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On a collusion course
Important questions of the Stevens inquiry team were left unasked by the recent Panorama investigation into collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces, and the murder of Pat Finucane
Eamonn McCann, 23 Jul 2002
Members of the Stevens Inquiry team which investigated collusion between Loyalist paramilitaries and elements of the security forces came very well out of John Ware’s Panorama programmes last month. But do they deserve the accolades?
The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens himself and four of his detectives – Sgt. Nicholas Benwell (1989-1994), Cons. Sarah Bynum (1989-1991), Sgt. Lynn Evans (1989-1993) and Chief Supt. Laurence Sherwood (1989-1993) – gave the programme-makers remarkably frank interviews and left no room for doubt about the conclusions they’d reached. These included that the Military Intelligence Group the Force Research Unit had been involved in murders, including the murder of Pat Finucane, and that the British Army had lied to cover this up.
On these key issues, the detectives were blunt. The second of the two programmes opened with Ware asking Benwell: “Did the Stevens inquiry come to the conclusion that military intelligence was colluding with their agent...to ensure that the UFF shot ‘the right people’”? Benwell replied: “Yes, that was the conclusion we came to.”
Ware then put it to Bynum that an assurance by the British Army to Stevens in 1989 that it did not run agents in Northern Ireland had been “In fact...a complete lie”? “Yes,” she replied.
The first Stevens Inquiry had been launched in September 1989, shortly after the UDA plastered walls in Loyalist areas of Belfast with security documents in order to “prove” that they hadn’t been killing Catholics at random: the murder of Pat Finucane eight months earlier came within its remit.
Stevens 2 began in the summer of 1992 following a spate of media stories sparked by the exposure of the role of Brian Nelson as a double agent and the threat of a civil court action by the Finucane family. This lasted until January 1995. The picture which emerged from Panorama was of the Stevens detectives conducting a rigorous investigation of security force collusion, but being prevented from bringing the full truth into the open by the obstruction and manoeuvres of security and intelligence interests.
Although the programmes didn’t explain what had prompted the detectives to speak now with such remarkable openness – and about a matter which was the subject of a continuing investigation – the implication was that, as honest professionals, they couldn’t stay silent about the cover-up of murder which they had unearthed between 1989 and 1995. And indeed, there is no reason to suppose any of the detectives interviewed is other than an entirely honest professional.
However, statements from Stevens himself and from others in the intervening years are less than clear-cut about the perspectives and findings of the earlier inquiries. For example, in September 1992, a delegation from the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (LCHR) met with Stevens and reported that, “Mr. Stevens told us...that limited time, resources and terms of reference prevented his inquiry from tracking down every lead in the Finucane case.”
In contrast, signing off on Stevens 2 in January 1995 Stevens was able to be more positive when writing to British-Irish Rights Watch: “With regard to the murder of Pat Finucane, I can confirm that this matter was fully investigated during the initial and subsequent inquiry.”
In August the same year, Stevens told the LCHR that “He had conducted a thorough investigation into Nelson’s activities, including with respect to the Finucane murder”.
On April 14th 1999, as controversy over the Finucane murder and pressure for a Public Inquiry reached a crescendo, Audrey Glover, head of Britain’s UN delegation, told the UN Commission on Human Rights that Stevens had investigated the Finucane murder “in great detail”. In the House of Commons two days later, junior defence minister Doug Henderson repeated that Stevens had investigated the killing of the Belfast lawyer.
Thus, a certain confusion arose when, on arrival in Belfast on April 28th to conduct the current inquiry, Stevens told a press conference that while his previous investigations had been “linked” to the Finucane murder, “At no time did I investigate the murder of Mr. Finucane.” A few days earlier, he had written to Pat Finucane’s legal partner, Peter Madden, seeking the cooperation of the firm and of the Finucane family: “Those (earlier) inquiries primarily related to the activities of the so-called ‘double-agent’ Brian Nelson. At no time was I given authority by either the Chief Constable of the RUC or the Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate the murder of Partick Finucane.”
This directly contradicts what the Finucane family and the public at large had been given to understand about Stevens 1 and 2 by government, diplomats and by Stevens himself. It is also runs directly counter to the implicit assurances of the detectives interviewed on Panorama that between 1989 and 1995 they had pushed the investigation of Finucane’s murder as far they possibly could, even threatening the General Officer Commanding British Forces in the North with arrest if he didn’t cooperate. Over almost two hours of air time and in the course of unprecedently frank interviews, there was no hint that the Stevens team had felt themselves inhibited by lack of a mandate to investigate. On the contrary, the clear and repeated suggestion was that difficulties had arisen from the reluctance of others to acknowledge their mandate.
