MI5 forced to hand over secret files on Northern Ireland operations | Northern Ireland

Geraldine Finucane

The UK’s Security Service, MI5, has been forced to disclose top secret files to an investigation into historical operations in Northern Ireland for the first time, it has emerged.

The revelations by the British chief of an investigation into an alleged spy at the heart of the IRA come as an influential US congressman denounced British government plans for an amnesty for those involved in crimes during the Troubles as a “cover-up”.

Jon Boutcher, former chief constable of Bedfordshire police, has spent five years examining the involvement of a state agent codenamed Stakeknife in IRA kidnappings, torture and murder. He told Congress his Operation Kenova investigation had now extended to 250 murders.

He also told Congress he had made successful legal challenges to MI5 and was getting fresh information on crimes that had never been seen by previous police heads, including three official government inquiries led by the former Met commissioner John Stevens.

“We’ve recovered records that other investigations, previously commissioned, were not provided access to. We have access into MI5, into the military and into the PSNI, direct access. It’s something I insisted upon, having spoken to a lot of those who previously led legacy investigations,” he said.

“It’s realistic to suggest that some of the access that wasn’t provided years ago was because of the proximity of those investigations to the conflict. There [were] a lot of people in those organisations leading those organisations who were affiliated to a side in the conflict and therefore they made it hard to get the material.”

Boutcher was speaking for the first time since he completed his interim report into the killings, which is yet to be published.

Geraldine Finucane
Geraldine Finucane, widow of the murdered lawyer Pat Finucane, also gave evidence to the US hearing. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

He was giving evidence to a hearing at Congress’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, which also took evidence from victims’ families, including Geraldine Finucane, whose husband, Pat, a lawyer, was murdered in 1989, and a victims campaigner, Alan McBride, whose wife and father-in-law were killed in a fish shop in the Shankill Road in 1993.

Co-chair of the committee, the veteran Republican congressman Chris Smith, promised to help their campaign to stop the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, going ahead with the legislation dealing with the legacy of the Troubles. Smith said the UK plan was the “final nail in the cover-up they are engaging in”, adding: “This is not a done deal … this can be checkmated before it goes any further”.

The laws were expected to be tabled last autumn and have been delayed twice.

Boutcher said he believed the government was at “a tipping point” in relation to the legislation and urged them to think again as families deserved the truth. “If the truth is denied, the next generation will carry on the fight for answers and the past will not heal,” he said.

Smith’s co-chair, the Democrat Jim McGovern, said he hoped the government would “step back” from the legacy legislation. “Now is not the time to give up on accountability for the terrible human rights abuses committed during the Troubles”.

Mark Thompson, chief executive of Relatives for Justice, told the hearing that 1,700 families would be denied the truth if the UK government’s plan for a statute of limitations on investigations went ahead.

Boutcher said families of security forces killed in Northern Ireland had suffered too. He had discovered many families “had not heard from the authorities or the police for many many years”. It was “fair to say they felt incredibly let down”.

He said it was right that the UK state agencies were opening up files to his Operation Kenova and that investigations were viable, despite arguments of challenges presented by the fact some of the crimes happened decades ago.

“Security forces are often of a view that any examination of legacy is of itself a criticism of that. And the disclosure of information represents a threat to national security. Neither is correct, is what sets us apart as a democracy. Having not been able to deal with these cases properly at the time because of the danger that existed to everyone, we should now do what we can to give families the investigation they deserve,” he said.

In response to the hearing, the UK government said it was “rightly listening to the feedback it has received and considering how the proposals … might be amended to better meet the needs of those impacted by the Troubles”.

A spokesperson said: “The government is absolutely committed to addressing legacy issues comprehensively and fairly”, adding the proposals would include “measures that focus on information recovery, so that families can know what happened to their loved ones, and which promote reconciliation, so all communities in Northern Ireland can move forward”.