Nationalists have warned that a scandal over the actions of British Direct Ruler Peter Hain and some of his senior civil servants over the appointment of the North’s Victims’ Commissioner Bertha McDougall is being ‘swept under the carpet’ by the British government.
Belfast High Court judge, Justice Girvan, has called for an inquiry into whether Mr Hain was guilty of perverting the course of justice over the appointment. Although required to be independent and non-sectarian under a wealth of legislation, it is accepted that the appointment was made as a political concession to hardline unionism.
Mr Hain has denied the court’s accusation that he attempted to deliberately mislead it. While critical of a number of sectarian appointments by Hain in recent years, Sinn Féin and the SDLP have not called for Mr Hain to resign in deference to his ongoing role in the political process in Belfast. It is acknowledged that a non-colonial minister at the centre of a scandal of this order would have no option but to resign.
The British attorney general Lord Goldsmith, at the request of Mr Justice Girvan, is to carry out an investigation into whether Mr Hain or his senior officials deliberately misled the Belfast High Court in relation to the victims’ commissioner. Lord Goldsmith agreed to the inquiry after the judge yesterday sent him 67 questions about how Mr Hain and senior British civil servants dealt with the appointment.
“If incorrect and misleading information was deliberately given to put the applicant on a false trail then prima facie that conduct would appear to fall within the concept of perverting the course of justice,” the judge said. Earlier this month he ruled the appointment improper. It also emerged in the High Court this week that Mrs McDougall only learned of the post from DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, who advised her to put her name forward.
Her appointment was challenged through a judicial review by Brenda Downes, widow of a Belfast man who died after he was struck by an RUC plastic bullet. She questioned whether Mrs McDougall could command cross-community support and whether she was the best person for the post. Justice Girvan said it was now accepted that a letter sent by the British government in response to Ms Downes’s queries wrongly created the impression Mrs McDougall had been appointed as the best candidate.
Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on victims issues Philip McGuigan said that the case raised “very significant issues” for Peter Hain and his department.
“Since the High Court verdict Peter Hain has attempted to dismiss the court findings and has arrogantly insisted that neither he nor his department have done anything wrong.
“This position is clearly not tenable and the decision by the court to refer the case to the British Attorney General increases the pressure on Mr Hain to face up to the enormity of the situation he finds himself in.
“The case has already exposed the fact that the appointment of Bertha McDougal was a political sop to the DUP and could never command the sort of cross community support required.
“Peter Hain now needs to stop pretending that he has not created a serious problem. He needs to begin to undo some of the damage and hurt he has caused by his approach to this appointment and indeed the British State approach to the issue of victims and the role they have played in the conflict.
“A first step along this road would be for Mr Hain to apologise for his conduct and establish the inquiry demanded by the court into his conduct and that of his department in this case without further delay and for its findings to be made public.”