By Ed Moloney Sunday Tribune journalist writing in the Daily Telegraph (25.6.02)
John Ware's two-part Panorama investigation into security force collusion with loyalist killers in Northern Ireland, A Licence to Murder, has once again placed in the spotlight the allegation that the Army and police intelligence services had a hand in the murder in 1989 of the Belfast lawyer, Pat Finucane.
The case for collusion made by Panorama is simple. It is that, in the late 1980s, a unit of military intelligence known as the Force Research Unit (FRU) recruited an agent in the UDA, Brian Nelson, who became its intelligence chief. Assisted by his Army handlers, the charge continues, Nelson directed the UDA's death squads toward known IRA activists, one of whom, it is claimed, was Pat Finucane.
In the background, Panorama said, were senior RUC Special Branch officers urging the gunmen on, energetically on in the case of Finucane. The charge is thus one of the gravest that can be made: that agencies of the state conspired in the murder of its citizens. The Panorama programme coincided with the completion of Sir John Stevens's third report into the Finucane/collusion allegations. It was shown at a moment when there is intense pressure to "clean up" intelligence operations in Northern Ireland, particularly to curb the old RUC Special Branch and units such as FRU, in order to make it easier for Sinn Fein to join the new policing board in Belfast. This would be the crowning achievement of the peace process, signalling the final absorption of the Provisional IRA into constitutional politics.
The assertion that the intelligence agencies were out of control in Ulster and were employing the UDA to conduct a large-scale assassination campaign against the IRA in the late 1980s is superficially attractive, not least because of its simplicity. But it is not borne out by the facts. Had it been the case that the FRU and Special Branch were routinely suggesting IRA targets and facilitating missions carried out by UDA gunmen, the results would be there for all to see, in a pile of dead IRA bodies. But there is no pile. The UDA targeted and killed, predominantly, the people it had always targeted and killed, that is, innocent but easily available Catholic non-combatants.
So what was the purpose of the FRU relationship with Nelson? One clue was contained in the Panorama programme, but two others did not feature at all in the two-part probe. The first clue was the disclosure that Nelson's Army handlers initially saw him solely as a source of intelligence about UDA targeting intentions, not as someone they would use to steer the UDA to murder. He would tell them, in other words, whom the UDA was planning to kill. That suggests that, initially, Brian Nelson's role was, in part, to alert the FRU about UDA plans to kill British agents in the IRA. Thus warned, the UDA could then be directed to other targets.
As a result, it seems, of Nelson's enthusiasm and the indifference of his handlers, the project may then have developed into the sort of out-of-control enterprise described in the Panorama programmes. The evidence that FRU did employ Nelson for this purpose comes from a former FRU handler who uses the pseudonym Martin Ingram, although his real name is known to this writer. According to "Ingram", FRU used the UDA intelligence chief to save the life of a highly placed IRA agent, codenamed Steaknife, a figure, he says, who was one of the most important double agents ever recruited by the Army. Ingram alleges that the UDA, via Nelson and his FRU handlers, was steered instead towards an entirely innocent target, a Ballymurphy pensioner, Francisco Notarantonio, who was wrongly depicted to the UDA as a key IRA figure. He was shot dead at his home in October 1987 and Steaknife survived to continue his dangerous mission for the Army. Ingram's allegation is a very serious one, arguably more damning, if true, than anything that featured in Panorama. He claims that Steaknife was given a virtually free hand by the FRU. "Whatever Brian Nelson did - and he was involved in some dastardly acts - Steaknife was involved in far worse situations," Ingram once told me. "In effect, Steaknife used the IRA as an FRU tool to carry out its dirty tricks."
It was around this time, in the late 1980s, that the infant peace process was struggling to find its feet. Those, such as Gerry Adams, who wished to push the organisation into politics faced the enormous problem of persuading IRA militants to put away their guns. One factor that did weaken the hardliners was a seemingly endless series of botched IRA operations that killed civilians. Is it possible that Steaknife had a hand in any of these bungled operations, one effect of which was to make a political path more acceptable to the IRA rank and file? The Irish government, for one, is privately terrified that any probe of Steaknife will highlight precisely this sort of allegation. There is other evidence suggesting that the FRU was acutely aware of the secret progress being made in the peace process at around this time. Steaknife was not the only IRA figure whose life the unit saved. Thanks to Brian Nelson, Army intelligence learnt that the UDA planned to kill Mr Adams by placing a limpet mine on the roof of his armoured car as he was being driven in Belfast. FRU arranged for the limpet mine to be discovered in a routine security search and Mr Adams lived to deliver the IRA ceasefires. Writing about this incident later in his private journal, Brian Nelson said that his handlers had told him that assassinating Mr Adams would have been "totally counterproductive. Adams and his supporters were committed to following the political path." Those campaigning for a full public inquiry into the allegations of security force collusion with loyalist groups have always ascribed official resistance to a dread on the part of the Government of what might be revealed about the Pat Finucane case. But is there another reason? A fear, perhaps, that a probe might disclose evidence that, at key moments, the authorities manipulated events to the benefit of a very secret peace process?
Ed Moloney's A Secret History of the IRA is to be published by Penguin in October
Force Research Unit