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Volume 1 - Chapter 15

Chapter 15: Security Service propaganda initiatives

15.1 This chapter analyses the propaganda initiatives that were taken forward by the Security Service in the 1980s in order to contest and counter republican propaganda. These initiatives are of particular relevance to my Review because they came to include Patrick Finucane within their scope prior to his murder.

The importance of public disclosure

15.2 Although Sir John Stevens and Justice Cory did not explicitly deal with the issue of the Security Service's propaganda initiatives, in view of my broader remit I have decided that it is necessary to publish an account of the scope and nature of these projects.

15.3 The precise methods used by the Security Service as part of their propaganda initiatives remain sensitive. I accept that many of the technical details of such operations cannot be publicly disclosed in view of the normal requirements relating to the protection of this type of information. However, I have come to the view that an outline of this issue has to be published as part of this Report.

15.4 I have reached this view because my Terms of Reference provide a mandate for the publication of a "full public account" and because the serious issues raised by these particular initiatives warrant disclosure in order to ensure that the public interest is served by holding all agencies of the State accountable in relation to matters of potential public concern.

15.5 Although many of the details underpinning this account cannot be disclosed in view of their sensitivity, this has not inhibited me from publishing an overview of these initiatives and their objectives; the fact of Patrick Finucane's inclusion in these projects; and my conclusions on the nature of the propaganda as a whole. I have been provided with access to all the relevant underlying documentation. Although he was not directly involved in these propaganda initiatives, I have had the opportunity of questioning a senior Security Service officer on this material.

The context to the propaganda initiatives

15.6 Propaganda had long been a tactic used by paramilitary groups alongside their armed campaigns of violence in Northern Ireland. Reports of a leaked copy of the Irish Republican Army's (IRA's) Green Book, apparently obtained when Seamus Twomey was captured in 1977, suggested that the IRA adopted a specific propaganda aim, as follows:

"To sustain the war and gain support for its ends by National and International propaganda and publicity campaigns." [1]

15.7 Accounts provided by republicans of their activities in the IRA confirm the importance that was attached to the 'propaganda war'.[2] The Security Service believed that the Provisional IRA (PIRA) ran a dedicated propaganda unit in support of this aspect of its strategy. It is clear that PIRA believed it was having significant success in its dissemination of propaganda. Royal Ulster Constabulary Special Branch (RUC SB) intelligence received in March 1988 suggested that a senior PIRA figure was openly boasting about how his organisation was "winning" the 'propaganda war'.[3]

15.8 Loyalists also used propaganda to support their own paramilitary activities. As the Force Research Unit Contact Forms (FRU CFs) demonstrate, paramilitary leaders such as Thomas 'Tucker' Lyttle regularly engaged with journalists and would often deliberate over how and whether to 'claim' loyalist murders based on their perceptions of the likely media and public reaction.

15.9 It is clear that by the 1980s there was a widespread feeling across the security forces and the UK Government that such propaganda needed to be countered. My Review has had access to a range of internal Government documents outlining the discussions of the need for what was described as 'Counter-Action'. Counter-Action appears to have been described as the use of either overt or covert means to provide truthful rebuttals of terrorist propaganda or to expose the damaging effects of terrorism. A Northern Ireland Office (NIO) Information Strategy Group was tasked with co-ordinating the Government's presentational strategy. This group considered the Government's strategy in responding to specific controversial security incidents and the presentation of its wider political and economic message.

15.10 My Review has focused specifically on the approach of the intelligence agencies to propaganda activity. An early note from an intelligence officer illustrated the desire of the intelligence agencies to become involved in this field. The officer suggested that a "sustained and structured propaganda war" be fought against the terrorist groups in Northern Ireland.[4] The officer's note made clear that the campaign could be aimed at both loyalist and republican terrorists. The proposal was put forward on the following basis:

"... a deliberate and continued propaganda campaign (where the hand of HMG [Her Majesty's Government] is visible, obscured or invisible) might:

(i) strike at recruitment into organisations

(ii) disenchant those already inside by opening their eyes to the reality of things

(iii) keep public attention, vigilance and interest

(iv) who knows, provide new leads and recruits for us all." [5]

15.11 Although it was mooted, the idea of a structured propaganda campaign in which the intelligence agencies were heavily involved appears never to have been taken forward.

The propaganda initiatives

15.12 My Review has, however, established that some comparatively limited propaganda initiatives were taken forward by the Security Service in Northern Ireland in the 1980s. The initiatives focused on propaganda directed against PIRA. The methods used by the Security Service involved the dissemination of information within the broader loyalist community in a bid to counter republican propaganda. The initiatives of central interest to my Review were taken forward by the Service of their own volition and without reference to the NIO Information Strategy Group.

