I’m surprised, both that a public inquiry into the Finucane murder has been refused, and that the response to the refusal so far has been quite muted. Perhaps it’s only the calm before the storm. I would guess that the decision was finally taken on political grounds, namely that the UK government can get away with it. That probably wasn’t true a few years ago. If it’s true today, it may be a backhanded compliment to what we still call the peace process but it was also affected by the public spending climate. Whatever they may say about particular cases, in Northern Ireland the main parties have no interest in major investigations into the past. The Cory inquiries that have reported so far have added little. The Troubles are starting to slide into history. The government’s favourite plan is to leave future examinations to a panel of historians and other analysts, probably on the basis of a 40 year rule for the release of documents. If that were up and running now, the fuller story of the height of the Troubles in the seventies would be underway. But precisely what documents would be made available?
All the same and in spite of all of the above, the refusal of an inquiry under the 2005 Inquiries Act was a miserable affair, the decision itself and the long delay under successive governments. Inevitably it will be believed there is something so awful to hide that it cannot be revealed, even though the evidence is sitting there in the Stevens reports. The basic problem is the huge lack of transparency and the distrust it naturally perpetuates over and above historic suspicion. Perhaps the Baha Mousa inquiry may be a better precedent for uncovering responsibility under immunity than the usual critics believe. At any rate we shall see, because the de Silva inquiry must now proceed with I assume similar immunities. The Finucanes cannot have a veto. Tough and unfashionable as it may seem, there is a higher public interest than satisfying family victims.
The next move that should be considered is to reach an interim overview of the performance of all types of investigations extant, beyond sparse statements about family satisfaction levels and clear-up rates. Can an objective view be reached on the performance of the historic enquiries team, the controversial handling of the police ombudsman? And here’s a naive question: what does the record say about inquests? Now that they can delve into the Stevens reports what does the future hold for them? And fundamentally, why does it all take so absurdly long? Justice so long stalled is certainly justice denied.
Who can answer these questions? Responsibility is shared among so many stakeholders and jurisdictions – two executives, the independent judiciary and coroners, a brace of Attorneys General and prosecuting authorities. The buck can be passed around endlessly. In an era where DNA evidence has transformed the investigation of crimes committed twenty and more years ago, and Nazi hunters are still active, it isn’t good enough for a civilised State to postpone it all to the distant future when everybody involved is dead.
An interim report on how we have so far dealt with the record of the past could point the way to finding out what remains to be done. It would cut across the coat trailing and allegations of one sided justice and should be carried out without regard to prospects for reconciliation. It is wrong to confine the verdicts on the Troubles to matters of political convenience. Will the Assembly agree?
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