Pat Finucane wasn’t the only victim of state terror

All those observers ‘shocked’ to discover that Britain colluded with loyalist death squads: where have you been for the past 30 years?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
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There were ‘shocking levels of collusion’ in the murder of the Irish republican lawyer Pat Finucane, said prime minister David Cameron yesterday.

Launching a long-awaited report into the 1989 killing, in which Finucane was shot dead in front of his family in his north Belfast home by loyalist gunmen, Cameron said he was ‘deeply sorry’ over the whole incident. He confirmed that the Pat Finucane Review, set up last year by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, had found that ‘agents of the state’ were involved in the killing of Finucane; indeed, ‘state employees played key roles’ in the murder, providing assistance and information to the Ulster Defence Association which pulled the trigger in Finucane’s home. After the killing, members of both the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) lied to investigators, in a ‘relentless attempt to defeat the ends of justice’, says the review.

Cameron’s use of the word ‘shocking’ has been splashed across the media coverage. Yet while the report of the Pat Finucane Review might make for disturbing reading – highlighting a sordid instance when the British state assisted in the murder of someone it considered a pest – is it really shocking? It is well known, at least among those who looked beyond the headlines during the conflict in Northern Ireland from 1969 to 1994, that Britain’s security services colluded with loyalist paramilitaries. Some of the families of those murdered by loyalists, including Finucane’s, have been demanding inquiries into collusion for ages. In the Eighties and Nineties, radical journalists, mainly in Ireland but also a few in Britain, frequently reported on acts of collusion between the British state and loyalist death squads. Yet back then, nobody in the mainstream wanted to talk about it, much less employ a QC backed by the PM to investigate the claims and write a ‘shocking’ official report about them.

What has changed? Why has collusion become an explosive issue 25 years after the fact? This is less about getting to the truth about the conflict in Northern Ireland, or bringing to justice all those who were involved in terrorising certain communities. Rather, the collusion revelations are better understood as therapy for the British state. They’re a way for British elements to admit to some wrongdoing in Northern Ireland without incriminating the entire state, where the ultimate aim is to placate the republican side in modern-day Northern Ireland and convince it that its grievances are being taken seriously. That is, collusion is being investigated now largely as a way of keeping the ‘peace process’ on track, and boosting rather than shooting down the British authorities’ flagging moral authority and claims to impartiality in the New Northern Ireland.

Widespread collusion

Both Cameron and the authors of the review into Finucane’s death are being praised by observers for their candidness. Likewise, in 2007, when the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland published a detailed report into collusion between agents of the state and loyalist gunmen in north Belfast in the 1980s and 90s, she was described in liberal broadsheets as ‘a heroine’. ‘[We should not] underestimate the moral courage of this fastidious lawyer’, the Guardian said. In truth, there is nothing courageous about poring over historic instances of collusion that were actively ignored by both the authorities and the media at the time when they occurred. What’s more, both the Finucane review and 2007’s investigation of collusion in north Belfast represent partial and narrow investigations of collusion. They give the impression that state collusion with loyalist killers was largely the work of ‘rogue elements’ within Britain’s otherwise benign and peacekeeping security force in Northern Ireland, when in truth collusion was widespread. Far from being an aberration, the actions of loyalist paramilitaries – consisting mostly of sectarian attacks on Catholics and occasionally targeted assassinations of Sinn Fein and IRA members – were part and parcel of Britain’s brutal occupation of Northern Ireland.

Collusion in Northern Ireland took many forms, from the security services turning a blind eye to loyalist activities to actively encouraging and directing them. A military intelligence file from 1973 estimated that between five and 15 per cent of soldiers in the Ulster Defence Regiment – a local infantry regiment of the British Army – were linked to loyalist paramilitaries, and that the ‘best single source of weapons, and only significant source of modern weapons for Protestant groups, has been the UDR’. In short, a section of the British Army was arming loyalist paramilitaries. Furthermore, the British government knew that more than 200 weapons had passed from the UDR to loyalist paramilitaries, and that these were being used to murder Catholic civilians (1).

The paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA), killers of Finucane, received intelligence files on Irish republicans, and on Catholic civilians who assisted Irish republicans, from the RUC and the British Army. During the conflict, loyalist paramilitaries killed 864 civilians, the vast majority of them Catholics. The UDA killed a total of 112 people, again mostly Catholic civilians in random shootings (78 of its victims were civilians, 29 were other loyalist paramilitaries, three were members of the security services, and just two were republican activists). As Peter Taylor shows in his 2000 book Loyalists, a number of these attacks were carried out with ‘the assistance or complicity’ of the British Army and/or the RUC (2).

The killing of Finucane was one such attack. Carried out by gunmen from the UDA and its offshoot group the Ulster Freedom Fighters, the killing was made possible by weapons and information received from the state. The UDA’s quartermaster was also working for the RUC at the time of the Finucane killing; he supplied the weapons. British Special Branch officers pretty much directed the paramilitaries to kill Finucane, who had represented IRA men in court cases. Another UDA/British Army double agent, Brian Nelson, had compiled a dossier for the UDA on Finucane’s movements. The Stevens Inquiry into collusion, which ran in stages in the 1990s through to 2003, showed that the ‘UDA had access to a large number of security files on republicans’, including Finucane’s.

One of the most public expressions of collusion occurred in 1974, during the strike of the Ulster Workers’ Council (UWC). The strike was called by loyalist groups in protest at the Sunningdale Agreement, which proposed that nationalists should be given a role in a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. The British Army refused to break the strike, implicitly expressing its support for the strikers and their aim. This act of collusion caused the collapse of the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive.

Beyond the arming and direction of loyalist paramilitaries, there was also a kind of day-to-day complicity between the security forces and loyalists. For example, many of the families of those who were killed by loyalists asked how gunmen in cars could drive into Catholic areas in Northern Ireland – areas often surrounded by heavily fortified security roadblocks and monitored 24/7 by army and police cameras – shoot up some civilians, and then just drive off again. Even the Shankill Butchers, the most barbaric loyalist gang, seemed to benefit from a ‘blind eye’ policy on the part of the security forces. The Butchers murdered 19 people in the early and mid-Seventies. They kidnapped Catholic civilians in a black taxi and took them to lock-up garages, where they would suspend them from ropes and use a knife on their naked bodies, ‘much in the manner a sculptor would chip away at a piece of wood or stone’ (3). One of their victims had 147 stab wounds. Another was heard to say, after hours of sadistic torture, ‘Please kill me’. As Martin Dillon points out in his 1989 book The Shankill Butchers: A Case Study in Mass Murder, this all took place in areas of ‘dense army/RUC activity’ where the antics of the Butchers were widely known about and discussed; and the Butchers did not even make much effort to hide their activities, instead following the same routine almost every time they went out and ‘boasting about their murders’ (4). Yet it wasn’t until 1979 that some of the Butchers were put on trial. (Their notorious leader, Lenny Murphy, was assassinated by the IRA in 1982.)

From arming loyalist paramilitaries to directly encouraging UDA gunmen to target republican sympathisers to turning a blind eye to the sadistic torture and random murder of Catholics, the state’s collusion with loyalists ran deep. Loyalist paramilitaries were effectively allies of British Army intelligence and the RUC, who viewed them as useful attack dogs in the war on Irish republicans and in terrorising and morally deflating Catholic/republican areas. At the same time, there were tensions between the British security forces and loyalists. The British largely held loyalists in contempt, and would rather not have worked with them at all. And, of course, the authorities would arrest and imprison loyalist paramilitaries for periods of time, which helped bolster the idea that Britain was a neutral arbiter in a ‘tit-for-tat’ conflict between two sets of mad Irishmen: loyalists on one side, and republicans on the other. Yet for all Britain’s natural antagonism towards and occasional arresting of members of loyalist death squads, the vast evidence of collusion shows that the conflict in Northern Ireland was far from a religious, communal one between Protestants and Catholics, but rather was between the forces of the British state and their loyalist allies on one side, and Irish republicans on the other. It was a national war, in which loyalists killers played the role of state-assisted terrorisers of Catholics and republicans.

Attack dogs

Much of the welcoming coverage of recent official investigations into collusion has got loyalist paramilitarism completely the wrong way around. The assumption is that it was the security forces’ unthinking hooking-up with loyalists that drove the conflict. In other words, the bloodlust of groups like the UDA was the driving force behind the violence in Northern Ireland, and Britain should have known better than to rub shoulders with such murderous charlatans. As one observer says, ‘the state sponsored death squads for years in Northern Ireland and this collusion prolonged the war’. In truth, these loyalist death squads were an offshoot of Britain’s war against the IRA and its occupation of Northern Ireland, not the other way round. The loyalists were merely allies – sometimes useful, other times not – in a far larger military occupation by the British Army and local army and police outfits.

