Why Was Billy Stobie Charged With Pat Finucane’s Murder?
I should first of all disclose an interest in this story. As they say in the country where I now live, I have a dog in the fight.
Billy Stobie was a valued source of mine and not only did I harbor the loyalty towards him that journalists should always show their sources – in our case to the extent that I fought and successfully defeated a Scotland Yard subpoena seeking the notes of our conversations which were sought to buttress his criminal prosecution – but I also liked him despite his all too evident flaws.
That he was a rogue and a scoundrel was undeniable. That image that was set in cement in the public mind when The Sunday Tribune published his photo above the story of his involvement in the Pat Finucane scandal just after his arrest in June 1999. The photo was supplied by his partner Lorraine Graham, the only one she could get hold of at such short notice. The head and shoulders pic showed someone so scary looking that it could have come from a particularly bone-chilling edition of The Smoking Gun website. It was said thereafter, only partly in jest, that parents would send their children to bed with the warning that Billy Stobie would come for them if they didn’t behave!
In fact Billy Stobie was a very gentle and considerate person even though his work with the UDA was just one step away from the wet, brutal and very messy end of their business. And clearly there was a ruthless side to his personality as well (although very few involved in the Pat Finucane story can claim to be free of that charge!)
One story he told me illustrates this side of him all too well. As the UDA’s Quarter Master in the Glencairn area of the Shankill area his job was to squirrel away the organization’s arsenals and keep them safe from the RUC so that when the group’s gunmen wished to use them they could. He hit upon the perfect hiding place: his neighbors’ attics. He would break into their apartments when they were out and slip the guns into their new hiding places. But to be fair to the man, he started doing that only when the RUC Special Branch planted weapons in his own attic and then charged him, a punishment for slacking in his other role as police informer.
So loyalty inspires this article and if anger at Billy Stobie’s treatment and fate shows through my words, the reader will understand. But there is another more fitting reason why the question above is so worthy of an answer. If Billy Stobie had not been charged with the Finucane murder the odds are that he would still be alive today. Whoever decided to charge Billy Stobie effectively sentenced him to death. So why did they do it?
Now to be fair and accurate, he was also charged with the murder of a young Protestant boy from Enniskillen, 19-year old Adam Lambert who had the double misfortune to have been working in the Upper Shankill Road area in the week after the IRA’s 1987 bombing of the Enniskillen cenotaph on Poppy Sunday and secondly to have been mistaken for a Catholic by the local UDA unit who decided to shoot him dead using a gun supplied by Stobie.
Now, dear reader, temper your rage and revulsion at Stobie’s role in this vile deed with the realization that at this time the RUC Special Branch knew all there was to know about his role in the killing but instead of sending him to the courts to face deserved justice they instead blackmailed him and forced him to become an informer. Poor Adam Lambert and his grieving family were discarded, their usefulness at an end, their interests and needs of no further matter to the State.
When Stobie was finally charged in June 1999 with the Adam Lambert murder more than a decade had passed and no less than three British police inquiries into the background to the Pat Finucane killing, including allegations of security force collusion with Loyalists, had either been completed or nearly completed. Led by future Scotland Yard Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, the inquiries had produced hundreds of thousands of words but no bodies in the dock, much less convictions, at least for the murder of Pat Finucane. The late discovery of Billy Stobie’s work for the RUC Special Branch at last enabled Stevens, and his ambitious deputy Hugh (later Sir Hugh) Orde, to rectify that.
As merited as it was long overdue, the charging of Billy Stobie with the Adam Lambert murder would not by itself put his life in peril. But combined with the charge of involvement in Pat Finucane’s death, events were set in motion that would lead to UDA gunmen ambushing 51-year old Stobie outside his Glencairn apartment at 6 am on December 12, 2001, shooting him in the head and body and killing him. He was about to drive Lorraine his girlfriend to work when the killers struck.
So, how did the Stevens/Orde decision to charge Billy Stobie lead to his death? Simply, it forced him to go public with a story he would rather have kept hidden, the story of his role as an agent for the RUC Special Branch and his involvement with the police as an informer before and after Pat Finucane’s murder.
He had told me that story nine years earlier, way back in 1990 and we had agreed that it would stay hidden away in my files until and unless Stobie said otherwise, in other words if circumstances arose which obliged him to make the story public. Within hours of his arrest I got a message from his attorney to do just that.
