Bobby Sands Memorial Lecture – Devenish Complex, Belfast

“I am very pleased and honoured to be invited here to speak tonight on the topic of collusion. I cannot think of a more apt time of year to address this topic, as we remember all of the hunger strikers and, in particular, commemorate the first to die, Bobby Sands. I know that this time of year must be especially difficult for all of the families of those who died on hunger strike in the H-Blocks. I think I can relate to some of what they must be feeling, having gone through a few anniversaries like this myself with my own family.

As I stand here this evening, I am amazed that so much time has passed since the hunger strikes – twenty-three years – and yet the memory of that time is as clear in my mind as ever. Just as clear in my mind is the importance of the legacy left by those who died on hunger strike. Not only has it not diminished, I do not think that it ever will. The sacrifice made by the ten men who died, Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Raymond McCreesh, Patsy O’Hara, Joe McDonnell, Thomas McElwee, Kevin Lynch, Mickey Devine, Kieran Doherty and Martin Hurson, is a sacrifice that should never be forgotten.

While doing some research in preparation for this speech, I did a search on the Internet using Bobby Sands’ name. As anyone who uses the Internet often will tell you, using common words or names, like Bobby, will throw up a myriad of results unconnected to what you are looking for. Try using the word “sands”, and you might be presented with a few hundred references to seashores, or the ‘sands of time’, or maybe even a famous hotel in America. However, if you put the two together, the results you are presented with are altogether different. You are quite literally bombarded with references to the Bobby Sands we commemorate tonight. In one search alone, I was presented with 286,000 references to choose from and I have to admit, after going through the first fifty or so, I had all the material I needed. Bobby Sands: political prisoner; Bobby Sands: author and poet; Bobby Sands MP; The Bobby Sands Trust; Bobby Sands Street, or, depending on where you are in the world, Rue de Bobby Sands.

I counted at least a dozen different languages that I recognised and many more that I did not. Some of them were languages that didn’t even use the Roman alphabet. I saw Arabic writings, oriental writings, Greek writings. I don’t speak any of those languages but their subject was obvious and the objective clear. They were dedicated to remembering, discussing and honouring a most remarkable man and the comrades who went with him to their deaths.

However, one quotation particularly struck me and, strangely enough, it wasn’t a compliment. It was a statement made by the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the time, Sir Humphrey Atkins, shortly after Bobby Sands’ death. He said that Bobby Sands’ death was “needless and pointless”, that he should have turned from the path he had chosen, as it would achieve nothing. Bobby Sands’ death may have been many things – premature, tragic, and, of course, preventable – but it was certainly not pointless.

It would be easy to dismiss what Atkins said as a product of arrogance and contempt. But, as I searched on for better things, I came to realise that what he said was not borne of arrogance, but of ignorance. He did not understand Bobby Sands. He had no idea who he was or why he was doing what he was doing. He could never hope to comprehend the depth of the conviction that underpinned what Bobby and his comrades had decided to do even if it meant paying the ultimate price. He was completely ignorant of the reasons why achieving the status of political prisoner was so important. After Bobby Sands’ death, The Irish Press newspaper printed an editorial that said this:

“Belfast narrowed his options as a boy, gunmen chased him from his home and his job… in jail Britain narrowed his options to two: live as a criminal or die for an ideal. His choice will be long remembered.”[1]

Another editorial, this time in the New York Daily News, said this:

“He was a rare one, a young man who thought enough of the place he lived to want to die for it.”[2]

I think Bobby said it best in his own diary:

“[I] have considered all the arguments and tried every means to avoid what has become the unavoidable: it has been forced upon me and my comrades by four-and-a-half years of stark inhumanity.

I am a political prisoner. I am a political prisoner because I am a casualty of a perennial war that is being fought between the oppressed Irish people and an alien, oppressive, unwanted regime that refuses to withdraw from our land.

