Ministers announce inquiry into Finucane murder but fail to ease fears of cover-up

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The Independent Online

The Government declared its intention yesterday to hold an inquiry into the murder of the Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane, one of the most controversial killings of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

But its move, far from satisfying the Finucane family and the many human rights groups and nationalist politicians supporting them who have long campaigned for an inquiry, seemed certain to generate fresh criticism and allegations of a cover-up.

Although the Government has previously formally committed itself to a public inquiry, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Paul Murphy, did not use the word "public" in his announcement and referred merely to "an inquiry". He said the inquiry would take place on the basis of new legislation, so that it would be held "in a way that takes into account the public interest, including the requirements of national security".

In a Belfast context, the citing of national security has in the past signalled the non-disclosure of sensitive information. This fuelled speculation last night that security witnesses and documents might not see the light of day during the new inquiry. There are suggestions that the inquiry could be held mostly in private.

Mr Finucane's son Michael said: "This leaves me with serious concerns. This can only leave not only my family but all concerned citizens with deep dread as to what the Government really intends to do."

The case of the killing of the solicitor, who was shot in Belfast in 1989, has for years generated concern in legal circles, with a thousand legal figures from all over the world calling for a public inquiry.

He was killed by the loyalist Ulster Defence Association, but there have been numerous indications of involvement by security figures, and a Canadian judge brought in to review the case recommended a public inquiry.

Given that the Finucane family and many of the campaigners harbour the deepest suspicions about the intentions of the authorities, the lack of detail in the inquiry announcement can be expected to produce a clamour for clarification. The most common accusation flung against the authorities is that they are intent on constant postponement in a case that now goes back 15 years. To this will be added the allegation that the idea of a full public inquiry is now to be diluted.

Judicial rulings during the ongoing Bloody Sunday Inquiry in Londonderry excluded some evidence because it could compromise national security or put the lives of agents at risk. The speculation is that the proposed new legislation may cement this into law.

Last month a loyalist, Ken Barrett, pleaded guilty to the Finucane murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment, although there is speculation that under the Good Friday Agreement he could be released within months.

In what appears to be an important change of stance by the authorities, Mr Murphy indicated that an inquiry could be brought despite the possibility that other Finucane-related prosecutions might be brought.

Last year the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, who has been investigating the case for years, sent files on 20 security personnel to the Northern Ireland director of public prosecutions.

Sir John has indicated that he is hopeful that charges will result, but no decisions have been made known by the DPP.

Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, had previously indicated that any inquiry should not proceed until any further cases had been dealt with in the courts. Lord Goldsmith had held that prosecutions might be put at risk by a parallel public inquiry, saying that one charge which may be brought, that of attempting to pervert the course of justice, would be tried by a jury and not a judge.

He also argued that an inquiry would rehearse a witness in answering questions, declaring: "This preparation for cross-examination will deprive the criminal court of a witness's genuine reaction and answer when confronted."

His view is that the issues raised by the Stevens inquiry are "too serious to brush aside questions of prosecution". Lord Goldsmith said he was determined to see the issues "vigorously pursued, regardless of the position or seniority of the alleged offender."

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