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

Column LAST UPDATED AT 13:36 ON Thu 13 Dec 2012

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.  · 

Disqus - noscript

The tired old "equivalance" argument. Therin lies the very thnig that has been "guarded" ever since Heath's veiled requesting of the 1972 Bloody Sunday cover up ("remember we are not only fighting a war, but also a propaganda war") up until this latest seepage of the dirty war.

The equivalence argument has long been lost. Essentially, the former IRA glean the highest popular vote from the very population who experienced the conflict first hand, whilst British commentators still wring their hands as the drip feed of what their forces truly acted like continues. These realisations are decades late, I'm afraid.

The answers regarding equivalence etc reside in the body politik of N Ireland. Those answers, from the people who know best state, unequivacally, that there is nothing left for Cameron to guard here.

For they never were the good guys.

The argument is not about equivalence. A free society needs a free press and and incorruptible legal system. This murder highlights an area where the state behaved incorrectly. The journalists comment was about the tone of the PMs response which he feels was over the top. Your remark regarding the former IRA's popular vote in nationalist areas is clever but revealing. The middle classes in Northern Ireland have never been throwing their bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau at each other and dont vote in a partisan fashion. Prosperity has enabled sophistication and a sense of ownership. The brutality. no "terrorism", of the working class loyalist and nationalist communities by highly organised brutal gangs over generations means this is not their lot. Both political parties still get the vote even though men are beaten to death in pubs for speaking out. To do therwise is still considered treason. What's worse , future generations are condemned to repeat the madness of their fathers. It's impossible ot be the "good" guys in any scenario like this.

Apologies, Simon, but it's exactly about equivalence, and more. This, and related themes has occupied British propaganda and military strategists in N Ireland throughout Operation Banner.

Though I'm sure your very naive synopsis of N Ireland is essentially well intentioned, it comes from a paradigm that was created at Whitehall, executed through the propaganda war out of Theipval barracks, and is now essentially a relic. You know the one. "One's as bad as the other", "peacekeeping forces", "a few bad apples (when caught out)", "crime, is crime, is crime" etc. That relic.

That crafted propaganda paradigm, buried deeper as it's untenable pillars crumble over time, is why you'll find the equivalence argument to be a last, necessary, crutch for certain people.

I'll illustrate this for you, using your own viewpoint. You believe that this state murder was an occasion "where the state behaved incorrectly" , damaging the free press and a notionally "incorruptible legal system" .

Whether this was, again, unintentionally naive, or intentionally clever (the old "one bad apple" routine) I put it to you that what this does is bring further into sharp relief the more truthful, real paradigm of understanding which Mr Cameron and his predecessors are rightly uncomfortable about. I include many "journalists" in this also (this one being an author of not just articles, but of British military, intelligence and propaganda strategies).

So, whilst one may recognise on the face of it that Banner was a victory in some regards from a British point of view, we must also countenance the aspects of its defeat. Some of those aspects I had attempted to elucidate, but I believe you misread them as tub thumping. What I hoped would have been taken from some of my earlier comment was that the Republican Movement are now, probably, the largest political force in Ireland (middle classes, and all). Those are the numbers, and that is something that Operation Banner could not dictate. Why so? Because Finucane, collusion, Bloody Sunday, Shoot to Kill, FRU, E4A and the rest of it never was just "one bad apple", or "behaving incorrectly". It was the modus operandi.

The old crafted depiction may still be relatively unfaded in London, where reality cannot pervade the old propaganda so well, but it will fade, as it has done for the very populace who have continual and intimate access to all the aspects and realities of the conflict, and reject that previous, nonsensical, paradigm when they cast their votes these days. That was the point being made. Sort of like an Occams Razor for cutting through the layers and years of political socialisation. When faced with which truth to go for, perhaps take the lead from the people who have the most unfettered understanding?

That is why we see bristling at that equivalence theme (notwithstanding the fact their own internal, leaked intelligence memos reasoned the men of the PIRA they were engaged against to be of "officer class material"). That is why the continual dependency on the 'one bad apple" line. That is why no public enquiry on the state killing of Finucane and the damage limitation media treatment.

For that would be a severe undermining of Banners legacy in Whitehall and it's tenets of ulsterisation, normalisation, criminalisation etc.

Yet I suspect the real panic arises as follows. The 30 year test tube training ground of the Six Counties, Operation Banner and the little victories that they thought were bagged, exported and expounded in Langley, Tel Aviv, Helmand and Baghdad become sorely compromised as they cast an eye back at those same Six Counties of N Ireland, turn, look ahead and scan the horizons of their newer arenas then down at those old, treasured, bagged victories and lessons only to realise there was a hole in the sack all along.