Is a new spirit of transparency and accountability implied by the WikiLeaks revelation that MI5 offered in 2005 to share its secret files on state collusion with loyalist hitmen to assassinate the Belfast human rights lawyer Pat Finucane in 1989?
I don’t think so. That offer was made under pressure from Dublin and Washington, which tried valiantly to persuade the British government to call a public inquiry into the killing.
It was made after the loyalists themselves had displayed caches of security services documents on Catholic citizens. It was after London, Washington and Dublin had been given the names of the culprits – revealed in a dossier delivered to governments by the redoubtable British Irish Rights Watch a decade after Finucane’s death.
The MI5 offer came after marathon investigations by the former Metropolitan police commissioner Lord John Stevens. He concluded in 2003 that there had been collusion. But his report on Finucane has never been published.
It came after Peter Cory, a judge of international standing appointed to look into collusion, discovered in a matter of months secret records on Finucane that had eluded Stevens. And it came after his dossier, Cory Collusion Inquiry Report: Patrick Finucane, was belatedly published in April 2004 – again under pressure from Dublin.
Cory revealed that the security services had been keeping files on Finucane from 1981, files that in 1988 recorded plans to kill him. MI5 offered to release the files, but only if the government itself controlled the public inquiry.
This was assured by Tony Blair’s decision – provoked by the Finucane case – to change the law on public inquiries. The new Inquiries Act rushed through parliament in 2005 guaranteed that the government could restrict the scope of any inquiry into Finucane’s death. That is why his relatives – with Cory’s support – have so far refused to co-operate.
If MI5 is ready to open its books on this execution that exposed Britain’s counter-insurgency system in Northern Ireland, then it is no doubt because it has felt confident that it could divert attention away from itself and point the finger at the police and the army.
The police Special Branch and the army’s special squad, the Force Research Unit, were all involved in the murderous conspiracy.
Briefings by the security services against Finucane and other Northern Ireland lawyers went – via the Joint Intelligence Committee – all the way to the top, to Downing Street. MI5 hopes to take control of a narrative that was inevitably bleeding beyond the security elite’s capacity for damage limitation.
When a state sanctions the killing of citizens, in particular citizens who are lawyers, it puts the rule of law and democracy in jeopardy. And when a state enlists auxiliary assassins, it cedes its monopoly over state secrets: it may feel omnipotent, but it is also vulnerable to disclosure.
This episode reminds us why we need truth and reconciliation processes: there has been no acknowledgement of the British security services’ symbiotic relationship with loyalism during the 30-year armed conflict.
The coalition’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, is inclined to set up a public inquiry into Finucane. We must insist that it is fully public, that it sees not only those MI5 files, but the trail within government, so that it can investigate collusion not as an event but as a system.