15.13 The Security Service used a variety of methods and conduits through which to disseminate the propaganda. The nature of the propaganda being disseminated varied. Some of the propaganda involved, for example, highlighted the damaging effect of PIRA murders and attacks. In other instances, the propaganda was targeted more directly at discrediting specific PIRA figures.

15.14 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.

The divergence of views within the Security Service

15.15 It is clear from the documents I have reviewed that there was a marked divergence of views within the Security Service as to the aims and content of the propaganda being disseminated. Whilst there are few records that directly explain why the propaganda took the forms that it did, internal Security Service discussions in the late 1980s do provide an insight into the aims of the initiatives and the difference of views between the Security Service officers working on operational issues and the analytical staff working in the Assessments Group.

The approach of the Service's operational branch

15.16 Responsibility for the initiation and implementation of the propaganda initiatives lay with the Security Service's operational branch. The first internal documents which help to explain the strategy and aims behind the propaganda date from the late 1980s, towards the end of the initiative. A Security Service officer produced a note considering further options for anti-PIRA propaganda. The note identified two ways in which anti-PIRA propaganda could be directed:

"Firstly to expose the general hypocracy [sic], pointlessness and lack of humanity of the 'Armed Struggle' against overwhelming public opposition in Northern and Southern Ireland." [6]

15.17 The second mechanism was described as follows:

"… [the Security Service could exploit the use of] the extensive intelligence on PIRA players already available … [to loyalist paramilitaries] to expose to the public the nature of the people organising and profiting from IRA terrorism." [7]

15.18 In furtherance of the second aim - to expose 'PIRA players' - the officer proposed that the propaganda initiatives should be expanded to include the public circulation of details of "the structure, organisation and personnel of PIRA". Some PIRA figures had already been named and exposed as part of the propaganda initiatives in the late 1980s, though this had been done in an ad hoc and comparatively small-scale fashion. The Security Service officer referred to above was proposing a significant expansion of this aspect of the propaganda initiatives.

15.19 The note also provided an explanation as to how the public circulation of details of PIRA players would assist the intelligence agencies' wider strategy. It included the comment that:

"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." [8]

15.20 The note thus implies that propaganda against specific PIRA figures was a tactic that could be used against individuals who were either assessed to be unrecruitable as agents or who had been approached and had refused to become agents.

15.21 I should note that the "disruption" envisaged by the Security Service appears to have referred to the concern that such propaganda would prompt amongst PIRA players. There is no evidence that the Service were motivated by a desire to spread the propaganda in order to encourage and inspire loyalists to 'disrupt' PIRA figures by attacking them. I consider below, however, the highly pertinent concerns of the Director and Co-ordinator of Intelligence (DCI) and others that, in practice, the propaganda could nonetheless be perceived as being incitement against such individuals.

Concerns within the Security Service about the initiatives

15.22 The documents I have reviewed suggest that there was considerable unease amongst some Security Service officers with regard to the nature of the propaganda and the proposals for expanding the initiatives. At one stage, the Head of the Security Service's operational section had cautioned that the Service should be careful that the initiatives should not involve "anything which might be taken as incitement".[9]

15.23 The Head of G8, the Service's Irish agent-running section based in London, provided the first internal critique of the propaganda initiatives. He advised that the Government had an:

"obligation to do nothing that intentionally or deliberately exacerbates religious sectarian tensions." [10]

15.24 However, despite these reservations the officer also referred in the same telegram to the initiatives as having been "talented and clearly successful".

15.25 Towards the end of the propaganda initiatives, the DCI John Deverell, the Security Service's Head of Assessments Group (HAG) and the Head of the Service's operational section also privately reviewed the Service's involvement in this field. A note of a meeting recorded that the three officers agreed that the initiatives had been "on dangerous ground" and that they should be reined in. The earlier proposal that the initiatives be expanded to include a detailed public exposé of PIRA figures was rejected by the DCI. He stated that it would be unacceptable for the Security Service to engage in such activity.

The termination of the propaganda initiatives

15.26 The propaganda initiatives appear to have only been terminated entirely towards the end of 1989. The minutes of the Targeting Policy Committee during September 1989 also show that the new Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Annesley, had expressed reservations about the intelligence agencies conducting any 'Counter-Action' type of propaganda activity (though there is no record to suggest that the Chief Constable had been made aware of these Security Service initiatives).

