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N. Irish police involved in Belfast lawyer’s 1989 murder, says report

Today’s report said Northern Irish police colluded in a loyalist paramilitary’s murder of high-profile lawyer Patrick Finucane, though it did not find an ‘overarching state conspiracy.’

Another murky episode from Northern Ireland‘s recent dark past has been partially exposed, thanks to a new report on the 1989 murder of Belfast lawyer Patrick Finucane that found “shocking” collusion by state officials in his death. But critics say that the British government has yet to fully shine a light onto its own involvement in the murder. 

A report published today found that police and other officials “actively furthered and facilitated” Mr. Finucane’s murder at the hands of paramilitary loyalists, who shot him in his home on Feb. 12, 1989, in front of his wife and two small children.

“My review of the evidence relating to Patrick Finucane’s case has left me in no doubt that agents of the state were involved in carrying out serious violations of human rights up to and including murder,” wrote former UN war crimes prosecutor Sir Desmond de Silva, who conducted the report.

But Mr. de Silva concluded that there was “no overarching state conspiracy” in Finucane’s death.

A controversial case

Finucane had represented several high-profile IRA members, most notably hunger striker Bobby Sands, in cases against the British government in the 1980s. Though there was little doubt as to the identity of those directly involved in the murder – the loyalist paramilitary group Ulster Defense Association (UDA) claimed responsibility soon afterward, alleging that Finucane was a member of the IRA – there has long been suspicion that the government also had a role.

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UDA member and police informant Ken Barrett was convicted of the murder in 2004. He confessed to police in a sting operation, having previously admitted the killing to BBC reporters. The reporters secretly recorded him saying that Finucane “would have been alive today if the peelers [police] hadn’t interfered,” as the UDA considered killing lawyers to be “off limits.”

It later came to light that Mr. Barrett had confessed to police in 1991, but the tape of the interrogation disappeared. 

Finucane’s murder continues to hang over Northern Ireland and has long been viewed by Irish nationalists and republicans as evidence not only of police and British Army infiltration into loyalist groups, but of their active direction of loyalist killing campaigns. The weapon used to kill Finucane had been stolen from the Army and was later discovered by police, who handed it back to the Army rather than keeping it as evidence, despite full knowledge that it was the murder weapon.

The killing of Finucane, along with others, such as that of lawyer Rosemary Nelson in 1999, also by loyalists, are totemic events for nationalists who say they demonstrate the Northern Irish state was openly hostile to them. A 2011 report into Ms. Nelson’s murder found no evidence of collusion, but said police “legitimized her as a target” by assaulting her two years previously.

De Silva’s report found that, “on the balance of probabilities, that [a British police] officer or officers did propose Patrick Finucane (along with at least one other man) as a UDA target when speaking to a loyalist paramilitary.”

De Silva said senior British Army officers later “deliberately lied” to criminal investigators, claiming they did not have informants in Northern Ireland. He added that Northern Irish police “Special Branch” officers “were responsible for seriously obstructing the investigation” into the murder, noting 85 percent of the UDA’s intelligence had been leaked to them by British security service sources.

He also found “a willful and abject failure by successive governments” to provide a clear framework for handling agents within the law.

The report notes that the then-British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Douglas Hogg, told Parliament on Jan. 17, 1989 that there were a number of lawyers in Northern Ireland who were “unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA,” after receiving a briefing from police.

Dissatisfaction with the report

Speaking to Parliament in response to the report’s publication, British Prime Minister David Cameron said collusion with the killers was “totally unacceptable” and “should never, ever happen.” He also said he was “deeply sorry” for the Finucane family, but added he “respectfully disagree[d] with them that a public inquiry would provide a fuller picture” of what happened.

Speaking to the press, Finucane’s widow, Geraldine, dismissed the report as a “sham” and a “whitewash,” but welcomed Mr. Cameron’s personal apology, saying “after all he is a human being, he probably does think it was … atrocious.”

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Finucane’s son, Michael, said any fair-minded person would agree “the state has the most to hide.”

Irish republican politicians are similarly dissatisfied with the report.

Speaking in Parliament, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour PartyAlasdair McDonnell, said the report “doesn’t go far enough” and called on Cameron to order a full public inquiry into the killing.

Former Sinn Féin official Danny Morrison said the full truth of the matter was still to come out. The report “only goes so far. You can never even penetrate above a certain level.”

“The British government is protecting itself. [Police] Special Branch and MI5 [military intelligence] don’t go out and assassinate people without say-so,” he says.

Kevin Bean, professor of Irish studies at the University of Liverpool, says the question of how high collusion went remains open.

“The limited nature of the inquiry means it doesn’t get to the heart of matters: whether there was political direction and the fact that there were instances of the targeting of people for political reasons,” he says.