An announcement by the British government of a secretive inquiry into the murder of Belfast defence lawyer Pat Finucane has fuelled fears that a long-standing cover-up is set to continue.

An inquiry into the 1989 murder and issues of collusion between the RUC, British army and unionist paramilitary death squads is to be held behind closed doors when dealing with issues of British “national security”.

Michael Finucane, son of the murdered solicitor, said the plan sounded to him “more like a government investigation” than an independent, international judicial inquiry his family has sought for the past 15 years.

Mr Finucane’s widow, Geraldine, said she would not participate in any inquiry which fell short of this, as it would be a “fiasco and a circus”. She insisted there was no need for new law when legislation already catered for national security interests.

“The fact that he [Paul Murphy] has not announced a ‘public’ inquiry means the government probably does not intend to have a proper inquiry. We have been asking for the truth to emerge for the last 15 years. Special legislation when it isn’t needed can only mean what will emerge is cover-up and lies.

“We will go and see Tony Blair and make it clear that if he presents us with an inquiry that is not public, not judicial and not independent, which is a government investigation, we will not take part.”

Mr Finucane, 39, was shot dead in front of his wife and their three children as they ate dinner at their north Belfast home in February 1989. The paramilitary UDA claimed it killed Mr Finucane but suggestions of collusion surfaced almost immediately.

It slowly emerged that RUC police detectives urged loyalists to target Mr Finucane and that roadblocks near his home were lifted to allow his killers to escape.

In 1992, a British Army/UDA double agent Brian Nelson told the BBC’s Panorama that he scouted Mr Finucane’s home and gave details to the killers.

Pat Rabbitte, leader of the Irish Labour Party, said the hostile reaction to the announcement from nationalists, human rights bodies and the Finucane family was “understandable and entirely legitimate”.

In a statement issued today, Mr Rabbitte said: “I regret yesterday’s announcement by the British government that its long-delayed inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane and related issues of collusion between the RUC, British army and loyalist paramilitaries may be neither judicial nor public.”

British Direct Ruler insisted his government was acting in a sincere fashion. “The purpose of this inquiry is to establish the facts. We don’t want any more delay.” But he admitted that “a good bit” of the inquiry would be conducted in private to protect British interests.

Other questions have arisen over the operation of the inquiry, in particular over the failure to give it judicial or international status.

In an attempt to ease Irish concerns, Murphy added: “Just because it doesn’t say ‘judicial’ doesn’t mean it won’t be.

“The chances are it will be [chaired by] a High Court judge and as similar as possible to the composition of the three inquiries already announced.”

On foot of recommendations by the retired Canadian Supreme Court judge, Justice Peter Cory, the British government ordered inquiries into three other controversial murders in which collusion is alleged. However, an announcement on the Finucane inquiry was delayed, ostensibly to allow the conclusion of the prosecution of unionist paramilitaty Ken Barrett.

A further delay is now likely as the British government is drafting special new legislation. Mr Murphy claimed the legislation was needed because applications for Public Interest Immunity certificates [gagging orders] would cause unacceptable delays, and new legislation would streamline such a process.

Mr Murphy could not say when the new legislation would be enacted, but it is thought unlikely to appear until next year at the earliest.

The Irish Prime Minister last night referred to the 2001 Weston Park agreement which included a vow from the British government to abide by Mr Justice Cory’s recommendations. “The inquiry announced today requires the introduction of new British legislation. It is obviously important that this legislation fulfils the Weston Park commitment of Judge Cory,” Bertie Ahern said.

Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness said the British government had “implicitly accepted that a public inquiry into Pat Finucane’s killing is a threat to national security and that the issue of collusion goes to the heart of the British governments policy in Ireland.”

He said his party would continue to be guided by the views of the Finucane family.

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