The propaganda campaign against Pat Finucane: What did Stella Rimington know? PDF Print E-mail
Tom Griffin, 21 December 2012

The 1989 murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane has long been a source of potent controversy for the British secret state. The Government had admitted the existence of state collusion in the killing, even before last's week's report by Sir Desmond de Silva, which itself owed a great deal to the previous investigations by Sir John Stevens and Judge Peter Cory.

However, there was at least one major new revelation in the report. Chapter Fifteen describes, albeit, in the vaguest terms, a previously unknown MI5 propaganda campaign which targeted Finucane in the years before his death:
 
Security Service officers later referred to the dissemination of information within the loyalist community, in such a way that it would be likely to become known by PIRA figures, as having the potential to make "an impact on the republican target." However, whilst the focus of the propaganda was aimed at PIRA, it is also clear that the initiatives were not particularly focused or controlled. The initiatives certainly came to include within their scope individuals who were not members of terrorist organisations but prominent figures in the broader nationalist and republican communities.
 
According to De Silva, Pat Finucane was one of several solicitors who came within the ambit of this campaign as a result of his legal work defending republicans:

The information relating to Patrick Finucane that was being circulated effectively involved fanning the rumours and speculation linking him to the IRA. The effect of the propaganda would certainly have been, in my view, to associate Patrick Finucane with the activities of his clients.

I have found no evidence that the Security Service circulated Patrick Finucane's personal details, nor that they proposed that any individual or group attack him. In line with the broader objectives of the initiatives, the propaganda against Patrick Finucane appears to have been designed to discredit and 'unnerve' him rather than to incite loyalists or anyone else to target him. However, even if the propaganda was not intended to incite loyalists in that respect, I must consider the question as to whether it could have legitimised him as a target for loyalist paramilitaries.
 
This propaganda campaign was the subject of some controversy within MI5 according to De Silva, who notes 'the difference of views between the Security Service officers working on operational issues and the analytical staff working in the Assessments Group'.

The 'operational branch' which De Silva refers to during this period would have been the counter-terrorist G Branch, earlier part of the notorious counter-subversion F Branch, and later split with the creation of the Irish specialist T Branch. The G8 section within this branch provided the London headquarters for MI5's agent-running section in Northern Ireland.

The Assessments Group was not part of G Branch but reported instead to the Director and Co-ordinator of Intelligence, the senior MI5 officer who acted as the intelligence adviser to the Northern Ireland Secretary.

The propaganda campaign was pursued by the operational section in Belfast, who's head stated:

It has been agreed that disruption is the alternative as recruitment of PIRA players has proved impossible, and this would provide an ideal opportunity for unnerving the unrecruitable.
 
This officers' superior, the head of G8 in London, warned that there was an '… obligation to do nothing that intentionally or deliberately exacerbates religious sectarian tensions", but nevertheless felt that the propaganda initiative had been "talented and clearly successful '.

The structure around the DCI, John Deverell, appears to have been much more ambivalent about the campaign. Although the Assessments Group was made aware of the propaganda effort, it was not in a position to influence it, and the DCI rejected a later proposal to expand the campaign with a detailed public exposé of IRA figures.

According to De Silva, the propaganda campaign ended towards the end of 1989, but his account makes it clear that there were significant divisions about this outcome:

It is clear that the Security Service's operational section viewed the ending of the initiatives with some regret. Whilst accepting that the Service's operational branch should not have a propaganda role, one officer expressed the view that there was nevertheless a continuing need for a project:

"… which challenges republican assertions, which makes republican players feel that they, too, are as exposed as the members of the security forces who live daily under threat of the assassin's bomb or bullet".

This note tends to confirm the impression that some officers had always felt that one of the most important aims of the propaganda initiatives was to unnerve and expose republican players. The HAG's response to this note welcomed the winding up of the propaganda initiatives but recorded that the DCI, Assistant DCI and HAG were "concerned" about the comments in the memo. The HAG stated that:

"It is one thing to use CA [Counter-Action] to get across the Government's message or to expose paramilitaries' hypocrisy. But we cannot agree that it would be right to engage in activity that could be interpreted as incitement, issuing threats to groups or individuals or [disseminating] targeting material. We could not credibly put any such scheme to the NIO."
 
This judgement was presumably influenced by hindsight in the wake of the public concern about collusion that followed the killings of Pat Finucane and Loughlin Maginn. What is remarkable is the continued enthusiasm within G Branch for 'un-nerving' republicans by passing information about them to loyalists, a form of political warfare that arguably cannot realistically be distinguished from incitement under the circumstances of the time.

In revealing this propaganda campaign, De Silva has provided significant new evidence about this period of the Troubles, but simultaneously shown why his report cannot be a substitute for a public inquiry. For his account raises as many questions as it answers, not least about who was ultimately responsible for a propaganda campaign, which he concludes 'could have served to further legitimise Patrick Finucane as a target for loyalist paramilitaries'.

He concludes that 'there is no evidence whatsoever that any political clearance was sought or obtained for the Security Service's propaganda initiatives.'

The content of the propaganda was nevertheless known within the security forces, not just to MI5's operational section, where it originated, but also by the Assessments Group, the RUC Special Branch and the Army's Force Research Unit, which sought to focus loyalist targeting on 'IRA players', ostensibly to protect innocent Catholics, and whose agent Brian Nelson was involved in targeting Pat Finucane.

Where De Silva is less clear is on how high knowledge of the campaign went within MI5. De Silva states that 'The Head of G8 was also made aware of the intention to disseminate the propaganda, though it is not clear whether G8 was aware of the content of the propaganda and the fact that it made links between Patrick Finucane and PIRA.'

De Silva makes no mention of G8's immediate superior, the head of G Branch. According to the official history of MI5 by Christopher Andrew, the holder of this position during the relevant period from 1988 to 1990 was Stella Rimington, later the Director-General of MI5, (Andrew, p.772).

De Silva's account of tensions within MI5 over the propaganda campaign, has intriguing parallels with previous accounts of the service's role in Northern Ireland, which have suggested there were differences between Rimington and Deverell.

According to intelligence writer Stephen Dorril, Deverell was sympathetic to the contacts between MI6 officer Michael Oatley and the Republican Movement which helped to initiate the peace process:

Although when the retiring Oatley passed on the mantle to an MI5 officer, he had the support of the MI5 Co-ordinator of Intelligence in Northern Ireland, John Deverell, the process faced near-collapse following the death of Deverell in a helicopter crash. MI5 Director-General Stella Rimington was a hardliner who briefed Prime Minister John Major that McGuinness and Adams were IRA members and could not be trusted. Privately, senior MI6 officers accused their MI5 counterparts of being 'a bunch of idiots' whose efforts had sabotaged the process (Dorril, p741).
 
Rimington's role underlines the limitations of the De Silva Review, which received oral evidence from only one MI5 officer, in addition to written submissions from the service itself. Did Rimington or her superiors, the Deputy Director-General for Operations Julian Faux, and the Director General, Patrick Walker, know of or approve of the propaganda campaign carried out by officers of G Branch during her time as its head? As its stands, we do not know whether De Silva sought to ask Rimington this crucial question, or whether she was prepared to answer it.

Remedying that omission will surely be a key task for any public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane. That, in itself, may be one reason Whitehall has fought to so hard to avoid that outcome.

References

Christopher Andrew, Defence of the Realm, The Authorized History of MI5, Allen Lane, 2009.

Stephen Dorril, MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service, Fourth Estate Limited, 2000.

Tom Griffin is a freelance journalist and researcher.  See http://www.tomgriffin.org