Finucane should shock and appall us – and compel us to act

by Kevin Meagher

A family sits down to dinner on a dark Sunday evening. They hear the sound of breaking glass from the front hall. The parents jump up to see what has happened. They find a man dressed in black standing in the hallway. The father slams closed the glass kitchen door in a bid to keep the intruder away from his family. A bullet smashes the glass and the father – shot – falls to the floor.

The intruder enters the kitchen and stands over the wounded man. His terrified wife and three young children look on. The gunmen calmly takes aim and opens fire, pumping round after round into the man’s broken and bloodied body. He is shot 14 times in all; with five bullets entering his head. A ricocheted bullet strikes his wife in the ankle.

Screams and smoke fill the air. The gunman, composed throughout, leaves. Job done.

The target, a lawyer campaigning against government human rights abuses, had been monitored by his assassins in the weeks before his killing. The planning was meticulous; nothing had been left to chance. Later investigations manage to establish that some of those responsible for planning this cold-bloodied murder were agents of the state’s intelligence services.

A tale from a South American dictatorship where state-sanctioned murder goes unpunished and enemies of the government are liquidated? Look a little closer to home. Welcome to the Pat Finucane case.

Finucane was a Belfast defence solicitor murdered on 12 February 1989 by a loyalist gunman in the circumstances described above. He was a respected legal figure in Northern Ireland, partner in a successful and high profile practice and a frequent speaker on human rights issues at legal conferences around the world. A thorn in the government’s side, he had two test cases against the British government before the European court of human rights at the time of his death.

Some of his work involved representing Irish republican suspects, (although his practice had represented loyalists too). Yet this fact alone was enough, in the warped thinking of his murderers, to justify his killing. In this mindset, an uppity Fenian brief that used legal due process to thwart the jailing of IRA scum was a legitimate target and deserved what he got.

They were not the only ones with such questionable thinking. Just before Finucane’s murder, then Conservative home office minister, Douglas Hogg, caused uproar in the Commons by infamously claiming that some solicitors in Northern Ireland were “unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA“. Finucane had recently helped get an IRA suspect off a high profile charge. Three weeks after Hogg’s reckless remarks, Finucane was dead.

If there had been a prompt judicial inquiry into the murder and the allegations of collusion between the killers and parts of the intelligence services, then the findings would certainly have led to calls to reform the ways in which they operated. There would have been pressure for greater oversight. We would have said “never again”. It would have been a painful, embarrassing process, but cathartic too and we would have got through it.

Who knows, perhaps we would not so easily have blundered into the Iraq quagmire; having learned not to take assurances from intelligence sources at face value. Perhaps Britain would not have so easily become embroiled in extraordinary rendition, secret CIA interrogation centres, or any of the other murky – and usually counter-productive practices of a later “dirty war”. Perhaps we would have become more questioning, insisting on closer scrutiny of what our intelligence agencies do on our behalf – and how they do it.

It is not too late. Labour should back calls for a full judicial inquiry into the Finucane murder; a promise first made by Tony Blair but subject to prevarication and foot-dragging ever since. Finucane’s family were hopeful that David Cameron was finally going to establish such an inquiry. They travelled to Downing Street on Tuesday for long-delayed talks with the prime minister. Unfortunately the meeting ended abruptly. Finucane’s widow, Geraldine, was too angry and upset to continue after it was clear no judicial inquiry would be forthcoming. A review of the case papers by a barrister is all that was on offer.

As Shaun Woodward aptly put it, it was “crass“and “cruel” to set up a meeting with the prime minister only to dash their hopes. The baton now passes to Vernon Coaker and Labour’s new Northern Ireland team to respond.

Yesterday in the Commons, current Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson attempted to apply a teaspoon of corn flour to the thin gruel on offer. In the breezy, patrician manner of previous Tory secretaries of state, Paterson promised that the review under Desmond DeSilva QC would provide a “full public account” of the circumstances surrounding Finucane’s murder and that he would carry out his work “completely independently” of government. However, being “free to meet any individuals who can assist him in his task” is not the same as being able to compel witnesses and papers and report directly to parliament. That is why a full judicial investigation is needed.

