I have been meaning to sit down and deliver some thoughts on the report written by Sir Desmond De Silva into the Pat Finucane assassination and but for the draining interruption of a bout of New York-style flu, would have done so long before this.
The De Silva report has been slated in many quarters largely because of what it is not, that is the public sworn, Saville-type inquiry that was urged by Judge Cory and promised by Tony Blair (although in classic forked tongue, New Labour ways, Blair no sooner had made the promise than he rendered it meaningless by neutering future public tribunals of this sort).
So De Silva saw the light of day with the audience already imbued with secpticism, or at least that part of the audience which would like to see the truth told about this as well as other dark chapters in our recent history. The Finucane family dissed the report as did most Nationalists, noting, perceptively, that the distinguished jurist had singled out for blame mostly people who were dead and could not answer back or organisations that were now defunct and had no-one to defend them anymore (ranging from Sir John Hermon to the RUC Special Branch).
The British government deplored the evidence of collusion between Loyalist paramilitaries and the forces of law and order but took great comfort in De Silva’s key conclusion that there was not, as he put it, “an over-arching State conspiracy to murder Patrick Finucane”. (We’ll come back to that later).
While the outcome left the Finucane family and their friends less than happy and wondering what their next step would or even could be, I was conscious, even at a distance of 3,000 miles, of a sense amongst my erstwhile media colleagues in Belfast of a story biting the dust. That was it, nothing more to be said about Pat Finucane, no more can be done, time to move on.
Which is a great pity. There is an enormous amount of information buried in the twenty-five chapters that constitute the core of the De Silva report, some of which raise more questions than they answer. There are issues revealed of intimate concern to the media in Northern Ireland yet, and I beg forgiveness should I be proved wrong, I have not seen them at all raised in the local newspapers or electronic media.
And there are flaws, quite obvious flaws, in De Silva’s reasoning and procedures at key points, questions about the behaviour of policemen like Sir John Stevens and Sir Hugh Orde that spring out at the reader and such is the feeling of dissatisfaction at the end, like a detective thriller with an unconvincing final chapter, that you would rather have liked to have seen some of these troubling questions put to the relevant people in a public forum by someone else. In a sentence then, the De Silva report is itself an argument for a public tribunal into the Pat Finucane killing.
It has been part of the accepted narrative of British policy in Northern Ireland that black propaganda stopped when Colin Wallace was chased out of Thiepval barracks in the mid to late 1970’s and sent to jail for murdering a woman taking part on a “It’s a Knockout” TV show in his new home in Sussex. Wallace, we were told, was almost personally responsible for the damaging “Lisburn Lie Machine” tag that was attached to British Army HQ public relations during that time and so abused and misused his position in the press set up for his own nefarious ends, that it was all brought to a shuddering halt when he was caught out. Since then there has not been a hint of black propaganda about British public relations operations in Northern Ireland.
Except, it’s not true. Black propaganda continued in Northern Ireland and, on one reading of De Silva, probably still does. Except these days it is delivered (what is the correct verb for black propaganda? Deliver, invent, manufacture, churn out?) by MI5, the British Security Service which has a brand new headquarters on the outskirts of Hollywood, Co Down, constructed to back up the London HQ. And how do we know that? Well, there is a whole chapter on MI5 propaganda in the De Silva report and it makes fascinating reading.
He doesn’t call it black propaganda. His chapter carries the title “Security Service propaganda initiatives”. MI5 doesn’t call it black propaganda either but “Counter Action”. But black propaganda is what it was. The Mirriam-Webster online dictionary defines propaganda as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person”. Black propaganda happens when the source is hidden or made to appear the opposite of the real source. For example the most effective MI5 propaganda against the IRA would that which seems as if it originated within the IRA; the most ineffective would be clearly labeled MI5.
