Finucane: a murder that still haunts me
Special Branch collusion in Pat Finucane's murder signalled the beginning of the end for the RUC, writes Alan Simpson
When my phone rang at home on a damp and dismal Sunday evening in February 1989, I was not in the least surprised. At that time, I was the detective superintendent responsible for investigating all crime in north Belfast and was constantly subject to call-out, especially for a murder.
But I was shocked when Belfast Control told me that Pat Finucane had been shot dead at his home at Fortwilliam Drive. I knew the killing would be political dynamite, if sectarian. Little did I realise that, 22 years later, it would still be making headlines.
At that stage in my police service I had attended many murders, too many perhaps for my own well-being. But when I viewed the sight of Pat Finucane lying face-upwards on his kitchen floor, I witnessed evidence of pure, unadulterated hatred the likes of which I had seen few times before.
The gunmen had entered the house and fired two rounds into the body to bring him down. The principal assassin then stood over him pumping bullet after bullet into his face at close range leaving his skin a mass of powder burns.
More than 700 killings had taken place in north Belfast during the Troubles and, at the time, I had an overview of 14 other active murder investigations.
I brought together what personnel I could and set up a major incident room at Antrim Road police station. My investigation ran for about six weeks and, although we realised from an early stage that the murder was principally the work of the UFF, there was a dearth of intelligence from any of the other agencies concerning the murder.
The Finucane family were very hostile towards me and my team and, initially, I put this down to an anti-RUC attitude, bearing in mind that allegations of collusion by the security forces with loyalist terrorists were at their height. I soon realised that they did, indeed, suspect some form of state involvement in the crime. As the months progressed, I reluctantly began to come round to their viewpoint.
The first sign of dirty work afoot came when Special Branch, which I normally met daily, began to avoid me. Secondly, John Stevens, in the province investigating allegations of collusion, took on the case.
Using information supplied by RUC Detective Sergeant Johnston Brown, he brought the principal killer, Ken Barrett, to justice after a lengthy sting operation in England where Barrett was in hiding after he had been exposed as a Special Branch informant.
Leaving aside the actual killing, the most underhand tactic imaginable was used by Special Branch, when one of its operatives accompanied Johnston Brown as he debriefed Barrett in a car on a lonely country road during which he made his initial admission to having killed Finucane. The conversation was secretly recorded and Special Branch took the tape.
Many months later, Johnston Brown let it be known to John Stevens that he actually had Barrett on tape confessing to the murder and that the recording was in the possession of Special Branch. Stevens contacted Special Branch and requested the tape, and received one which had been contrived to exclude Barrett's confession.
Brown was a master detective and quickly proved that the tape had, indeed, been contrived.
In due course, Stevens produced his report and concluded that there had been a conspiracy between Special Branch, the Force Research Unit and the UFF in the murder of Finucane.
Although this exonerated my initial instincts on the murder of Finucane, I had no sense of satisfaction as it proved that some police officers had lost their way and sacrificed the vital principle that the police must always retain the moral precedence over criminals.
Also, metaphorically, the coffin in which to bury the RUC had already been constructed and work on the lid was well-advanced. The collusion in the murder of Finucane was another giant nail with which to firmly close it.
There is little doubt that the main questions the Finucane family want answered is how far up the ladder did the collusion go.
David Cameron's decision not to hold a public inquiry can be interpreted in several ways - the first, for the Finucane family, undoubtedly being that he is protecting those on high.
More objective people may take his decision at face-value and agree that the comprehensive inquiry by John Stevens and a review by an eminent lawyer should be sufficient. Others may take the view that there is an element of all of this in his decision. I know Cameron's announcement will have caused great consternation among republicans.
But they should bear in mind that the southern security forces, too, may have dabbled in a little collusion with the IRA.
No one will convince me that the murders of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen, Superintendent Bob Buchanan, Lord Justice and Lady Gibson, the Hanna family (in mistake for Lord Justice Eoin Higgins) and Tom Oliver were not the result of highly-accurate intelligence available only to a few.