Questions on British justice

ANGLO-IRISH relations have suffered two serious shocks lately. First the British attorney general, Sir Patrick Mayhew, announced the findings of an inquiry into whether a shoot-to-kill policy was in force in the cases of six unarmed Roman Catholics who died at the hands of the police in Northern Ireland in November and December of 1982. Sir Patrick told the House of Commons that despite sufficient evidence, there would be no prosecution of the suspected police officers on grounds of ``public interest and national security.''

Then came the rejection of an appeal by the Birmingham Six, six Irish men accused of planting bombs in English pubs in 1974. Those arguing the appeal contended that confessions from four of the six were obtained after the men were beaten by police. Moreover, some of the evidence linking the defendants to the bombs has been questioned, and the scientist who presented it took early retirement soon after.

The British people themselves should question the notion that the government knows best and that unpleasantness can be disposed of without anyone's having to answer. For the Irish, these two decisions seem almost calculated to destroy whatever confidence they may have in British justice.

Yet it is critical for the British not only to be scrupulously fair in these sensitive legal cases but to be seen to be so.

Under the Anglo-Irish accord, signed in November 1985, Dublin has had a consultative role in the governance of Northern Ireland. It has not been easy going. The accord has enraged the mostly Protestant unionist community in the province, but by bringing Dublin into the discussions, it has helped provide some ways to keep the mostly Catholic nationalist community from being perpetually ground under the heel of unionist notions of ``majority rule.''

The British have had their doubts about Irish justice, too. Now Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey has amazed some of his critics by getting through - in the face of considerable internal opposition - an extradition treaty with London. This will help the British in their struggle against the illegal Irish Republican Army.

To his further credit, Mr. Haughey is seeking to resolve contention over the Mayhew inquiry and the Birmingham Six through the Anglo-Irish accord.

The British cannot afford to squander Dublin's goodwill. They must get answers to the tough questions - answers satisfactory to all concerned, not just themselves.

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