RUC attack tests Labour on human rights

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The Independent Online
THE United Nations report which accuses the Royal Ulster Constabulary of systematic intimidation of lawyers, and wants the Pat Finucane murder case reopened, will provide a major test of the Government's attitude towards human rights questions in Northern Ireland.

In the past the standard response of the RUC and Conservative governments was to react sharply and even combatively to such criticisms from human rights missions. Yesterday the police stuck to their familiar attitude, declaring: "Sadly, this report represents a significant missed opportunity to address openly and without prejudice claims of abuse and harassment by police of a minority of the province's lawyers and their clients."

The question is whether Labour will follow suit or take a different tack. The new document is the latest in a long line of reports from legal and human rights organisations expressing disquiet about the assassination of Mr Finucane, a Belfast solicitor who handled many republican cases, who was shot dead in February 1989.

While the report puts forward no new evidence about the case, it signals continuing concerns in international human rights circles about the incident. The report states: "Outstanding questions surrounding the murder demonstrate the need for an independent judicial inquiry. So long as this murder is unresolved, many in the community will continue to lack confidence in the ability of the Government to dispense justice in a fair and equitable manner."

Mr Finucane was shot by Ulster Defence Association gunmen at his north Belfast home. A high-profile Belfast solicitor, he had appeared in a number of important cases involving IRA suspects.

This, together with his family connections with some prominent republican activists, did not endear him to the security forces. Allegations began immediately after the shooting. A number of Belfast solicitors claimed detectives questioning loyalist paramilitaries had systematically "bad- mouthed" Mr Finucane and other solicitors, alleging they were members of the IRA. Loyalist paramilitary sources bore this out.

More information seeped out during the prosecution of Brian Nelson, the UDA intelligence officer who, it emerged, had also functioned as an army agent. The most prominent of the UDA's victims during the Nelson period was Mr Finucane.

In a journal which he wrote while in prison, Nelson recorded that he told the army a prominent UDA assassin had asked him for information on Mr Finucane. He wrote: "Some two months before the actual shoot took place I was asked by R- to see what I could dig up on Finucane. At the time I informed my handlers that R- was showing interest in this solicitor.

"A few weeks later I inquired from R- if he still wanted me to check on him. I was told by R- that he had found out what he needed to know." Three days before the murder, R- asked Nelson for a magazine which contained a photograph of Mr Finucane together with a prominent republican, Pat McGeown.

There may have been confusion at this point over whether the UDA intended to kill Mr Finucane or Pat McGeown.

The report's author raised the case with Chief Constable Flanagan, the Northern Ireland Director of Public Prosecutions and senior English policeman John Stevens, who conducted an investigation into the case. The DPP said there was insufficient evidence to warrant any prosecution in the case, while Mr Stevens said that since his report was now the property of the RUC and the Northern Ireland Office he could not divulge its contents.