The essence of Stobie’s defense was soon clear: he had done his public duty, he had told the RUC before and afterwards all that he knew about the UDA plot to kill Pat Finucane and it wasn’t his fault if the lawyer had been killed, which he needn’t have been, or if none of his killers had been apprehended, which they could have been. He was the last person, in other words, who should be in the dock for the Finucane killing.
In his review of the Pat Finucane case, Sir Desmond de Silva devotes two chapters to Billy Stobie, one deals with his recruitment at a Special Branch agent, the other with his involvement, as an agent, in the UDA plot to assassinate Pat Finucane. His analysis and conclusions, both stated and implied, are devastatingly damaging both to the intelligence agencies involved and, more pertinently, to the British State’s attempts to draw a line under the Pat Finucane scandal.
This is what de Silva says about the Stobie chapter of the Finucane chronicle in the summary of his conclusions:
I am satisfied that it should have been clear to the RUC SB from the threat intelligence that Stobie provided to them that the UDA were about to mount an imminent attack and that L/20 was a key figure in this plot. Despite the range of options that would have been available to the RUC SB to disrupt the planned attack – as discussed in more detail in the Report – it is clear that they took no action whatsoever to act on the threat intelligence.
It is possible that Stobie, as he has claimed in some of his accounts, informed his handlers on 12 February 1989 – shortly before the murder took place – that he had handed over the weapon to the hit team. The evidence on this issue is inconclusive, but I did reach the conclusion that, from the evening of 9 February 1989, it was entirely foreseeable by the RUC SB that Stobie would shortly hand over a 9mm Browning pistol for use in an imminent UDA attack. They were also aware of the identity of a key figure in the operation, the UDA Commander L/20. In this regard I concur with Sir John Stevens’ view that proper exploitation of William Stobie’s intelligence prior to the attack could have prevented the murder of Patrick Finucane on 12 February.
These are the bones of de Silva’s conclusions – the RUC Special Branch allowed Pat Finucane to be killed. The fleshed out detail amounts to such a serious indictment of the RUC and the ethos and ideology that guided its intelligence arm, that the open-minded, dispassionate reader can only conclude that matters cannot be allowed to rest there.
I have said this before and I repeat it now; if the Cameron government hoped that the de Silva report would bury the Pat Finucane scandal then it was sadly mistaken. The de Silva report is not flawless to be sure but even where it exempts the powerful from blame the manner of doing so leaves gaps that demand to be filled. Along with the unanswered questions, the still to be fully explored aspects of the Pat Finucane story that jump out from the Billy Stobie section of his report, these combine to make an unanswerable argument for a full public inquiry. The essence of de Silva is that his report raises more questions than it answers.
There seems little doubt that Billy Stobie was not the most diligent of informers. De Silva notes that he didn’t always tell his handlers about the UDA’s gun movements and it is part of his narrative that the Special Branch got so annoyed by his lack of co-operation that they framed him by planting weapons in his apartment.
At his subsequent trial he told prosecutors he would go public about his involvement in the Pat Finucane killing if the charges weren’t dropped and by extraordinary coincidence a few minutes later a police witness made the most elementary blunders by revealing one of Stobie’s previous convictions, one of the first things student policemen are warned never to do when in the witness box, and a mistrial was declared. The charges were later dropped. For reasons that go unexplained, de Silva does not explore or even mention this episode even though it implicates the Director of Public Prosecutions’ office in the Finucane cover-up.
While Stobie did not always tell his Special Branch handlers which guns he was moving around or making available to the UDA’s hitmen, it may not have made a great deal of difference if he had. De Silva recounts an incident that illustrates the RUC’s attitude to intelligence from Stobie indicating hostile and violent UDA intentions towards Republicans. In August 1988, not long after he began life as an informer, Stobie told his handlers that photographs of two Republicans had been shown around at a meeting of UDA activists while a senior UDA commander had told him of another Republican target in the Springfield Park area currently under UDA surveillance. All of the targets were named and three of the UDA hit team tasked for that proposed assassination were subsequently involved in the shooting dead of Pat Finucane.
So what does de Silva say happened to the information supplied by Stobie?
“There is no evidence that any action was taken as a result of this intelligence. None of the individuals being targeted were recorded as being under threat in the RUC Threat Book. Indeed, the SB50 (intelligence summary) produced as a result of Stobie’s intelligence sanitised the information to such an extent that no-one in the SB hierarchy……would have known that these individuals were being targeted.”
