Government to launch inquiries into four Northern Ireland 'dirty killings'

Three full public inquiries into the "dirty war" in Northern Ireland are to be announced by the Government today after a damning independent report into state collusion with paramilitary killers.

The inquiries will seek to uncover once and for all the circumstances surrounding the murders of three victims of the Troubles. A fourth public inquiry will be set up after criminal proceedings are completed in an earlier killing: the assassination of the human rights lawyer Pat Finucane.

In a report commissioned by the Government in May 2000, the former Canadian judge Peter Cory implicates Special Branch, MI5 and Army intelligence in the death of Mr Finucane in 1989. In his hard-hitting conclusions, which will be published today, Judge Cory also criticises official agencies in the three other killings, those of: Robert Hamill, a Catholic, who was kicked to death by a mob in 1997; Billy Wright, the loyalist leader, who was shot dead in the Maze prison in the same year; and the Republican solicitor Rosemary Nelson, who was blown up by a car bomb in 1999.

Several years ago the Government committed itself to holding public inquiries if the judge recommended them, as he has done in the four cases that he examined. The Irish government has already agreed, on his recommendation, to set up a public inquiry into the deaths of two Northern Ireland police officers on the border in 1989. Tony Blair's Government appears determined, however, that this will be the last series of public inquiries into deaths during the Troubles, and that new procedures will now be sought.

Judge Cory's report on Mr Finucane's death is known to be particularly critical of Army intelligence's Force Research Unit, which ran informers within the Ulster Defence Association, the loyalist group responsible for shooting the Belfast lawyer. It also blames the Royal Ulster Constabulary's Special Branch, which, like the army unit, is suspected of having prior knowledge of the plan to kill the lawyer.

MI5, which is heavily involved in intelligence in Northern Ireland, is also criticised for not reacting to numerous threats made against Mr Finucane, who in defending republican clients was regarded as a thorn in the side of the security forces. MI5 is known to have worked closely with both Army intelligence and Special Branch, raising questions about what it knew about the dangers posed to Mr Finucane by extreme loyalists, some of whom were paid intelligence agents.

Judge Cory was given access to extensive material amassed by Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, who has headed several inquiries into alleged intelligence collusion in the Finucane killing. A leading member of the UDA, Ken Barrett, has been charged with the murder, and the case expected to open in the autumn. It is reported that for legal reasons the Finucane public inquiry will not be announced until the end of the case.

This timing is expected to be criticised by the Finucane family, which has been campaigning for a full independent inquiry into the attack for 15 years. They, and civil liberties groups, have argued that there has been "unconscionable delay" in reaching this point. Some suggest that public inquiries need not await the outcome of criminal proceedings.

The questions also arise of whether intelligence personnel will openly give evidence in public inquiry, whether they will be named and what immunity, if any, they may be granted. Such restrictions were placed on some evidence from intelligence personnel in the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

According to reliable sources, the four new public inquiries will have the same powers as the Bloody Sunday investigation, with the ability to summon persons and papers. The Government is, however, reported to be working on ways to limit their cost and duration, after the Bloody Sunday inquiry, which has been widely criticised for proceedings that have been described as mammoth. It has been sitting for six years, with more than 400 days of hearings and has heard evidence from more than 900 witnesses.

The Prime Minister is expected to signal today that no new public inquiries can be expected from now on, and that a fresh mechanism will be sought to deal with the many Troubles killings and incidents that remain the object of controversy in Northern Ireland. There have recently been debates in Belfast about "moving on" from the past, and whether this can be done without new inquiries and investigations.

Discussion has taken place on whether some truth and reconciliation structure could be set up, but consensus has yet to be reached. The setting up of new public inquiries guarantees that arguments over controversial cases will now have a formal structure for months and probably years to come.

Killings and other controversial incidents, some dating back for decades, continue to be raised in political discourse. The Government is often accused of collusion, while Sinn Fein figures such as Gerry Adams are regularly accused of having a violent IRA past.

While concerns have been raised about the authorities heavily editing the Cory reports, it is believed that nine out of a total of 500 pages have had sections omitted. The edited sections, which are said to have been excised for legal and security reasons, are to be passed on to the new public inquiries.

Amnesty International and other groups called on the Government yesterday to consult the families on their views, and to ensure their maximum possible participation in proceedings.

Much of the content of the reports to be published today is said to be already in the public domain, having emerged from the Stevens investigations and in media reports.

The judge's conclusions will none the less be seen as providing an element of international endorsement to the many allegations that have surrounded the four killings, in particular the Finucane case, for many years.

THE VICTIMS

Pat Finucane

On 12 February 1989, Pat Finucane was eating a Sunday meal with his wife, Geraldine, and three children when the front door of the family home in Fortwilliam Drive, north Belfast, was smashed down by attackers.

Mr Finucane, 38, a defence lawyer who had appeared in a series of cases, including that of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, was shot 14 times by members of the loyalist Ulster Defence Association (UDA), sister organisation of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF).

The UFF later released a statement to the BBC claiming it had shot "Pat Finucane, the Provisional IRA officer, not ... the solicitor".

Mr Finucane's family had republican connections: his brother, John, an IRA man, was killed in a car crash in 1972 while another brother successfully contested an extradition attempt to Northern Ireland from the Republic.

The controversy surrounding his death arose from several sources, including proceedings in the House of Commons. Three weeks before his death, Douglas Hogg, then a junior minister, alleged during the committee stage of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill that some solicitors sympathised with the IRA.

There were also allegations that detectives interrogating loyalist prisoners at Castlereagh holding centre had urged the captives to shoot Mr Finucane. Brian Nelson, a military intelligence agent, told the BBC in 1992 that he prepared targeting information on Mr Finucane for the UDA.

After several inquiries by lawyers' groups, on 8 March this year Mrs Finucane was given the go-ahead to challenge the Government's failure to set up a public inquiry into the killing. Mrs Finucane was granted leave to apply for a judicial review in the High Court through which she hopes to force the Government to set up an inquiry.

Billy Wright

The leader of the Loyalist Volunteer Force, (LVF) was shot dead by a member of the Irish National Liberation Army in 1997 at the Maze prison. Christopher "Crip" McWilliams (serving life for multiple murders), led the attack in which Wright, 37, was shot. Known as King Rat, he was an icon of loyalist paramilitary violence during the Troubles and reputed to have been involved in dozens of murders while with the Ulster Volunteer Force. He later broke away to found the more militant LVF.

Rosemary Nelson

The Catholic solicitor, who practised in her home town of Lurgan, was blown up near her home when her car was booby-trapped by loyalists on 15 March 1999. Mrs Nelson, a married mother of three and leading human rights lawyer, died from multiple injuries hours later in hospital. The Red Hand Defenders claimed responsibility. Her death attracted international attention and the RUC received widespread criticism. Before her death, Mrs Nelson claimed some RUC officers had threatened to kill her.

Robert Hamill

The Catholic, 25, was kicked to death by a loyalist mob of up to 30 people in his home town of Portadown, Co Armagh, on 27 April 1997. There is a dispute whether RUC officers in a Land Rover tried to intervene. He died later in Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital without regaining consciousness. Six Portadown men were charged with murder but the charges against all but one were dropped when two witnesses, expected to testify, withdrew. In March 1999, a man was acquitted of Mr Hamill's murder.

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