They killed my father

13 February 2001

Michael Finucane on the anniversary of a murder which is still the source of explosive scandal

How would you feel if you knew the government was responsible for murdering a member of your family? Would you do anything about it? Would you just get on with things as best you could and try not to think about it, or would you spend years struggling to get enough worldwide support to make the government at least admit what it did? My father, Patrick, was a practising solicitor in Northern Ireland for 11 years before he was murdered, and I believe the British government was responsible. On Sunday February 12 1989, armed gunmen broke into my family home, ran to the kitchen where we were eating dinner, and shot my dad 14 times in front of my mother, my sister and brother.

I can still remember it clearly. It is an image seared into my mind. The thing I remember most vividly is the noise; the reports of each bullet reverberating in the kitchen, how my grip on my younger brother and sister tightened with every shot. It's not a memory I care to visit very often, but it's there. I expect it always will be.

Throughout his career, my father was the subject of intimidation and harassment from RUC officers. Detectives made threats, communicated to him by clients he represented. They began as snide comments about his legal ability or general personal insults, but escalated before long into death threats.

A typical example was:

"He is a thug in a suit, a person trying to let on he is doing his job, and ... he, like every other fenian [Catholic] bastard, would meet his end."

The detective continued,

"He is a dead man. He'll be dead within three months."

The officer proved right. Not long after, Douglas Hogg, then a junior Home Office minister, said during a Commons debate on January 17 1989:

"I have to state as a fact, but with great regret, that there are in Northern Ireland a number of solicitors who are unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA."

Seamus Mallon MP (now deputy first minister of the Northern Ireland assembly) realised immediately the potential consequences. When challenged by him, Hogg replied,

"I state it on the basis of advice that I have received, guidance that I have been given by people who are dealing with these matters, and I shall not expand on it further."

The "people dealing with these matters" were the RUC. They had given this information to Hogg at a private briefing. Given his position at the time, what he said can only be viewed as a British government statement. In the intense atmosphere of Northern Ireland his comments were perceived as highly inflammatory, and perhaps that is exactly what they intended.

The RUC were well placed to know. One of their informants was a member of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the loyalist gang that carried out my father's murder. William Stobie was eventually arrested for the murder in 1999, but he said:

"Not guilty of the charge that you have put to me tonight. At the time I was a police informer for Special Branch. On the night of the death of Patrick Finucane I informed special branch on two occasions by telephone of a person who was to be shot."

Despite the warning, the RUC had done nothing.

Stobie had already been questioned about the murder back in 1990 and gave a detailed account of his involvement to the RUC at that time. It was decided not to prosecute him. During the current case against Stobie, a lawyer for the crown said in court that that decision by the DPP had been taken "at the highest level".

But the RUC may even have played a lesser role compared to the involvement of the army. A secret branch of army intelligence services, the force research unit (FRU) was infiltrating agents into loyalist paramilitary groups in order to control and direct their killings. FRU was established in 1982. Its purpose, according to its former commander, Col Gordon Kerr, was

"in order that we can save life, that we can prevent attacks taking place, that we can prevent assassinations, that we can make arrests, that we can get recoveries of weapons and explosives ..."

FRU's agent in the group that murdered my father was named Brian Nelson. One of the first thing his handlers did after his infiltration in 1987 was to take away all his files and return them fully updated. This was easy: they were able to make use of all of the state's intelligence when doing so. Nelson, assisted by updated intelligence information, provided the UDA with method and means to carry out murders, selected specific targets, and guided the trigger men accordingly. Nelson himself has said information he was given included British army documents and photographs.

Former FRU soldiers and officials (including the former Northern Ireland secretary, Tom King) have maintained the falsehood about the purpose of the FRU. However, confidential FRU files that have made their way into the public domain paint a different picture. One document dated May 3 1988, states:

"6137 [Nelson] wants the UDA only to attack legitimate targets and not innocent Catholics. Since 6137 took up his position as intelligence officer, the targeting has developed and is now more professional."

Another, dated February 6 1989, states:

"6137 initiates most of the targeting. Of late, 6137 has been more organised and he is currently running an operation against selected republican targets."

Six days later, my father was murdered.

What FRU were doing was carrying out a government policy that authorised the use of the army to direct assassinations. They had a job to do, and they did it. One former officer, known by the pseudonym "Martin Ingram" says the work of FRU was highly organised and controlled. In a Belfast newspaper, he wrote:

"I was told on more than one occasion 'the ends justified the means' and the 'right' people were allowed to live and the 'wrong' people were not. The practice of presiding as a judge, jury and executioner is wrong and regrettably I cannot say the mindset of some individuals has changed to this day."

Brian Nelson was eventually arrested by a team of detectives investigating RUC collusion with loyalists, led by Sir John Stevens, (now commissioner of the Metropolitan police). Nelson received a 10-year sentence on 23 charges ranging from conspiracy to murder (my father's murder was not one of them) to collecting information for terrorist purposes. He served four and a half. Colonel Gordon Kerr was awarded a military OBE in 1991. He is currently the British military attache to Beijing.

To dwell on the role of people like Brian Nelson and Martin Ingram is to miss the point as to why Patrick Finucane was murdered. It happened because he was a determined and innovative lawyer, and not, as the RUC and others claim, because he was involved in paramilitary activity. Both the RUC and the British government had a powerful motivation. He was among the first to bring the RUC and the army to court when they broke the law. He was among the first to successfully take the government to the European court of human rights over its practices in Northern Ireland.

He was among the first to use the law to show that even in a situation of conflict, the law still applies. It is because he was prepared to do all of this that he became the first solicitor to be murdered.When the British government had to decide between preserving the status quo and putting up with some uppity Catholic lawyer, the choice was simple: the lawyer had to go.

My family does not regard the prosecution of the killers as the main concern in all of this. They were simply pawns in a bigger game. Our goal is a public, independent international inquiry into all the circumstances. We have gained the support of the UN, the US Congress, the Irish government, the European parliament, and others.

We are supported by every major human rights organisation in the world, from Amnesty International to the International Federation of Human Rights. The notable absentee is the British government, and it is there that ultimate responsibility lies.

The state machinery that murdered Patrick Finucane was not established to kill one man. Others died too, and the question that has to be answered is, how many? It was this point that my family urged upon the prime minister at a private meeting last September. A third police investigation by Sir John Stevens - the prime minister's preferred option - will simply not do.

Many people who still live in Northern Ireland were unaware of how precarious their existence was, and did not realise that for many years each of them was considered expendable. But they are aware of it now and they want to know the truth. How will the peace process ever succeed if it is kept hidden? Tony Blair's administration may not have been responsible for what took place but, by frustrating a proper inquiry, it has become part of the problem.

It has taken 12 years to uncover what you have just read. Instead of devoting resources toward the search for a peaceful solution, the government was obsessed with securing the defeat of republican paramilitaries, whatever the cost. They armed and assisted loyalists in order to do so. One line after another was crossed and, eventually, the line between right and wrong disappeared completely. Neither the law of the land nor human life itself was respected. This was your government's policy. If it had happened in Britain, there would be an outcry. But it happened in Northern Ireland, so no one cared.