have we been left in the dark? Public inquiries and the murder of Patrick Finucane

Belfast solicitor Patrick Finucane was murdered at his home, in front of his wife and three kids, on 12 February 1989, twenty years ago today. Since then, compelling evidence has indicated that UK state agents were involved in the killing (Kenneth Barrett, a former loyalist paramilitary, was convicted in 2003 of the murder – but as he pleaded guilty, little information came to light).

The UK government has still failed to establish an independent public inquiry into his death. The full truth about the murder is still kept from the Finucane family and from the public.

Last night there was a vigil in Belfast for Patrick Finucane, a protest in darkness being sadly rather appropriate given the failure to shine any light on his case. Today Amnesty launched a global appeal, urging Gordon Brown and Northern Ireland Secretary Shaun Woodward to hold a full, independent, public inquiry.

What’s particularly interesting though, is the government’s response to calls for an inquiry. Previous governments have just failed to provide one, but this time they’ve been cleverer – offering a public inquiry which isn’t really one at all.

The Inquiries Act was forced through Parliament in 2005, in the face of strong criticism, on the last possible day before Parliament rose for the General Election. Its effect is to ensure that any public inquiry held under the Act will be controlled by the executive. The government will appoint the chair of an inquiry and can dismiss any member at its own discretion. It will decide what are the terms of reference of the inquiry – effectively deciding what it can look into and what is off-limits.

It gets worse. The government will be able to restrict public access to the inquiry as it sees fit. It can decide whether the inquiry will be heard in public or in private, and can decide that individual hearings can be held behind closed doors. The government will be able to block the disclosure or publication of sensitive evidence, ensuring that crucial evidence is omitted “in the public interest”. And the government can in any case decide which bits of the inquiry’s report are published, and which remain secret.

Not sounding very “public”, is it? Let alone independent or impartial. I’m not the only one to think this (perhaps unsurprisingly): in July last year, the UN Human Rights Committee criticised the Act because it ”allows the government minister who established an inquiry to control important aspects of that inquiry”.

The implications for the rights of ordinary people in this country are huge. We will lose one of the most effective tools for holding our elected government, public bodies and powerful private companies to account. We will lose an essential means of finding out who is responsible even for events that lead to massive loss of life – train crashes, industrial accidents, mishandled cattle epidemics, you name it. We will lose the mechanism that puts politicians and public officials under the microscope so that we can see what they’re really up to.

Public inquiries – into the BSE scandal, the rail crash at Ladbroke Grove or the murder of Stephen Lawrence – provide independent and impartial scrutiny of the powerful. The rail industry was slammed by the Cullen Inquiry into Ladbroke Grove, with the inquiry report making more than 80 recommendations over improving safety.  Likewise the 1990 inquiry into the tragedy at Hillsborough football ground found the police responsible for a “failure of control”, ultimately leading to the introduction of all-seater stadiums. Public inquiries can make a real difference to public safety, security and future policy.

Patrick Finucane was a controversial figure. For some he was the IRA’s lawyer; for others he was a solicitor doing his job. Either way he did not deserve to be murdered; and if the state was involved, we should all know about it.

But our concern with the Inquiries Act should go much further than that. If the next government does not repeal the Inquiries Act – and why would they? – then effective and impartial inquiries could become a thing of the past. There might never be another Lawrence Inquiry exposing institutional racism in the police force, nor another Ladbroke Grove Inquiry that holds rail operators to account for their failings.

All of us, like Patrick Finucane’s family, would be left in the dark.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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