement as “yet another insult added to a deep and lasting injury.”
To understand why the family have spent 31 years – half a lifetime – fighting to have the truth made known, it is important to also understand just how pervasive and deadly the collusion between loyalist killers and British state forces was, and how many innocent people died as a result.
Collusion mattered because it made the loyalist killers more efficient, more deadly, and more emboldened in shooting Catholics. They felt they were untouchable, and with good reason.
The loyalist Glenane Gang who terrorised Catholics in what became known as “the murder triangle” in Armagh and Tyrone included British soldiers and RUC men in its ranks. The Cassel report found that 74 of the killings carried out by the gang involved British Army and RUC officers. Journalist Anne Cadwallader’s book, Lethal Allies, estimates that the secret group killed approximately 120 people, and that almost all of them were Catholic civilians with no links to paramilitaries. Two teenagers were shot on the way to a disco.
For agents like Brian Nelson, the collusion ran deeper and, the Finucane family believe, may have been authorized at the highest levels of the British security service and the British political establishment. The Panorama programme showed that Nelson’s Army handlers gave him the information he needed to update almost 1000 files on potential targets for loyalist paramilitaries.
Ray Barrett, one of the UDA gunmen who shot Pat Finucane is said to have boasted to RUC officers: “The peelers (police) wanted him whacked. We whacked him, that is the end of the story.”
Was Barrett telling the truth? And who authorised this collusion which led to the killing of so many people and emboldened, organized, and armed ruthless and vicious loyalist gunmen? How high up the chain did the knowledge of collusion go? Did it go all the way to the British Cabinet?
Who, for example, ordered that a blind eye should be turned to Nelson’s role in bringing in a major arms shipment for loyalist gunmen in the 1980s? According to a RUC report, the guns were used in 95 of the estimated 225 loyalist murders carried out in the following six years.
These are important questions, and they should be answered. If the British establishment have nothing to hide, then have the inquiry. If they, in fact, collaborated at the highest levels with the murder of Pat Finucane and others, then the truth needs to come out. The old maxim of justice delayed, being justice denied is an important consideration here. Brian Nelson is dead. With the passage of time the availability of witnesses and records are diminished. The people of Ballymurphy have waited 50 years for an inquiry into the murders carried out by the British Army in that area.
Today, the former police ombudsman, Baroness Nuala O’Loan, said that while an inquiry was merited, she did not believe the British government “had the appetite” to call an investigation into the Finucane murder. Maybe their appetite needs to be encouraged. While Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, has said that the decision not to hold an inquiry into Pat Finucane’s death was “arrogant and cruel” and designed to keep “dark secrets hidden”. Fine Gael, meanwhile, is conspicuous in its silence.
There seems to be a strange legacy from the time of the Civil War still shaping the culture in Fine Gael and leading to wildly unpopular decisions such as the proposal earlier this year to commemorate the RIC.
Of course, these days Fine Gael and Sinn Féin are in a new kind of war, sniping at each other constantly in Dáil Éireann as they jostle for political power, while also battling on social media where the ‘bots’ of both parties exist in a near-permanent state of outrage at each other. But Fine Gael’s silence on these issues of collusion and justice allows Sinn Féin to position themselves as the only keepers of the flame in the search for truth, which is not the case.
Some commentators said that inquiries should also be held into the Disappeared and people believed to be killed by the IRA. No reasonable person has any issue with that. Why should it be used as an excuse to prevent the truth emerging from a full inquiry into collusion between the British authorities with loyalist gunmen which led to so many deaths?
Truth will out. It’s long past time for an inquiry. Brandon Lewis should do the decent thing and reverse his decision to keep fudging the issue.