On the Finucane family's Struggle for Justice and the Collusion of the British State

The Government's refusal of a public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane is part of a cover up state collusion and an attempt to continue to obfuscate the political nature of the conflict in Ireland.

12 min read

On 12th February 1989 the human rights lawyer Pat Finucane was murdered. Having forced entry into his north Belfast home, a unit of loyalist paramilitaries made straight for the Finucane’s kitchen, where the family was settling down to a Sunday roast. They fired two shots, instantly disabling their target and knocking him from his seat. One of the gunmen unloaded a further 12 rounds into his prone body. His children clung to each other, terrified under the table. Their mother Geraldine was also injured in the attack. Later that evening, the UFF (a cover name for attacks by the then unproscribed UDA) declared they had killed “Pat Finucane the IRA officer”.

Finucane had become a prominent thorn in the side of British state authorities in the north of Ireland through his defence work on behalf of republicans during the 1980s, although his legal practice crossed political divides (he also represented loyalists throughout his career). While three of his brothers passed through the Provisional republican movement, subsequent police investigations confirmed that Pat Finucane himself was not a member of the Provisional IRA, nor a combatant of any sort. Collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the security services, of the kind revealed to have been rife at the time of his death by the subsequent Stevens Inquiry, was suspected immediately.

In his address to the House of Commons on the 30th November the Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis announced that there would be no public inquiry into the murder. The Finucane family have now been campaigning for justice for over three decades. At every turn their efforts have been resisted and discredited. Collusion cases are notorious for the circling of the ranks undertaken by the authorities subject to investigation. When the military wing of the repressive state apparatus has demands of transparency pressed upon it, the response is chilling. Yet despite every obstacle, the family and their supporters have thus far uncovered numerous details about the role of the British state in the killing. These undoubtedly serve the public interest. In a country free of fetishisations of imperialist militarism, these revelations might provoke enormous disquiet and anger.

The family and their supporters have uncovered numerous details about the role of the British state in the killing. In a country free of fetishisations of imperialist militarism, these revelations might provoke enormous disquiet and anger.

Between the evidence uncovered during the Stevens Inquiry, Desmond de Silva’s 2012 report and the then Prime Minister David Cameron’s subsequent statement on the matter, the nature and practice of collusion was acknowledged publicly by the political establishment. A series of military and militarised police intelligence branches recruited agents from loyalist paramilitary organisations. Information on republicans targeted for assassination were passed between these agents and their handlers. A body of evidence indicates that killings such as that of Pat Finucane could have been avoided had the security services stepped in. Informants were recruited via the RUC, MI5 and the custom designed Forces Research Unit (FRU). The FRU, in particular, recruited agents at the highest echelons of loyalist paramilitary command. UDA chief intelligence officer Brian Nelson even claimed that he passed details of the plan to murder Pat Finucane to his handlers and it was ignored. It was far from the only such allegation of illegality made against the FRU, who were also suspected of hindering Stevens work with an arson attack on an information centre established during his investigations that contained vital evidence.

The British line on the activities of these intelligence services and their agents during this period has always been straightforward. It contends that Nelson and his fellow informants were instrumental in minimising and avoiding the deaths of republican non-combatants, their presence “streamlining” the effectiveness of loyalist paramilitaries to pick off members of the Provisionals and other physical force republicans, while minimising the risk of civilian casualties. Yet this seems fanciful when set against the conclusions of the Stevens Inquiry.

On the strength of Stevens’s conclusions, 210 loyalist paramilitary volunteers were arrested. 207 of them were either erstwhile state agents or actively still informing. Furthermore, there is little evidence that participation in murders such as that of Pat Finucane caused any degree of concern on the part of the security services. They actively continued to recruit loyalist paramilitaries even after they admitted to involvement in such atrocities. They even recruited one of the members of the unit who carried out the murder after he had confessed to his role in the killing. In a focused review of British collusion with the UDA, Stevens concluded that upwards of 80% of the loyalist paramilitaries’ intelligence was sourced from security services.

The response in Britain has often felt muted. When the singularly reactionary British media talks about Ireland at all, it frequently reaffirms the narrative of the Troubles as an ancient ethno-religious conflict of which the British military is a mediating presence and a reluctant participant. At its most poisonous, it caricatures and distorts the material conditions that led to the conflict and piggybacks off a far-right nationalist sentiment. We exist, after all, in the kind of selective media ecology that successfully managed to frame Jeremy Corbyn’s efforts to include republicans in conflict resolution as tantamount to treason.

At the same time, calls for British soldiers to face retrospective investigation for their actions during the Troubles are vigorously dismissed. It is worth remembering that as well as being an administration seeped in finance capital, city spivvery and landlordism, this is a Tory party that has long since dropped any of the hollow appeals to liberal sentiment that characterised the self-image of Cameronism. It is impossible to imagine the current Tory government, for example, apologising for Bloody Sunday as Cameron did. Johnny Mercer’s blimpish proclamations are of a piece with Priti Patel’s appeal to nativism and the craven niche in the culture war carved out for himself by Ben Bradley. Tellingly, MPs and ministers, most notably Michael Gove, who have had significant influence over the direction of governmental policy since the start of the Finucane’s campaign for justice were among the most prominent voices articulating a particularly hawkish interpretation of the Good Friday Agreement in the aftermath of its signing. These are the kinds of institutionalised attitudes that the Finucane family have had to face down in their long quest for justice.