None of this is to elevate Pat Finucane’s death above the countless other horrible and brutal killings of The Troubles. There is no hierarchy of victims here. There is, however, a critical difference with Finucane’s murder: the British system of government and how we hold state agencies accountable is itself in the dock.

No-one now disputes that there was collusion between loyalist death squads and parts of the British intelligence apparatus in Northern Ireland. Indeed, David Cameron conceded as much to the Finucane family on Tuesday. Earlier inquiries conducted by Sir John Stevens and former Canadian judge Peter Cory unambiguously concluded that collusion between the state and loyalist paramilitaries had taken place in Finucane’s murder (and in other killings). However both these inquiries met with resistance in their bid to uncover the truth about exactly what happened and how far the rot went up the chain of command; hence the call for a full judicial inquiry.

Just like the victims of Bloody Sunday, atrocities committed by state forces are carried out in our name. Not to root out those responsible is, by omission, to validate their actions which, in this case, emulate those of the paramilitaries they were ostensibly charged with stopping. The sort of moral relativism that sees British agents co-ordinate the murder of their own civilians leads us directly to Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and water boarding. When the lines blur between how states should behave and how they should not, then the moral high ground is forfeited. The world is watching.

The families and communities scarred with three decades of death and destruction in Northern Ireland are all, regardless of background and circumstance, looking for reconciliation of one kind or another. But the British state needs to turn the page too. We deserve the right to know what was done in our name, to confront a terrible truth and to ensure that there is no repeat of the modus operandi that killed Pat Finucane: now or in the future; at home or in far-away lands. For that reason, there should be a judicial inquiry into his squalid murder; and Labour must lead the way in pressing for it.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

Tags: , , , ,

5 Responses to “Finucane should shock and appall us – and compel us to act”

  1. swatantra says:

    1989. At some point in time there has to be Reconciliation.
    But there has als to be Truth about what happened, truth, without prejudice, so that families can rest in peace.

  2. Roger says:

    Big typo in title: Finuncane not Finucare.

    Again how can we attack the Tories for doing nothing? – exactly as New Labour did for 13 years in power.

    We didn’t open this can of worms for a good political reason.

    Everyone knows that agents of the British state probably killed Pat Finucane.

    If these were rogue agents operating without proper sanction (e.g. agents within a Unionist terror group and went along with rather than initiated and actively facilitated the murder) then an enquiry probably would have been held.

    If one wasn’t held, the likely conclusion is that exposing the truth would have had political consequences which were worse than the manifest injustice of covering this up.

    And given that political consequences in Northern Ireland can include people – potentially many people – getting killed this is something that can’t be taken lightly.

    The only answer therefore might be to include this case in the remit of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission – but given that the Bloody Sunday Enquiry took a mere 12 years and £400 million to deliver a report which was so overshadowed by the 2010 election that it had next to no impact, it can reasonably be questioned whether that is something that a monstrously incompetent British state is even capable of delivering.

  3. swatantra says:

    Lets have the truth … without prejudice. And that means immunity.

  4. Will says:

    Finucane’s death is horrific, and there is no doubt that MI5 and the RUC had strong links with loyalist death squads- read John Black’s “Killing For Britain”. But if there is to be an investigation into this, there should also be an investigation into whether current politicians used to be members of paramilitary forces, and whether they committed, or ordered, murders. This inquiry would see Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams in Belmarsh. Will that happen?

  5. Finucane was gunned down not far from my home, yet another victim of North Belfast’s mindless sectarian conflict. I fully support the attempts by his family to seek justice.

    Belfast has had all too many instances of this type of murder, each one heartbreaking, each crime obscene in its reckless disregard for the value of a single human life.

    That the state itself can be implicated in such a murder should be a cause of grave concern for all of us who live here.

    I am a labour party member in Northern Ireland. I support the union, many of our members support it, many do not, but in any case I shudder to think that the state that I support is implicated in some way in the murder of a man in his own home in front of his wife and kids.

    It is the role of the state to confront terrorism and defend the civilian population against it, not carry out acts that raise the question as to whether it is itself acts like terrorists or is any way better than them.

    No. Cameron is wrong here, whatever his reasoning. And I don’t agree with the arguments suggesting these investigations should cease because of the huge cost involved. Stop assisting in the murder of unarmed civilians in their homes and you wont have to have any future inquiry or pay out any money for one, will you?

Leave a Reply