The Stephen Livingstone lecture: the unfinished business of inquiries

This is the last installment in the review (link to the complete series) of Martin O'Brien's speech on 'Human rights and the Agreement: how far have we come?', the 2009 Stephen Livingstone memorial lecture.Comments welcome on this or any of the previous serialised segments of this speech.

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A number of killings in Northern Ireland, where direct or indirect State involvement is suspected, have led to the establishment of various inquiries. From the huge Bloody Sunday Inquiry, to the still disputed (not least by Amnesty) and not-yet-started inquiry into the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane, all have attracted public controversy.

Some politicians – most recently Conservative front-bencher William Hague when addressing the UUP conference – have argued that there should be no more such inquiries. O'Brien thinks that the 'cost' argument may simply be another way of avoiding accountability over past human rights violations.

He also notes that Mike Posner, a prominent supporter of an independent inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane, has just been sworn in as US Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights:

"Over the last few years we have seen the unfolding of a number of public inquiries into Bloody Sunday, and the murders of Billy Wright, Rosemary Nelson and Robert Hamill. 

We still await the reports of all of them. 

I hope they will provide some comfort for the families and that lessons can be learned from what went on. 

Much of the discourse, however, has been focused almost exclusively around their considerable cost. 

That has been cited by some as a reason not to hold any further inquiries. 

There is something pretty perverse about this to my mind because there is a clear correlation between the cost and the state’s continued efforts to prevent the truth coming out. 

The cost argument is effectively being used to say that there should be no more public inquiries. 

In short that means that ministers and governments will not be publicly held to account for their actions – a disturbing prospect indeed and one which must be resisted.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Pat Finucane.

Of course there has been no public inquiry into Pat’s murder. 

The truth must be too awful to even risk the chance of it coming out. 

I attended the conference held in his memory in February, and was struck by the huge numbers of people who turned up to show their continuing interest and support. 

Participants included Judge Cory, the retired Canadian Supreme Court Justice, the former UN Special Rapporteur Param Cumaraswamy from Malaysia and Mike Posner who has just been sworn in as the US Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights. 

I was particularly moved by Geraldine Finucane’s contribution. 

The family had just received a letter from the UK government saying that ministers were deciding whether it was in the public interest to proceed with a public inquiry. 

My fear though is that they are not considering the public interest but rather their own interest in preventing the embarrassment of powerful people. 

You can be sure however that people around the world will continue to watch."

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