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Opinion: Pat Finucane decision is characteristic of Britain's approach to other dark chapters from its past

International law lecturer Dr Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan looks at the imprint of British colonialism on the North and other parts of the world after the recent Finucane inquiry decision.

Dr Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan

THE NEWS BROKE out over the island of Ireland, causing a storm of reactions from politicians, academics, journalists and human rights activists: the British government has announced that it doesn’t intend to launch a Pat Finucane inquiry.

The Secretary for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis stated in the House of Commons though: “I am not taking the possibility of a public inquiry off the table at this stage, but it is important we allow ongoing PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) and Police Ombudsman processes to move forward.” 

This opinion piece wishes to pursue two aims: first, uncover the impact of the lack of accountability in post-colonial societies. Second, why the need for a Pat Finucane inquiry is a human rights issue which must aid towards the peace process for the entire island of Ireland. 

A series of reports

Pat Finucane was a human rights lawyer, who represented high-profile IRA members -  but also loyalists. On the 12 February 1989, two masked loyalist paramilitaries stormed his house in Belfast during Sunday dinner and shot him 14 times – in front of his three children and wife, which The Guardian said was “even by the standards of the Northern Ireland Troubles a brutal and pitiless murder.”

The investigations which were launched since this murder unearthed evidence that this cold-blooded killing was a result of a conspiracy between the Ulster Freedom Fighters, Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Army’s Force Research Unit.

Since the murder, there have been many attempts to shed light on the case, starting with the Stevens commission in 1989 which investigated a range of killings as a result of state collusions between paramilitaries and the British state forces, evidenced in the Stevens report which identified two main persons in relation to the Finucane murder, namely Brian Nelson and William Stobie who are now both deceased. 

In 2001 the British government agreed to set up an investigation led by Judge Peter Cory, a Canadian judge. The Cory report found that the British intelligence was aware that Pat Finucane was under threat and there was strong evidence for state collision.

A public inquiry, eventually, was not set up as one of the gunmen’s getaway drivers was recruited as a police informant and due to British legal restrictions on public inquiries (namely the Inquiries Act 2005).

In 2011 Sir Desmond de Silva, former UN war crimes prosecutor, was tasked with conducting an independent review, resulting in a report that affirmed state collusion but fell short of any further mechanisms for achieving truth and accountability for the murder. 

It is for the persistence of the Finucane family that the issue went up the UK Supreme Court, which found that there has never been an adequate investigation into the murder – but the UK Supreme Court yielded and left the case at the door of the government again. But with the possibility that highest cabinet members were implicated in the murder, was and is there any trust that a state apparatus is willing to investigate itself? 

Another court case was forced to address the findings of the Supreme Court, yet with Brandon Lewis’ above-mentioned statement in the House of Commons, another post-colonial stalling technique is applied to delay truth recovery and achieve accountability. 

Against this background, Anne Cadwallader had presented and evidenced in her book ‘Lethal Allies’ how the highest British state officials were informed about killings in Northern Ireland.

In a similar fashion, Ian Cobain exposed the knowledge prerogative of the highest state officials of the British government in his book, The History Thieves. The manner about how the British government had approached the chapters of its colonial history and postcolonial tremors is characteristic and comparable to other examples from other colonialism communities.

Legacies of the British Empire

One can think of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya which resulted in brutal and violent clampdown, torture, detention and rape. The British had long turned their back on the colonial violence they had inflicted and unleashed.

Eventually, the British government agreed – after a long legal battle – to an out-of-court settlement for 5.228 Kenyans. Moreover, the British government extended their apologies for the torture committed – the first time the British ever admitted to torture in any part of their Empire.  

We can shift our focus then to an island nation that the British had also colonised and brutally ruled while meddling in its post-colonial affairs and then shirking responsibility: namely, Sri Lanka.

Back in 1985, at the beginning of the island’s brutal civil war, the British sent the Keenie Meenie Services (KMS), one of Britain’s first mercenary companies, to the island to support Sri Lankan security forces.

In his book, ‘Keenie Meenie’ investigative journalist Phil Miller uncovered how the KMS – suggested and invoked by Thatcher-era politicians, trained a Sri Lankan Special Task Force to use ruthless methods during the civil war, including a 1987 massacre at a prawn farm in Kokkadicholai, Sri Lanka, in which 85 civilians died.

While the British Foreign Office is against the release of files on the diplomatic support for mercenaries, the Metropolitan Police has opened investigations into accusations of war crimes or human rights abuses – the first time British mercenaries are being investigated for such crimes. The colonial amnesia had its reckoning. 

Finucane inquiry is a human rights issue

While there is no codified right to truth as such, it can be derived from different human rights: such as right to a remedy, the right to receive and impart information, and the right to due process.

But more importantly, the United Nations General Assembly underscored that the international community must “endeavour to recognise the right of victims of gross violations of human rights, and their families, and society as a whole to know the truth to the fullest extent practicable.”

Against this backdrop, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on transitional justice, Pablo de Greiff, had stated during his travel to Northern Ireland in 2015 that “the legacies of the past in Northern Ireland continue to generate challenges and divisions that call for urgent and decisive attention.”

The delay and stalling techniques of the British government, however, is appalling to say at least, as the Finucane murder was one of six killings which need to be brought to public inquiries under the Good Friday Agreement.

The denial of justice on the part of the British government is not solely a tactic, it is the infliction of post-colonial violence itself, as the prerogative of history-telling stands with the one who controls the post-colonial narrative.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has issued a report titled ‘Dealing with Northern Ireland’s Past. Towards a Transitional Justice Approach’ in which it holds: “There is not a day that goes by without the unresolved senses of neglect and injustice triggering societal problems. The lack of a truth recovery process means that tribal myths will continue to trump actual memory.”

In this regard, post-colonial injustice does not pass away with time. It can only be corroborated with access to truth and inclusive public engagement, leading to an accountability mechanism which will unearth the truth, hold the powerful accountable and eventually give a reason for closure to violence.

This practice of (post)-violence is not the aberration of British state counterinsurgency violence, it is exemplary. In the aftermath, the delay in justice, the refusal to acknowledge and share information for decades, the legislative ways to barricade the sight on the violent histories are the violence on the psyche of post-colonial people which must be shattered through the right to truth.

The fact is that justice delayed is justice denied. These political developments on the gruesome Finucane murder affirm that the lack of British governmental action is testimony to the continuation of colonial violence that penetrates the social fabric of the post-colonial island.

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And while Ireland is undeniably a country of the Western world: this country has a pain-inducing third-world memory of its colonial past. To this end, the plight and fight for post-colonial justice are not only about reparations, apologies and other forms of righting the wrongs of past British colonialism.

More precisely, ’in this perspective, postcolonial justice is emphatically neither a matter of the ‘back then’ nor of the ‘out there’ but instead a vital issue of the here and now.’ The renowned post-colonial scholar, Frantz Fanon, had once stated that colonialism, as a form of domination, pursues the reordering of the world of indigenous peoples. To this end, he stated, violence is the defining characteristic of colonialism.

The victims of this violence continue to suffer in silence, while the peace process in the North and for the island as such is paralysed, especially with looming Brexit creating tensions between the Irish and British governments.

If colonialism should end, it is time to deliver justice: in a localised and indigenous process. This is a commitment to the people of the island of Ireland, the Finucane family and all the global victims of colonialism. 

Dr Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan, LLM. (Maastricht University), PhD (NUI Galway) is a lecturer for international law, international humanitarian law and international human rights law at Griffith College Dublin.

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Dr Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan

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