By Neil Harris
BY 1989 the new spate of sectarian “loyalist” murders had been noticed and the press were starting to take an interest. Concerned by criticism, the UDA/UFF tried to justify its murderous acts by producing “evidence” in the form of Army or RUC intelligence material.
This was the case with the murder of Loughlin Maginn and others. Copies of Army “montages” (collections of photographs of “people of interest”) were handed to the press and on a couple of occasions copies were pasted on Belfast walls.
For the British state this was bad publicity and when The Guardian newspaper published some of the montages, action had to be taken. The fact that Garda intelligence was being passed to “loyalist” death squads was particularly embarrassing, especially as the Irish government was putting on pressure. The name “Finucane” wouldn’t go away and America was watching.
As a result, Sir John Stevens, a Chief Constable, was appointed to carry out a limited inquiry into the leaks, to put the problem to sleep. But Stevens had learned from the destruction of Deputy Chief Constable John Stalker on a previous inquiry and was determined to protect himself and his team.
As a result the genie was let out of the bottle and his little investigation turned into three major inquiries. A real battle of wits began between the team of ordinary London detectives and the secret world of the “dirty war” in Ireland. The obstruction they faced was extraordinary and worthy of an article in itself. Both the RUC and Army deliberately withheld vital evidence from the inquiry.
At an initial RUC Special Branch briefing, one of the Stevens team asked about British Army agents, only to be told that the British Army did not run any informants in Ireland.
The FRU seized and hid Brian Nelson’s “intelligence dump”, essential for any investigation into the leaking of secret documents. Its existence was not disclosed to Stevens for four months, until the arrest and charging of Brian Nelson made it inevitable. It is likely that the “dump” was washed clean during that time.
The Security Service seemed embarrassed by the RUC Special Branch failing to disclose RUC links to “loyalist” paramilitaries, stating in a remarkably candid letter:
"It is not clear why there is no similar document relating to the RUC – perhaps Stevens only asked about the UDR. Certainly our researches suggest that RUC links are as extensive as the UDR's; although it is probably fair to say that RUC officers would not have committed so many offences of murder, manslaughter, firearms offences and so on."
Steven’s office was bugged and broken into and the secure safes may have been opened. In the end the offices were burnt out on 10th January 1990, just before Nelson was due to be arrested. In his Overview and Recommendations report published in April 2003 Sir John Stevens stated:: "This incident, in my opinion, has never been adequately investigated and I believe it was a deliberate act of arson."
In short there was an active cover up by the Army and RUC. The case of Martin Ingram is helpful here: the author Ingram is in fact Ian Hurst, an Army Officer and member of the FRU West Detachment, the section running agents in Nationalist organisations. Hurst’s evidence at various inquiries has been pretty inconvenient for the State; he is a whistleblower now and he has a record of not being believed. That doesn’t make his evidence untrue.
Before the Stevens inquiries, he gave evidence of conversations with Nelson’s handler and other officers of the FRU East Detachment about the murder of Finucane:
"Hurst: There was … intelligence pre the actual attack … I was told by A/04 that that information had been passed to the RUC …”
Detective Superintendent S/02: “… do you know as a fact or did you take it that that information was supplied to the FRU by Nelson.”
Hurst: “Oh that, without a shadow of a doubt that is the only, that was the only conduit.”
S/02: “But are you saying that within the FRU there was knowledge that Finucane was a target?”
Hurst: “Oh yeah that was undoubted that."
In his written statement, Hurst set it out;
"My clear understanding [from conversations with A/04] was that there was pre-emptive intelligence in regards to Finucane on two occasions and that there is little doubt that Nelson had told FRU that Finucane was being targeted. I believe that the RUC were informed on the first occasion. I don't know why the first targeting did not actually take place as I recollect it was the most serious of the threats but the second was allowed to proceed."
He also confirmed that FRU had passed intelligence to Nelson about Finucane before the murder; "I am 80/90 per cent certain that [A/04] said there was a photograph of Finucane passed to Nelson by FRU."
Hurst gave evidence that Nelson’s handler (A/13) had the full support of her Commanding Officer (A/05): "[A/13] said quite clearly that [A/05] … held the view that he was content with the case and it was 'bomb proof' and being overseen by political masters."
Most importantly of all, Hurst gave evidence that the “Contact Forms” (CF’s) that the Finucane Review trusted so completely were edited and altered: “In January 1990 I remember [A/04] explaining to me that in relation to Nelson he would be spending several months sorting the CFs out as there were a few problems and there needed to be a few subtle changes made to the CFs."
In his statement Hurst said that A/04 "would be required to travel from Fermanagh to Lisburn for this reason".
Ingram/Hurst has not just had problems because they don’t believe him; he also has problems because he might be believed. When he started writing books and articles after he left the Army, he was arrested by Special Branch and made subject to a Court injunction.
Then last year he made a statement as a core participant in the Leveson Inquiry into Press Standards. In 2004 he had moved to France, where so many in the secret and security world seem to go to retire. The much delayed police inquiries into Murdoch’s News International had revealed how in 2006, the News of the World hired a private detective (X), who had been a fellow member of the FRU serving with Ingram for three years. X inserted a “Trojan” into Hurst’s computer, giving access to his files and E-mails, ostensibly on behalf of the newspaper but with the clear intention of discrediting him and his evidence.
