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Europe slaps UK on N. Ireland

By Anne CadwalladerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor, Mark Rice-OxleySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 11, 2003


On a February day in 1989, a prominent Belfast defense lawyer - whose clients included suspected Catholic guerrillas - was shot dead in front of his wife and three children as the family sat down to dinner.

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Fourteen years later, the question raised by Pat Finucane's death still has not been laid to rest: Did members of the British security forces collaborate with Protestant paramilitaries in the killing?

A ruling 10 days ago by the European Court of Human Rights said that the British government committed a human rights violation by failing to ensure an independent police inquiry.

For those in Northern Ireland who have grown frustrated trying to seek justice at home, the international court's decision was the latest step in the right direction.

"The European Court is at the heart of efforts to secure effective protection of human rights in Northern Ireland as we make the painful change from conflict to relative peace," says Martin O'Brien, director of the nonpartisan Committee on the Administration of Justice in Northern Ireland.

Esmond Birnie, a spokesman on conflict resolution for the Ulster Unionist Party - mainly Protestant and the largest political grouping in Northern Ireland that wants to retain the province's link with Britain - disagrees.

"This very public digging into the roots of what happened, sometimes decades ago, may delay the healing process rather than accelerate it - especially if it's felt there is a disproportionate application."

Police misdeeds

There have been persistent claims, recently supported by a British police inquiry - 14 years after the murder and deemed to be too late by the European Court - that both the British Army and Northern Ireland police colluded in Mr. Finucane's killing.

The reasoning is that the lawyer had become an irritation because of his successful claims on behalf of families of slain members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) - a paramilitary group fighting for an independent, united Ireland that called a cease-fire in 1994.

The continuing British police inquiry, however, is not sufficient for the Finucane family or human rights campaigners. They want a public examination of all the facts rather than the prosecution of those directly responsible for the murder.

"We don't want just the puppets exposed," says Finucane's widow of her husband's killers. "We want those who pulled their strings to be held accountable for their actions."

Referring to what he calls the "inquiries industry," Mr. Birnie worries that focusing on such cases will deflect attention from the vast majority of killings carried out by the IRA or by Protestant paramilitaries during 30 years of violence here.

"This seems disproportionate," Birnie says.

European obligations

Stephen Livingstone, professor of human rights law at Queen's University, Belfast, says the trail to the European court, which is in Strasbourg, France, began in the mid-1990s. The court then ruled against the British government in the case of three unarmed IRA members shot dead by undercover soldiers in Gibraltar.