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Artillery Row

The never-ending inquiries into the murder of Pat Finucane

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis has announced further reviews to appease the incoming Biden administration

There were no surprises when the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis this week ruled out a public inquiry into the notorious 1989 assassination of the Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane whilst simultaneously “not taking the possibility of a public inquiry off the table at this stage.”

Instead, Lewis ordered yet more reviews of a case that has been reviewed multiple times since 1989 and at the cost of millions.

The Finucane case has always been a grudge match between the British state and Irish nationalism

Make no mistake: no British government has ever seriously entertained the prospect of having a public inquiry into Finucane’s murder carried out with what David Cameron described in 2012 as “frankly shocking levels of collusion” between his loyalist assassins and agents of the state. Nor will there ever be one – despite the UK Supreme Court’s 2019 finding that there has yet to be an adequate investigation into his death.

The Finucane case is, and always has been, a grudge match between the British state and Irish nationalism, with the former metaphorically rolling their eyes at the latter’s portrayal of the 39-year-old solicitor as a “human rights lawyer” because many of his clients were allegedly active members of the IRA with zero regard for human rights.

Responding to Lewis, the DUP MP for East Antrim Sammy Wilson spoke for the beating heart of the British state when he told MPs that Finucane’s family “had well documented terrorist links.” Which was another way of saying that when gunmen stood over Finucane and fired 14 bullets into his head in his kitchen as his wife and three children looked on, he had it coming to him.

“One brother died whilst engaged in terrorist activity and two were captured while engaged in terrorist activity,” said Wilson whilst deliberately ignoring the fact that at Finucane’s inquest, the Royal Ulster Constabulary made it clear that unlike his brothers, Finucane was not a member of the IRA.

Finucane may have had strong republican sympathies but first and foremost he was an officer of the court, using every legal avenue available to him for the benefit of his clients – many of whom were members of the IRA charged with terrorist offences – as was their right. The Thatcher government forever intoned that the Northern Ireland conflict was all about establishing the rule of law.

There’s not the remotest prospect of a prosecution in the Finucane case

And Cameron was right: the degree of collusion in Finucane’s murder was truly shocking. First, MI5 helped legitimise Finucane as a target for the loyalist Ulster Freedom Fighters with an ill-judged propaganda initiative. This facilitated publication of a UFF front magazine with a spoof edition called An Phobcrap – parodying the IRA’s weekly newspaper An Phoblacht. The caption read: “IRA volunteer Patrick McGeown, along with IRA solicitor Pat O’Cocaine, walks free from Belfast’s Crumlin Road Courthouse after miraculously beating the rap due to ‘lack of evidence’.” McGeown had been charged with helping to lynch two Army corporals beaten mercilessly and then shot to death.

The UFF were also encouraged to shoot Finucane by at least one police officer. A UFF “commander” was told “Get Finucane. He is the brains behind the IRA. Forget about [Gerry] Adams.”  In 2001, for BBC Panorama, I covertly recorded Ken Barrett, a member of the UFF’s “active service unit” that carried out the murder. He told me: “Finucane would have been alive today if the peelers (the police) hadn’t interfered. The peelers wanted him whacked, we whacked him, that’s the end of the story”. Finucane’s murder was also plotted with the assistance of two state agents, one did the targeting.

As for Barrett, although he admitted his involvement to a special branch officer on tape, it was wiped because the branch wanted to recruit him as an informer.

The reason Brandon Lewis gave for not closing the door on a public inquiry was because yet more police reviews needed to be conducted into the Finucane case in order to satisfy Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights which requires the state to exhaust all investigative possibilities of bringing a prosecution – especially since the state had a hand in it.

And so, Lewis tells us, there will need to be two furthers reviews – one by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the other by the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland even though cumulatively, over 12,000 witness statements, 32,000 documents and, in all, over a million pages of material have already been collected by several Police inquiries over the years.

Beginning in 2021, the PSNI are to review a previous review by Independent Counsel into all previous investigations into the Finucane case, including a 2015 PSNI review which itself was a review by the late Sir Desmond de Silva in 2012 of three reviews and investigations carried out by the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens conducted between 1989 and 2003 whose work was also reviewed in 2004 by Judge Peter Cory.

When the PSNI have decided on the “precise scope and format” of this latest review it will have to be “conducted independently of the PSNI” says Lewis. Which means appointing yet another outside police force.

However, whenever the review proper finally gets going, it’s not likely to last very long because the PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne says that as far as he’s concerned, there are “currently no new lines of inquiry.”

As for the Ombudsman’s review, this will only be done “when resources allow”, says Lewis. In other words, it’s not on the Ombudsman’s list of priorities because she’s short of cash.

It all sounds commendably diligent, doesn’t it – the Northern Ireland Secretary leaving absolutely no stone unturned. Except that it’s in sharp contrast to Lewis’s demand last March that police reviews into all the other 1000 unresolved killings from the conflict should be completed swiftly with the files closed forever if there’s no realistic prospect of prosecution.

There’s not the remotest prospect of a prosecution in the Finucane case, which is why his family for years have been pressing for a public inquiry. And the reason for the government’s refusal isn’t really about Finucane – since we probably know as much as there is to know – but what else the intelligence services were up to. The problem with such inquiries is they can be difficult to control and one thing the government needs to do is to keep control of the legacy narrative for as long as it possibly can.

British governments have been kicking the Finucane can down the road for decades

A cynic might also say the real reason Lewis didn’t close the door completely on a public inquiry is the Biden White House. Unlike Trump, Biden takes a close interest in Northern Ireland. When he was Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the President-elect supported the Finucane family’s call for a public inquiry, and as Vice President he kept in touch with the Irish embassy on developments in the peace process. Also, like Biden, his National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan is an Irish American and did his PhD on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. “These people are seriously interested and knowledgeable” a former diplomat explains. “They know Lewis’s decision on Finucane will play badly in Irish America.”

British governments have been kicking the Finucane can down the road for decades, but now they’re running out of road. What will No. 10 tell the Irish Americans in the White House when that happens?

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