Finucane's murder was wrong but it doesn't make him a saint
Cameron was right to apologise over the Belfast lawyer's murder. But his IRA links were complex
SIR DESMOND DE SILVA QC yesterday issued his review into the 1989 death of the Belfast lawyer and "human rights activist” Patrick Finucane at the hands of ‘Loyalist' assassins.
"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” was how Sir Desmond put it (for trivia fans – he is also John Terry's barrister).
David Cameron immediately issued an apology in the House of Commons and spoke of his "agony” at the thought of British security forces colluding with terrorists to commit murder.
Finucane was described at the time of his death as "a human rights activist” and may well have thought of himself as such. Sir Desmond certainly seems to have bought into this idea of a lawyer of Mandela-esque virtue and probity.
But Finucane's real status was more complex. He came from an IRA family. Three of his brothers were IRA men and one was the fiancée of Mairead Farrell, an IRA terrorist killed by the SAS in Gibraltar in 1988. The IRA informer Sean O'Callaghan says he met Finucane at an IRA meeting about money in 1980 where he was introduced by Gerry Adams as a member of the ‘Belfast Brigade Staff'.
I was in Belfast in 1985 as my battalion's intelligence officer. The police regarded Finucane and other solicitors like him as men who were using the law, not exclusively in the service of justice, but as a way of supporting the IRA's violent agenda.
They did provide legal advice to suspects on remand for terrorist offences and to convicted IRA men – there was nothing disreputable about that. Clearly, men like Finucane had little sympathy with Northern Ireland's place within the UK – again nothing disreputable about that. But the strong suspicion was that they were exploiting their privileged access to IRA prisoners to ensure they gave nothing away to the authorities. Keep silent and you and your family will be looked after. Spill the beans…
Another aspect of their work - in the police's view - was to gather intelligence on the security forces – names of policemen and soldiers, possible informers, layouts of police stations and jails, routines, any details that might help the IRA's campaign.
Finucane's death was brutal: two masked Protestant paramilitaries battered down his front door with a sledgehammer and then shot him 14 times in front of his family, IRA-style, you might say. No civilised person could condone such violence.
The de Silva review shows clearly that elements of the British intelligence set-up seriously over-stepped the mark in the late 1980s. Using Loyalist killers (equally despised by most of the security forces) as proxies against the IRA's supporters may have seemed a clever idea at the time but it undermined the moral high ground and restraint required for the long-term success of counter-terror intelligence operations.
It has come back to sully what was in the main an honourable and disciplined campaign by the security forces in the face of intense IRA brutality over many years – as Sir Desmond de Silva eloquently acknowledges in his review.
Most soldiers who served in Northern Ireland supported David Cameron's apology over Bloody Sunday – made in 2010 a few months after he came into office to mark the publication of Lord Savile's lengthy report into the atrocity. His tone was exactly right and it was moving to see his words being cheered by crowds watching him on a giant screen outside Derry City Hall.
But his statement in the House of Commons yesterday struck a false note. An apology, yes. But talk of his ‘agony' – a little over the top. Bloody Sunday was inexcusable but the Finucane affair was, frankly, a far greyer area.
The IRA are determined to instil into the public consciousness the idea of moral equivalence between them and the security forces – partly for political reasons and maybe partly to ease their own uneasy consciences as they approach old age. Cameron needs to guard against this.