SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 76 Jul-Aug 2003

The Stevens Inquiry & the state

ONLY 19 PAGES of the 3,000-page Stevens Report were made public in April, but even this provides a revealing glimpse of the murderous collusion between British intelligence forces and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland’s ‘dirty war’. The third report of London’s Metropolitan Police Commissioner, John Stevens, confirms that the British state was responsible for a series of illegal assassinations.

The report drew up evidence of collusion between middle-ranking members of the RUC Special Branch, MI5, army intelligence and figures in the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the largest Loyalist paramilitary force. Hundreds of people may have died as a result.

The Stevens’ Inquiry was set up in 1999 under the Good Friday Agreement, which established power-sharing structures in Northern Ireland. No doubt as part of the British government’s attempts to bring Sinn Fein firmly onboard the ‘peace process’, Stevens was asked to investigate the controversial circumstances around the murder of the prominent Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane and other issues concerning the state’s relationship with loyalists.

Pat Finucane, a lawyer who had a reputation for defending people on paramilitary-related charges, was shot dead in 1989 by the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), which acts as a cover name for the UDA. For months before the attack RUC officers had boasted to republican suspects that Finucane would be ‘taken out’.

According to Stevens, a RUC Special Branch agent in the UDA, William Stobie, had told his handlers an attack was planned against the lawyer shortly before his death. This information was kept hidden from the subsequent murder investigation. Stobie was arrested by the Stevens team in 2001 and charged with the murder of Finucane and also the killing of Brian Lambert (a young Protestant ‘mistakenly’ killed in retaliation for the IRA Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen in 1989). The case collapsed, however, and weeks later Stobie was shot dead by loyalists.

Brian Nelson, another agent who worked for the ‘Force Research Unit’ (FRU), a covert unit of the British army, was also linked to the murders of Finucane and Lambert. It has been alleged that Nelson was part of the UFF team that targeted Finucane. This was done either on instruction from his army handlers or they decided to let the attack go ahead

Nelson was one of hundreds of agents recruited by the FRU to provide information and to influence targeting and policy in both loyalist and republican groups. He was an important agent for the British, rising to head of the UFF’s intelligence wing. Stevens has also identified over eighty other people in loyalist circles with access to classified British army documents and has made over 100 arrests.

Nelson’s role as a tool of the British army is very clear. When he was arrested, British Army intelligence documents were found in his possession, indicating targeting of individuals for assassination. During Nelson’s trial a ‘Colonel J’ appeared as a witness on his behalf. ‘Colonel J’ has since been identified as Brigadier Gordon Kerr. For his services to the state, Kerr was awarded the OBE in 1991 and is currently the British military attaché in Beijing.

Serving half of a ten-year sentence for conspiracy to murder, Nelson was released in 1997 and fled Northern Ireland. Just days before the release of the Stevens report, Nelson reportedly died suddenly, from cancer or a brain haemorrhage.

Throughout his investigations Stevens faced continual obstruction from the army and RUC (now renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland). Twice the inquiry team’s attempt to arrest Nelson was thwarted. First, when Nelson was tipped off by the FRU that Stevens was after him. Second, when the night before another arrest attempt the Stevens Inquiry HQ in Belfast was burnt down, in what Stevens concluded was a "deliberate act of arson".

The Stevens Report conclusions, however, are really an exercise in damage limitation. Although conceding there was collusion in the Finucane and Lambert killings, Stevens asserts these murders and possibly hundreds of others were due to a lack of "effective control" of the FRU and other sections of the state. The truth is the use of agents to kill ‘troublesome’ figures, like Finucane, was part of a conscious policy of the state.

Neither does the report reveal anything about the role of the upper ranks of the security forces or the role of various politicians, including at government cabinet level. The Report merely says that Douglas Hogg, a former Tory Home Office minister, was ‘compromised’, when he made a statement in parliament in 1989 attacking lawyers "unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA", shortly before the shooting of Finucane.

The British state has a long record of going well beyond the ‘law’ in defence of its interests. In the early 1970s internment without trial was introduced in Northern Ireland. The army was responsible for many shootings, including murdering over a dozen civilians on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972. The Birmingham Six and Guildford Four suffered long years in prison for crimes they did not commit as a result of a cover up by the state. British army holding centres in Northern Ireland, such as Castlereagh, became by-words for places of torture and the extraction of false ‘confessions’. Non-jury ‘Diplock’ courts sentenced many people to prison sentences. In the 1980s hundreds were imprisoned on the word of ‘super grasses’ and the state introduced a policy of ‘shoot-to-kill’, against the IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).

All this was intended to defeat republicans and to cow the Catholic population. The IRA did not pose a serious threat to the rule of the British capitalists but their campaign did seriously destabilise Northern Ireland and damaged profit making.

The Stevens report, like the long running Saville Inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday, indicates a desire by the British state to ‘normalise’ Northern Ireland, now that the ‘Troubles’, in their view, have come to an end. The government wants to reduce public spending and to free up its military machine for other overseas operations. But the end of the war on the IRA does not mean the issue of state repression will no longer apply in Northern Ireland or Britain. After all, the Blair government proudly admits that ‘techniques’ developed by the British army in Northern Ireland (ie mass scale repression and covert operations) are being used in Basra and other parts of imperialist occupied Iraq.

The British army and police in Northern Ireland continue to use methods of repression against the population, including the use of intelligence services, although at a much lower level than previously. This can change, however, and the role of the state can widen dramatically, depending on circumstances and the ‘needs’ of the ruling class. The Good Friday Agreement is built on the shaky foundations of institutionalised sectarian power-sharing and the implementation of neo-liberal policies. This can only lead to deepening sectarian polarisation and volatility and conflict in society.

The British state has also used repressive measures against trade unionists and left wing activists. Thousands of police were mobilised against the miners during the strike of 1984, and more recently Tony Blair threatened to ban fire-fighters from taking industrial action. Anti-capitalist protests have already seen a brutal police response, in Britain and around the world. Since S11, the US, Britain and a host of other countries have introduced a raft of repressive measures to conduct a ‘war on terror’. These can be used to attack minority communities, opposition voices to the system and the entire working class.

Serious social struggles will face similar state repression. It is therefore vital for activists and working people to draw the full lessons from the experiences of Northern Ireland and to put forward a clear class approach on these issues.

There can be no faith in inquiries established by government. The Stevens Inquiry has only made partial and limited conclusions. Likewise, the Saville Inquiry, which is proving highly lucrative for a few lawyers, is likely to leave more questions unanswered than are addressed.

Socialists demand the full publication of the Stevens Inquiry and a full independent public inquiry into collusion between the state and loyalist paramilitaries. The majority of these panels of inquiry should be made up of trade unionists with a record of opposing state repression and paramilitary activities, and people from the communities most blighted from the conflict. Investigations must go to the highest level of the British state. Those guilty must be made to stand trial and all evidence should be made public.

Niall Mulholland

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