Oral statement to Parliament

Prime Minister David Cameron statement on Patrick Finucane

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Statement on Sir Desmond de Silva's report into the nature and extent of state collusion in the murder of Patrick Finucane.

Number 10 Downing Street

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Sir Desmond de Silva’s report into the nature and extent of state collusion in the murder of Patrick Finucane. The murder of Patrick Finucane in his home in North Belfast on Sunday l2 February 1989 was an appalling crime. He was shot 14 times as he sat down for dinner with his wife and three children. He died in front of them. His wife was injured, and Pat Finucane died in front of his family.

In the period since the murder, there have been three full criminal investigations carried out by the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord Stevens. Taken together, they amount to the biggest criminal investigation in British history, led by the most senior police officer, and consisting of more than 1 million pages of documents and 12,000 witness statements obtained with full police powers. As a result of the third Stevens investigation, one of those responsible, Ken Barrett, was tried and convicted in 2004 for the murder of Patrick Finucane.

There was a further report by Judge Cory. Both Lord Stevens and Judge Cory made it clear that there was state collusion in the murder. This itself was a shocking conclusion, and I apologised to the family on behalf of the British Government when I met them last year. But despite these reports, some 23 years after the murder, there has still only been limited information put into the public domain. The whole country and beyond is entitled to know the extent and nature of the collusion, and the extent of the failure of our state and Government. That is why, last October, this Government asked Sir Desmond de Silva to conduct an independent review of the evidence to expose the truth as quickly as possible.

Sir Desmond has had full and unrestricted access to the Lord Stevens archive and to all Government papers. These include highly sensitive intelligence files and new and significant information that was not available to either Lord Stevens or Justice Cory, including Cabinet papers, minutes of meetings with Ministers and senior officials, and papers and guidance on agent handling. He has declassified key documents, including original intelligence material, and he has published them in volume 2 of his report today. The decision over what to publish was entirely his own–it was entirely a matter for Desmond de Silva. I believe that Sir Desmond’s report has now given us the fullest possible account of the murder of Patrick Finucane and the truth about state collusion. The extent of disclosure in today’s report is without precedent.

Nobody has more pride than me in the work of our armed forces, police and security services. I see at close hand just what they do to keep us safe. As Sir Desmond makes clear, he is looking at “an extremely dark and violent time” in Northern Ireland’s history.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the police and security forces that served in Northern Ireland, but we should be in no doubt that this report makes extremely difficult reading. The report sets out the extent of collusion in areas such as identifying, targeting and murdering Mr Finucane; supplying a weapon and facilitating its later disappearance; and deliberately obstructing subsequent investigations. It also answers questions about how high up the collusion went, including the role of Ministers at the time.

Sir Desmond is satisfied that there was not

“an over-arching State conspiracy to murder Patrick Finucane”,

but while he rejects any state conspiracy, he does find frankly shocking levels of state collusion. Most importantly, Sir Desmond says he is

“left in significant doubt as to whether Patrick Finucane would have been murdered by the UDA”–

the Ulster Defence Association–

“in February 1989 had it not been for the different strands of involvement by elements of the State.”

He finds that

“a series of positive actions by employees of the State actively furthered and facilitated his murder”.

Sir Desmond cites five specific areas of collusion. First,

“there were extensive ‘leaks’ of security force information to the UDA and other loyalist paramilitary groups.”

He finds:

“In 1985 the Security Service assessed that 85% of the UDA’s ‘intelligence’ originated from sources within the security forces.”

He is

“satisfied that this proportion would have remained largely unchanged by…the time of Patrick Finucane’s murder.”

Secondly, there was a failure by the authorities to act on threat intelligence. Sir Desmond describes

“an extraordinary state of affairs…in which both the Army and the RUC SB”–

Royal Ulster Constabulary special branch–

“had prior notice of a series of planned UDA assassinations, yet nothing was done by the RUC to seek to prevent these attacks.”

When we read some of the specific cases in the report–page after page in chapter 7–it is really shocking that this happened in our country. In the case of Patrick Finucane, Sir Desmond says that

“it should have been clear to the RUC SB from the threat intelligence that…the UDA were about to mount an imminent attack”,

but

“it is clear that they took no action whatsoever to act on the threat intelligence.”

Thirdly, Sir Desmond confirms that employees of the state and state agents played “key roles” in the murder. He finds that

“two agents who were at the time in the pay of agencies of the State were involved”–

Brian Nelson and William Stobie–

“together with another who was to become an agent of the State after his involvement in that murder”.

It cannot be argued that these were rogue agents. Indeed, Sir Desmond concludes that Army informer Brian Nelson should

“properly be considered to be acting in a position equivalent to an employee of the Ministry of Defence.”

Although Nelson is found to have withheld information from his Army handlers,

“the Army must bear a degree of responsibility for Brian Nelson’s targeting activity during 1987-89, including that of Patrick Finucane.”

Most shockingly of all, Sir Desmond says that

“on the balance of probabilities…an RUC officer or officers did propose Patrick Finucane…as a UDA target when speaking to a loyalist paramilitary.”

Fourthly, there was a failure to investigate and arrest key members of the West Belfast UDA over a long period of time. As I said earlier, Ken Barrett was eventually convicted of the murder. What is extraordinary is that back in 1991, instead of prosecuting him for murder as the RUC criminal investigation department wanted, the RUC special branch decided instead to recruit him as an agent.

