By Jack Holland
A Canadian judge is being asked this week by the British and Irish governments to look into six controversial Northern Ireland murder cases, including the 1989 shooting of human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane, with a view to deciding whether any of them warrant a public inquiry, it has been learned from reliable sources.
The decision comes after months of searching for a judge of international status which led both governments from Australia to South Africa before finally agreeing on the Canadian judge. If he accepts, he will be in charge of what will almost certainly prove to be one of the most complex and controversial tasks undertaken in the history of the Northern Ireland conflict.
Earlier this year, both governments failed to agree on three nominees from Australia. They then considered legal figures from South Africa before finally reaching an accord on the Canadian judge. However, it is not known whether the appointment will be accepted.
The search concentrated on jurisdictions where the legal system is based on Common Law principles like those in Ireland and Britain.
The five other cases the international judge will look into are those of Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan, murdered by the IRA in 1989; Lord Chief Justice and Lady Gibson, killed by an IRA bomb in 1987; Robert Hamill, kicked to death by a loyalist mob in 1997; lawyer Rosemary Nelson, killed by a loyalist booby-trap bomb in 1999, and Billy Wright, a loyalist leader shot dead by the Irish National Liberation Army in 1998 while a prisoner in the Maze Prison.
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All the cases involve allegations of some level of collusion between security personnel and paramilitary forces.
The decision to look to an international judge to help resolve these controversial incidents came about as a result of the negotiations last July in Weston Park held in the wake of First Minister David Trimble’s resignation and the suspension of the power-sharing executive. The talks, convened by both governments and involving all the parties to the Good Friday agreement, were intended to achieve the “full implementation” of the agreement. As a result, a package was agreed on “to deliver the full and early implementation of the Good Friday agreement.” The package included further proposals on policing, demilitarization, and decommissioning.
The British government has been under pressure over the years to hold a public inquiry into the Finucane murder in order to deal with serious allegations about collusion between the security forces and the Ulster Defense Association, which claimed responsibility for the shooting. London has resisted this pressure, citing various considerations. During the Weston Park talks, it accepted a compromise proposal from the Social Democratic and Labor Party to appoint a judge “of international standing from outside both jurisdictions to undertake a thorough investigations of allegations of collusion” not only in the Finucane case but in the five others that both governments regarded as being “a source of grave public concern.”
It was agreed that the appointment would be effected by the end of April 2002.
After the judge has carried out his investigation, the Weston Park agreement stipulated that if ” . . . the appointed judge considers that in any case this has not provided a sufficient basis on which to establish the facts, he or she can report to this effect with recommendations as to what further action should be taken. In the event that a public inquiry is recommended in any case, the relevant government will implement that recommendation.”
Whoever the judge is, he or she will be undertaking a review of six complex cases, but none more so than the Finucane murder. This has already been the subject of two criminal investigations, one of which is ongoing, as well as having been dealt with in several independent reports drawn up by different human rights’ bodies. Last December, police informer William Stobie, who was charged in connection with the murder but acquitted, was shot dead near his home in the Glencairn area of West Belfast by the UDA. Another UDA activist, Ken Barret, who is believed to have been involved in the Finucane killing, then fled Northern Ireland and is believed to be in police custody.
In the other cases, the judge will investigate allegations that someone in the gardai serving near the border passed on information to the Provisional IRA about the movements of the two senior RUC officers after they had left the Garda station in Dundalk, as well as giving information on the movements of Lord Chief Justice Gibson after he had crossed the border on a return trip from Dublin airport. In the murder of Rosemary Nelson, the judge will look at allegations that the lawyer’s killers received help from the security forces in Lurgan, Co. Armagh. The Hamill case involves accusations that police officers who were close to the scene of the crime at the time it occurred did not intervene. In the murder of Loyalist Volunteer Force leader Billy Wright, the judge will look at how the Irish National Liberation Army managed to carry it out within the confines of such a high-security prison as the Maze.
Some observers doubt that it is possible to delve into such complex cases in any depth within a reasonable period of time. The Finucane family in particular has complained about the fact that there is no deadline set for the judge to reach a conclusion. They were told that “the government could not under any circumstances include a time scale.”
The proposal was also condemned by the New York-based Lawyers Committee on Human Rights, which called on the government to “abandon the Weston Park proposal.”