And he continues:
“The only indication that Stobie’s intelligence was exploited was in relation to the information he provided about a member of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) apparently passing information to the UDA. After the RUC SB passed on the intelligence, the UDR Private appears to have been dismissed.
“There is no evidence that, prior to Patrick Finucane’s murder, any exploitative action was taken as a result of any of Stobie’s intelligence regarding weapons, targeting or the UDA members involved in the West Belfast hit team.”
Elsewhere in his report, de Silva makes a staggering disclosure. The RUC effectively ignored intelligence that suggested anyone who was not a public servant, a member of the security forces or the judiciary was under threat. In other words if information came in saying that the UDA planned to kill a Republican or that the IRA planned to kill a UDA or UVF leader, the RUC generally did not warn the people targeted or, it seems, do much about it. The reasoning was that the targets, in the police eyes, could not be trusted to keep their mouths shut and thus to endanger the source of the intelligence. It was for this reason, said de Silva, that Pat Finucane was not told of a death threat in 1981 (and presumably in 1989 also).
As de Silva concedes, this policy was in contravention of Britain’s obligations under European human rights legislation, specifically to protect the lives of citizens, but it raises other issues as well that are no less grave. What for instance is the purpose of having agents in bodies like the UDA unless the information they provide is used to prevent killing and to save lives? And because a source might be compromised if a warning is passed on is not a reason to do nothing else to stop the treat being carried out.
Thanks to de Silva we know that occasionally successful efforts were made to protect Republican targets without the need to pass on a warning. This happened in the case of Gerry Adams whose life was saved when the security forces intervened to frustrate a UDA assassination plot against him. And it is part of the skill and training of counter intelligence to mount such operations without raising suspicions of a traitor in the camp of the assassins.
But de Silva does not consider this at all; he accepts that the risk associated with passing on warnings by itself justified the RUC policy of not acting on this type of intelligence and that giving a warning was the sole remedy open to the authorities in such circumstances. Since Pat Finucane had previously been regarded as a risky person to warn, that he might publicise the threat and raise red flags in the UDA, the RUC had a ready-made justification to give de Silva for not warning him.
However in practice there might be other reasons to do nothing, ranging from sheer malice – allowing “thorns in the flesh” to be targeted, as one head of Special Branch described one Republican focus of a UDA plot – through to protecting other intelligence assets possibly in the hit-team through to a strategy of manipulating the make up, personnel and policies of the targeted group, such as the IRA, by allowing some plots to succeed and others to fail. It is these unanswered questions that could and perhaps should be addressed at a proper public tribunal. (A cynic might suggest that the likely answer provides the reason why we will never have a public inquiry!)
Pat Finucane was shot dead in front of his family in their Antrim Road home on the evening of Sunday, February 12th, 1989 but the account of Billy Stobie’s involvement began six days earlier, on Tuesday, February 7th when he was debriefed by his Special Branch handlers. He told them of a meeting he had the previous evening with a senior UDA leader who had asked him to supply a 9mm pistol. He left the meeting and returned shortly thereafter with a Heckler & Koch 9 mm pistol. The UDA leader said he would prefer a Browning pistol instead as he didn’t like the H&K, which was too small a weapon.
The UDA boss told Stobie that “they had a hit planned on a top PIRA man” and would require the Browning for either the Thursday or Friday of that week. Stobie promised to deliver the gun. All this Stobie told his handlers along with his belief that the gun would then be moved to the Woodvale area of the SHankill Road (inaccurately written as Woodside in de Silva’s report) prior to being used. He also told his handlers of some likely locations where the gun might be stored.
In summary: the RUC Special Branch knew there was hit on a top IRA man being planned by the UDA, they knew who was organising it and that they were serious players, they knew it would probably happen over the weekend and that had a pretty good idea where the weapon to be used was being hidden.
Stobie was told by his handlers to delay handing over the Browning until he made contact with the Special Branch and the next contact Stobie had with the RUC was two nights later when he phoned late at night with the message: “Tell (my handlers) the parcel was not delivered tonight, ask the boys to ring me at midnight”.
The RUC Special Branch never did ring Stobie at midnight about the handover of the Browning pistol cum parcel. In fact his handlers claim to have no record when they received this message or whether they ever contacted him as he asked. The record shows no evidence of any meeting between Stobie and the Special Branch until February 15th, three days after Pat Finucane was killed.
