UPDATED DECEMBER 7th
It remains to be seen just which UDA plot to kill the Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams it was that leading UK barrister Sir Desmond de Silva was referring to when he sent a message to the Louth TD this week warning him that details of the plot would be revealed in his 500-page report into the UDA’s killing of Belfast solicitor, Pat Finucane which is due to be published in the coming days.
De Silva’s private, and remarkably speedy inquiry into the Finucane murder was the response of British prime minister David Cameron to nearly two decades of calls for a full, sworn public inquiry into a scandal that nearly everyone knows, especially the British government, enmeshes MI5, British military intelligence and the RUC Special Branch in a series of murders carried out mostly in Belfast in the 1980’s by Loyalists, acting as a classic counter gang of the sort pioneered by that swami of counter insurgency black arts, General Sir Frank Kitson.
Cameron’s decision outraged the Finucane family who had been summoned to Downing Street in the expectation that the prime minister was about to tell them details of the public inquiry they had long asked for and which his predecessor, Tony Blair had promised would happen.
Instead, Cameron’s offer of a secret review of the evidence by de Silva not only caused Finucane’s widow Geraldine and his children to stalk out of Downing Street in anger but it brought instant and widespread claims of a cover up contrived to protect the British intelligence establishment from a series of public revelations that would be bound to lead to demands for criminal action against some of Britain’s most senior spies.
It remains to be seen what de Silva has to say in his report but do not be surprised if it fails to satisfy the critics.
On the plot against Adams we can though be sure that it will figure UDA intelligence chief and British Army agent Brian Nelson. Readers’ memories might need to be refreshed about Mr Nelson. He was a former soldier who twice worked as a double agent for the British in Belfast. His first career as a spy came to an unhappy end when he was convicted of using a blowtorch to remove the body hair of an unfortunate Catholic civilian who had fallen into the UDA’s hands. The man’s luck changed dramatically when Nelson was spotted by a passing army patrol escorting the traumatised Catholic out of a drinking club presumably en route to a bullet in the back of the head and he was rescued.
After a spell in jail, Nelson went to work in Germany but while there, in the mid-1980’s, the British Army decided that its intelligence arm in Northern Ireland – an outfit called the Force Research Unit – should use Loyalists to kill Republican activists, especially members of the Provisional IRA.
The problem with the Loyalist groups was that they found it hard to kick the habit of killing ordinary Catholics. It was, after all, what they had always done; they had been doing it since the start of the Troubles, and before that way back into the 19th century, and – crucially – it was also so much easier to do. Killing an IRA member on the other hand was not only more dangerous – they might shoot back for instance – but it required a great deal of research and homework, neither of which were exactly the metier of groups like the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).
Being aware of this, the FRU decided to make life easier for the UDA and hit upon the idea of re-recruiting Brian Nelson, bringing him back from Germany and after providing him with first class intelligence on the Provos and the INLA send him into the UDA. The UDA would have the best possible intelligence on the IRA available in an instant from Brian Nelson’s cardboard box which was stocked with goodies plucked from the FRU files. They correctly calculated that Nelson’s rise in the UDA would then be meteoric and with skillful handling, the UDA would become an efficient killing machine, able to spread terror in the IRA’s ranks at the bidding of British military intelligence. And so Brian Nelson became the UDA’s intelligence chief.
It sounded too good to be true and it was. To begin with the UDA didn’t actually kill that many top level IRA men and all too often, when sent out to kill a target in a house, would open fire at anyone who was unfortunate enough to look like the target. It also has emerged, as the years have gone by, that Nelson was used just as much to ensure that the UDA didn’t by chance kill IRA members who were also on the FRU’s books. If an IRA man working for the British was targeted by the UDA not only would the FRU know beforehand but they could steer the Loyalists elsewhere or take other precautions.
Even so, the UDA would get very irate whenever they were accused of killing ordinary Catholics when, thanks to Brian Nelson’s cardboard box, they knew they had hit a Provo. When Loughlin Maginn, a Co Down Provo was shot dead and the UDA was condemned for killing an innocent man, their patience broke. They leaked to the media scores of photo montages of IRA suspects from Brian Nelson’s files and all hell broke loose. The British were obliged to send in Sir John Stevens, soon to be head of Scotland Yard, to investigate the whole affair and despite the FRU’s best efforts to cover up Brian Nelson’s activities the whole sordid business came to light.
