An iniquitous Act

by David Granville

ONE IRISH family's campaign to uncover the truth surrounding the death of a beloved husband, father and brother travelled to Washington recently, though unlike the saturation coverage which greeted the relatives and fiancee of murdered Belfast-man Robert McCartney, you'd barely have known it from an examination of the British media.

At around the same time as the McCartney group took their campaign to the White House and beyond, the family of murdered Belfast human-rights lawyer Pat Finucane were addressing members of the US Congress with their concerns over controversial British government legislation governing major inquiries into matters of grave public interest.

Despite opposition from the Finucane family campaign, human rights groups, legal bodies, senior judges and politicians, the Inquiries Act was rushed through on the final day of the last Westminster parliament.

As readers of the Irish Democrat will be aware, Pat Finucane was gunned down sixteen years ago by loyalist killers working in collusion with British police and military intelligence forces - a fact which is no longer disputed in view of available evidence, including that gathered by the third inquiry into collusion conducted by Sir John Stevens.

However, while details of those directly involved in the killing and their links to British security agencies have been known for many years, and the man who pulled the trigger, Ken Barrett, is now serving a 22-year prison sentence, many details concerning the state's involvement in the murder remain buried under a shroud of official obfuscation, denial and misinformation.

It is for that reason that the Finucane family and their supporters have campaigned long and hard for a independent, international public inquiry into the murder, seeing this as the only realistic chance of getting at the truth and of exposing those responsible at all levels, up to and including government ministers.

The Finucane family's response to the Act being pushed through parliament has been to make it clear that it will not co-operate with an inquiry set up under the terms of the new legislation.

Writing earlier this year in The Guardian newspaper, on the anniversary of his father's death, Michael Finucane outlined the family's opposition to the new legislation:

"The bill (now Act) is not designed to establish public enquiries at all... its focus is on giving control of inquiries to ministers so that anything potentially embarrassing to government is prevented from leaking out".

The Finucane family's critisms particularly relevant considering their long-held belief that the solicitor's murder was "ordered at the highest level" and that the evidence required to prove this "is contained in files locked deep within the establishment".

Finucane's widow Geraldine has also written to every senior judge in England, Scotland and Wales, to ask them not to serve on any inquiry into her husband's death established under the terms of the new Act.

The family's appeal has been echoed by Amnesty International, which has taken its opposition a stage further by also calling upon judges working outside the UK jurisdiction to boycott any such inquiry.

In a particularly tough statement, Amnesty International UK accused the government of "railroading" the legislation through parliament and of attempting to block independent scrutiny of agents of the state, such as those known to have been involved in Finucane's murder.

Amnesty also warned that the legislation would have implications beyond the Finucane case, including for future inquiries into major incidents involving public service failures, deaths in prisons, rail disasters and army deaths in disputed circumstances.

"The Inquiries Act 2005 undermines the rule of law, the separation of powers and human rights protection," Amnesty insisted. "It cannot be the foundation for an effective, independent, impartial or thorough judicial inquiry in serious allegations of human rights violations. Nor would it provide for public scrutiny of all the relevant evidence."

Amnesty is just one of a number of prominent human rights groups and professional legal bodies to have raised serious concerns, especially over the issue of the potential for ministerial control and influence over inquiries. Others to have voiced their concerns include the Committee on the Administration of Justice, the Human Rights Institute of the International Bar Association and the Law Society of England and Wales.

Opposition from senior judicial figures like Lord Saville, who chaired the recently completed Bloody Sunday inquiry, and Judge Peter Cory, whose report for the British and Irish governments recommend a public inquiry into the Finucane murder and several other cases where collusion is known to have been a factor, has been equally damning.

Writing recently to British constitutional affairs minister Baroness Ashton, Lord Saville stressed that the legislation "would make it difficult to get the whole truth about the death of Pat Finucane". In his letter, Saville made it clear that he would not be prepared to be a member of an inquiry "if at my back was a minister with power to exclude the public or to decide that evidence or documents should not be disclosed to the public".

In a letter to head of the US Congressional committee looking into the possible effects of the new legislation, Peter Cory criticised the British government's attempt to limit the scope of the Finucane inquiry on grounds of 'national security' and described the current legislation as creating "an intolerable Alice in Wonderland situation".

"It seems to me that the proposed new Act would make a meaningful inquiry impossible.... If the Act were to become law, I would advise all Canadian judges to decline an appointment in light of the impossible situation they would be facing." (Cory)

The Blair government's interests in controlling inquiry costs and of protecting 'national security' have been used by ministers as a smokescreen to mask a wider desire to ensure that public scrutiny is kept to a minimum, that the independence of inquiry chairs curtailed and the potential for ministerial interference maximised.

The Pat Finucane Centre, the independent Derry-based human rights organisation, is among those to have pointed to less financially prudent or national security-related concerns at the heart of the government's intent.

In a recent letter to Catherine (Baroness) Ashton, parliamentary under secretary at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, human rights group insisted that the government appeared determined to cover up the truth behind Finucane's murder.

"This is perhaps understandable given the involvement of the Force Research Unit of the British Army, the Security Service (MI5) and RUC Special Branch in the murder and subsequent cover up," the human rights group wrote.

Rather than the official government line of "helping to build public confidence in inquiries", the group indicated the new legislation would instead serve "to convince many people in Ireland, Britain and throughout the world that this government will go to any lengths to hide the truth about the operation of what was essentially a state-sponsored death squad".

The real problem for any British government is that the Finucane killing, and others where collusion has played a key role, goes to the very heart of Britain's dirty war in Ireland - an episode in Britain's history of colonial involvement in Ireland which Tory and Labour governments alike have been eager to keep under wraps.

In a hard-hitting parliamentary contribution made shortly before his retirement, former Labour MP Kevin McNamara, placed the legislation in the overall political context of British misrule in Ireland. Speaking during the second reading debate, McNamara told MPs that it provided them "with a first-hand opportunity to witness the clash between our democratic ideals and the legacy of Britain's imperialist role in Ireland, where the principles of good governance have collided with sordid self-interest and manifest contempt for human rights and the rule of law".

He argued that the "admirable purposes" of the legislation had been "corrupted" by the refusal of the defence and intelligence establishments to come clean over their collusion with loyalist paramilitaries in the murder of Finucane.

"I do not believe that the protection of undercover agents has ever been a prime consideration, but there has been an attempt to hide implications of policy and its implementation. Successive governments have permitted, wittingly or unwittingly, an undercover war in Northern Ireland to be conducted outside democratic control," McNamara insisted.

That the inquiries legislation was pushed through in the face of such widespread criticism should be of concern to all progressives and democrats. This is especially true as the new legislation is likely to prove useful to governments of every political complexion in keeping all manner of misdemeanours away from full public scrutiny and accountability.

However, for those who have yet to be convinced or who have so far failed to see the connection, it also serves as another example of how Britain's colonial involvement in Ireland continues to have a detrimental impact on democracy and the rights of people on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Those with access to the internet can get more information about opposition to the Inquiries Act and register their support for the Finucane family by visiting

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2005-05-19 14:15:52.
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