Tuesday 22 April 2003

Britain's Secret Army

The U.K.'s top cop shows how the army and police used loyalist killers during the Ulster Troubles

The Finucane boys were still teenagers in 1969, when Ulster's plunge into the maelstrom turned their lives upside down. Three of the brothers joined the outlawed Irish Republican Army. Pat Finucane took a different path. He became a defense lawyer, fighting the authorities in the courtroom instead of the streets. Yet it was he, not his brothers, who was gunned down by masked men in 1989 as he sat down to dinner with his wife and three children in Belfast. And his death may hold an even greater irony: in his grave, Pat Finucane is doing far greater damage to the British government in Northern Ireland than his brothers who took up arms against it.

Last week the U.K.'s largest police investigation reported that the military and police in Northern Ireland had systematically colluded with the pro-British loyalists who murdered Finucane and many other nationalists. Criminal cases are being considered against a British brigadier, other army officers and serving members of the police. Dogged work by English detectives exposed an astonishing web of intrigue. One of the guns used to kill the lawyer was stolen from the British army. The weapons were given to the killers by an agent of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. A British army operative gave the gunmen a photo of Finucane and showed them where he lived. One of the murderers was later recruited to work for the police, and his confession to the killing was ignored. Soldiers and police could have prevented the murder and didn't; they could have caught the killers and didn't.

How could all this have happened in the law-abiding United Kingdom? Because Northern Ireland, in its time of Troubles, was a land apart. In the late '80s, the British government adopted a more aggressive security policy to break the deadlock with the i.r.a. During that push, a secret army detachment known as the Force Research Unit managed to insert an agent named Brian Nelson into the Ulster Defense Association, a loyalist gang. F.R.U.'s commander, Colonel Gordon Kerr (now Brigadier), later claimed his intent with Nelson was to stop killings. But the effect of the intelligence the army passed to Nelson was to turn the U.D.A., a vicious but often inept terrorist group, into a much smoother death machine. Many suspect the f.r.u.'s real goal was to use them as a secret proxy army against the I.R.A.

The U.D.A. did find more I.R.A. targets, but continued to kill ordinary Catholics in large numbers. In murdering Finucane, it broke a taboo against targeting defense lawyers, considered immune because they represented both sides of the terror war. When U.D.A. members began to boast about official help, to the point of plastering secret security files on brick walls, the stench of collusion between loyalists and government forces could no longer be ignored. Still, it has taken the detective called in to conduct the investigation, John Stevens, 14 years to penetrate a tenacious cover-up by army and police officers. He says that records were withheld and much testimony was misleading. He blames a fire at his office on arsonists. But he didn't give up, even as he rose to become chief of London's Metropolitan Police, the most powerful police post in Britain.

Stevens delivered his report just as the British and Irish governments are trying to revive Ulster's flagging peace process by persuading the I.R.A. to retire voluntarily. The province's power-sharing government has been suspended since a web of I.R.A. spies was exposed last year. To restart it, the onus is on the I.R.A. to prove its war is over. But an important sticking point for republicans before declaring peace has been the bedrock conviction that the police would never be fair to them. Stevens has exposed why that conviction took root, but he hopes his report will begin to weed it out. Already the R.U.C. has been renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland, put under new management and reformed. Stevens thinks his findings will reassure Catholics that a new era has dawned. "This is all about acknowledging what went wrong," he told Time.

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