Aside from the fact that the UDA just wasn’t that very good at killing IRA men even with Brian Nelson’s assistance, the British Army put up a defense for their behavior which doubtless we will see trotted out again in the de Silva report. It was that Nelson had been recruited to steer the UDA away from killing ordinary Catholics and to target IRA men instead. And when the FRU knew which IRA men were to be killed they would inform the RUC who would warn the targets and save their lives. It was a load of tosh of course – with two exceptions (more below), Stevens wasn’t able to find a single intended IRA victim whose life had been saved. The truth was that Nelson had been recruited to kill IRA members the British wanted killed and save those they didn’t want killed. But as I say, don’t be surprised if Sir Desmond breathes life back into this hoary old canard.
In a deal with the British legal authorities, Brian Nelson agreed to plead guilty to a series of offences – but not murder – and in January 1992 he received a 10 year jail term. The great caution the British took to ensure none of their secrets spilled out in court was evident in the fact that Nelson was prosecuted by two QC’s in the Crown Court, one from the local DPP’s office, the other from the Attorney-General’s office in London, who was there presumably to keep a watchful eye on proceedings. Nelson was released a few years later, was looked after by his former FRU handlers but died in 2003. His legacy though lives on.
I covered the Nelson trial – although it was really more a hearing – and the star witness was a man called ‘Colonel J’, who was the commander of the Force Research Unit who had agreed to testify on Nelson’s behalf about what a useful and caring agent he had been. Trotting out the life-saver lie, ‘Colonel J’, claimed that Nelson’s work for FRU had saved no less than 217 lives.
Very few journalists have uncovered more about the Brian Nelson affair than John Ware from BBC Panorama, who also wrote up a great deal of material in The Daily Telegraph newspaper of all publications. In a March 29th, 1998 report in that newspaper, he had this to say about ‘Colonel J’s’ claim:
“Yet officers from Special Branch have testified under oath that in only two instances did they receive information from the Force Research Unit that was sufficiently specific to enable any kind of preventive action to be taken. In one of those two cases, the intended victim was Gerry Adams. Nelson said his handlers told him the assassination of Adams would have been totally counter-productive . . . Adams and his supporters [in the Sinn Fein leadership] were committed to following the political path’. In all other cases, the intelligence received by Special Branch from the Force Research Unit had been ‘diluted, losing significance and value’, said an inquiry report to the Director of Public Prosecutions.”
The claim that Brian Nelson had saved Gerry Adams’ life also figured in ‘Colonel J’s’ evidence at Brian Nelson’s hearing cum trial. I covered the Nelson court appearance for The Sunday Tribune and I have to say that ‘Colonel J’s’ claim, for reasons later substantiated by John Ware, made complete sense to me.
The trial took place in 1992 and we were then at the evident beginning of a journey that two years later would produce an IRA ceasefire and eventually the Good Friday Agreement. Although many details of what had happened in the years leading up to all this were sketchy, the period when the FRU were keen to save Gerry Adams’ life coincided with Sinn Fein’s talks with the SDLP and it was obvious that something important was happening beneath the surface. Quite what, journalists like myself didn’t know but you could be sure that the FRU and their masters in MI5 certainly did.
I have always regarded court hearings as the journalistic version of Ali Baba’s cave, a place brimmed full of stories if you look hard enough. For me the story to find during those few days was the background to the attempt the UDA had made on Gerry Adams’ life; what were the details, what happened and how was the Sinn Fein leader’s life saved. My source for that story is still alive so I cannot name him but suffice it to say he was a member of one of the various legal teams involved in the Brian Nelson hearing. And he had access to the statements that Nelson had made to Sir John Stevens’ inquiry.
This is the story that I filed that week for The Sunday Tribune. I do not know if it is the same incident that the de Silva report will deal with but it is in the same general time frame. De Silva mentions May 1987 whereas my source said this particular plot happened in 1988, a year or so later. Anyhow, I have no doubt this plot existed and this is how it was described to me:
Now all this is very delicate territory for Gerry Adams and I can well understand why the Sinn Fein leader and his supporters bristle with indignation whenever this issue is raised. The idea that British military intelligence would want to ensure the safety and survival of the man who was the public face of the IRA is in their view tantamount to calling the man a collaborator, even though it isn’t.
But the fact remains that the British, at least the intelligent ones, then believed Adams wanted to end the IRA’s war and bring Sinn Fein into constitutional politics, and they were correct for this is exactly what has happened. They would have been mad therefore if they had not wanted to ensure that Adams was not killed by a UDA limpet mine. To do otherwise would have been in conflict with their own strategic interests. That this also coincided with Gerry Adams’ interests, in preserving his own life and implementing the peace strategy, is proof of nothing else but that.
