24 years after Finucane killing, the damage limitation continues

Pat Finucane leaves court in the 1980s

Pat Finucane leaves court in the 1980s


TODAY marks 24 years since solicitor Pat Finucane was shot dead in a killing which has become a defining symbol of the state’s complicity in the Troubles.

The government-commissioned report into the murder has yielded secrets of the “dirty war” which still have the power to shock – such as the existence of a senior RUC officer helping loyalists procure weapons – but other pieces of the picture remain off-limits to this day.

The review by Sir Desmond de Silva portrays intelligence agencies within the British Army, RUC and MI5 not only at war with each other, but deeply enmeshed with loyalist paramilitaries engaged in a vicious sectarian murder campaign at that time.

When the report was published two months ago, the Government presented it as the final word on collusion in the Finucane case. But does the de Silva review hold anyone to account or, instead conveniently lay much of the blame at the feet of dead men and defunct institutions?

The Detail has studied the report in-depth and spoken to some of those who know the case best, including Mr Finucane’s youngest son, John, who is now himself a solicitor and who maintains that de Silva raises more questions than it answers.

"There were bodies piling up on the streets" /


Previously classified intelligence documents now show that both MI5 and Special Branch were aware that an unnamed senior RUC officer was actively helping loyalist paramilitaries to procure weapons in the 1980s.

All three intelligence agencies were aware of the senior policeman’s efforts to procure illegal weapons for loyalist paramilitaries but failed to identify the officer or bring him to justice. " read

De Silva concluded: “Whilst I acknowledge that the intelligence did not enable the individual officer concerned to be confidently identified, I consider that the documentary record as a whole does suggest that it is likely that a high-level RUC contact assisted loyalist paramilitaries to an extent in their efforts to procure arms in the mid-1980s.”

The task of targeting loyalist paramilitaries within the RUC was undertaken by a specialist unit E3B.

However a secret MI5 report for the Chief Constable in December 1988 found that E3B “has neither time, resources or sufficient data base to collate and analyse intelligence.”

The official position has always been that leaks to loyalist paramilitaries were confined to rogue low-level members of the security forces.

However declassified MI5 and FRU documents now reveal that a number of senior police and army officers were providing loyalists with high grade intelligence during the 1980s: “Reliable and repeated reports covered comparatively senior officers in the RUC through to senior officers in the UDR, though such individuals were not always identifiable on the basis of the intelligence that had been received.” read

Despite this the de Silva review found that the majority of allegations of RUC leaks to loyalist paramilitaries were never investigated.

“Such leaks were not institutional, nor systemic, though they could certainly be described as widespread.” read

While de Silva said there was insufficient evidence that UDR units had officially supplied the UDA with weapons, he concluded: “nevertheless it does appear to have been extraordinarily easy for loyalists to acquire weapons from UDR sources”. read

Many UDA attacks could be traced back to assistance initially provided by members of the security forces.

In 1985 MI5 assessed that 85% of UDA ‘intelligence’ used to target nationalists originated from within the security forces.

In 1988 each of the UDA’s six `brigade’ areas were said to have at least 20 individual RUC sources of intelligence.

In December 1988 RUC Special Branch and MI5 had intelligence that a senior west Belfast UDA gunman was planning to break into a Royal Irish Regiment (RIR) base at Ballykinlar in Co Down to steal army intelligence to be used to target nationalists.

Despite having prior intelligence of the plan, Special Branch and MI5 allowed the break-in to go ahead. An MI5 internal memo stated: “[L/03] was planning to break into a UDR camp on 2 December to photograph some intelligence reports … D/HSB (Deputy Head of Special Branch) advised that ‘since the UDA already had lots of this stuff anyway’ and that they would find nothing of value there was little to be gained by trying to prevent [L/03’s] activity.”

A Ministry of Defence internal document confirmed that Catholic father-of-four Loughlin Maginn was later murdered as a result of intelligence which the UDA gang obtained from the Ballykinlar break-in.