Foremost in my tortured mind is the thought that there can never be peace in Ireland until the foreign, oppressive British presence is removed, leaving all the Irish people as a unit to control their own affairs and determine their own destinies as a sovereign people, free in mind and body, separate and distinct physically, culturally and economically.”[3]

When I read these words, written by a man who perhaps knew he was going to die, I find myself moved by the deep humanity that comes from the writings of Bobby Sands. He was an IRA volunteer and a soldier in that army. But he was also a human being and, for me, that is what comes across most strongly in his writing. The depth of his empathy with other people is clearly evident, as he constantly mentions his family, his comrades, his friends, admiring them for their efforts while being almost dismissive of his own. His language is an inclusive language; not just remembering the people he knows but speak of what he hopes what might be one day, for all people of this island. His writing shows a breadth and depth of vision that was far ahead of its time and I think, again, he said it best himself:

“I have always taken a lesson from something that was told me by a sound man, that is, that everyone, Republican or otherwise, has his own particular part to play. No part is too great or too small; no one is too old or too young to do something. There is that much to be done that no select or small portion of people can do, only the greater mass of the Irish nation will ensure the achievement of the Socialist Republic and that can only be done by hard work and sacrifice.”[4]

It is significant that Bobby Sands’ thoughts and vision contain no element of sectarianism, no hint of partisanship about for whom he is seeking a better future. It is everyone, all peoples of this island. He specifically says so in the phrase: “…everyone, Republican otherwise…” He does not discriminate; he does not exclude.

Today, we face the challenges of a new Irish society that is not only multi-denominational, but also multi-racial and multi-ethnic. A very different society from the one Bobby Sands knew in his time. I think Bobby Sands would have relished the challenges that the diversity in our modern society has brought. I have no doubt that his contribution today would have been just as significant, if not more, than that of 20 years ago. He would have been to the forefront of meeting the challenges that our new society brings. In today’s society, where the very right to become a citizen is about to be put to the vote in a constitutional referendum, Bobby Sands would have been the vanguard of inclusiveness, welcoming those who come to our shores seeking refuge from persecution in their own lands. Not only would he have extended the hand of friendship, he would have placed the burden of expectancy upon each new addition to Ireland by showing them that they had their own part to play. With that burden comes a sense of worth, a comfort that, although something is expected, it is only because we value the unique contribution that is only to be found in each individual human being. It is this meaning in his writings that sets him so far apart from the State he was fighting against:

“They will not criminalise us, rob us of our true identity, steal our individualism, depoliticise us, churn us out as systemised, institutionalised, decent law-abiding robots.”[5]

I do not think Bobby meant to speak only for himself and his comrades when he said all of these things. He spoke for all people who claim nothing more than their basic right to govern their own affairs; to decide their own future; to make their own way in the world free from oppression and persecution. I think, too, that Bobby Sands knew what his fate would be, even though he hoped and prayed for another. He knew the enemy far too well to allow himself any false hopes. Perhaps, even, he knew deep down that this would be the fate of many others, though they had not yet realised it and he himself fervently hoped and prayed against it.

* * * * * *

The writings of Bobby Sands demonstrate an understanding of something fundamental about the nature of the place in which we live and, more importantly, the way in which the British sought to control it. In his time, the control went under the titles of “normalisation” and “criminalisation.” Those titles have been changed over the years. If criminalisation and normalisation were the watchwords of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the next title to be applied was emerging under cover of extreme secrecy. It was not something that had been given a name in Bobby Sands time, although it certainly existed and he was no doubt aware of it. It was developed in the early 1980s and nurtured in the years that followed, using state resources and state personnel. I refer, of course, to what we now know as, “Collusion.”

The true nature of collusion is not difficult to understand. When the State eventually realises that people cannot be criminalised, that they will not give up their identity, that they will fight to retain their individuality and their beliefs, that they will never, ever yield, surrender, and be assimilated into a mindless, soulless institution, there is, really, only one thing left to do: kill them. Or kill those close to them. Or kill those close to them and all around them. Normally, this type of activity goes by another name: murder. The British Government describes it in another way: policy.