And anyway that’s not the question. This plot happened in 1988. Pat Finucane was killed in 1989, a year later. We know that the FRU supplied Nelson with the photo of Pat Finucane that his killers used to identify him and that they were aware that Nelson had cased the Finucane home on behalf of the killers. So they knew a murder plot was underway. We also know now that the West Belfast UDA Quarter-Master and RUC agent Billy Stobie claimed to have forewarned his Special Branch handlers about some sort of assassination bid on the day Finucane was killed. Between all this, there was enough there to step in and stop the Finucane killing but that didn’t happen. So, the really intriguing question may be this: why did the British intervene to save Gerry Adams’ life but allow Pat Finucane to die?
We may never know the answer to that question – and I promise to eat this computer if Sir Desmond de Silva supplies the answer – but not long afterwards I wrote a piece that got me into a lot of trouble. I wrote that the real target that day, or at least another target, was not so much Pat Finucane as his brother Seamus, who often dined with his brother’s family on Sundays, the day of the UDA attack. All sorts of people complained about what I had written, not least Seamus, but I refused to back down.
I wouldn’t budge because the man who told me that was Brian Nelson’s boss in the UDA, former Shankill Commander and then Supreme Commander of the UDA, Tommy Lyttle who is now dead. He said that the assassins were hoping to find Seamus in the house and it was why one of the gunmen ran around the house and upstairs while his colleague pumped bullets into Pat Finucane. He was looking for Seamus. And I believed him, not least because what he said made sense. (Tommy Lyttle also told me and other reporters that the idea of killing Pat Finucane was first planted in UDA heads by RUC detectives interrogating key UDA hitmen in Castlereagh police station. Lyttle added that they also named solicitors Oliver Kelly and PJ McGrory as other lawyers the UDA should kill). Nonetheless independent evidence to support this part of the late UDA’s commander’s account has not yet emerged (maybe the de Silva report will have it, but I would not hold my breath) and until it does, the jury is out.
The story did however make a certain sense to me because I knew that Seamus Finucane was a member of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade and that in itself made him a high grade target. But years later I learned more which made the attack, and the theory that Pat Finucane was not the UDA’s only intended victim, even more coherent and credible.
The peace process strategy was opposed at various levels in the IRA during its early, fragile years and nowhere was it more strongly challenged that at the level of the Belfast Brigade, then commanded by Brian Gillen. As long as Belfast held out, those in the IRA and Sinn Fein leadership who wanted to end up with something like the Good Friday Agreement would be stymied. Belfast was where the Provos had come into existence and it was where the IRA’s war had been fought with greatest ferocity. The city was Northern Ireland’s Moscow; whoever controlled Belfast controlled everything. And Seamus Finucane was then an ally of Belfast’s most powerful IRA leader, Brian Gillen, and in his own right a formidable voice made stronger by virtue of the Finucane name, one that resonated strongly in the ranks of the Belfast Provisionals.
Gillen and his colleagues on Brigade staff would later combine with Provisional leaders like Michael McKevitt against the Adams strategy and very nearly toppled the Sinn Fein leader. Later, however, Gillen abandoned McKevitt and joined the pro-Adams Army Council. But at the time of Pat Finucane’s death, Seamus Finucane was a key anti-peace process player.
That made sense of the murder of Pat Finucane. The FRU was not only facilitating the removal of a lawyer who was a thorn in the flesh of the British but they were using Brian Nelson to target and possibly eradicate, in the shape of Pat Finucane’s brother, an key ally of others who stood in the way of a peace process they thoroughly approved of. In other words the reason why the FRU (and MI5 and RUC Special Branch) acted to save Gerry Adams’ life may be the same reason they allowed Pat Finucane to be killed, and with him his brother Seamus – to save the peace process.
I have to emphasise that this is only a theory and in the nature of such things and the subject matter it is impossible to substantiate. But it accords with what I know about those involved and the issues that were at play. It also makes a great deal of sense.
There is though one other unanswered question which so far I have not seen or read asked anywhere much less answered. If the FRU had an agent at such a high level in the UDA as Brian Nelson why wouldn’t they also have someone with similar clout in the other Loyalist group, the UVF, which was equally adept at the game of killing political enemies? And is it just an accident that during the same years that saw the UDA start assassinating and attacking known IRA figures with a new enthusiasm and accuracy, the UVF’s intelligence on the IRA and success of its attacks also underwent a remarkable improvement? Or was that just a coincidence?