Council of Europe decides to reopen examination of Pat Finucane murder

James Ward, PA
·6-min read

The son of murdered solicitor Pat Finucane has welcomed a decision by the Council of Europe to reopen his father’s case.

John Finucane, Sinn Fein MP for North Belfast, said the decision to reopen examination of the case by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was a “hugely significant move”.

The 47-nation council, which oversees the implementation of ECHR judgments, has also called on the UK authorities to step up efforts to conclude all legacy killing inquests within five years.

Pat Finucane death
The Council of Europe has decided to reopen its investigation into the murder of Pat Finucane in North Belfast in February 1989 (PA)

Mr Finucane welcomed the decision, calling it a “hugely significant” move, which will advance calls for a public inquiry into his father’s murder.

He told the PA news agency: “It’s very unusual for the Council of Europe to reopen an investigation.

“We have been hopeful as a family that they would do that, but we certainly weren’t complacent.

“This is a result of efforts not just by my family but also by the Irish Government, and I want to thank them for their efforts in that regard.

“I think what the announcement today does is it puts a level of scrutiny and spotlight on the British Government and how they propose to deal with the investigation and all of the circumstances around the murder of my father.”

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Asked if it makes a public inquiry more likely, Mr Finucane said: “I think it does, because the announcement last November that the British Government essentially wanted to bat this back to the PSNI and the Police Ombudsman, I don’t think that really held much water with anybody internationally.

“I think the Council of Europe’s decision today puts focus and scrutiny on that.

“It requires the British Government to justify how that decision will live up to the Convention standards. That’s the international human rights standard which the British Government are still bound by.

“I think that does draw out the weakness of the British Government’s position and I would say it does advance our calls for a public inquiry.”

Leading European human rights body the Council of Europe decided to reopen its examination of the case on Friday.

In a statement, the Council said it did so “in order to supervise the ongoing measures to ensure that they are adequate, sufficient and proceed in a timely manner”.

The Council has invited the authorities to clarify how the ongoing police and Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (Oponi) processes will proceed “promptly and in line with Convention standards”.

In December the UK Government decided not to hold an immediate public inquiry into the killing of Mr Finucane in 1989, a move branded an insult by the solicitor’s family.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said he was not taking a public inquiry off the table but that further examinations of the case by police and the Police Ombudsman should conclude first.

The Council rebuked the UK Government at the time for failing to enforce judgments by the ECHR involving security forces killings and suspected collusion cases in Northern Ireland.

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Pat Finucane, 39, who represented republican and loyalist paramilitaries during the conflict, was shot dead in his family home in North Belfast in February 1989 by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) in an attack found to have involved collusion with the State.

UK authorities have also been called on by the Council of Europe to step up efforts to reach its targets of concluding all legacy killing inquests within five years.

Acknowledging delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Council noted: “Some progress is now being made, inquests are resuming and recovery planning is under way.”

In a statement on Friday it “strongly encouraged the authorities to step up their efforts to accelerate as far as possible to meet their target of the conclusion of all inquests within five years”.

It has asked for “concrete information and explanations” as to what measures are being taken to meet the current timeframes and “prevent unnecessary delays”.

While noting the authorities’ intention to introduce legislation under the Stormont House Agreement to address legacy issues as soon as possible, the Council outlined its “profound concern” about the lack of detail over a plan to do so.

The decision was also welcomed by Amnesty International.

Patrick Corrigan, the human rights group’s Northern Ireland programme director, said: “This is a welcome move by the Council of Europe, but it is deeply regrettable that the UK Government’s shameful refusal to open a public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane has made it necessary.

“Given the failure to properly investigate this killing, previously identified by the European Court of Human Rights and the UK Supreme Court, it is appalling that the Government continue to shirk not only their duty to the Finucane family but also their obligations under international law.

“The Government must get the Finucane inquiry under way without further delay and heed Council of Europe calls for a human rights-compatible approach to dealing with all outstanding legacy cases.”

In February 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that investigations into the fatal shooting of the solicitor have not been effective and fell short of international human rights standards. In November 2020, the government again refused a public inquiry into the circumstances of his killing.

The decision not to hold an immediate inquiry into the killing was criticised by Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Green Party late last year.

Pat Finucane death
(left to right) Katherine Finucane, with her brother, John, and mother, Geraldine, at the offices of Finucane Toner in Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

A letter signed by Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood, Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry and the Green Party’s Clare Bailey urged a rethink from the UK Government.

They said the decision was “neither a credible nor tenable position”.

“It was an insult to the Finucane family,” the senior party figures added.

“Your approach to this matter is now a matter of serious public concern.

“To avoid a public inquiry, you have clearly made a calculated decision to embark on a high-risk distraction strategy that now places both the Office of the Police Ombudsman and the PSNI in the midst of a historic murder investigation at a time when the intent is to take legacy out of policing.

“Your suggested approach potentially risks wider confidence in the rule of law and the administration of justice.”

The issue has divided political opinion in Northern Ireland and several unionist politicians have welcomed the Government’s decision, arguing that a public inquiry is not justifiable when so many other bereaved families are still waiting for answers.