Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

Why it’s never too late to right the wrongs of history

They never really get it, do they? The authorities, I mean. On the issue of secrecy.

If there is an over-arching lesson from the legacy of the Hillsborough disaster, it is that an unchecked culture of official secrecy threatens public confidence in the legitimacy of the state.

There is still a notion around that truth can and should be withheld from the citizenry, sometimes.

That the people do not have a right to know, even when it involves the spending of their own money.

There is a tendency among some in public life to see themselves as different. That, when the chips are down, ranks should close and the public should not be exposed to the unvarnished truth.

This “culture of deceit” — as former Director of Public Prosecutions Ken Macdonald continues to describe it — is indeed a suffocating one.

It has been a long path generally towards reducing its influence and it is one in which our own Troubles have played more than a walk-on part, including Bloody Sunday, the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four.

But there were and are wider issues across the water: deaths in custody, the hanging of Ruth Ellis, the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad — the list goes on. And that’s just in the criminal justice sphere.

I do accept, thankfully, that the culture is not as pervasive as it once was. The Freedom of Information Act has helped.

Appropriate scrutiny of the police and other bodies is invaluable. More recently, the Prime Minister’s candour over Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough was impressive.

The public, however, should never let its guard down. Yes Minister and The Thick Of It aren’t complete fantasy.

If you think the situation is all right now, consider the following:

Tony Blair has described the Freedom of Information Act as the worst piece of legislation he enacted in his entire premiership. Powerful forces want it overturned, or constricted.

The inquest system in Northern Ireland is, at times, dysfunctional — literally decades can pass without the holding of proper inquests into sensitive deaths.

The treatment of whistleblowers in the NHS is nothing short of disgraceful. Too often, they end up being wronged against, rather than righting wrongs.

The Government of Mr Cameron, in spite of his record on Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough, is still trying to push through a Bill that would introduce new secret procedures into the justice system.

It is important that the public, journalists, lawyers and others stay vigilant on these matters.

The Hillsborough revelations are a timely reminder.

BTreaderseditor@gmail.com

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