Bobby Sands Memorial Lecture
This weekend saw the 23rd anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands, the first Irish republican prisoner of war to die in the H Block hunger strike of 1981.

The annual Bobby Sands Memorial Lecture was delivered last weekend by Michael Finucane, son of Belfast defence lawyer Patrick Finucane, who was shot dead by the UDA pro-British death squad in 1989.

The following is an edited version of Mr Finucane’s address.


I cannot think of a more apt time of year to address the topic of collusion, as we remember all of the hunger strikers and, in particular, commemorate the first to die, Bobby Sands. I know that this time of year must be especially difficult for all of the families of those who died on hunger strike in the H-Blocks. I think I can relate to some of what they must be feeling, having gone through a few anniversaries like this myself with my own family.

When I read the words written by a man who perhaps knew he was going to die, I find myself moved by the deep humanity of Bobby Sands. He was an IRA volunteer and a soldier in that army. But he was also a human being and, for me, that is what comes across most strongly in his writing. The depth of his empathy with other people is clearly evident, as he constantly mentions his family, his comrades, his friends, admiring them for their efforts while being almost dismissive of his own. His language is an inclusive language; not just remembering the people he knows but speak of what he hopes might be one day, for all people of this island. His writing shows a breadth and depth of vision that was far ahead of its time.

It is significant that Bobby Sands’ thoughts and vision contain no element of sectarianism, no hint of partisanship about for whom he is seeking a better future. It is everyone, all peoples of this island. He specifically says so in the phrase: “...everyone, Republican or otherwise...” He does not discriminate; he does not exclude.


Today, we face the challenges of a new Irish society that is not only multi-denominational, but also multi-racial and multi-ethnic. A very different society from the one Bobby Sands knew in his time. I think Bobby Sands would have relished the challenges that the diversity in our modern society has brought. I have no doubt that his contribution today would have been just as significant, if not more, than that of 20 years ago. He would have been to the forefront of meeting the challenges that our new society brings. In today’s society, where the very right to become a citizen is about to be put to the vote in a constitutional referendum, Bobby Sands would have been the vanguard of inclusiveness, welcoming those who come to our shores seeking refuge from persecution in their own lands. Not only would he have extended the hand of friendship, he would have placed the burden of expectancy upon each new addition to Ireland by showing them that they had their own part to play. With that burden comes a sense of worth, a comfort that, although something is expected, it is only because we value the unique contribution that is only to be found in each individual human being. It is this meaning in his writings that sets him so far apart from the State he was fighting against:

Bobby spoke for all people who claim nothing more than their basic right to govern their own affairs; to decide their own future; to make their own way in the world free from oppression and persecution. I think, too, that Bobby Sands knew what his fate would be, even though he hoped and prayed for another. He knew the enemy far too well to allow himself any false hopes. Perhaps, even, he knew deep down that this would be the fate of many others, though they had not yet realised it and he himself fervently hoped and prayed against it.


The writings of Bobby Sands demonstrate an understanding of something fundamental about the nature of the place in which we live and, more importantly, the way in which the British sought to control it. In his time, the control went under the titles of ‘normalisation’ and ‘criminalisation’. If criminalisation and normalisation were the watchwords of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the next title to be applied was emerging under cover of extreme secrecy. It was not something that had been given a name in Bobby Sands’ time, although it certainly existed and he was no doubt aware of it. It was developed in the early 1980s and nurtured in the years that followed, using state resources and state personnel. I refer, of course, to what we now know as ‘collusion’.

The true nature of collusion is not difficult to understand. When the State eventually realises that people cannot be criminalised; that they will not give up their identity; that they will fight to retain their individuality and their beliefs; that they will never, ever yield, surrender, and be assimilated into a mindless, soulless institution; there is, really, only one thing left to do: kill them. Or kill those close to them. Or kill those close to them and all around them. Normally, this type of activity goes by another name: murder. The British Government describes it in another way: policy.

Collusion is a reality that we know all too well because we have been forced to deal with its effects for so long. We are all of us expendable if the British State so decides. As citizens, our lives are not valued or protected, but assessed, according to what is ‘in the interests of the State’ at any given time. We have all of us buried too many fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, sisters, brothers and friends, to think anything different.

