Socialist Worker

How British state used death squads

by Hazel Croft
Issue No. 1806

A POWERFUL Panorama TV documentary last week uncovered the shocking truth about the British establishment's bloody role in Northern Ireland. 'A Licence to Kill' showed how the British army and security forces worked hand in glove with the most sectarian and violent Loyalist terrorists. It revealed that the top brass of the British army and Northern Ireland's sectarian police force, the RUC (now renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland), colluded with Loyalist terror gangs to murder Catholics.

A secret unit of the British army, the Force Research Unit, and the Special Branch of the RUC supplied the names and addresses of Catholic targets for the Loyalist paramilitaries. One of those murdered was the Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane. The Ulster Freedom Fighters (the murder squad of the Ulster Defence Association) killed Finucane in February 1989. They fired 14 bullets into him while he was eating dinner with his wife and children.

The Panorama programme revealed how both the British army and RUC Special Branch helped Loyalists murder Pat Finucane and other Catholics. British army agent Brian Nelson had infiltrated the Ulster Freedom Fighters and passed the names and addresses of Republicans to known Loyalist killers. A member of one of the police teams that investigated allegations of collusion says that at least 80 of those on Nelson's lists were later attacked by Loyalists, and 29 were shot dead.

Nelson was controlled by and regularly reported to the army's Force Research Unit. The Loyalist killer Ken Barrett was interviewed in the programme. He admitted to murdering Finucane, and he chillingly described how Nelson handed him information.

Nelson met Barrett in the Loyalist Shankill Road and handed him a photograph of Pat Finucane. Six days before the murder Nelson drove Barrett past Finucane's home. 'When we asked for details of a Republican he knew it wasn't to send him a postcard,' said Barrett.

'They're passing documentation because they know what the result will be afterwards.' Barrett claimed the RUC Special Branch originally suggested the murder of Finucane.

'The Peelers [police] wanted him whacked,' said Barrett. 'We whacked him, and that's the end of the story as far as I'm concerned. Finucane would be alive today if the Peelers hadn't interfered.' The programme showed how the police removed roadblocks and security checks in the area near Finucane's house to give the Loyalists a clear run. The RUC Special Branch and the British army have lied and covered up the truth about Finucane's murder for 13 years.

They are terrified that the role of those at the very top of the British establishment will be exposed. As 'A Licence to Kill' pointed out, at the time of the murder the British intelligence service MI5 'had direct access to the army's secret files on a daily basis.'

Nick Davies, author of the book on the Force Research Unit Ten Thirty-Three, claims that Nelson's activities were regularly discussed at London meetings of the Joint Intelligence Committee. This was chaired by Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

And just three weeks before the murder Tory Home Office minister Douglas Hogg told parliament, 'I have to state as fact, but with great regret, that there are in Northern Ireland a number of solicitors who are unduly sympathetic to the IRA.' Hogg had been briefed by two top officers in the RUC.

As programme maker John Ware points out, the murder of Pat Finucane was every bit as scandalous as the violence of the British army on Bloody Sunday. On that day 30 years ago, on Sunday 30 January 1972, British Paratroopers shot dead 14 unarmed demonstrators in Derry. They were given the go-ahead by the top brass of the British army with the full knowledge of then prime minister Edward Heath.

Evidence that was destroyed

THERE HAVE been three police inquiries headed by the Metropolitan Police's John Stevens into Pat Finucane's death. The latest inquiry began in 1999, and is due to report this year. Every inquiry has faced obstruction by those at the top of the army and the RUC. During the first inquiry Stevens's office and records were destroyed in a fire. On Panorama officers involved in the Stevens inquiry claim it was 'deliberate arson' by the Force Research Unit.

One of the two guns used to shoot Finucane was stolen from an army barracks. The police later returned it to the army, who then modified it and so destroyed crucial evidence. According to the Guardian, the latest investigation describes the relationship between Special Branch, army intelligence officers and Loyalist paramilitaries as so unprincipled that it bordered on 'institutionalised collusion'.

The British government is terrified that the full details of its involvement in dirty tricks in Northern Ireland will come to light. The Stevens investigation falls far short of the independent public inquiry demanded by the Finucane family. As Michael Finucane, Pat's son, puts it:

'The state machinery that murdered Patrick Finucane was not established to kill one man. Others have died too, and the question that has to be answered is, how many?'

It still goes on

In March 1999 solicitor Rosemary Nelson was murdered in similar circumstances to Pat Finucane. She was one of hundreds of lawyers who demanded an independent investigation into security force collusion in Finucane's murder. She repeatedly complained of police harassment and got death threats from the RUC.

Britain is not a neutral force in Northern Ireland. Over the last three decades the British army and security forces have systematically colluded with Loyalist terrorists.

The victim and killers who were involved in the case

PAT FINUCANE: Belfast solicitor who represented many leading Republicans, including Bobby Sands. He was not a member of the IRA, but the police and army hated him because he exposed the sectarianism and thuggery of the police and other institutions in Northern Ireland. Just before his murder he had forced the RUC to release a prisoner who had suffered from a perforated eardrum while being interrogated.

He had also just won a long-running case to force RUC officers to testify about their 'shoot to kill' policy in the early 1980s.

FORCE RESEARCH UNIT (FRU): One of the British army's most secret units, which infiltrated Loyalist paramilitary gangs, passing them names of Catholics to be targeted. According to the Guardian, 'The FRU is still operating, albeit under a different name.'

BRIAN NELSON: FRU British army agent who passed names and addresses of Catholics to Loyalist murder gangs. He was arrested and tried in 1992. But two counts of murder against him were dropped. Instead Nelson got a ten-year sentence for the lesser charge of conspiracy to murder.

ULSTER DEFENCE ASSOCIATION (UDA): Biggest Loyalist paramilitary group.

ULSTER FREEDOM FIGHTERS: Another Loyalist murder gang which operates under the cover of the UDA.

RUC: Northern Ireland's overwhelmingly Protestant police force. It has now been renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Special Branch is an arm of the police in Northern Ireland.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Sat 29 Jun 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1806
Share this article


Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.