“They can have peace, or justice, but not both:” the Northern Irish families still awaiting answers

Pat Finucane was murdered in his kitchen 30 years ago by paramilitaries under the watch of the British state. His death shines a light on the UK’s collusion during the Troubles. 

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The sudden bang of a sledgehammer forcing open the front door was the only warning the Finucane family received of the execution that loyalist paramilitaries had planned for weeks, or maybe months. Eight-year-old John was at the kitchen table with his father Pat, his mother Geraldine, and his two siblings. “We were all sitting down to have Sunday dinner,” he remembers. “Two masked gunman came down the hall. They shot my father 14 times and my mother once.”

It was 12 February 1989. His father was killed but his mother survived. The following day, a loyalist group calling themselves the Ulster Freedom Fighters, a cover for the Ulster Defence Association, claimed responsibility for the murder. They accused Finucane, a solicitor who defended republicans including Bobby Sands, of belonging to the IRA. Investigations later revealed that the paramilitary intelligence officer who directed Ulster Defence Association attacks at the time, Brian Nelson, was an agent under the watch of the British army’s Force Research Unit.

This month marks 30 years since the murder. The Finucanes are one of countless families whose loved ones were killed by paramilitary groups and security forces during the conflict in Northern Ireland and who still await answers. Tomorrow, the UK Supreme Court will rule on whether the British government’s decision in 2011 not to conduct a public inquiry into Finucane’s murder was unlawful, and if such an inquiry is required under the European Convention of Human Rights.  

Amid the intransigent Brexit talks and backstop debates, people often forget that families are still pursuing justice through the courts for those they lost during the Troubles. The risks that Brexit poses to the Good Friday Agreement and the potential repeal of EU human rights laws could have grave consequences for those still seeking answers.  

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When his father was murdered in front of him at the dinner table, John inherited a struggle for justice. He began campaigning alongside his mother Geraldine when still a child. Today he worries about transmitting this struggle to his own four children, aged between seven and 16, if answers aren’t forthcoming.  

“There is [a] generational hurt” he says. “20 to 30 years ago, it was young people campaigning on behalf of their mothers and their fathers, now you see people campaigning on behalf of their grandfathers and grandmothers.” He adds that authorities have often failed or refused to confront the past, placing Ireland’s fragile peace at risk and leaving countless families in both communities without justice.

When they were younger, John’s two eldest children would become upset watching TV news of their grandfather or granny campaigning for justice. “I didn’t understand how they could grieve for someone they never met,” he says. “It took me a while to realise that … they can still feel that hurt. That always shocked me.”

This month the Police Ombudsman  in Northern Ireland found that the police service failed to disclose “significant, sensitive information” during investigations into killings involving loyalist paramilitaries, including a 1992 shooting that killed five people at a Belfast betting shop, committed by the same paramilitary group that claimed responsibility for Finucane’s murder.

Before his death, Finucane represented families in an inquest into the killing of six unarmed men by Royal Ulster Constabulary squads and an alleged “shoot-to-kill” policy among law enforcement in Northern Ireland. In 1988, the year before Finucane’s death, the British attorney general Patrick Mayhew controversially declared that, for reasons of national security, it was in the public interest not to prosecute security force members implicated by an inquiry into a shoot-to-kill policy that resulted in similar killings. 

The family of Pat Finucane has been demanding a full public inquiry into his death for decades. They want to know why a British minister spoke publicly about solicitors being “unduly sympathetic” to the cause of the IRA not long before the murder, and why British intelligence agents, who were aware of loyalist activities, provided no warning to Finucane or his family.

The Supreme Court announced last week that the verdict would be declared tomorrow.  “After 30 years you learn not to get your hopes up too high,” John said.

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A vital foundation of Ireland’s peace process was a commitment to transitional justice. But Britain has been repeatedly accused of delays and denial over evidence of state collusion in killings during the conflict. As part of the peace process, the British and Irish governments decided in 2001 to appoint a judge to investigate six high-profile murder cases involving suspected collusion between paramilitary groups and security forces both sides of the border. In 2002, retired Canadian Supreme Court Judge Peter Cory began this investigation; one year later he presented separate reports to both Irish and British governments.

The Irish government published Cory’s findings about the two cases involving collusion with Irish forces that same year. But the British government initially did not publish reports on four cases, including that of Finucane. In 2004, aggrieved by the British government’s refusal to publish his findings, Judge Cory, who found evidence of British collusion in Finucane’s murder, contacted the victims' families personally to tell them he was calling for a public inquiry.

In 2004, the British government promised a public inquiry into Finucane’s murder. Yet this was rushed through under the 2005 Inquiries Act, which Judge Cory said would make “meaningful inquiry impossible”. The act has been widely criticised for allowing the government to restrict disclosure of evidence and withhold reports from the public. Six years later, former Conservative prime minister David Cameron met with and apologised to members of Pat Finucane’s family for state collusion in his death.

“You are dealing with the Conservative Party,” John says. More recently the Conservatives have shed uncertainty over Britain’s commitment to the EU Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which underpins the Good Friday Agreement and provides the basis for many of the claims for justice. While the UK is still a signatory to the convention, Theresa May has suggested that Britain will axe its commitment to the ECHR after Brexit.

“Theresa May has claimed the only people prosecuted in Northern Ireland are ex British forces”, John says. But figures from the Police Service of Northern Ireland have cast doubt on her claim; as of 2017, killings by British soldiers during the troubles accounted for only 30 per cent of its legacy workload. “The Prime Minister has lied about historic prosecutions,” he adds.

John believes there is a strong lobby against any spotlight that illuminates “the darkness of the past.” Some Tory MPs have demanded that May end investigations into the actions of security forces in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Last year, Irish Legal reported that the UK government blocked the release of documents, due to be released after a 20-year elapse, which may have shed light on the murder of John’s father. “I don’t even see loyalists saying there shouldn’t be inquiries into the past,” he says.

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Anne Cadwallader, author of Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland, explains that collusion is essential for understanding the conflict,  which was not an “internecine battle between two opposing communities”, but an “insurgency against the state”. 

Cadwallader is an advocacy caseworker with the Pat Finucane Centre, set up in Finucane’s honour as an anti-sectarian human rights group. The centre acknowledges that many issues during the Troubles remain unresolved, and the rights of people from both sides of the political divide were violated.

She firmly believes that families whose loved ones were killed in republican attacks have the same right to truth and justice as those killed in acts of collusion between British forces and loyalists. “It seems to many victims’ families that society is cruelly and unjustly telling them they can have peace or justice – but not both," she said. "They are the forgotten piece of the peace process jigsaw.”

His family’s continued campaign is proof to John Finucane that “no matter what is put in front of you and no matter how long it takes, the truth ultimately will out.”

Caelainn Hogan is an Irish journalist. She writes for the New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Harpers and Washington Post.