That is one reason why claims of collusion were vigorously suppressed in the past. British politicians and journalists might now solemnly shake their heads upon hearing of collusion, but where were these people 25 or 30 years ago, when collusion was taking place and when Catholic and republican families were trying to make it a big issue? Back then, talking about collusion could land you in trouble. In 1991, Channel 4’s Dispatches team made a programme revealing the extent of collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and RUC members; their researcher was arrested in a dawn raid and charged under anti-terrorist legislation with withholding information, and Channel 4 received a hefty fine. In the early 1990s, as the Stevens Inquiry team in Belfast made plans to arrest Brian Nelson and others working as army/loyalist double agents, their HQ was destroyed by a fire; all the fire alarms and heat-sensitive intruder alarms had been disconnected first. This gave Nelson time to flee Northern Ireland. It is widely thought that the fire was started by elements within the British Army (5).

How did we go from claims of collusion being met with censorship and fire to a situation where the PM himself can wring his hands over collusion while journalists cheer him on?

This is a product of the fallout from the end of the conflict in Northern Ireland – and also part of an attempt by the British authorities to regain some moral highground there. Debate or disagreements about issues such as collusion were suppressed during ‘the Troubles’, because, as in any conflict, differences of opinion that army majors, judges, soldiers, politicians or police ombudsmen might have had about military tactics would have been settled behind closed doors. The threat posed by the IRA to the stability of the United Kingdom forced the British establishment to close ranks against its common enemy, and to settle problems in private. That is why Northern Ireland was the one issue that enjoyed bipartisan agreement in parliament. From the authorities’ point of view, it would have been unthinkable to have, or to allow, a political debate about underhand tactics such as collusion. And if that meant censoring annoying critics, and even threatening and attacking official inquiries, so be it.

It was the end of the conflict in 1994 – in the absence of the common enemy of the IRA, who at least reminded the British authorities what they were all against – which led to serious cracks in the establishment over Northern Ireland. With the winding down of the conflict, debates that once would have taken place in private emerged into the public arena. The Stevens team restarted its inquiry into collusion in 1993, just as the peace process was emerging; the inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday, when 14 unarmed protesters were shot by the British Army in Derry in 1972, commenced in 1997 (and finally delivered its report in 2010), as the peace process was getting serious. These very public spats over the army, police and politicians’ roles in some of the most controversial actions of the British state over the past 40 years are an indicator of how hard the authorities find holding the line these days, and the profound difficulty they have in justifying past attempts to preserve the integrity of their kingdom against its enemies.

At the same time, discussing these past events has become a kind of therapy for the British state, too. Government ministers use revelations in relation to things like Bloody Sunday and collusion as a way of confessing that, yes, bad things were done in the past, but now we must all move on together. Through a process of self-flagellation over its past role in Northern Ireland, the modern British state is hoping to demonstrate to the republican side in the power-sharing government of the New Northern Ireland that it takes their historic pains seriously. In short, raking over the past is fundamentally about shoring up the British state’s moral authority in the present, demonstrating its distaste for the actions of yesteryear’s ‘rogue elements’ and its determination to ensure that no community in modern Northern Ireland feels hard done by. The end result is a shallow debate about the past, where questions about who was fundamentally responsible for the conflict are evaded, and an uncritical approach in the present, where the authority of the British state in Northern Ireland is judged by the gestures it makes to the ‘hurting’ communities rather than by its policies or vision or, indeed, its legitimacy. Just as collusion in the past was a product of Britain’s undemocratic division and domination of Ireland, so the revelations of collusion today are being used to solidify Britain’s new forms of less-than-democratic governance in Northern Ireland.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here. The above is an updated version of an article first published on spiked in January 2007.

(1) What is collusion?, BBC News, 22 January 2007

(2) Loyalists, Peter Taylor, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000

(3) The Shankill Butchers, Martin Dillon, Routledge, 1989

(4) The Shankill Butchers, Martin Dillon, Routledge, 1989

(5) Timeline of Finucane murder probe, BBC News, 23 September 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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