The State’s handling of intelligence informers in the fight against terrorism has been transformed from the era that witnessed collusion in the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane, the Prime Minister has insisted.
David Cameron said “lessons had been learned” as he outlined how the Government had responded to the findings of a damning report in to the loyalist killing of the father of three in 1989.
The Government-commissioned review of the controversial murder published two years ago by Sir Desmond de Silva detailed shocking levels of State involvement.
The collusion highlighted by Sir Desmond included spreading malicious propaganda that Mr Finucane was sympathetic to the IRA; one or possibly more police officers proposing him as a target to loyalists; and the mishandling of State agents inside the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA) who were involved in the murder.
While Sir Desmond found no evidence of an over-arching conspiracy by the authorities to target the 38-year-old lawyer, he said the actions of a number of State employees had “furthered and facilitated’’ the UDA shooting while there had also been efforts to thwart the subsequent criminal investigation.
As he accepted the report’s findings in the House of Commons in December 2012, Mr Cameron reiterated an apology to the Finucane family and also pledged that the Government would examine the review in detail to identify potential lessons.
He asked the secretaries for Defence and Northern Ireland and the Cabinet Secretary to conduct an assessment and on Friday he published their joint findings.
“The joint report describes the action government departments have demonstrated in response to Sir Desmond de Silva’s report and the ways in which their internal processes have changed in the areas de Silva highlights,” the Prime Minister said in a written statement to Parliament.
“Significant changes have been made since the time of Patrick Finucane’s murder to improve the situation and today’s framework for operations bears little resemblance to that of 1989. Additionally, there is far more effective independent oversight and control than existed in 1989.”
The report revealed that the MOD was unable to take disciplinary action against officers criticised by Sir Desmond as they had since left service and prosecutors had already concluded they would not face criminal charges.
Mr Cameron said the approach of the police and intelligence agencies to handling Covert Human Intelligence Sources (CHIS) had been “completely transformed” in the years since the “appalling events” under consideration by Sir Desmond.
“Compliance with human rights and other legal obligations has a fundamental place at the centre of activities by the police and intelligence services with the principles of necessity and proportionality now firmly embedded in the culture and systems they apply in their work,” he said.
The joint report conceded that in 1989 there was a very limited legal framework in place and “little if any external oversight of intelligence”.
It said “significant changes” had been made by successive governments in the intervening quarter of a century to improve the situation.
Unlike 1989, the report noted that the British Army no longer runs intelligence agents in Northern Ireland.
The Security Service, the UK’s national security intelligence agency, took over lead responsibility from the Police Service of Northern Ireland for national security in the region in 2007, bringing it in line with the rest of the UK.
However, CHIS are still managed by police officers in Northern Ireland.
Mr Finucane was gunned down in front of his wife Geraldine and their three children inside their north Belfast home in February 1989.
His family has long campaigned for a full independent public inquiry into the murder – but Mr Cameron has insisted such an exercise would not shed any more light on the events.
When it was published, Geraldine Finucane branded Sir Desmond’s review as a “sham, whitewash and confidence trick’’ claiming it threw all blame on dead individuals and disbanded organisations while exonerating ministers, serving officers and existing security agencies.
Sir Desmond was critical of a defunct Army intelligence unit and the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s (RUC) Special Branch, which each ran at least one agent inside the UDA that had a direct involvement in the murder.
He found that instead of pursuing another loyalist suspect, Special Branch actually recruited him as an agent as well.
Sir Desmond said there was also widespread leaking of sensitive intelligence to loyalists by the security forces during this period of the Troubles – a total of 270 separate leaks in Belfast between 1987 and 1989.
He also accused elements of the security forces of actively attempting to thwart the investigation of Mr Finucane’s murder.