Although the word collusion was not known in Bobby Sands time the way it is now, the central theme has remained the same. It is a reality that we know all too well because we have been forced to deal with the effects of collusion for so long. We have learned the lessons that collusion has taught for too many years to be blind to the truth. We are all of us expendable if the British State so decides. As citizens, our lives are not valued or protected, but assessed, according to what is ‘in the interests of the State’ at any given time. We have all of us buried too many fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, sisters, brothers and friends, to think anything different.

Britain tells the world otherwise, of course. “Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley”: isn’t that what Margaret Thatcher once said?

I don’t remember hearing of Loyalist death squads being found in Finchley. I don’t recall reading that children had been murdered by plastic bullets in Finchley. I don’t remember seeing foreign troops on the streets of Finchley. We are not as British as Finchley, Mrs. Thatcher. We never wanted to be as British as Finchley, and what is more, you never really thought we were.

The policy of collusion between the British State and Loyalist paramilitaries is one that has been in operation for many years. We now know this because of the way in which the activities of a key agent, Brian Nelson, have been exposed to public scrutiny. Initially, this happened at his trial in 1992, but subsequent examination of his role has proved far more illuminating. The reports compiled by Sir John Stevens – or, at least, the 20-page summary that was released to the public – and the recent report by the former Canadian Supreme Court Judge, Peter Cory, shows the truth of Nelson’s activities and also exposes the true nature of the work of the Army unit that controlled him, the Force Research Unit (FRU).

The FRU was a secret branch of Army Intelligence responsible for running agents and informers to gather intelligence in Ireland. This unit still exists, and is now operating under the name “Joint Services Group.” At the time Nelson was gathering intelligence for the FRU, the commanding officer was Lt. Colonel Gordon Kerr. He is now a Brigadier and is currently the British Military attaché in Beijing, China.

Nelson was infiltrated into the UDA by the FRU following his recruitment in 1985. One of his first tasks was to source weapons and this he tried to do during a trip to South Africa in late 1985. Upon his return, he quickly set about updating the intelligence information in the possession of the UDA. Unfortunately, most of the information was out of date, so there was a lot of work to be done, but this was not difficult for Nelson, since he had the resources of the State to call upon in updating the information. He also was able to verify new information received or, to put it more bluntly, to obtain or confirm the accuracy of information, so that a target could be more easily, and reliably, assassinated.

The main difference between what was believed about Brian Nelson’s activities and what the Army claimed was that, on the one hand, he was involved in targeting citizens for murder. On the other hand, according to the Army, he was a valuable agent whose information saved over 200 lives.

This is what the Cory report has to say about Nelson’s activities:

“It is apparent … (and confirmed later by the guilty pleas) that Nelson played an active role in the targeting of individuals, sometimes on his own initiative. While his complicity in potentially serious and violent crimes was well known by his handlers, FRU did very little to restrict his activities. As an agent, he supplied a steady stream of information to the army. This information demonstrated the nature and extent of Nelson’s criminal acts, which were permitted to continue unrestrained. On occasion, Nelson was criticised by his handler’s for becoming too openly involved in a targeting operation. However, the documents reveal that, very often, the concern was, not with the illegality of Nelson’s actions, but rather the fear that he might get caught and thereby compromise his security.”[6]

The report continues:

“The army considered Nelson to be an important agent. It was aware of his very serious criminal activities but did nothing to restrain them. His intelligence was shared throughout the intelligence community, including RUC SB [Special Branch] and Security Service. Indeed, according to CO FRU [commanding officer FRU, Gordon Kerr] … Nelson figured prominently in the monthly briefings he gave to the GOC [General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland], CLF [Commander Land Forces], and DCI [Detective Chief Inspector].”[7]

It is obvious that these extracts come to a very different conclusion about what the activities of Brian Nelson and the FRU really added up to. At Nelson’s trial, Colonel Kerr gave evidence on his behalf in mitigation of sentence. He said that Nelson “was a very important agent of some standing.” He had saved lives. He said that, because of the position that Nelson was in, he was “bound to get himself involved in some degree of criminality.” Kerr testified that the Home Office Guidelines regulating the activities and uses of agents prohibited them from engaging in criminal acts. He said that these guidelines were impossible to abide by in Northern Ireland because of what an agent would be required to do in order to maintain their cover.