15.27 However, 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." [11]

15.28 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." [Emphasis in original][12]

15.29 Following its termination, the Security Service in Northern Ireland conducted an internal review of the propaganda initiatives. A note produced on 15 December 1989 acknowledged that, looking back on the initiatives:

"we [the Security Service] created … CA activity before we had developed either a controlling mechanism for it or a means of fuelling it with suitable CA material." [13]

Propaganda referring to Patrick Finucane prior to his murder

15.30 The above analysis provides the background to the formulation and implementation of the Security Service's propaganda initiatives. This project is of particular relevance to my Review because I have established that in the late 1980s, prior to his murder, the initiatives encompassed the dissemination of information referring to Patrick Finucane within the loyalist community.

15.31 I should note that Patrick Finucane was not the focus of the propaganda initiatives in the late 1980s. The thrust of the propaganda rumours and innuendo was aimed at the republican movement and specific PIRA players, including individuals who would have been represented by Patrick Finucane. However, as a result of his work in defending these individuals, it is clear that Mr Finucane came to be included within the scope of the propaganda.

15.32 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.

15.33 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.

15.34 Before turning to this question it is worth noting that the very act of disseminating such propaganda did, in my view, breach the basic principles upon which the State should be obliged to approach lawyers exercising their professional duties. In Chapter 16, I deal in greater detail with the 'Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers', which were formally adopted by the United Nations in 1990 and should, I believe, have already have been followed by a country such as the United Kingdom. For the purpose of this chapter, it is important to highlight the fact that Principle 16a referred to the need for lawyers to be:

"… able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference."

15.35 Principle 18 specifically provided that:

"Lawyers shall not be identified with their clients or their clients' causes as a result of discharging their functions." [14]

What effect did the propaganda have?

15.36 In order to determine whether the propaganda featuring Patrick Finucane was linked in any way to his murder, I have considered whether the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) became aware of the rumours being circulated. Rumours linking Patrick Finucane to the IRA had, of course, been circulating within the UDA for many years. As the Security Service records show, the UDA had previously considered murdering Mr Finucane in 1981 and 1985. In the light of his success in defending republican clients in the late 1980s, and his brothers' well-known involvement in terrorist activity, it is clear that the UDA would already have associated him with PIRA.

15.37 I am satisfied that, by the end of 1988, UDA members had certainly become aware of the rumours linking Patrick Finucane to the IRA. I am sure that members of the West Belfast UDA, and specifically one of the key ringleaders of the murder, L/28, became aware of rumours being circulated. Although it is clear that the UDA would already have believed Mr Finucane to be associated with PIRA, the rumours being disseminated could certainly have served to further reinforce the UDA's views in this regard.

15.38 I am also sure that the Security Service were aware of the fact that the propaganda was reaching loyalist paramilitaries. Indeed, as I have already outlined at paragraph 15.25, the subsequent records with respect to the propaganda initiative demonstrate that Security Service personnel later became concerned that the circulation of such information in this way was treading on "dangerous ground".

15.39 I questioned Security Service officer G/07 on the propaganda initiative. He acknowledged that:

"the discussion that we saw [between the DCI, HAG and the Head of the Service's operational section] might more usefully have taken place before the [initiatives] took place." [15]

15.40 However, he did express the view that, given the UDA's long-standing targeting of Patrick Finucane, he did not "see a direct linkage between the [propaganda] and the murder".[16]

15.41 I accept that the link between such propaganda and a paramilitary murder should not be overstated. Later in this Report I consider what I believe to have been the key drivers behind the UDA beginning to conspire to murder Patrick Finucane in December 1988.

15.42 However, that does not mean that the potential impact of such propaganda should be overlooked. In considering the background to this initiative, and taking account of the underlying material I have seen, I do believe that the propaganda could have had the effect of further legitimising Patrick Finucane as a target for loyalist paramilitaries.

Awareness of the propaganda against Patrick Finucane

15.43 It is clear that knowledge of the propaganda being circulated in the late 1980s, which included rumours relating to Patrick Finucane, extended beyond the Security Service's operational section.

15.44 The HAG was informed of the nature of some of the propaganda prior to it being disseminated. The content of this propaganda may have included the proposal to link Patrick Finucane to PIRA, though it is difficult to be sure of this. However, the HAG subsequently stated that he was told by a Security Service officer that the propaganda was already in the process of being disseminated and that there was therefore "no opportunity" for the Assessments Group to influence its content or nature.

15.45 The HAG's account appears to have been supported by the Head of the Security Service's operational section, whose own review of the propaganda initiatives implied that the operational section had not believed it to be necessary to seek clearance from the Assessments Group. 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.

