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Murphy considers S. Africa-style truth commission

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

But the British government’s credentials in the process came under immediate criticism because of its refusal to set up an inquiry into the murder of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane.
And days before Murphy flew off to Cape Town and Johannesburg, lawyers for the Police Service of Northern Ireland said they may ask him to sign powerful gagging orders to preserve secrecy around the involvement of police, British soldiers and their agents in several other controversial killings.
Murphy confirmed the British government’s intentions about a truth and reconciliation process in a formal statement to Parliament last week.
He indicated that he wants to stimulate a debate about how “to address the issue of dealing with the past,” including the questions that linger around many of the 3,700 deaths that occurred after the Troubles broke out in 1969. Half of those killings remain unsolved.
Murphy said he is keeping an open mind about how to proceed. “During this process I will talk to as many people as I can who have a role in this, whether they are representatives of victims, the churches, political parties, academics, and experts in the field in Northern Ireland and elsewhere,” he said.
Murphy said he decided to start in South Africa to see “how they dealt with their past because there you have an example of a divided society which has been coming to terms with itself,” although he acknowledged that the South African model could not be transferred directly to Northern Ireland.
South Africa established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as part of the settlement that propelled Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress to power after decades of white rule.
Led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others, the commission heard testimony from victims and perpetrators of the violence between blacks and whites during the apartheid era. In many cases, they came face to face.
Northern Ireland has seen a more piecemeal approach to lingering questions about its past. A judicial inquiry into the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings, when British soldiers killed or fatally wounded 14 civilians in Derry, has now run for more than four years and is expected to cost more than $200 million. Other inquiries are pending into three contentious killings, but the British government has so far refused to set up an inquiry into the murder of Finucane.
Last year, Britain’s most senior police officer, Sir John Stevens, said there had been collusion between the loyalist killers of Finucane and members of the security forces. After an independent review of the case, retired Canadian Supreme Court Justice Peter Cory recommended an inquiry into the case.
But the British government said it would not begin an inquiry while any criminal cases are outstanding. One man is currently awaiting trial accused of the 1989 murder.
Because of the British position, SDLP leader Mark Durkan wrote to senior ANC members in South Africa to ask them to lobby Murphy for an inquiry during their talks this week.
Hugh Orde, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, backed the moves towards a truth process. He said it may have to involve amnesties for paramilitaries and members of the security forces. Orde said the process would require that “everyone has to declare what went on.”
The chief constable added: “That’s why people say this is never going to happen but I don’t think that is good enough. I think we have to believe that one can make a difference because at the end of this there are lots of victims. But whatever process applies has to apply universally.”
Earlier this month, lawyers acting for Orde told two separate court hearings that they may seek gagging orders to prevent sensitive documents going before inquests. Those inquests include hearings into the death of a 76-year-old woman shot by loyalists while British soldiers outside her house were ordered “not to react,” two teenagers allegedly stabbed to death by a police informer, and IRA gunmen ambushed by British soldiers. Sinn Fein victims’ spokesman Phillip McGuigan said the British government should not have a lead role in establishing a truth commission because it was one of the protagonists in the conflict.

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