RUC Special Branch independent fiefdom did 'as they liked'

Analysis: Former RUC officer was not surprised at collusion findings in Finucane murder

Analysis:Former RUC officer was not surprised at collusion findings in Finucane murder

Johnston Brown, a former RUC detective sergeant, says he is totally unsurprised by the findings of Sir Desmond de Silva in his review of the extent of official collusion around the Pat Finucane murder, particularly from RUC Special Branch.

Brown, the officer who put loyalist Johnny Adair in prison for directing terrorism, tells a story which he heard from a reliable source. The former and late RUC chief constable Sir John Hermon met a senior Special Branch officer driving home as he was heading into work early one morning at RUC headquarters at Knock in east Belfast in the 1980s.

Why wasn’t he at his desk, Hermon asked him. The officer explained that he had been up all night involved in operations on the Border. “Well, come up to my office and brief me about them,” he instructed.


“No, I won’t, Jack, the need-to-know goes up as well as down,” the Special Branch man told the chief constable, and went home to his bed.


Brown, a former Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officer, said the Special Branch was an “independent fiefdom” that was essentially autonomous within the greater RUC. “They exercised a steel grip.” He said they used the “curtain of [British] national security to do as they liked”. Brown feels vindicated by de Silva’s review, which reported how he virtually had UDA man Ken Barrett bang to rights as one of Finucane’s killers in 1991. He and his police sidekick of 12 years, former Det Constable Trevor McIlwrath, interviewed Barrett in a car in October 1991 during which Barrett confessed on a secret tape-recording that “hypothetically” he had murdered Finucane.

But, rather than press charges against Barrett – “a very nasty and dangerous man,” according to Brown – the Special Branch recruited him as an agent; and the tape recording went missing.

“My attitude was we were sworn to protect life and that was what we had to do,” he said last night. It wasn’t until 2004 that Barrett was finally imprisoned, being released two years later under the early release scheme of the Belfast Agreement. “I think he has been set up somewhere over in England.”

‘Treble’ of lawyers

Brown recounted how he and McGrath learned of a particular threat to Belfast solicitor Paddy McGrory and that, as they were bound to do, they reported the information to Special Branch. So he is not surprised by the de Silva findings that the solicitors weren’t warned about the threats to their lives. Nor is he surprised by the allegations that Special Branch incited UDA members to murder the so-called “treble” of lawyers: Finucane, McGrory and Oliver Kelly.

Brown said he came up against such issues again and again. He was an important figure in the former Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan’s exposé about how the Special Branch ran as an agent UVF member Mark Haddock during the 1990s, even though it would have known that during that time he was a “serial killer” – responsible for up to 15 murders and possibly more.

Brown knew Finucane came from a strong republican family but he liked him. He recalls how he and McIlwrath would see him out running along the Antrim Road in north Belfast, a road off a patchwork of nationalist and loyalist interfaces, in “his white T-shirt, shorts, trainers and knobbly knees”. “He’d sit into our car and chat. We’d warn him that he should be running somewhere safer, because of the danger from loyalists.”

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times