All this raises the question of what exactly the 20-strong Stevens 3 team has been doing over the past three years. Stevens has known since his first inquiry about the role of Brian Nelson in the Finucane murder. His team took a statement from the FRU agent running to more than a thousand pages. Moreover, by the time of Stevens 2, Nelson had stood trial and the chief of the FRU Gordon Kerr had confirmed in public and on oath that Nelson had been a valued agent of British military intelligence.
Stevens 2 was also aware of the role of William Stobie, the UDA quarter-master and RUC Special Branch agent which had supplied and later disposed of the guns used in the Finucane murder. Stobie was charged with Finucane’s murder in June 1999 after a former journalist Neil Mulholland had handed over to Stevens the notes of an interview with Stobie back in 1990. Stobie’s solicitor Joe Rice told Belfast Magistrates’ Court: “The bulk of the evidence here today has been known to the authorities for almost 10 years.”
Having brought the charges against Stobie, the Stevens team’s immediate next move was not to charge Nelson, whose 1,000-page confession they had on file, much less seek a warrant for the arrest of Kerr, but to begin pursuit of Sunday Tribune Northern editor Ed Maloney who in 1990 had interviewed Stobie along exactly the same lines as had Mulholland. An application was made to the County Court on behalf of Stevens in July 1999 for an order under the Prevention of Terrorism Act compelling Maloney to hand over his notes. The penalty for refusing to comply was an unlimited fine and up to five years in prison.
In the course of a long battle though the courts, Maloney established that the Stevens team did not need his notes for the prosecution of Stobie and, moreover, that his notes would anyway have been indmissible in evidence even if Maloney were to comply with the order. In its February 2000 report “Justice Delayed”, British-Irish Rights Watch declared itself “at a loss to understand why the Stevens team ever pursued Ed Maloney... rather than seeking to track down those who murdered Patrick Finucane.” Noone from the Stevens team has ever explained the pursuit of Maloney. (Just as none of the ask-me-anything interviewees was asked on Panorama to explain why the report of Stevens 2 was never published, even in summary form. Did it recommend prosecutions? Of whom? Were the detectives upset that in the event there were no prosecutions?)
In the absence of any other explanation, the common speculation in legal and human rights circles in the North is that Stevens wanted Maloney’s notes, despite knowing they would be of no evidential value, in order to check them with Mulholland’s for discrepancies.
Of course, this would make no sense if the purpose was to build up a prosecution case as, it has been presumed, the Stevens 3 team was trying to do.)
Against this background, it’s worth looking with a fresh eye on the Stevens 1 and 2 investigations which were presented by Panorama as the very model of a fearless investigation by honest police officers in face of obstruction and worse from shadowy elements in the security services. Stevens 2 came about at the time of, but not primarily because of, media revelations in relation to Nelson and the FRU. The key factor was the initiation by Pat Finucane’s widow, Geraldine, of a civil claim for damages against the Ministry of Defence and Brian Nelson personally. Nelson threatened that if he were forced into the witness box he would tell all. The appointment of Stevens provided a basis for freezing all legal action and even formal discussion of the Finucane murder as sub judice.
Under Stevens 3 it is still held, by British and Irish government spokespersons, for example, that the case is sub-judice, or at least that procedure and precedent decrees that no new move be made until Stevens reports.
Under the deal struck at the Weston Park Hotel last summer between the British and Irish Governments, the SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionists, Stevens’ report will be presented first to Canadian judge Peter Cory, who will decide whether to recommend to the two governments that the Public Inquiry which Geraldine Finucane has been calling for for more than a dozen years should at last be established.
Stevens has not yet set a date for interviewing Nelson’s FRU chief, Kerr, currently British military attaché in Beijing. John Ware was able to travel to Beijing to doorstep Kerr. But Stevens hasn’t yet gotten round to fixing a date.
The result is that the question of a Public Inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane will not come onto the political agenda until well into next year. The likelihood is that even if the governments then moved with dispatch, hearings would not begin until 2004. All question of prosecutions would then be delayed until the Public Inquiry had reported.
Meantime, the credibility of British Military Intelligence and of the RUC Special Branch is in shreds. When incoming PSNI chief constable Hugh Orde, who ran the day-to-day operation of Stevens 3, comes to recommend which agency will have primacy in intelligence matters in the future, it will hardly be worth the Branch or the FRU putting in an application.
Despite its own involvement in these matters, mentioned but not highlighted on Panorama, there must be considerable confidence in MI5 circles that they will get the gig.
Some strategists speculate that with the Special Branch thus marginalised and emasculated, the key remaining Sinn Féin demand on policing will have been met. The way will be clear for the Provisionals to join the police. The war really will be over, and the case will be conclusive for letting history heal whatever pain persists. At that point perhaps, it will be possible and permissible objectively to examine the role played by Sir John Stevens in the North in the last 13 years.