Pat Finucane's murder: a pitiless act and a political storm

Even by the standards of the Northern Ireland Troubles it was a brutal and pitiless murder.

On the afternoon of 12 February 1989 two loyalist gunmen used a sledgehammer to smash their way into the north Belfast home of Pat Finucane. The 39-year-old solicitor was sitting down to Sunday dinner with his wife, Geraldine, and their three children.

The intruders shot him twice, sending him crashing to the floor. While the children cowered under the table the killers stood over Finucane and put another 12 bullets into his face and head.

The ruthlessness was shocking but what made the crime reverberate down the decades was the drip-drip revelations of state collusion.

It emerged that the loyalist paramilitary intelligence officer responsible for directing Ulster Defence Association (UDA) attacks, Brian Nelson, was an agent controlled by the British army’s force research unit.

Finucane, a Catholic, had defended loyalist and republican paramilitaries but was especially well known for defending IRA members.

The murder ignited a political furore and led to the progressive exposure of links between security forces and loyalist paramilitaries.

The former chief constable of the Metropolitan police Lord Stevens held three successive inquiries into allegations of collusion. They exposed the activities of Nelson, a British army agent whose job in the UDA was to identify potential victims.

Three weeks before Finucane’s killing the then junior Home Office minister Douglas Hogg told the House of Commons there were a number of lawyers in Northern Ireland “unduly sympathetic to the IRA”. Hogg subsequently maintained that the timing of his statement was unfortunate and signified nothing else.

Ken Barrett, one of the UDA gunmen who shot Finucane, later fled to Britain where a BBC Panorama team recorded him claiming a police officer had told him Finucane was a senior IRA man. “The peelers wanted him whacked,” he was recorded as saying. “We whacked him and that is the end of the story.”

Nelson and Barrett were both convicted of murder but the Finucane family continued to lobby for a public inquiry.

In 2001 a political agreement between the UK and Irish governments established that an international judge would investigate the Finucane killing, among others, but David Cameron’s government reversed that decision in 2010. Instead it asked a former war crime lawyer, Sir Desmond de Silva QC, to review documentation about the killing.

De Silva, who did not have the ability to compel witnesses to testify, concluded in 2012 that “agents of the state” were involved but that there was no “overarching state conspiracy”. The QC noted special branch’s repeated failure to warn Finucane that his life was under threat, the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s “obstruction” of justice and MI5 “propaganda initiatives” that identified the solicitor.

Cameron apologised in the House of Commons to the Finucane family for “frankly shocking levels” of collusion but refused a public inquiry, citing the cost of the Bloody Sunday inquiry as one reason.

Geraldine Finucane and her three children – her son John is now a Sinn Féin MP for North Belfast – persisted and last year won a victory in the supreme court, which ruled that the original investigation into the murder was ineffective and failed to meet the standards required under human rights law.

When Boris Johnson’s government did not respond, the family sought a judicial review, which prodded the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, into telling the Commons on Monday there will not be a public inquiry into the death of Finucane “at this time”.

Four parties in Northern Ireland – Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and the Greens – as well as the Irish government and 24 members of the US Congress had backed the call for an inquiry.

Unionists and others who opposed an inquiry said Finucane’s murder had already received vast attention and that scrutiny would be better directed at IRA atrocities, such as the incineration of 12 people in the La Mon hotel in County Down in 1978, and alleged collusion by Irish police and other Irish state agents in the IRA’s campaign.


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