Britain cannot handle the truth
Britain cannot handle the truth



An extract from an essay by Megan K. Stack for the New York Times on the cover-up of the assassination of Belfast defence lawyer Pat Finucane, 35 years ago this month.


I met John Finucane on a drab summer day in Belfast, when rain ran in the gutters and pushed the crowds of shoppers and sightseers into doorways. Mr. Finucane’s law firm sits near the spot where the Falls Road, a rambling thoroughfare that has long been Belfast’s Catholic heartland, dotted with Irish cultural centres, I.R.A. memorials and repurposed linen mills, touches the flank of the city centre.

With a politician’s optimism, Mr. Finucane pointed out that his own kids have never known their city as a war zone. They don’t get searched and questioned riding the bus downtown. Mr. Finucane won his seat in Parliament in 2019, wresting it from a long line of Protestant, unionist politicians, the last of whom held it for over 18 years.

The election of a Sinn Féin representative in this constituency, where Troubles violence was heavily concentrated, was seen as another bellwether of changing demographics and political sensibilities: The 2021 census found that for the first time, there are more Catholics than Protestants in Northern Ireland. Mr. Finucane is every inch the Sinn Féin politician: He sticks to the traditional republican policy of refusing to sit in chambers or vote in the Westminster Parliament and was harshly criticised by political rivals for speaking at an I.R.A. commemoration ceremony this spring.

But while the Finucane family illustrates both the repressions and resurgence of the Catholic community, it also demonstrates the slow dawning of a less sectarian island: Unlike his father, John Finucane was not raised in a religious household and does not consider himself a Catholic.

Amid all this change, the Finucane family’s goal has remained steady: a public inquiry, a tribunal similar to a U.S. congressional investigation in its powers and transparency.

Mr. Finucane rattled off the shifting responses his family had heard over the years:

“First it’s a senseless killing by a paramilitary organisation, one of many tragic incidents,” he said.

“Then it evolves to ‘There may be a few rotten apples in the barrel, but these are the people holding the line, preventing the civil war.’”

He continued:

“Then as that gets debunked, ‘Well, it’s an awful lot of money to throw at one case.’”

“Then finally it becomes, ‘Well, it was a long time ago. It would be very difficult or incorrect to have a judicial process.’”

Back in 2002, the British and Irish governments asked a retired Canadian Supreme Court judge, Peter Cory, to investigate and make recommendations on several prominent killings, including the assassination of Pat Finucane and three other cases that involved allegations of collusion by British forces in Northern Ireland.

During Mr. Cory’s investigation, British M.I.5 officers broke into his office in London, took his files and later wiped his computer disks clean. Mr. Cory, however, had already understood what he was up against — he’d fastidiously been sending backups to Canada by diplomatic courier, Michael Finucane told me.

Mr. Cory ended up recommending public inquiries in all four deaths. He submitted his suggestions to the British government, which was then expected to announce the findings and take action. In three of the cases, including the prison assassination of a prolific loyalist killer, Billy Wright (a.k.a. King Rat), and the fatal bombing of the solicitor Rosemary Nelson’s car, inquiries were duly held.

When it came to Pat Finucane, however, silence reigned. The family pressed; no answer came.

“We asked, ‘What’s the recommendation?’” Michael Finucane said. “The British government delayed answering.”

Then, one day, Mr. Cory apparently lost patience — he phoned Michael Finucane directly.

“He said, ‘I’ve recommended an inquiry in your family’s case.’ I said, ‘Thank you very much, Judge,’” Mr. Finucane recalled.

Finally, the government spoke up. Pat Finucane’s case, they said, would be examined under a new law being drafted. This turned out to be the 2005 Inquiries Act. Described by Mr. Cory as creating “an intolerable ‘Alice in Wonderland’ situation,” the act allowed British cabinet ministers to intervene in inquiries to withhold documents or suppress information. The Finucane family has refused to cooperate with investigations under the act.

Prime Minister David Cameron invited the Finucanes to Downing Street in October 2011. The family had renewed their push for a public inquiry since Mr. Cameron had come into office the previous year, and now they assumed they’d prevailed. Why else bring them all the way to London? They trooped off to see the prime minister — Michael and John, their sister Katherine, their mother and two of their uncles.

Perched in an armchair by the fireplace in an upstairs reception room, Mr. Cameron gave the family the news: The British government would engage a barrister to conduct a “review” of existing records but would not conduct an inquiry.

The news hit Michael Finucane “like somebody had punched us in the stomach.”

His mother, Geraldine — who was a middle-class Protestant student when she met her future husband at Trinity College in Dublin and who was wounded by a ricocheting bullet during his assassination — turned to Mr. Cameron and ended the meeting. They walked out of Downing Street and found themselves, in various stages of shock and fury, facing a wall of cameras.

A man in a black suit stands before microphone with a gray haired man and woman and a blond woman, all with downcast eyes.

Geraldine Finucane told reporters the family had been “lured to Downing Street under false pretences.” She later described Mr. Cameron’s investigation as a “sham proposal.”

“It represents yet another broken promise by the British government who still fear a public inquiry into the murder,” she said in her latter statement, “and cannot bring themselves to uncover or confront the truth.”


John Finucane had just been in the streets of London last January, protesting the legacy bill along with the Bloody Sunday families, when he strode into his Westminster office and jumped onto a video conference.

(While Sinn Féin’s members of the British Parliament do not take their oaths of office or vote, the party makes use of the office space for meetings and other official business.)

The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement was coming up, and former Prime Minister John Major of Britain was testifying to the Irish Parliament’s Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement by video link. Mr. Finucane had the privilege to join, and he didn’t want to miss the chance.

Mr. Finucane had questions about Mr. Major’s time in the British cabinet. Mr. Major had been prime minister, he pointed out, when British intelligence ran Brian Nelson as an informant and a large shipment of arms arrived in Northern Ireland under what Mr. Finucane called the “watch and direction” of British agents.

Mr. Major was also in the cabinet, Mr. Finucane pointed out, when his father was killed.

“On your watch, respectfully, I would highlight that collusion was endemic,” Mr. Finucane said. “Were you briefed on this strategy? And if you weren’t, do you find it strange that you weren’t?”

Mr. Major, who had been listening with a fixed expression of somewhat dainty dismay, stuttered a bit as he replied, “I’m surprised.”

“I was certainly never briefed on that,” he said. “I certainly wasn’t aware of either of the things you mentioned.”

There was something mesmerising about this exchange. On the night his father was killed, John Finucane was a young boy huddled on the floor, and John Major was in the cabinet of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Now they faced each other in suits, Mr. Major drifting into old age and Mr. Finucane representing the city that was home to his father as well as his father’s killers.

Mr. Major had very little to offer. He said, repeatedly, that he was sorry that bad things had happened, although in an abstract way that suggested no personal role, and that he was sympathetic and — this he said many times — that he wasn’t briefed.

Then he began to talk about how long ago it was, and how much life had come in between, and how very hard it is, now, to remember.

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