15.46 A Security Service telegram produced in the late 1980s also demonstrates that both the RUC SB and the FRU were aware of the propaganda that included Patrick Finucane. The RUC SB appear to have provided their endorsement for the propaganda, whilst the FRU were said to have been made aware of the propaganda intended for dissemination. The Security Service note stated that:

"We have consulted [Assessments Group] (HAG) and RUC (SB Ch Insp.) who was enthusiastic about the concept and content [with the proposed nature of the propaganda]. FRU were [made aware of the proposed nature of the propaganda]." [17]

15.47 I should note that there is no evidence whatsoever that any political clearance was sought or obtained for the Security Service's propaganda initiatives. It is clear that, by the summer of 1989, the Service had begun to brief NIO officials in general terms about the concept of 'Counter-Action' and that NIO officials had made clear that "political clearance" was required for such activity. Although it is unclear whether the propaganda was explicitly classified as 'Counter-Action' at the time, it should, in my view, have been self-evident that these particular initiatives required political clearance.

15.48 The documentary records suggest that processes were subsequently devised to ensure that political clearance was sought for such initiatives. In September 1989, the Targeting Policy Committee agreed that future 'Counter-Action' activity would be subject to "full consultation and political clearance" and would be led by the cross-agency Information Strategy Group rather than the intelligence agencies.[18] By this stage, however, the Security Service initiatives of interest to my Review were being wound up.

Propaganda against Oliver Kelly and Paddy McGrory

15.49 I have established that the propaganda initiatives also included the dissemination of rumours with respect to the solicitors Oliver Kelly and Paddy McGrory during the 1980s. As was the case in relation to Patrick Finucane, I am satisfied that the channels used for this propaganda meant that the information reached loyalist paramilitary groups.

15.50 The Security Service were aware at the material time that these rumours would reach loyalist paramilitaries. The rumours would have added to and reinforced a variety of other conversations taking place within UDA circles at the time with regard to the supposed allegiances of these solicitors.

15.51 I should note that there is no evidence that the Security Service intended such rumours to be circulated with a view to encouraging loyalists to attack these lawyers. However, even if the intention was to 'unnerve' such lawyers, there were obvious risks in acquiescing in the circulation of such information around the loyalist community. The propaganda was disseminated despite the fact that both lawyers were known to be under threat from loyalist paramilitaries.


15.52 It is clear that there was an understandable desire within the UK Government and intelligence community to counter the propaganda being produced by terrorist groups in Northern Ireland during this period. However, given the background to these initiatives, and the circumstances which then prevailed in Northern Ireland, such propaganda could, unless it was very carefully controlled, have had manifestly undesirable results. Further, I agree entirely with the conclusions of senior officers who later recognised that the initiatives had been on "dangerous ground" and sought to wind them up. It is a matter of serious concern that initiatives of this nature were not subject to any form of political clearance.

15.53 I am entirely satisfied that, although he was not the focus of the initiatives, Patrick Finucane came to be included within their scope. In my view, his inclusion in this manner breached the obligations that should have been upheld by the State to ensure that lawyers could operate free from intimidation and not be identified with the causes of their clients.

15.54 I am satisfied that the dissemination of this propaganda could have served to further legitimise Patrick Finucane as a target for loyalist paramilitaries. Whilst the aim of these initiatives was to 'unnerve' people such as Mr Finucane (rather than to incite loyalists to attack them), the fact that the propaganda could have such an effect was, in my view, a consequence that should have been foreseeable to the Security Service at the time.

[1] See, for example, Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA, HarperCollins, 1993, Ch. 33

[2] See, for example, Richard O'Rawe, Blanketmen, New Island Books, 2005, which includes a number of references to the 'propaganda war' (e.g. p. 112 noting that "it had been a mammoth task to cover up the fact that the hunger strike had collapsed")

[3] RUC SB RIRAC, 18 March 1988

[4] Note held in Security Service archives

[5] Ibid.

[6] Security Service, internal note

[7] Ibid.

[8] Internal note from Head of Security Service operational section

[9] Earlier internal note from Head of the Security Service's operational section

[10] Head of G8 note to Security Service operational section

[11] Note from Security Service operational section to G8, 1989

[12] Note from HAG to Head of G8, 1989

[13] Security Service paper, review of CA activity, 15 December 1989

[14] Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, adopted by the 8th United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, 1990. Available on the website of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

[15] Transcript of meeting with G/07, 28 September 2012, p. 37

[16] Ibid.

[17] Note, Security Service operational section to Head of G8

[18] Minutes of Targeting Policy Committee, September 1989