The policy of collusion between the British State and loyalist paramilitaries has been in operation for many years. We know this because of the way in which the activities of a key agent, Brian Nelson, have been exposed to public scrutiny. Initially, this happened at his trial in 1992, but subsequent examination of his role has proved far more illuminating. The reports compiled by Sir John Stevens - or, at least, the 20-page summary that was released to the public - and the recent report by the former Canadian Supreme Court Judge, Peter Cory, show the truth of Nelson’s activities and also expose the true nature of the work of the Army unit that controlled him, the Force Research Unit (FRU).

The FRU was a secret branch of Army Intelligence responsible for running agents and informers to gather intelligence in Ireland. This unit still exists, and is now operating under the name Joint Services Group. At the time Nelson was gathering intelligence for the FRU, the commanding officer was Lt Colonel Gordon Kerr. He is now a Brigadier and is currently the British Military attache in Beijing, China.

My family have campaigned for a public inquiry because of the compelling evidence that my father’s murder was part of the approved policy of widespread collusion between the British State and loyalist assassins.

It is a paradox of my family’s campaign that, the more work we do, the more the name of Patrick Finucane becomes known around the world, the farther away an end to this process is pushed. There is a simple explanation for this paradox: the persistent efforts of the British Government to avoid a public inquiry at all costs. It is not difficult to understand the motivation for this when one examines the evidence, for it is both compelling and damning in the extreme.

Throughout the many years of campaigning that my family and I have been engaged in, the British Government have never denied that they colluded with loyalist paramilitaries in the murder of my father. They have simply avoided dealing with the case by employing one ruse after another. The all-consuming objective of the British Government has been to delay the possibility that a public inquiry might have to be established within any kind of meaningful timeframe.

It has been a very successful strategy. Two key witnesses, including Brian Nelson, have died in the last 15 years. Vital documentary evidence is missing. Recollections are fading fast and will continue to do so. Each day that passes makes it all the more likely that the adage “justice delayed is justice denied”, will be all too apt in my father’s case.


My family and I have just witnessed the conclusion of one process of delay in our case. I refer to the investigation carried out by Judge Peter Cory.

Judge Cory was appointed under the terms of an agreement reached in July 2001 during political negotiations at a crucial point in the peace process. The British and Irish Governments agreed that they would jointly appoint “a judge of international standing from outside both jurisdictions to undertake a thorough investigation of allegations of collusion” in the murder of my father, as well as five other controversial cases. The two governments stated specifically that, if the judge recommended a public inquiry in any of the six cases, the relevant government would implement that recommendation.

Neither my family nor any other family was consulted in advance about the governments’ proposals. We did not agree that a review of the evidence was necessary, even by a judge of international standing. It was nothing more than a further delaying tactic by the British Government to avoid establishing a public inquiry.

Judge Peter Cory was appointed to the task of reviewing the six cases after considerable negotiation between the two governments about choice of judge. The appointment was supposed to be filled no later than April 2002. This did not happen on time and Judge Cory was not appointed until months after the agreed deadline.

My family and I met with Judge Cory shortly before he began his work. At our first meeting with him, we explained our view that his investigation was unnecessary. We made it clear that, although we took no issue with him personally, we could not accept his appointment because it was just another instance of British Government delay. We were already in the process of grappling with another delaying process, the futile police investigation being conducted by Sir John Stevens, 15 years after the murder. We feared that the exercise about to be undertaken by Judge Cory would be the same as that undertaken by Stevens: unaccountable, unnecessary and unwelcome.

Given that he had only just been appointed to the job, Judge Cory accepted our position with an admirable degree of composure. He even went so far as to say that if he were in our shoes, he would probably feel the same. However, the governments had decided upon this mechanism and, as such, we were all of us stuck with it. Judge Cory promised that he would conduct as thorough a review as possible in as short a time as possible. He said that he would begin with Pat’s case, as it was the largest. He said that he would complete all cases before revealing his findings. He said that he would insist that the commitments the two governments had made to him would be honoured and that he would not stand for any reneging on their agreements. This was reassuring but of little comfort: Judge Cory was still, after all, an appointee of the British Government.