The decision whether or not to prosecute Nelson for his crimes, following the Stevens recommendations, is where the cover up gets really interesting. The Ministry of Defence fought very hard to stop a prosecution; their written advice to their minister Tom King, 26/9/90 stated that a prosecution would;
"… challenge the integrity of the system … by revealing that … [Nelson] … was not merely a paid informer but a long-term agent who was allowed to continue as an active member of a terrorist organisation which committed many murders while he was acting as its intelligence officer. It would feed the speculations of those who believe that the security forces are involved in a 'dirty tricks campaign' and are in collusion with loyalist paramilitary groups."
As a result King recommended that “overall, he regarded it as important that [Nelson] should not go near the courts". King based his view on the briefing from the MOD Civil Servants, which they had got from FRU. Nothing was to change King’s view, even when the evidence of Nelson’s role turned out to be false.
Representations against prosecution were made by the Minister for Northern Ireland on behalf of the RUC, the Defence Minister on behalf of the Army and both the Home secretary and the Director General of the Security Service on behalf of MI5.
The Civil Service then weighed in on behalf of the Security Forces when the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler, minuted the Prime Minister, John Major on 15th March 1991 outlining the "damage" that could be caused by proceeding with the proposed murder charges against Nelson. Charles Powell, the Prime Minister's Private Secretary, provided a similar briefing to the Prime Minister before a meeting of relevant cabinet ministers, repeating the Army’s lies about Nelson.
Even when those lies were exposed, the arguments continued, more frantically than ever. In the end, Nelson was to be prosecuted, although half-heartedly. A note from the Prime Ministers principal secretary gives away Civil Service hopes of how the case might work out:
"One possibility is that when it becomes apparent that the prosecution case is relying on Nelson's debriefing to his handlers and treating it like a confession, the defence will object on grounds that this is not a proper statement taken under Police and Criminal Evidence Act. If the objection is sustained the case could collapse at the start - a very good outcome. [Attorney General] and DPP (NI) consciences are salved and case comes to an end before too much damage is done."
In the end a number of charges were to be dropped, including any relating to the murder of Finucane. In court further charges were to be withdrawn following a deal between the prosecuting and defending barristers.
When Nelson came to be sentenced, “Colonel J”, the Commanding Officer of FRU gave evidence on oath on his behalf, supposedly outlining the lives saved by Nelson’s work. In his inquiry into the affair, Justice Cory stated that:
"The evidence given by the CO FRU, (Soldier ‘J’), at Nelson's trial could only be described as misleading. The statement that Nelson's actions were responsible for saving close to 217 lives was based on a highly dubious numerical analysis that cannot be supported on any basis."
The result of this was an unduly lenient sentence of 10 years for an involvement in four murders, and as we now know, many other unproved serious crimes. This should not come as any surprise, as the Ministry of Defence’s submission to the Secretary of State for Defence dated 26th September 1990 revealed that:
"[Nelson] is now in a position where he has to rely on us to protect his life (either in or out of prison) and the lives of his [family]: such protection would be conditional on his remaining silent about our covert operations."
That October, Nelson was granted an interim resettlement package of £1,650 per month in payments to his wife. In an internal note (6/11/90), the Army was looking to persuade him to accept an MOD recommended solicitor to open a “channel of communication” with him and to reassure him: “The Army is paying close attention to his case and looking after his wife; and will resettle him when he is released, subject to his remaining silent on what he knows."
What we have seen is clear collusion between Army Intelligence (FRU), the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Ulster Defence Regiment and “loyalist” death squads. This was with the intention of directing them towards people the Army and Police wanted executed, using Brian Nelson as a conduit to pass over intelligence that would identify the favoured targets.
Above that level, the security service and senior civil servants were only too happy to endorse that tactic and participate in the cover up when it all started to unravel.
What about the politicians, supposedly in charge of the State, but in reality reliant on briefings from civil servants and the security forces? The review quotes R/16, a former senior Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch (RUC SB) officer, who described briefings to Ministers as follows:
"These briefing papers would not deal with the identity of particular agents because such operational details were not considered to be the domain of the political leadership; indeed, [R/16] considered that if they were wise the political leadership would steer clear of such details."
In short, the politicians chose whether they would be part of the cover up or remain ignorant and not ask embarrassing questions. Either way this left the State and the soldiers to get on with it.
What was the result of the cover up? In 1999, they did it again. Rosemary Nelson, a feisty and determined solicitor happy to represent unpopular clients was blown up by a car bomb placed by the “Red Hand Commando”, following the same pattern of RUC threats made through her clients.
What was the result of the inquiries into the death of Rosemary Nelson? They did it all over again. “Colonel J”, Officer Commanding FRU, (Gordon Kerr) was promoted to Brigadier and was eventually appointed Military Attaché at the British embassy in Beijing to get him out of the way.
Following the invasion of Iraq, he was placed in charge of the same kind of Army intelligence operations there that he had run in Ireland during the 1980’s. Now that he is retired, there will be other Frank Kitson’s and Gordon Kerr’s, eager to do it all over again unless we stop them.