Again, the analysis in the Cory report provides a different conclusion:

“What is the significance of Nelson’s handler providing him with information and how can it be relevant to collusive acts?

the handlers were aware that Nelson was doing a lot of targeting;
the handlers were aware, or should have been aware, that Nelson occasionally committed crimes in the course of his targeting;
the handlers were aware, or ought to have been aware, that they were not supposed to provide him with information;
the handlers were aware, or ought to have been aware, that the information they provided was to be used in targeting activities.”[8]
When collusion is analysed in this forensic way, it is sometimes difficult to fully appreciate that what is being discussed is nothing more than State sanctioned murder. It does not do justice to the cost in human lives. If the campaign for a public inquiry that my family has been involved in for the last fifteen years is about anything, it is about making sure that the real cost, the human cost, is clearly known and understood by the entire world.

My family have campaigned for a public inquiry because of this compelling evidence that my father’s murder was part of the approved policy of widespread collusion between the British State and loyalist assassins.

It is a paradox of my family’s campaign that, the more work we do, the more the name of Patrick Finucane becomes known around the world, the farther away an end to this process is pushed. There is a simple explanation for this paradox: the persistent efforts of the British Government to avoid a public inquiry at all costs. It is not difficult to understand the motivation for this when one examines the evidence, for it is both compelling and damning in the extreme.

Throughout the many years of campaigning that my family and I have been engaged in, the British Government has never denied that they colluded with Loyalist paramilitaries in the murder of my father. They have simply avoided dealing with the case by employing one ruse after another. They have shifted the goalposts so many times that it is sometimes difficult to know where the playing field is. The all-consuming objective of the British Government has been to delay the possibility that a public inquiry might have to be established within any kind of meaningful time frame.

Again, it is not difficult to understand the motivation for this. Indeed, it has been a very successful strategy for the British Government. Two key witnesses, including Brian Nelson, have died in the last fifteen years. Vital documentary evidence is missing. Recollections are fading fast and will continue to do so. Each day that passes makes it all the more likely that the adage, “justice delayed is justice denied”, will be all too apt in my father’s case.

My family and I have just witnessed the conclusion of one process of delay in our case. It is a key example of the type of delaying tactic adopted by the British Government. I refer to the investigation carried out by Judge Peter Cory.

Judge Cory was appointed under the terms of an agreement reached in July 2001 during political negotiations at a crucial point in the peace process. The British and Irish Governments agreed during these negotiations that they would jointly appoint “a judge of international standing from outside both jurisdictions to undertake a thorough investigation of allegations of collusion” in the murder of my father, as well as five other controversial cases.[9] The two Governments stated specifically that, if the judge recommended a public inquiry in any of the six cases, the relevant Government would implement that recommendation.

Neither my family nor any other family was consulted in advance about the Governments’ proposals. We did not agree that a review of the evidence was necessary, even by a judge of international standing. It was nothing more than a further delaying tactic by the British Government to avoid establishing a public inquiry in the case.

Judge Peter Cory was appointed to the task of reviewing the six cases after considerable negotiation between the two Governments about choice of judge. The appointment was supposed to be filled no later than April 2002. This did not happen on time and Judge Cory was not appointed until months after the agreed deadline.

My family and I met with Judge Cory shortly before he began his work. At our first meeting with him, we explained our view that his investigation was unnecessary. We made it clear that, although we took no issue with him personally, we could not accept his appointment because it was just another instance of British Government delay. We were already in the process of grappling with another delaying process, the futile police investigation being conducted by Sir John Stevens, fifteen years after the murder. We feared that the exercise about to be undertaken by Judge Cory would be the same as that undertaken by Stevens: unaccountable, unnecessary and unwelcome

Given that he had only just been appointed to the job, Judge Cory accepted our position with an admirable degree of composure. He even went so far as to say that if he were in our shoes, he would probably feel the same. However, the Governments had decided upon this mechanism and, as such, we were all of us stuck with it. Judge Cory promised that he would conduct as thorough a review as possible in as short a time as possible. He said that he would begin with Pat’s case, as it was the largest. He said that he would complete all cases before revealing his findings. He said that he would insist that the commitments the two Governments had made to him would be honoured and that he would not stand for any reneging on their agreements. This was reassuring but of little comfort: Judge Cory was still, after all, an appointee of the British Government.