Fifthly, this was all part of what Sir Desmond calls a wider

“relentless attempt to defeat the ends of justice”

after the murder had taken place. Sir Desmond finds that

“senior Army officers deliberately lied to criminal investigators”

and that the RUC special branch

“were responsible for seriously obstructing the investigation.”

On the separate question of how certain Ministers were briefed, while Sir Desmond finds no political conspiracy, he is clear that Ministers were misled. He finds that

“the Army and Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials provided the Secretary of State for Defence with highly misleading and, in parts, factually inaccurate advice”

about the force research unit’s “handling of Brian Nelson.” On the comments made by Douglas Hogg, Sir Desmond agrees with Lord Stevens that the briefing he received from the RUC meant that he was “compromised”. However, Sir Desmond goes on to say that there is

“no basis for any claim that he intended his comments to provide a form of political encouragement for an attack on any solicitor.”

More broadly on the role of Ministers, Sir Desmond says that there is

“no evidence whatsoever to suggest that any Government Minister had foreknowledge of Patrick Finucane’s murder, nor that they were subsequently informed of any intelligence that any agency of the State had received about the threat to his life.”

He says that the then Attorney-General, Sir Patrick Mayhew, deserves

“significant credit for withstanding considerable political pressure designed to ensure that Brian Nelson was not prosecuted.”

As a result, of course, Nelson was prosecuted in 1992, following the first investigation by Lord Stevens.

The collusion demonstrated beyond any doubt by Sir Desmond, which included the involvement of state agencies in murder, is totally unacceptable. We do not defend our security forces, or the many who have served in them with great distinction, by trying to claim otherwise. Collusion should never, ever happen. So on behalf of the Government, and the whole country, let me say again to the Finucane family, I am deeply sorry.

It is vital that we learn the lessons of what went wrong, and for Government in particular to address Sir Desmond’s criticisms of a “wilful and abject failure by successive Governments to provide the clear policy and legal framework necessary for agent-handling operations to take place effectively and within the law.”

Since 1989, many steps have been taken to improve the rules, procedures and oversight of intelligence work. There is now a proper legal basis for the security services, and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 has established a framework for the authorisation of the use and conduct of agents. In addition, the activities of individual agents are now clearly recorded, along with the parameters within which they must work. The Intelligence Services Commissioners and the Office of Surveillance Commissioners now regulate the use of agents and report publicly to this House. Taken together, those changes are designed to ensure that the failures of 1989 could not be made today.

Policing and security in Northern Ireland have been transformed, reflecting the progress that has been made in recent years. The force research unit and the special branch of the RUC have both gone, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland is today one of the most scrutinised police forces anywhere in the world. It is accountable to local Ministers and a local Policing Board. I believe that it commands widespread support across the whole community.

Through all those measures, this Government and our predecessors have shown a determination to do everything possible to ensure that no such collusion ever happens again. We will study Sir Desmond’s report in detail to see what further lessons can be learned. I have asked the Secretaries of State for Defence and Northern Ireland and the Cabinet Secretary to report back to me on all the issues that arise from the report. I will publish their responses. Other organisations that are properly independent of Government, such as the police and prosecuting authorities, will want to read the report closely and consider their own responses.

Sir Desmond says that his conclusion

“should not be taken to impugn the reputation of the majority of RUC and UDR officers who served with distinction during what was an extraordinarily violent period”.

He goes on to say that:

“it would be a serious mistake for this Report to be used to promote or reinforce a particular narrative of any of the groups involved in the Troubles in Northern Ireland.”

I am sure that those statements will have wide support in this House. We should never forget that over 3,500 people lost their lives and there were many terrible atrocities. Sir Desmond reminds us that the Provisional IRA

“was the single greatest source of violence during this period”,

and that a full account of the events of the late 1980s

“would reveal the full calculating brutality of that terrorist group.”

During the troubles over 300 RUC officers and 700 British military personnel were killed, with over 13,000 police and military injured. I pay tribute to them and to all those who defended democracy and the rule of law and created the conditions for the progress we have now seen. We must not take that progress for granted, as we have seen this week, and I pay tribute again to those in the PSNI who are once again in the front line today. We will not allow Northern Ireland to slip back to its bitter and bloody past.

The Finucane family suffered the most grievous lost in the most appalling way imaginable. I know they oppose this review process and I respect their views. However, I do respectfully disagree with them that a public inquiry would produce a fuller picture of what happened and what went wrong. Indeed, the history of public inquiries in Northern Ireland would suggest that had we gone down that route, we would not know now what we know today.

Northern Ireland has been transformed over the past 20 years but there is still more to do to build a genuinely shared future. One thing this Government can do to help is to face up honestly when things have gone wrong in the past. If we as a country want to uphold democracy and the rule of law, we must be prepared to be judged by the highest standards. We must also face up fully when we fall short. In showing once again that we are not afraid to do that, I hope that today’s report can contribute to moving Northern Ireland forward. In that spirit, I commend this statement to the House.

Published 12 December 2012
Last updated 16 January 2015 + full page history
  1. Added links to 2015 written ministerial statement and report.
  2. First published.