Back in February of 1989 a Belfast lawyer called Pat Finucane was murdered by Protestant gunmen. Finucane was well-known for having defended members of the Irish Republican Army, and he’d had plenty of run-ins with police in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, also with the British Army. It was not long before credible accusations began to surface that both the RUC and the army had colluded with Finucane’s killers, who belonged to the paramilitary Ulster Defense Association (UDA).
One journalist who made spectacular headway in tracing state sponsorship of Finucane’s murder was Ed Moloney, currently Northern editor of the Dublin-based Sunday Tribune. Down the years Moloney, now 50, has built up a fine reputation. He’s been Northern Irish editor of the Irish Times and has contributed to the Guardian, BBC, the Washington Post and other publications. But because of his work in the aftermath of the Finucane killing, Moloney now faces the possibility of being thrown into prison for defying a court order to hand over working notes to the police. Unless his lawyers get the order thrown out, Moloney could be prosecuted under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a statute rushed through the British Parliament in the mid-1970s, giving the police and courts even vaster summary powers than they normally enjoy. In this event he’ll face a no-jury trial, as the first journalist to be prosecuted in such a way. He could be given an unlimited fine, plus anywhere from six months to five years in prison. Or he could be convicted of contempt of court, and given an unlimited prison sentence.
Why would the security forces and judicial apparatus of Northern Ireland want to risk international condemnation for their onslaught on a journalist? The reasons are devious, part of a desperate attempt to salvage the reputation of these same security forces, most notably the RUC.
After Finucane’s murder in 1989, Moloney conducted a series of lengthy interviews with William Stobie, a quartermaster in the Protestant paramilitary group responsible for the killing. Stobie told Moloney that he was an agent working for the RUC and had given the RUC advance notice of the operation that ultimately led to the murder of Finucane. As quartermaster, Stobie had provided the killers with their weapons.
Stobie volunteered this information to Moloney on condition that it not be published, since its disclosure would endanger his life. He told Moloney he wanted his account on record in case anything happened to him. He said that his RUC Special Branch handlers regarded him as a loose cannon and were setting him up for assassination by his loyalist colleagues. He also claimed that the RUC Special Branch had planted guns in his home, and indeed he had been charged with possession. But after Stobie threatened that he would reveal in court that he had forewarned the police about the murder plot, the legal authorities quietly dropped those charges. It was in this atmosphere of fear and intimidation that Stobie had gone to Moloney.
The years rolled by and then, earlier this year, the Finucane case turned red hot. A London group called British-Irish Rights Watch sent a report to the Irish government on the Finucane case. In the file thus submitted was documentary evidence of British Army collusion in the Finucane killing. The report itself has not yet been published, but the Irish government felt sufficiently uneasy about its assertions to call upon Tony Blair’s government to open a public inquiry.
The RUC faced an immensely damaging probe at a time when its very future was up for review under the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement. At this point Sir Ronnie Flanagan, head of the RUC, called in a senior Scotland Yard police officer, John Stevens, and ordered him to track down Finucane’s killers. Lo and behold, the first man arrested as a consequence of Stevens’s recruitment was William Stobie!
Targeting Stobie was an adroit move. By fingering him for Finucane’s murder, the RUC was thus placing the whole Finucane case sub judice. This stopped the campaign for a public inquiry in its tracks, where it will remain for at least a year, until after Stobie’s trial. Furthermore, Stobie, a potential key witness against the RUC, is stained with criminal charges. Another plus for the RUC is that the Finucane scandal cannot now figure in the review of the RUC’s future that is currently under way.
The second person Stevens moved against was Ed Moloney, who finally wrote up Stobie’s story from his old notes, publishing his report in the Sunday Tribune this past June 27, three days after Stobie was charged with murder. It’s obvious that Moloney’s explosive story infuriated the authorities, who have responded by demanding his notes and threatening him with imprisonment.
We talked on the phone to Ed Moloney in Belfast in mid-August, as he awaited a court hearing to try to overturn the court order seeking his notes. “There are a number of reasons why I can’t hand these documents over,” he said. “First and most important, our job as journalists is to report the news and analyze events. It is not to gather evidence for the police or the state. And if the authorities were to win this case, the precedent for all journalists in the UK and in Ireland would be disastrous.” The two states and societies are so intertwined that a decision of this nature using a British statute would have an immediate consequence in the Republic. “The other important point is that if I was to hand over this material, I would in effect lose my livelihood. Who could trust me and confide in me with any confidence?”
If all the circumstances of Finucane’s killing see daylight, the pressure for a full public inquiry will be irresistible. Not only was Stobie informing the RUC about the planned murder but a UDA officer advising the gunmen was also working secretly as an intelligence agent of the British Army, a fact that emerged separately, not long after Finucane’s murder. Two of the major players in the murder were thus working for two state security agencies. The stakes are very high, not least for Ed Moloney, who should get all the support we can muster. Make your views clear to Northern Ireland Secretary Marjorie Mowlam, Stormont Castle, Belfast, Northern Ireland. CP
An update on the hearing. Judgement has been reserved and will be given probably before Friday according to the judge. It seems likely to me that we will lose but that was secondary compared to the sensational developments in court which are making the headlines and which re-open the Finucane case once more.
Under cross-examination from our lawyer a detective from the Stevens team admitted that back in 1990 Stobie had been arrested and questioned by RUC detectives as a result of the babbling done by fellow journalist turned NIO press man Neill Mulholland, whose 28 page statement forms the present case aganst Stobie.
During his questioning he admitted to detectives that he had supplied the guns used to kill Finucane and had disposed of the principal murder weapon afterwards. A report was submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions but despite these admissions the DPP decline to prosecute. The Sevens man was unable to answer why.
The detective also conceded that although Mulholland had refused to give a statement back in 1990 the same powers now being used against me existed in those days but weren’t exercised against Mulholland.
The Irish media are leading their reports with these aspects of the story of the court hearing.
The revelations beg obvious questions. Why was Stobie not prosecuted back in 1990. Was it because he was telling the truth about warning the special branch about Finucane? Why is he being prosecuted now? Is it because, with the Patten report due, his indictment makes the Finucane affair sub judice?
And what of the role of the DPP? Why did he recommend against prosecution despite Stobie’s admission. This is the second time the DPP has been embroiled in this affair. Don’t forget when Stobie was arrested on what he says were trumped up arms charges he threatened to reveal his dealings with the special branch unless he was found ‘not guilty’. The DPP agreed to his deal. Why?
The Finucane affair now firmly involves three branches of the law and order apparatus in N.I.—the military intelligence, the RUC special branch and the prosecuting authorities.
The great campaign that you have all assissted me with will now ensure that these aspects of the Finucane case will get the greatest exposure. It doesn’t matter whether we win or lose the legal argument, we won the moral case. Thanks to everyone.