Judge Cory began his work in August 2002. He completed his work on all six cases in October 2003, several weeks ahead of schedule. He informed my family at all times of the progress of his work. He met with us on a number of occasions and answered our questions about his work, insofar as he could without compromising his position. He told us what he would do and has done it. To date, Judge Cory is the only person in any way connected with the British Government who has kept his word to my family and me as regards his involvement in my father’s case. My family and I did not know who he was at the time of his appointment, but he was recommended by those who did as a person possessed of a first rate mind, abundant in independence and integrity.

In every instance of our dealings, Judge Peter Cory has more than fulfilled his recommendation. The British Government, on the other hand, has reneged on its commitments at every opportunity and where possible, it has changed the conditions of those commitments.

One of the original terms of Judge Cory’s appointment was that his reports would be made public as soon as possible after completion. He submitted his reports to the British Government at the end of October 2003. By Christmas 2003, they remained unpublished. Some of the contents of the reports had been leaked to the Northern Ireland press. Speculation was rife among sections of the media about what Judge Cory’s recommendations were. Some thought no inquiries had been recommended, others said four inquiries had been recommended, while the rest mused over every possible permutation in between. The number of theories was seemingly endless but sandwiched between all of this newsprint hype were families of murder victims who had no idea what was happening. Judge Cory was constrained by his terms of appointment and could not tell us. The British Government would not.

We know now that, at this time, the British Government was engaged in a behind-the-scenes exercise of consultation with the agencies of the State that Judge Cory had investigated. The family of Pat Finucane, Rosemary Nelson, Billy Wright and Robert Hamill could not be permitted to know what exactly had been recommended about the murders of their relatives, but the British State bureau responsible for each murder was fully consulted and asked for its views. This process took another six months to complete. In that time, Judge Cory made a number of representations about the disclosure of the reports to the families concerned. He asked that, if the reports could not be disclosed in their entirety, could the recommendation in each one not be disclosed? The answer to this basic, humanitarian request was, “no”.

In the end, Judge Cory decided that he was not prepared to simply await the outcome of the British Government negotiations and contacted my family directly to tell us that he had recommended a public inquiry be established in my father’s case.

In the meantime, my family also decided not to wait for the British Government to deign to tell us what we would be permitted to know and when. In February 2004, we launched an action in the courts to compel the British Government to publish Judge Cory’s report. It was only after this action had been instigated that the British Government confirmed that it would publish the reports of Judge Cory on 1st April 2004.

On 1st April 2004, Mr. Paul Murphy MP, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, made a statement in the House of Commons. He confirmed that Judge Cory had recommended inquiries in all four cases that he had investigated in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State said that the British Government proposed to establish inquiries in three of the cases immediately. In the cases of Robert Hamill and Rosemary Nelson, these would be established under the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998. In the case of Billy Wright, the inquiry would be held under the authority of the Prisons (Northern Ireland) Act 1953. In the case of my father, the British Government proposed that it would, “set out the way ahead at the conclusion of prosecutions”. No inquiry of any kind was mentioned. The British Government’s response to Judge Cory’s report was simply to say that “the way ahead” would be set out later. No commitment to a public inquiry was given at the time of publication, nor has one been offered since.

I believe that the reason the British Government has avoided committing itself to an inquiry is because it cannot face such an appalling prospect. The evidence shows clearly that the British State pursued a policy of state-sponsored assassination, using Loyalist paramilitaries as its proxy killers. In pursuing this policy, the British were no better than the many despotic regimes around the world today that are condemned for their appalling human rights record. In seeking to cover up what they did for so many years, the British Government continues its policy. Those responsible were rewarded at the time and are now protected in the aftermath. The policy of the British Government centres on delaying an inquiry for as long as possible. It clearly believes that, if delayed long enough, it will perhaps be possible to avoid an inquiry altogether.