So, from this account Stobie told his handlers enough information for them to know that a major UDA killing was in the planning and they were interested enough to ask him to delay handing over the murder weapon until he contacted them. That suggests they might have been planning some sort of action, possibly even bugging the weapon. But suddenly the interest died. When he made contact about the weapon there was no response. So what happened between February 7th, when the murder plot became known, and February 9th, the last time Stobie made contact with his handlers?
We don’t know and de Silva doesn’t attempt to give an answer. The possible answers range from the innocuous to the most pernicious but surely an answer ought to be sought? And isn’t this the sort of issue that can best be addressed in a public tribunal where Stobie’s Special Branch handlers and their bosses could be forensically cross-examined.
This is what de Silva says about this episode. His words amount to a damning indictment of the police’s behavior but are insufficient in themselves in as much as no explanation is given or suggested to explain the RUC Special Branch’s extraordinary lapse (comments in parenthesis are mine):
“I have examined TCG (Tasking and Co-ordination Group, an inter-agency body) records, the RUC Threat Book, the RUC Daily Intelligence Book and other RUC records for any note of the action taken as a result of Stobie’s intelligence. There is no indication in any of the documentation to suggest that the RUC took any action as a result of the intelligence about an imminent attack provided by Stobie. Given the handlers’ apparent lack of knowledge of any resulting action, I must conclude that no action was taken as a result of Stobie’s intelligence.
“This is extremely surprising given the high-value nature of the intelligence that had been provided by Stobie to his handlers. By the evening of 9 February, the SB had the following information:
- An imminent hit was planned on a “top PIRA man”.
- L/20 (a senior UDA leader) was a key figure in the operation.
- Stobie was storing two 9mm Browning pistols along with some other weapons for the UDA.
- Stobie had supplied an H&K pistol for the hit, and had been asked to hand over a 9mm Browning pistol.
- DC R/08 (Stobie’s Special Branch handler) had been informed, via a message from a telephone call, that the gun was not handed over on 9 February and that Stobie wished to speak to his handler again.
“………….Analysis of the Daily Intelligence Book and the Threat Book shows the RUC regularly and successfully taking action to prevent attacks on the basis of vaguer intelligence than the information provided by Stobie in the week preceding Patrick Finucane’s murder.”
The same questions about the motives and behavior of the RUC Special Branch arise when their dealings with Stobie in the wake of the Finucane killing are examined, specifically in relation to the disposal of the principal murder weapon. The account given by Stobie to myself in 1990 is essentially not challenged by de Silva. This was that he handed over the weapon to a senior UDA man on February 15th and immediately informed his handlers.
As my notes of his account record it:
“… arranged for McK to pick up the Browning on Wednesday – met McK who had arrived in landrover at local shops, handed gun over and McK then did a car switch – he (Stobie) said he phoned SB before McK arrived and after McK picked up gun – but cops did nothing except to set up a roadblock on Forthriver Road – made no apparent attempt to track or arrest McK.”
Of this episode de Silva says this:
“The intelligence Stobie provided to the RUC on 15 February was potentially highly significant. It presented the RUC with what should have been a valuable opportunity to recover the likely murder weapon and to arrest one of the UDA figures involved in Patrick Finucane’s murder. I recognise that such an operation was likely to be difficult and carried its own risks. The RUC would have needed to consider how best to effect the arrest and recover the weapon without endangering Stobie’s life. There is, however, no evidence that the possibility of exploiting this intelligence was even considered by the SB.
“The intelligence provided by William Stobie after the murder of Patrick Finucane could have led to the recovery of the gun likely to have been used in the murder and the arrest of at least one of the key UDA suspects. I am satisfied that the SB unjustifiably withheld this crucial intelligence from the RUC CID.”
So, a powerful indictment of…what? RUC incompetence or malevolence, or evidence of some hidden subterranean manipulation? We don’t know because as with so much of Sir Desmond de Silva’s report, there are more questions than answers, more what’s, where’s and when’s than why’s.
And one question that cries out to be asked and answered, and would have to figure at a proper public tribunal, is why was Billy Stobie ever charged with Pat Finucane’s murder. From all that is in the de Silva report it is clear that Billy Stobie played his part as a police informer to the full and that if his information had been acted upon Pat Finucane may be alive today. The question is all the more worthy of an answer since if Billy Stobie had not been charged with Pat Finucane’s murder he too might still be walking the streets of Belfast. Somebody needs to be brought to account in a public and intellectually and emotionally satisfying way.