To be sure, De Silva doesn’t say whether MI5 propaganda was of this sort – in fact he doesn’t go into any of that type of detail at all – but it is strongly implied. For instance, one objective of the MI5 exercise was to unnerve IRA members who had resisted efforts to recruit them as agents by planting damaging information about them. The aim was to persuade them to change their minds by poisoning the air between them and their comrades. Clearly if the target believes the source is one of his own, that he or she has enemies in their own camp then that creates a mindset where switching sides becomes thinkable. So by definition virtually all of this sort of propaganda is the black variety; it has to be to work.
The chapter on all this in De Silva is quite lengthy so I will try to summarise. In the 1980’s, precisely when it not revealed, pressure grew within MI5 for a propaganda offensive, a “wholesale, deliberate and continued” campaign in Northern Ireland but for unexplained reasons it did not go ahead. Instead a series of limited initiatives aimed exclusively against the IRA were launched.
It branched out beyond the IRA’s ranks to embrace individuals such as Pat Finucane and other lawyers like Oliver Kelly and Paddy McGrory to link them directly and falsely to the activities of their clients, i.e. to smear them as IRA members or sympathisers and was aimed at what De Silva mysteriously calls “the broader loyalist community”.
While MI5 claimed that their campaign was not aimed at putting the lawyers’ lives in danger (one spook actually told De Silva that since the UDA had already made Finucane a target the propaganda made no difference!), De Silva concludes pretty unambiguously that this was the result. But he falls short of stating the obvious: that if MI5 did not know propaganda of this sort would have the effect of making Finucane a Loyalist target then there’s a lucrative job opening up heading the Jimmy Saville rehabilitation campaign which the people who run MI5 might be interested in.
As De Silva put it in paragraph 15.32: “The information relating to Patrick Finucane that was being circulated effectively involved fanning the rumours and speculation linking him to the IRA. The effect of the propaganda would certainly have been, in my view, to associate Patrick Finucane with the activities of his clients.” The propaganda offensive continued until September 1989 after which it was made subject to political control, hitherto absent entirely.
That is the broad brush picture. The detail, or rather the absence of detail is where the questions arise.
The first question is one that should be a huge concern to the media in Northern and it is why I find the apparent absence of any comment by my colleagues there in the wake of this report’s publication such a cause for dismay.
De Silva refuses to say how the MI5 propaganda campaign was organised, or what its methods and channels were. He writes in paragraph 15.3: “The precise methods used by the Security Service as part of their propaganda initiatives remain sensitive. I accept that many of the technical details of such operations cannot be publicly disclosed in view of the normal requirements relating to the protection of this type of information.”
Or this, in paragraph 15.13: “The Security Service used a variety of methods and conduits through which to disseminate the propaganda. The nature of the propaganda being disseminated varied. Some of the propaganda involved, for example, highlighted the damaging effect of PIRA murders and attacks. In other instances, the propaganda was targeted more directly at discrediting specific PIRA figures.”
Well, I do not know of a propaganda initiative in the history of modern human society that has not employed the mass media in some way. I am not saying that it was entirely reliant on the media but I’d bet the mortgage that the media played a significant role. De Silva himself acknowledges that by saying that MI5 was inspired in this venture by the IRA’s own media success and even the UDA had skills in this direction: “…..paramilitary leaders such as Thomas ‘Tucker’ Lyttle regularly engaged with journalists and would often deliberate over how and whether to ‘claim’ loyalist murders based on their perceptions of the likely media and public reaction.”
So this is one area that I, as a journalist who worked in Northern Ireland for such a long time, would like to see clarified, although I acknowledge that there are more urgent issues facing the search for truth in the Pat Finucane case. Were media outlets used and abused by MI5 to peddle lies about lawyers or indeed other people considered nuisances by the Security Service? Was the media manipulated to assist in or to facilitate murder? Are individual journalists on the MI5 payroll? Do we have, can we ever have a guarantee that such activity has completely ceased and will not be and is not being repeated. Do we not have the right to see and hear such grave issues debated, probed and questioned at a public tribunal?