Johnny Mercer’s blimpish proclamations are of a piece with Priti Patel’s appeal to nativism and the craven niche in the culture war carved out for himself by Ben Bradley.

In his address to the commons Brandon Lewis was keen to stress that he was not “taking the possibility of an inquiry off the table”. He characterised his decision as allowing space for due process and procedure. According to Lewis, current police investigations should not be jeopardised by the parallel activity of a public inquiry. What he neglected to remind the house was that a commitment to an inquiry was given to the Finucanes nearly 20 years ago in 2001. This was on the condition that a judge “of international standing”, having assessed the case, would declare their belief that an inquiry was necessary.

When this condition was met, the government merely adjusted legislation to impose more extreme restrictions on the sharing of relevant documentation and evidence. A decade ago, the Finucanes were promised a reassessment of the case, only to discover that this would involve nothing more than the publishing of a report, with all processes being held in private at the behest of a government appointed legal team. It was this that led the Finucane campaign to appeal to the UK supreme court, which last year ruled (counter to government resistance) that the case had not yet been investigated to an acceptable standard. It also called into question the effectiveness and composition of previous investigations into the case. The government responded by passing back responsibility to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The referral of investigative powers back to a localised police force is a transparent fudge to avoid the public inquiry the Finucane family have been demanding. It also recalls one of the British state’s key tactics during the Troubles. From the mid 1970’s a policy of “Ulsterisation” was introduced. Associated most prominently with the Labour minister Roy Mason, the RUC and the still nascent Ulster Defence Regiment recruited almost exclusively from the protestant and unionist communities, were pushed to the forefront of the war against the Provos in an attempt to make the role of the British army less visible. In their history of the Official IRA the historians Brian Hanley and Scott Millar sum this tactic up as aiming “to produce the elusive “acceptable level of violence”, which in reality meant a level of violence acceptable to public opinion in Britain”. It was the kind of buffering tactic deployed across the British empire in centuries gone by, one that had long allowed for the political nature of the conflict in Ireland to be dismissed with a detached air of nonchalance as a squabble between uncouth natives. The British presence in Ireland was framed, depending on who the minister in question was talking to at the time, as either that of objective peacekeepers policing criminal gangs or defenders of the union, repaying their debt to a loyalist Ulster under siege from republicans.

Brandon Lewis’s announcement serves as a reminder that we must resist any attempts to defang the reality of collusion by consigning it to history. The stymying of the Finucane’s efforts is in fact yet another, ever more insidious aspect of the institutional and procedural afterlife of a decades long process. If it arrived first as the targeted political assassination of republicans by loyalist paramilitary proxies, it continues through the institutionalised cover up and cultures of silence that obfuscate the campaign for justice.

There is a sense when you listen to certain conservative apologists for British state atrocities in Ireland that collusion was but another unsavoury but necessary development. In this telling, collusion was undertaken not with political calculation and extreme ruthlessness, but as a pressurised innovation, arrived at in desperate circumstances, carried out by soldiers and intelligence personnel as a last resort. Any questioning of this narrative is particularly uncomfortable for the British state because it hacks away at the studiously crafted self-image of the upstanding colonialist and their patrician benevolence.

There is a sense when you listen to certain conservative apologists for British state atrocities in Ireland that collusion was but another unsavoury but necessary development.

England is in hoc to a form of bizarre ahistoricism. One of it’s most persistent canards is that the allied victory in WWII was almost entirely the result of the dogged resistance of Britain alone. This highly questionable reading is a necessary fiction for imperialists that contains at heart a paradox. It is the celebration of the defeat of Nazism and fascism in service of the delegitimising of any suggestion that racism is a deeply ingrained facet of our violent history of colonial pillage. Various flashpoints since have served to embellish and prolong this belief system, including, but not limited to, the Falklands War and the War on Terror. The dirty business of collusion exposes a contradiction in this reading of history, whereby adherents veer between maintaining that imperial excesses are overestimated while simultaneously arguing that extra-judicial killing with the blessing of the security services just over the water was an acceptable response in a war against a republican movement that amounted to nothing less than common criminals.

The spectre of Ireland has always haunted this particular imperialist pathology, not least because of the relative recency of anti-colonial resistance in the country and the ongoing existence of so called “dissident” republican movements. The adamance with which the Provisionals claimed to be legitimate inheritors of the IRA that fought the British to the negotiating table in July 1921 complicated the propaganda war against them. The folk memory of an outnumbered, comparatively inexperienced guerrilla army comprised mainly of lower middle-class commanders and volunteers, in tandem with the civil disobedience and class conflicts waged in solidarity by significant segments of the urban and rural working class, was a dent in the image of superiority that conservative Britain was built on and resonated with independence movements across the globe.

