The Finucane Decision

Following on from Patrick’s response to the annoucement last week that there would not be an inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane, we welcome this piece from Paul Mageean, now of the University of Ulster, but who has previously worked as a leading human rights solicitor, as legal officer for CAJ, for the Courts Service as well as for Criminal Justice Inspectorate Northern Ireland.

The decision by the Prime Minster David Cameron not to announce a public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane may not be as surprising as it first appears.  The previous government had told the House of Commons in 2004 that a public inquiry would be forthcoming.  Further statements from the current Secretary of State seemed to suggest that the government was still largely committed to such an approach.  Negotiations between officials in the Northern Ireland Office and lawyers representing the Finucane family had taken place and were apparently focusing on the modalities of an inquiry rather than whether such an inquiry were going to take place.  When the Finucane family were asked to travel to Downing St to meet David Cameron, it seemed to them and many others that the culmination of 22 years campaigning was at hand, and that an inquiry was about to be established.  It is hard to believe that the British government was not aware that it was creating this impression.  The invitation to Downing St, with the raising of hope that must have entailed, was perhaps the most difficult moment for the Finucane family in their long-standing campaign, one which has been marked by the dignity and courage of the family.

Geraldine Finucane and her children have spent the last two decades doggedly pursuing the truth in relation to her husband’s murder.  His case and that of a small number of other murders were the subject of a review by a retired Canadian Supreme Court Justice, Mr Peter Cory, following the Weston Park agreement.

The Finucane family and the other families involved did not ask for that review.  It was the result of an agreement between the Irish and British governments to allow the demand for public inquiries to be dealt with by an independent review, in much the same way as the authors of the Good Friday Agreement had reserved the difficult questions around policing and criminal justice for separate reviews.   The British government did not want to establish inquiries but it did commit to doing just that if an independent review recommended such inquiries.   Judge Cory said he found sufficient evidence of collusion as to require the establishment of inquiries in each of the Northern Ireland cases he examined.  He also said that the failure to hold a public inquiry quickly in these cases would be seen as a cynical breach of faith.

Until that point the legislation grounding public inquiries in the UK was the Tribunal of Inquiries Act 1921.  Following Cory the British government repealed the 1921 Act, replacing it with the Inquiries Act 2005, which unlike its predecessor allows government ministers greater control over any inquiries established.  With the new legislation in place, the government established inquiries in the cases of Rosemary Nelson, Billy Wright and Robert Hamill.   All three of those inquires have now run their course although the findings in Hamill are still awaited.

The Finucane family was understandably concerned about the changing of the goalposts with the scrapping of the 1921 Act but over the last year it was apparent that the family and the government were beginning to focus on the shape of an inquiry and how it would operate.  These discussions were private but there was a sense that an end was in sight for the family and their supporters.  Unfortunately it now appears that the meeting in Downing St was simply another delaying tactic in a long line of such tactics in this case.

The irony is that everyone, including David Cameron, acknowledges that there was collusion in Pat Finucane’s murder.  Judge Cory said so.  John Stevens, the most senior police officer in the UK at the time, said so, and innumerable legal and human rights figures from around the world have said so.  David Cameron, instead of establishing an inquiry to find the extent of this collusion, has decided to ask for a further private review of the papers.

There are lots of issues that this decision raises.  These include an assessment of the truth of what the the British government told the Committee of Ministers in Strasbourg monitoring the implementation of the Court judgment in Finucane v UK, what it told the UN Human Rights Committee and indeed what it told Parliament itself.

However, there is a deeper and more fundamental issue that this decision has thrown into stark relief.  The government could live with what might be revealed about collusion in the Nelson, Hamill and Wright cases, bad as that was.  It cannot live with what might be revealed in Finucane.   There are two reasons for this and neither is palatable.

One is that the collusion likely to be revealed will be shown to have been strategically planned or permitted at a senior political level.  The other is that it claimed so many victims, with Pat Finucane being simply the most high profile.  Those reasons are not mutually exclusive.  In this context, the decision by Cameron not to announce an inquiry is not as shocking as it might at first appear.