The document further disclosed that UDA gunmen plotting another murder in the South Down area had planned to hide in the army base after the killing.

The MoD document warned: “This is potential dynamite. Should this become public knowledge the Security Forces, particularly the Royal Irish Regiment’s credibility would be severely damaged.” read

L/03 was later identified as being one of the ringleaders of the UDA gang responsible for the murder of Pat Finucane and a series of sectarian killings in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The review found that RUC efforts to contain the UDA in west Belfast had been “grossly inadequate”.

“I was able to trace the involvement of that particular gang through a series of murders and attacks by the West Belfast UDA during the year prior to Patrick Finucane’s murder,” said de Silva.

“I have seen the significant amount of intelligence that the RUC SB received at the time linking those individuals to the attacks, at least some of which was passed to the RUC Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

“Whilst the intelligence was not of the kind that would have been admissible in evidence for the purpose of bringing criminal charges, in my view it could have enabled the police to identify suspects and thereby develop evidential leads. Arrests could also have been highly effective in disrupting the plans of those paramilitaries to carry out imminent attacks.” read

The review found that the RUC took “comparatively, very little exploitative action” resulting from intelligence on loyalist targeting.

The review found that the UDA’s west Belfast `brigadier` Tommy Lyttle was being assisted by RUC and Special Branch.

From 1986 onwards he was receiving intelligence from an RUC superintendent while in December 1987 he was given a large number of RUC photomontages.

Ken Barrett, the only loyalist ever convicted with the murder of Pat Finucane, claimed that “the police could have put us in the barracks (prison) at any time.”

Security force agents Brian Nelson, Ken Barrett and Billy Stobie

Security force agents Brian Nelson, Ken Barrett and Billy Stobie


Declassified documents showed evidence that both FRU and RUC provided targeting information for the UDA via the loyalist double agent Brian Nelson, one of the central figures in the Finucane case and many of the other loyalist killings of the late 80s and early 90s.

Nelson’s intelligence files were found to bear a “striking resemblance” to Special Branch files on Pat Finucane and de Silva reflects a startling level of impunity with which Nelson operated in an era of extreme loyalist violence.

“FRU were providing him with “at the very least, tacit approval of his activity. On occasions, however, it seems to have gone much further than that, if not to the point of actively encouraging his activity.” read

In 1988 Nelson was provided with targeting material on at least four occasions, one of which related to FRU passing information to Nelson at the request of the RUC.

Nelson was dismayed that handlers had not celebrated his involvement in the murder of Jimmy Craig in October 1988 with a celebratory drink.

Nelson’s FRU handler later wrote that a celebratory drink might have been appropriate had they known about his role in the murder.


However the internal war between Special Branch (SB), the Force Research Unit (FRU) and MI5 for the ultimate control of power undoubtedly led to innocent civilians being killed.

Highlighting the constant battle for supremacy between the agencies, de Silva concluded:

“The RUC SB blamed the FRU and vice versa.

“Both sides cannot be telling the truth in this critically important matter. Either the FRU were permitting the killing of certain targeted individuals to go ahead at the hands of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) by not passing the information on to the RUC SB, or the SB, having received the required information from the FRU, were failing through negligence or design to take the necessary steps to save lives.” read

"This case continues to scare the British Government" /

An internal intelligence agency memo relating to the investigation of security force leaks stated:

“The Chief Constable [Sir Hugh Annesley] is very vulnerable to the criticism surrounding the montage investigation.”

“Could the Chief Constable weather an investigation into this area? Probably not.” read

The secret document goes onto describe MI5 as having its “fair share of officers with dubious qualities.”

MI5’s Director and Co-ordinator of Intelligence (DCI) of is recorded as saying he would “lose no sleep if FRU was disbanded.” read

However the secret document says that the DCI is himself “clearly vulnerable to the criticisms that he failed to control intelligence gathering agencies in Northern Ireland.” read

The de Silva review into the murder of Pat Finucane can be read here

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