Miliband promise is Finucanes' best hope


Q: Will the Finucanes ever get a public inquiry?

In the House of Commons this week, British prime minister David Cameron, in the eyes of cynics, used the Bloody Sunday “apology” playbook in relation to the Desmond de Silva report on the murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane.

The strategy works thus: express agony, shock and revulsion, declare the United Kingdom’s commitment to high ideals, pay tribute to the security forces and commiserate with those left behind.

In a declaration of his good offices, Cameron has ordered home secretary Theresa May and defence secretary Philip Hammond to review the issues raised by the report, leaving open the possibility of action against former officials, soldiers and security service. Undoubtedly, Mr Cameron’s sentiments on all these points are genuine. However, what he would not do, and will not do, is concede a full public inquiry to the family of the solicitor, murdered by the UDA in 1989.

Everything possible has been found in the quickest possible time, the British argue, who leave open the possibility, if nothing more, that former British army officers, ex-RUC special branch and others could face prosecutions.

Northern Ireland and the British taxpayer cannot afford another Bloody Sunday inquiry, which cost £200 million and lasted an aeon, argues Mr Cameron, though the family have said that they are now prepared to accept a more limited inquiry.

This was not always so. During Labour’s years in power, the Finucanes refused to accept a probe held under the Inquiries Act, which could be subjected to restrictions in cases where national security questions arise.

On Wednesday, Labour leader Ed Miliband promised exactly such an inquiry if elected to Downing Street. On Tuesday night he made the promise to Mr Finucane’s son, John, in his Commons office.

Miliband “gets” Finucane’s significance, Labour insiders claim, arguing that the Conservatives do not, though a promise made in opposition days is always questionable, no matter how good the intention.

Barring exceptional happenings, the Finucanes will have to wait for a Labour return, even though there is concern – exemplified by a thoughtful London Times leader this week – about the dark side of the North’s “Dirty War”.

The levers to force a Cameron rethink are few. The Irish Government supports the Finucanes’ demand for a public inquiry – first agreed in Weston Park in 2001 between Dublin and London – but there has been no evidence that Dublin is prepared to make it a deal-breaker.

Each time the rock covering the Finucane killing has been lifted new material emerges. The Stevens investigation in the 1990s was supposed to have seen everything. It did not. Canadian judge Peter Cory saw more, but did not see all. Now, the latest inquiry, carried out by barrister Desmond de Silva has brought more into the light, in particular copies of police and intelligence reports which illustrate some senior British figures’ concern that the intelligence war was a game without rules.

However, the de Silva report poses, if anything, more questions. The dead (UDA informer, sometimes double-agent, Brian Nelson) and the disbanded (the RUC special branch) take the majority of the blame.

For many in the Commons this week, 1989 and Belfast seemed a long way away. On the day of the publication of the Bloody Sunday report, one could feel the frisson of history. On Wednesday, people had moved on to other things within hours.