1989. A terrible loss of life. Police bungling, then cover-ups. Victims’ names blackened. Families fighting against the might of the state for the truth. Legal processes that raised and then dashed hopes. Decades of searching for justice.
In recent days, we have become familiar once again with the circumstances surrounding the Hillsborough disaster and the squalid cover-up that immediately took place by South Yorkshire Police, the right wing media and Margaret Thatcher’s Downing Street to besmirch the names of the 96 victims of a completely avoidable tragedy.
Monday night’s screening of the Emmy-nominated Hillsborough documentary brought home, in forensic detail, the catalogue of police errors that caused the disaster on April 15, 1989 and the meticulous efforts senior officers then made to concoct a false story that blamed the fans.
For those familiar with Northern Ireland’s murky counter-insurgency tactics, it was all too redolent. Just two months before the Hillsborough tragedy there was another miscarriage of justice that has subsequently proven to be even murkier. And just like Hillsborough, another family continues its determined fight for justice.
The murder of Belfast solicitor, Patrick Finucane, is one of those episodes that occasionally appears on the political radar without people really appreciating its magnitude. What we know is this: on February 12, 1989, two masked gunmen broke into Finucane’s home where he, his wife, Geraldine, and three children were sitting down to a Sunday evening meal, and shot him 14 times at point-blank range.
What we also know is that the loyalist killers responsible were supported and armed by an undercover British agent provocateur to commit and subsequently cover-up the murder.
As a prominent solicitor, Finucane represented paramilitary suspects (republicans, but his practice represented loyalists too). He had two test cases against the British government before the European Court of Human Rights at the time of his death and was a frequent speaker on human rights issues at legal conferences around the world.
This was all the justification his enemies – including British securocrats fighting a clandestine war – needed.
While each of the 3,600 killings during The Troubles was a tragedy for the victim, their families and loved ones, and, in that respect, there is no hierarchy of victims, there is something particularly chilling about Finucane’s assassination.
Just before his murder, then Conservative home office minister, Douglas Hogg, caused uproar in the Commons by infamously claiming some solicitors in Northern Ireland were “unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA”. Finucane had recently helped get a republican suspect off a high profile charge.
Three weeks after Hogg’s remarks, Finucane was dead.
There is now no question that British state forces colluded in Finucane’s murder. Two previous investigations – one by former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens and the other by Canadian judge Peter Cory – concluded as much, but their inquiries were hampered by the wall of secrecy that still surrounds the case.
Tellingly, Sir John Stevens, in his final report, described collusion as including “…the wilful failure to keep records, the absence of accountability, the withholding of intelligence and evidence, through to the extreme of agents being involved in murder”.
Indeed, it is this same lack of official record-keeping and accountability that sits at the heart of the Hillsborough cover-up.
In October 2011, David Cameron met Finucane’s widow, Geraldine and her family in Downing Street to announce a watered-down review of the case notes by Desmond de Silva QC. The family subsequently walked out of the meeting, with Mrs Finucane calling Cameron “a dishonourable man” for reneging on previous assurances that he was set to announce a much stronger judicial inquiry instead:
“I asked David Cameron what part the family would play in this review and he said: ‘Oh no, no, you don’t do anything.’ His tone was: ‘Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it. When the QC finishes he’ll tell you what went on.’”
Again, echoes of how the Hillsborough families were led on by Lord Justice Stuart-Smith’s review of the case in 1997, only to be bitterly let down by his failure to accept there was new evidence. As Labour’s former Justice Secretary, Lord Falconer, described it:
“He [Stuart-Smith], I think unwisely, concluded that there were no problems in relation to the way that the thing had been handled… We [the government] accepted that. And that was a disastrous and wrong-headed decision. It made the families in the Hillsborough disaster feel after one establishment cover-up, here was another.”
The Finucanes, like the Hillsborough families, have suffered so much, firstly due to the state’s failures to protect their loved ones and then, secondly, because of the state’s wickedness in depriving them of the truth and justice they had every right to expect.
The parallels between these two cases: abuses of power, high-level cover-ups and an enduring search for truth, are obvious enough. But what is still missing with 1989’s other notorious miscarriage of justice is the political will to finally shine a light on what went on, all those years ago in a Belfast kitchen and ask: “Why?”