On one reading, it is quite possible to conclude that such propaganda continues and the clue there lies in De Silva’s narrative concerning the winding up of the propaganda campaign. It will come as no surprise to any observer of events in Northern Ireland that pressure to end this propaganda campaign began to build up in the summer of 1989. Pat Finucane was shot dead in February 1989 and it cannot be a coincidence that as revelations about the extent of security force collusion with the UDA grew in the Spring and early Summer months, so the pressure to scale back the black propaganda intensified.
According to De Silva, the campaign in so far as it affected the like of lawyers ended in September 1989, which just happens to be the same month that Sir John Stevens was appointed to investigate the collusion allegation, an inquiry that led, inter alia to the arrest of Brian Nelson.
De Silva notes approvingly the on record reservations about the campaign expressed by senior MI5 officers, such as Sir John Deverill who rejoices in the acronym HAG (Head of Assessment Group). For example, paragraph 15.23: “(MI5 has an)… obligation to do nothing that intentionally or deliberately exacerbates religious sectarian tensions.” or the admission in paragraph 15.25 that the propaganda exercise had been “on dangerous ground“.
But when were these comments made? Before or after the Finucane assassination? We do not know because De Silva declines to date them in his footnotes? Why? Was that on the orders of MI5? What issue of national security is raised by such an issue? None that I can think of. But I can think of a reason why MI5 would wish to hide the date if it was post February 1989.
Or this even more definitive statement in paragraph 15:28: “It is one thing to use CA [Counter-Action] to get across the Government’s message or to expose paramilitaries’ hypocrisy. But we cannot agree that it would be right to engage in activity that could be interpreted as incitement, issuing threats to groups or individuals or [disseminating] targeting material. We could not credibly put any such scheme to the NIO.”
This comment at least is dated, 1989 sometime but clearly given the context, in the wake of the ending of the project. What makes this comment so important is that it is in part a response to a rival memo, originating from an operational section of MI5 – i.e. the guys who debrief the agents – whose intent appears, on one reading, to blow the whistle on the bosses by revealing the true purpose of the propaganda exercise, i.e to make IRA suspects and their friends Loyalist targets.
It reads, paragraph 15.27:’…..one officer expressed the view that there was nevertheless a continuing need for a project: “… which challenges republican assertions, which makes republican players feel that they, too, are as exposed as the members of the security forces who live daily under threat of the assassin’s bomb or bullet.“‘
Translation: “It is all right for the bosses sitting on their fat arses at Stormont Castle to disown all this now that the shit is hitting the fan and to try to pretend this was all about exposing Gerry Adams as a hypocrite. But they knew what the real game was and they knew that when we started this that it could get wet and messy. And they gave it the thumbs up, especially when we got results. But now it’s CYA time and if anyone gets it in the neck it will be us, the poor slobs who work the streets.”
So has MI5 abandoned the black propaganda business? Well, it certainly seems as if there is now some political input or control over its activities in this regard but it is far from clear that such activity has been left behind. Consider this sentence in De Silva, paragraph 15.48:
“The documentary records suggest that processes were subsequently devised to ensure that political clearance was sought for such initiatives. In September 1989, the Targeting Policy Committee agreed that future ‘Counter-Action’ activity would be subject to “full consultation and political clearance” and would be led by the cross-agency Information Strategy Group rather than the intelligence agencies. By this stage, however, the Security Service initiatives of interest to my Review were being wound up.”
It is the last sentence that jumps out at me. By September 1989, “the Security Service initiatives of interest to my Review were being wound up”. De Silva’s Review was confined to the Pat Finucane assassination and the way that he has constructed this sentence suggests or implies that that there are or were MI5 propaganda initiatives unconnected to the Finucane case that carried on.
As I said at the start, read De Silva and you end up with more questions than answers.
More to come soon.