Last major inquiry into the Troubles now in prospect

Owen Paterson has quietly made two of the most significant announcements of his term as NI Secretary, however long it lasts. The verdict on holding a Finucane Inquiry will come in the New Year. The fact that the family appear not to have rejected his publicly undisclosed proposals out of hand this time suggests an inquiry is on the way.

This decision is consistent with Westminster’s bi partisan approach on inquiries.  It fulfils a pledge. This was the one inquiry the  government expected to be recommended by Judge Cory rather than the other three which actually went ahead.  The thoroughness of the Saville Inquiry  (although not held under the controversial 2005 Inquiries Act) may have eased the family’s fears of government interference and got them off their hook of intransigence – as it might appear to the British government. The public reception accorded to Saville has changed the climate and  all concerned would be wise to take advantage of it.   

As Finucane was regarded as unfinished business a new inquiry does not breach the government’s aim of no more public inquiries. If it does go ahead, government will doubtless try to represent it as the last major investigation into the Troubles. Whether this happens remains to be seen.

The intention to end 50:50 police recruitment in 2011 also follows Labour policy. Many people will be as surprised as they may be relieved to learn that this remains within the ambit of the British government rather than the Executive.  If he’s wise Paterson will have already taken soundings with the local parties already. The SDLP will point out that at 27% nationalist PSNI membership falls well short of matching the 44% Catholic population. The nationalist parties in practice retain a veto but not without a damaging row with unionism.  Assurances are needed that future recruitment – already facing restrictions due to the spending cuts – will not disfavour nationalists under fair employment procedures. This should be manageable unless the parties are foolish enough to make a fight of it.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London