Europe slaps UK on N. Ireland

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.

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.

That ruling found that Article 2, the right to life, included an obligation to ensure law enforcement officers did not make arrests in a "negligent" manner.

In a later case, also brought against the British government, the court ruled that the right to life included an obligation by the state to carry out an adequate investigation of any suspicious death.

Already there have been legal changes in Northern Ireland as a result of the international court's rulings. Mr. O'Brien cites improvements in the right of suspects to legal advice and in judicial oversight of extended detention in police stations.

Changes have also been made to compel witnesses who carried out killings to attend inquests, even if they were undercover soldiers or police.

In cases such as that of Pat Finucane, where there are allegations that the police themselves were complicit, the court ruled that it was not adequate for that same police force to investigate the murder.

In the inquest after Finucane's death, his widow, Geraldine, was legally prevented from giving evidence concerning police death threats allegedly made against him in the months before he was killed.

The moderate, mainly Catholic, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which wants an independent united Ireland, says problems lay with an outdated cultural attitude within the old police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, now the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Alex Attwood, the SDLP's expert on policing, says, "Many murders were never properly investigated." One reason was sheer numbers. On average, one person per week was killed in "political" violence over three decades in a population of only 1.5 million.

Mr. Attwood says there was also a reticence among police to probe too deeply into the murky underworld, where law enforcement and secret agents overlap. This resulted in human rights abuses that could only be resolved in an international court, he says.

The British government has given a guarded response to the ruling on the Finucane case, but has so far refused to say whether it requires a public inquiry. Observers say the concern in Whitehall is that an inquiry could implicate intelligence and British Army figures still in senior positions today, as well as expose the lack of political control over intelligence services,

"What an inquiry would do is expose the policies that led to this particular murder," says Jane Winter, director of British Irish Rights Watch in London, referring to alleged practices of collusion and coverup that have tarnished Northern Ireland policing.

Legal experts say that the court ruling has put London in a tight spot. Whatever its reluctance to hold a public inquiry into the Finucane case, it cannot flout the international court.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised a public inquiry if an independent arbiter, retired Canadian Supreme Court Judge Peter Cory, decides that it is merited. Judge Cory is due to give his view in the autumn.

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