Lawyer's sinister death that still haunts Ulster

The Finucane killing is still causing controversy, writes David McKittrick
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POLICE and republicans alike could scarcely believe it: Pat McGeown had got off. A republican legend within both the IRA and Sinn Fein, it seemed certain that this time he was going to be put away for good.

In November 1988, McGeown, who has since died, faced charges of murder, grievous bodily harm and possession of firearms. These related to the deaths of two British Army corporals who drove into a republican funeral cortege in Belfast earlier that year.

McGeown, who had almost died while on hungerstrike, was also believed by the intelligence community to be a senior figure in the IRA, at one stage acting as its Belfast commander. The security forces were dismayed, and republicans delighted, when at a preliminary inquiry all charges were dismissed and he walked free from the court with his solicitor, Pat Finucane.

Four months later in February 1989 Mr Finucane, one of the best-known solicitors in Belfast, was killed in his north Belfast home by three loyalist gunmen who, in front of his family, shot him 14 times. Within hours the killing was surrounded by political controversy and calls for inquiries, controversy which has deepened over the years.

The first point of controversy arose before the killing took place. In the previous month Douglas Hogg, then a Home Office minister, caused a stir when he said in Parliament: "I have to state as a fact, but with great regret, that there are in Northern Ireland a number of solicitors who are unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA."

His comments were condemned at the time by Seamus Mallon, the Social Democratic and Labour Party MP, who said they could lead to an attempt on the life of a solicitor. Mr Mallon said it would be "on the minister's head and on the heads of this government if an assassin's bullet did what his words had done". This exchange was instantly recalled when Mr Finucane shot.

Although there were hundreds of solicitors in Belfast, only a handful of firms were regarded as regularly specialising in cases involving republican and loyalist suspects prosecuted under anti-terrorist legislation. Mr Finucane's company prominent was among these.

Although he defended several loyalist clients, he attracted particular attention with high-profile performances as lawyer for figures such as McGeown and hunger striker Bobby Sands. He also played a leading role at one of the highly publicised inquests into the deaths of republicans killed by police units in the "shoot-to-kill" cases later investigated by John Stalker, former deputy chief constable of Greater Manchester.

Mr Finucane's public identification with big IRA cases would have been enough in itself to attract loyalist attention, but after his death Ulster Defence Association sources made the claim that police had in effect encouraged them to target him.

They alleged that this took place when a number of UDA members were held at Castle- reagh interrogation centre in Belfast. Detectives told the loyalists, it is said, that three Belfast solicitors were actively involved with the IRA, describing Mr Finucane as "the big financial brain". One of the other solicitors said to have been mentioned was the late Paddy McGrory, who caused the authorities much grief at the inquests into the deaths of three IRA members shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar.

More information on the Finucane killing emerged years later during the Nelson case, when it was revealed that Brian Nelson, a UDA "intelligence officer", had been planted within the organisation by the Army. Nelson was later jailed for 10 years for involvement in murders.

The military intelligence version of the episode was that he had overstepped the mark and instead of reporting back on loyalist violence had become drawn into it. But the allegation, which has been revived this week, is that elements in military intelligence were using Nelson to help direct the UDA towards certain targets, one of whom was possibly Pat Finucane.

Nelson was not charged in connection with the Finucane killing, but while in custody he wrote that he had informed his Army "handlers" that one of the leaders of the UDA's assassination teams had asked him to gather information on Mr Finucane. He passed on the accompanying photograph, and four days later the lawyer was killed.

The questions raised by this sequence of events have influenced successive legal missions which had examined the Finucane case. They also help explain why many observers regard the case as one of the important cases of unfinished human rights business left over from the height of the Troubles.