We are now engaged in another court case against the British Government to compel them to commence a public inquiry into the murder of my father, as recommended by Judge Cory. We should not have to do this. The British Government made a commitment to implement the recommendations of Judge Cory and I believe that they are breaking that commitment by delaying the commencement of an inquiry. Again, it is not difficult to understand the motivation for this. The British Government is trying to postpone the day when it will be exposed to the world as having engaged in the murder of its own citizens. It has delayed the establishment of an inquiry for fifteen years, despite calls from distinguished individuals and organisations worldwide that such an inquiry is necessary.

Every domestic and international non-governmental organisation that concerns itself with human rights in Ireland has called for a public inquiry into the case of Pat Finucane. Both Human Rights Commissions, North and South, have done so. Every Law Society and Bar Council in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland have done the same, as have many international bar associations. The former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Dato Param Cumaraswamy, has called for a public inquiry on four occasions. His successor, Mr. Leandro Despoiuy, has continued this call. The UN Special Representative on human rights defenders, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and the UN Human Rights Committee have all supported the call for a public inquiry.

On the tenth anniversary of Pat Finucane’s murder, over one thousand lawyers around the world signed a petition supporting the call for a public inquiry. The US House of Representatives has called for an inquiry. The Government of Ireland has repeatedly called for an inquiry through the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Brian Cowen. This was recently repeated by the Irish Government in a statement on the floor of the United Nations.

My family and I have spent the last fifteen years fighting to expose the truth behind the murder of Pat Finucane. We believe that the truth will remain hidden until a fully independent public judicial inquiry is established to investigate all of the circumstances. We would very much like to be able to say that the end was in sight, but we cannot. We can only see more delay and obstruction ahead as the British Government continues its policy of postponement. This will not deter us. We will continue.

We will not stop until we achieve our goal but we hope that, one day, we will be able to stop because that will mean we done what we set out to do. The campaign that my family and I have engaged in is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. The end we seek to achieve is a public, independent judicial tribunal of inquiry that will fully examine all of the evidence in my father’s case. Pat Finucane deserves no less than that, as do all of those murdered by the State through this evil policy of collusion.

There are those who seek to aid the British Government in avoiding an inquiry. Some have sought to besmirch the name of Pat Finucane by branding him a terrorist and a criminal, without a shred of evidence to support this claim. Those people do so under the protection of parliamentary privilege and then refuse to repeat what they have said without that protection. They do so because Pat Finucane is not here to defend himself and to further their own twisted ambitions. They will not succeed.

There are also those who would suggest that an inquiry should be foregone because it would be damaging to the common good. As someone who has directly experienced the brutality of what the British Government can consider to be “the common good”, I would not agree. I believe that the common good is best served in the opposite way. Instead of further concealment, I say that there should be openness and accountability. These principles should be the bedrock of our new society, not delay and deceit.

My family hope not to have to go on forever in my campaign, but we hope that the new society we are building will survive forever. If that society it is to have any chance of survival, it must know the complete truth of its past, so that it can learn all the necessary lessons to provide a future for everyone. It is our future that matters. It is the future that mattered to people like Bobby Sands and Pat Finucane. We cannot dishonour their memory or their sacrifice by working any less hard toward the future than they did.”
[1] The Irish Press, Tuesday 5th May 1981

[2] New York Daily News, Tuesday 5th May 1981

[3] The Diary of Bobby Sands (1983) Roberts Rinehart Publishers. © Bobby Sands Trust

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cory Collusion Inquiry Report: Patrick Finucane, para. 1.150, p52. (2004) The Stationery Office.

[7] Ibid, para 1.152, p53.

[8] Ibid, para. 1.158 (pp54-55)

[9] The other cases are the murders of: (1) Rosemary Nelson; (2) Robert Hamill; (3) Billy Wright; (4) Lord Justice and Lady Gibson; and (5) Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan.

Michael Finucane