That security forces colluded with loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland during the Troubles has long been common knowledge, but David Cameron was right yesterday when he described the levels of state collusion uncovered by Sir Desmond de Silva QC as ‘shocking’. De Silva found that the men who murdered solicitor Pat Finucane at his home in west Belfast in February 1989 were agents and informers working for the state, via the army’s Force Research Unit (FRU).
Shocking is the only word for it. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was aware of two previous plans to kill Finucane earlier but declined to inform him. De Silva also found that state forces were supplying the loyalist Ulster Defence Association with the bulk of its intelligence.
The shadowy Force Research Unit has already been implicated in the deaths of at least 14 Catholics in the 1980s, during which time British Army Intelligence Corps double agent Brian Nelson was also intelligence chief for the UDA. In 1990, Sir John Stevens found little evidence of collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries, but the former head of the Metropolitan police has since revised his view.
David Cameron has previously rejected calls for a full inquiry into Pat Finucane’s death, most voluably from his widow Geraldine, but the pressure for a full investigation is only likely to grow. The de Silva report comes at a difficult time for Northern Ireland, with on-going loyalist protests across the country following the decision to limit the flying of Union Jack from Belfast City Hall to fifteen designated days a year. Yesterday, census results showed that Northern Ireland’s Protestant population had slipped below 50 per cent for the first time.
The scale of the collusion uncovered by de Silva also begs the question whether an independent review is needed into all suspected cases of state collusion during the Troubles. Such a process would doubtless prove controversial, for political and economic reasons. While Sinn Féin would almost certainly support the proposal, the Democratic Unionist party would oppose it. Inquiries are expensive, too: the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday cost £191m.
But an independent review could work if both the British and Irish governments committed to declassifying documents relating to the Troubles and participating in a series of more focused reviews targeted at specific incidents where security force involvement has been questioned. Shocking as it is, the de Silva report suggests that there is more to learn about the nature of the British state’s involvement in the chaotic violence of the Troubles.
This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman on December 13.