It was a central tenet of the imperial mindset that the Irish were an inherently backward society, fundamentally incapable of running their own affairs. This attitude was part of the permanent background noise during The Troubles, the British state’s mask slipping both unintentionally and with calculated threat during various periods of the conflict.

As the Provisional bombing campaign in Britain escalated during the 1970s, public outrage over civilian loss of life was seized upon by governments (who had sometimes been negotiating with representatives of republicanism in private) to subtly advance the depoliticising narrative of an aggregated crimewave. This line of argument, still adhered to by many conservative and centrist commentators - and buttressed in Ireland by both bourgeois revisionism and adherents of a still visible line inherited from organisations such as BICO - concludes that there can be no comparison between the anti-colonial activity of Irish republicans and that of other historical national liberation movements.

The distinction generally drawn is that the existence of an electoral system in the north of Ireland (compared with the lack of mass enfranchisement in, say, South Africa during apartheid) should have allowed for a peacefully democratic implementation of social justice at the ballot box. Given the electoral and economic injustices so deeply embedded in the Orange State since inception, this is either a conclusion reached in wilful bad faith or ignorance. Discrimination against the catholic nationalist population of the six counties took numerous forms but was most evident in employment and a nakedly gerrymandered drawing of electoral boundaries that allowed unionists to control councils in areas with sizeable nationalist majorities.

Liberal calls for dialogue and civility through exclusively peaceful means would perhaps hold a little more weight were they couched in a genuine interest in the totality and complexity of Irish history. Too often the politics of civility are summoned to obscure the material roots of militant republican responses to a political state formation that excluded, marginalised and discriminated against the catholic population. Their status as second class citizens was no accident of historical circumstance or geography, but by political design of the post-partition state in the north. Regardless of differing beliefs in the justification and utility of political violence as a response to these conditions, treating republican violence as if it were an original violence, disproportionate to the endemic violence of the state, is to wilfully decontextualise. Yet context is all too often lacking in contemporary coverage of Irish issues. The absence of articles engaging with the more recent commemorations around the decade of centenaries in Ireland from a British perspective is revealing. While certain discussions in Irish media have provoked difficult debate and analysis relating to the birth of the Free State, touching on events such as the first Bloody Sunday, the death of Terence MacSwiney and the Kilmichael Ambush, there is little effort from media on the other side of the Irish sea to think critically about the British role in these events.

Too often the politics of civility are summoned to obscure the material roots of militant republican responses to a political state formation that excluded, marginalised and discriminated against the catholic population.

Far from the Britain being neutral arbiters of warring ethnicities in Ireland, cases like that of Pat Finucane remind us that collusion was but one example of a raft of human rights abuses on the part of the British state during the conflict. They collectively question the presumption that the British state was a force for the upholding of law and order in the north of Ireland, revealing the grubbier truth of it frequently being led by the most hawkish tendencies of its military and intelligence arms.

In the years since partition, extreme nationalists in Britain could frequently cite support for Ulster loyalism, almost always safe in the knowledge they’d never have to set foot in the region, let alone have to get their hands dirty. Loyalism became embedded within a plethora of often competing and overlapping right wing narratives, shared with various degrees of virulence across a spectrum of establishment conservatism through to outright fascism, to signal the authenticity of one’s dedication to the twin concepts of Britishness and imperialism.

Yet during the debate that followed Brandon Lewis statement, prominent loyalists, too, raised criticisms of aspects of the statement and its implications , with the bulk of the response from the DUP, UUP and their allies warned against the establishment of a “hierarchy of victims”. The risible implication being that republicans such as the Finucanes are asking for some form of preferential treatment. Still, it is worth remembering that the distinction between unionism and loyalism is perhaps every bit as meaningful as that between establishment nationalism and militant republicanism. Especially in the minds of the majority of loyalist combatants, who like their republican counterparts were overwhelmingly working class and frequently clashed violently with the security services. In the eyes of a significant portion of loyalists, the British Conservative and Unionist party has too often been chameleonic in its approach to them. All too happy to recruit them as buffers on the front line of the conflict, but never quite willing properly to repay that commitment. While the main thrust of the questioning from the likes of Gregory Campbell can be read as a false equivalence between the political assassination of a non-combatant by a guerrilla army and the political assassination of a non-combatant aided, abetted and covered up by a state supposedly above such tactics, it is worth paying attention to the subtext that animates them. As writers and historians such as Susan McKay, Gareth Mulvenna and Tony Novosel have frequently articulated, loyalism is a heterogenous ideology. While loyalists may have benefited militarily from collusion, they often understand the duplicitous nature of the British state as well as republicans.

That the Finucanes will keep fighting is a given. Their continued struggle for justice reveals the contradictions and tensions at the heart of colonial apologism, while further exposing the limits of the self-proclaimed moderates and their hand wringing over the material realities of the Troubles.


Daniel Baker (@handloomlament)

Daniel Baker (@handloomlament) is a writer, FE worker and trade unionist. He writes about the history of Irish republicanism on his blog The Echo of the Thunder. His writing on film and music can be found at Hand Loom Lament