Remembering Pat Finucane: a brave legal professional

[The post below is published today, Thursday 11th February 2016, to mark the Pat Finucane anniversary lecture, organised by Relatives for Justice. Please share under the hashtag #patfinucane].


The 12th of February 2016 marks the twenty-seventh death anniversary of Pat Finucane, a Belfast-based lawyer who was murdered in his private residence, in the presence of his family. Mr Finucane’s sin happened to be that of appearing as the legal counsel of members of the Irish nationalist/republican community. Over the years, his wife, Geraldine Finucane and their children have been engaged in a courageous and unwavering struggle to unearth the truth behind the brutal murder, and seek justice. At his inquest all those years ago, the detective investigating his murder affirmed that there was no evidence that Finucane was a member of the Provision IRA, and that he was regarded ‘very professional’ in police circles. There has been evidence that British secret services (MI5) had access to information of imminent threats to Mr Finucane’s life. Despite such information and alerts, no steps were taken to alert the Special Branch, and to provide the leading legal professional with adequate security. Over the years, the Finuacane family has unwaveringly called for a public inquiry into the assassination, a call that the British government has been far from prepared to address. Under the David Cameron premiership,  Sir Desmond De Silva, QC, a senior legal professional known for his close connections to Tory circles, was appointed to examine the paperwork on the Finucane assassination, and produce an independent report.

The de Silva Report, while observing that a series of positive actions by employees of the state (i.e. MI6) actively furthered and facilitated his murder, was very cautious to avoid any criticism of politicians, including government ministers, of any involvement in or prior knowledge of the tragic incident.

A more critical perspective, or more revealing information that would not look good on the UK government would definitely not come out from a report authored by someone who has their definitive place in the privileged Tory establishment. De Silva’s conservative position of not giving a toss about victims was at the heart of the decision of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka (Sir Desmond’s country of origin) to appoint Sir Desmond as the chair of a controversial international advisory panel of lawyers to defend the administration’s dwindling international reputation. Local civil society organisations have expressed dismay over this appointment, while some analysts categorically argued that Sir Desmond’s role was untenable.

Sir Desmond de Silva, in the 'high' company of Margaret Thatcher. Image: Sir Desmond's official website

Birds of a feather? Sir Desmond de Silva, in the ‘high’ company of Margaret Thatcher. Image: Sir Desmond’s official website

It is public news that Mrs Finucane vehemently opposed this decision in the first place, and, expressing her outrage at the Report’s conclusions, walked out on the Prime Minister. What the family has been expecting all through the years is a public inquiry.

Mrs Finucane and her children speaking to the media in London, after the release of the de Silva Report. Image and video:

Mrs Finucane and her children speaking to the media in London, after the release of the de Silva Report. Image and video:

Whereas the Finucane case is a high-profile case among many unexamined and unjustly forgotten assassinations during the Troubles, its continued prominence in debates on justice to victims and their families carries a global resonance. In many conflicts across the world, individuals (irrespective of their political, social or any other hierarchical standing) who position themselves on the sides that stand against establishments are not in luck. The Pat Finucane Centre, which campaigns for human rights and non-violence, has brought together a large number of documents on the Finucane case as well as human rights abuses in Northern Ireland. The Centre’s documentation database, available online, is one of the most informative resources on the province’s human rights issues. Political establishments are averse to the provision of justice to those associated with anti-state, and anti-establishment groups.

Ensuring justice to victims in minority groups is a constant challenge in every deeply divided society, to say the least. It is a process in which ‘time’ is of little relevance. In November 2013, for example, Mark Durkan MP of the Social Democratic and Labour Party raised a question at the House of Commons over the assassination of SDLP branch secretary Denis Mullen in September 1975. The account of Mullen’s murder shared much in common with that of Finucane. Mullen was also murdered in his private home, in the presence of his two young children. The responses provided by the Tory Party’s Anna Soubry MP were something more than appalling, marked by an unambiguous expression of disinterest and an arrogant unwillingness to address the issue. Durkan wanted the Ministry of Defence to address two points:

 [The MoD’s]…1973 archives “casually and frequently refers (sic) to collusion in its internal documents, when describing overlapping membership between the UDA and UDR”… A Government report on subversion in the UDR “indicated 5% to 15% of UDR soldiers would also have been members of the UDA, the Ulster Vanguard Service Corps, the Orange Volunteers, or the UVP”. The MoD did little to stem the theft of large amounts of Army weapons by the UDA. “It was not just an embarrassing lapse of security; they were then used by an absolutely ruthless killer gang network” (Source: Belfast Telegraph, 14 Nov. 2013).

