I first met Jim Cullen on the day after the Good Friday Agreement was reached in circumstances that at the time seemed quite normal but in retrospect were as bizarre as they could be.
About a month or so earlier Jim and a number of colleagues from the Brehon law society in New York had placed an advert in The Irish News offering a financial reward and help getting a Green Card (i.e. legal status in the USA) to any member of the Northern security forces who could supply information about the background to the killing of Belfast solicitor, Pat Finucane by the UDA.
A few years before this I had been introduced to Billy Stobie by another journalist who had got himself into a terrible moral tangle. Stobie was a UDA quartermaster in the upper Shankill Road area who had contacted the reporter to tell him about the Finucane killing and his role in it.
He told the reporter that he, Stobie, was an RUC Special Branch informer who had supplied one of the guns used to kill Finucane, and had disposed of it afterwards, telling his police handlers at or about the same time what was happening. The RUC had taken no action, either to pre-empt the killers or to catch them afterwards.
Armed with this information the journalist had blurted it all out to the senior RUC press officer at a drinks reception at police headquarters, Stobie was quickly arrested and very nearly got into serious trouble. By coming to me, the journalist was hoping to get rid of a dangerous millstone hanging around his neck.
Anyway I met Stobie, interviewed him at length and then made contact with his lawyer, a Belfast solicitor by the name of Joe Rice. Together we agreed that nothing should be done for fear of endangering Stobie’s life but if Stobie and Joe Rice agreed that the time had come to go public, they would alert me and I would write the story up.
That day eventually arrived, some eight or nine years later in June 1999 when the Stevens team, then investigating collusion between the Northern security forces and Loyalists, arrested Stobie and charged him with the Finucane murder. I got a phone call from Joe Rice and the green light to write the Billy Stobie story.
Anyway, to return to the late Jim Cullen, I had read his offer in The Irish News and so I contacted Joe Rice. What about getting Billy Stobie to tell his story to the Brehon law society, I asked? Joe talked to Stobie who was, not unnaturally, excited at the prospect of money and a move to the US, and so I contacted Jim Cullen to tell him someone wanted to meet him who could shed light on the Pat Finucane killing.
We, that is Stobie, Joe Rice and myself, agreed to meet Cullen at an hotel on the Dublin Road outside Dundalk and the date chosen was the Sunday after the Good Friday Agreement was finalised (although we didn’t know that at the time it was arranged).
It would be nice to say that the story had a happy ending. But it didn’t. Jim Cullen was not interested in Billy Stobie’s story, or at least not interested enough to take it to the next stage.
He had his heart set on hooking a policeman or an MI5 agent and so we returned to Belfast disappointed and not a little disillusioned. After all there was realistically little or no chance that a security force member would defect to Irish-America, certainly not for something like a Green Card which they could probably obtain legitimately; not only that but it was unlikely the money the Brehon people could pay would make up for the loss of pension rights suffered by the whistleblower.
The truth was that Billy Stobie was as good as it was going to get – and what he had to say was pretty damned good.
And so a great opportunity was missed to open up the Finucane scandal a year earlier and in circumstances that could not be controlled or manipulated by those who were accused of allowing the solicitor to be killed. And Billy Stobie would not have been shot dead by fellow Loyalists and might still be alive and living somewhere in the Bronx, or Brooklyn.
I thought Jim Cullen made a bad mistake in turning down Billy Stobie, just as I thought he made a bad mistake agreeing to be the public face of Sinn Fein in America. I liked him, he was always good to me and supported me when, as a result of my dealings with Billy Stobie, I was later pursued by Scotland Yard.
I understood why he had the political sympathies that he did have, but he should have kept some distance from those who gave him the job of fronting for the Provos in the US. And of course I later had reason to ask myself the following question: had he shared what myself, Stobie and Joe Rice had told him with the Shinners? If he was loyal party man, he probably had, with consequences impossible to predict. Read his obituary here and you will understand why I say all that.