One of the original terms of Judge Cory’s appointment was that his reports would be made public as soon as possible after completion. He submitted his reports to the British Government at the end of October 2003. By Christmas 2003, they remained unpublished. Some of the contents of the reports had been leaked to the Northern Ireland press. Speculation was rife among sections of the media about what Judge Cory’s recommendations were. The number of theories was seemingly endless but sandwiched between all of this newsprint hype were families of murder victims who had no idea what was happening. Judge Cory was constrained by his terms of appointment and could not tell us. The British Government would not.

We know now that, at this time, the British Government was engaged in a behind-the-scenes exercise of consultation with the agencies of the State that Judge Cory had investigated. The families of Pat Finucane, Rosemary Nelson, Billy Wright and Robert Hamill could not be permitted to know what exactly had been recommended about the murders of their relatives, but the British State bureau responsible for each murder was fully consulted and asked for its views. This process took another six months to complete. In that time, Judge Cory made a number of representations about the disclosure of the reports to the families concerned. He asked that, if the reports could not be disclosed in their entirety, could the recommendation in each one not be disclosed? The answer to this basic, humanitarian request was, “no”.

In the end, Judge Cory decided that he was not prepared to simply await the outcome of the British Government negotiations and contacted my family directly to tell us that he had recommended a public inquiry be established in my father’s case.


I believe that the reason the British Government has avoided committing itself to an inquiry is because it cannot face such an appalling prospect. The evidence shows clearly that the British State pursued a policy of state-sponsored assassination, using loyalist paramilitaries as its proxy killers. In pursuing this policy, the British were no better than the many despotic regimes around the world today that are condemned for their appalling human rights records. In seeking to cover up what they did for so many years, the British Government continues its policy. Those responsible were rewarded at the time and are now protected in the aftermath. The British Government clearly believes that, if delayed long enough, it will perhaps be possible to avoid an inquiry altogether.

We are now engaged in another court case against the British Government to compel them to commence a public inquiry as recommended by Judge Cory. We should not have to do this. The British Government made a commitment to implement the recommendations of Judge Cory and I believe that they are breaking that commitment by delaying it. Again, it is not difficult to understand the motivation. The British Government is trying to postpone the day when it will be exposed to the world as having engaged in the murder of its own citizens. It has delayed the establishment of an inquiry for 15 years, despite calls from distinguished individuals and organisations worldwide that such an inquiry is necessary.

Every domestic and international non-governmental organisation that concerns itself with human rights in Ireland has called for a public inquiry into the case of Pat Finucane. Both Human Rights Commissions, North and South, have done so. Every Law Society and Bar Council in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland have done the same, as have many international bar associations. The former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Dato Param Cumaraswamy, has called for a public inquiry on four occasions. His successor, Leandro Despoiuy, has continued this call. The UN Special Representative on human rights defenders, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and the UN Human Rights Committee have all supported the call for a public inquiry.

On the tenth anniversary of Pat Finucane’s murder, over 1,000 lawyers around the world signed a petition supporting the call for a public inquiry. The US House of Representatives has called for an inquiry. The Government of Ireland has repeatedly called for an inquiry through the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Brian Cowen. This was recently repeated by the Irish Government in a statement on the floor of the United Nations.

My family believe that the truth will remain hidden until a fully independent public judicial inquiry is established to investigate all of the circumstances. We would very much like to be able to say that the end was in sight, but we cannot. We can only see more delay and obstruction ahead as the British Government continues its policy of postponement. This will not deter us. We will continue until we achieve our goal. The campaign is a means to an end: a public, independent judicial tribunal of inquiry that will fully examine all of the evidence in my father’s case. Pat Finucane deserves no less than that, as do all of those murdered by the State through this evil policy of collusion.

If the new society we are building is to have any chance of survival, it must know the complete truth of its past, so that it can learn all the necessary lessons to provide a future for everyone. It is our future that matters. It is the future that mattered to people like Bobby Sands and Pat Finucane. We cannot dishonour their memory or their sacrifice by working any less hard toward the future than they did.

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