A photograph from Denis Mullen's funeral in 1975, widely publicised in the press at the time. Source:

A photograph from Denis Mullen’s funeral in 1975, widely publicised in the press at the time. Mrs Mullen is seen holding her 4 year-old daughter Denise. Source:

Soubry categorically brushed away these concerns, highlighting that the issue had nothing to do with her, and that it would not be appropriate for her to comment. This was further cemented by the usual Tory by-line on Northern Ireland of adumbrating how the Tories promote the province’s economy and transformation, that even the 2013 G8 Summit took place in Lough Erne, Co.Fermanagh. This approach to past atrocity committed by state armed forces and their trusted allies is not unique to the case of Northern Ireland/UK alone. It is rather a universal phenomenon, with multiple manifestations across the world.

‘Feeding intelligence’ to loyalist paramilitaries

The Finucane assassination, if one is to go by the parsimonious data that has been made public over the last two decades, was closely linked to the official security and defence apparatuses.According to The Guardian, up to 29 members of the UDA responsible for the killing were working for one or more branches of the security forces in Northern Ireland at the time.

The De Silva Report revealed of 270 leaks of sensitive intelligence. This material, gathered by the state, was passed on to loyalist paramilitaries between 1987 and 1989 alone. This in itself is suggestive of the extent to which loyalist armed activity and state security forces were in collaboration. In condemning the De Silva Report, Mrs Finucane was especially critical of the Report’s orientation, laying accusations on deceased individuals and salvaging government ministers, serving officers in law enforcement, and state security agencies.

William “Mo” Courtney, a UDA veteran, has been accused as the gunman who killed Mr Finucane in front of his family. It has also been revealed that twenty-nine UDA members who were directly or indirectly involved in the murder were state agents working for special branch, MI5 and a British Army research group known as the Force Research Unit.

Despite statements of improvement, such as David Cameron’s repeated assertion about the improvement of security structures in Northern Ireland, the British establishment is highly unlikely to support any form of investigation that would bring politicians, intelligence officers and law enforcement officers (serving or retired) to book. Herein lies the Finucane family’s long-standing predicament – as well as that of thousands of victims across the world who stood on the ‘wrong’ sides of contestations, which posed an ideological and security threat to political establishments.

What if a public inquiry were to be held on the Finucane murder? Primarily, its conclusions are unlikely to be favourable to British government bodies, law enforcement and the security establishment. Locally in Northern Ireland, such an inquiry is also bound to raise divisive questions from the Unionist/Loyalist end, emphasising their own narrative/s of victimhood. In this sense, the  Cameron government’s strong emphasis on austerity, cuts in funding, and cuts in the public sector in Northern Ireland can also be understood as an effort to keep political activism under control, preventing people (especially victims of violence and their families) from calling for transparent inquiries and the provision of justice.

I can think of no better way to conclude this note than quoting the wise words of veteran journalist Dr Robert Fisk, who, writing on 17 December 2012, soon after the release of the De Silva Report, outlined how the trajectories of ‘the accused’, irrespective of their origin, are identical, and how dubious political establishments (‘Our Protectors’, as Dr Fisk refers to them) could get, when dealing with dissenting entities:

The whole thing was best summarised by the revolting comment of the Labour Party on the Iraq war. “It is time to move on,” Blair’s men told us. It’s time to “move on”, as in “to put the past behind us”, “to keep things in perspective”, “to ignore”; “to forget”. Forget the half million Iraqi dead. Just as we should forget the Finucane family, the al-Saadis, the el-Musris, the Arars – thank God they’re Fenians and Muslims and not good old Anglicised Brits or Americans – and yes, let’s all move on. Somehow – forgive me if I’m wrong – that phrase “move on” summarises the very wickedness of the Blair regime and everything bad that it did to us. Our Protectors, of course, would not agree. (Source: Belfast Telegraph, 17 December 2012).


For a legal professional’s perspective on the career of Pat Finucane in the context of Northern Ireland’s contentious sectarian politics, see ‘Human rights and legal defense in Northern Ireland : the intimidation of defense lawyers : the murder of Patrick Finucane’. New York: Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, 1993.



This entry was posted in Human Rights, Northern Ireland, Pat Finucane, Trans politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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