Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: This society simply cannot move forward without dealing with the past... warts and all

With funding available for legacy inquests the Secretary of State must set up a Historical Investigations Unit, says Alban Maginness

The scene after the Loughgall ambush in 1987
The scene after the Loughgall ambush in 1987
Pat Finucane
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

The release of £55m to fund 52 legacy inquests involving the deaths of 93 people and the unequivocal judgment of the Supreme Court in the case of murdered Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane, represents a decisive and welcome turning point in the exhausting struggle to establish a workable and productive legacy process to deal with the history of the Troubles.

But listening to some unionist politicians one would be excused for believing that by setting up institutions to deal with the past, that this is the present day equivalent of establishing the Nuremburg trials to try former members of the RUC or British soldiers for war crimes.

Whether unionist politicians, or indeed members of the British establishment, object to a formalised legacy process is now immaterial, as we cannot progress as a society if we do not address the corrosive impact that legacy has on our contemporary politics.

Legacy, without being comprehensively addressed, shackles all of us from moving forward and frustrates the creation of a more tolerant and freed-up society.

We need a new re-energised society that can confidently and with dignity put the ghosts of our troubled history to rest.

Frankly, if we do not address the past then the past will address us by tripping us up from time to time on the arduous journey to create a new way of shared living. It is simply not possible for us to move on without a viable system dealing with the past, warts and all.

What is interesting in both instances, is that it is the judicial system that has driven this process forward. Shamefully politics, both here and at Westminster, has not progressed this burning issue.

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Three years ago the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, publicly outlined a comprehensive scheme to systematically deal with the scandal of decades old legacy inquests.

Despite all this, Arlene Foster, when she was First Minister, crassly blocked the release of funding to activate the Lord Chief Justice's proposals.

Inevitably this obstructive and perverse decision by Arlene Foster was judicially challenged by the widow of Anthony Hughes, who was shot dead by the SAS at Loughgall in 1987.

He was an innocent man caught up in the incident that saw eight IRA man being shot dead in highly controversial circumstances by the British Army.

In the High Court, Lord Justice Paul Girvan ruled that the decision not to fund was flawed and unlawful, thereby forcing the administration to act to initiate proper funding for similar outstanding inquests.

Thus three years after the Chief Justice made his helpful proposals to set up a Legacy Inquests Unit, the Department of Justice was obliged to take action.

Although belated, the granting of funding is to be welcomed as a great boost to the expeditious hearing of outstanding legacy inquests.

It should be borne in mind that inquests are intended to be contemporaneous judicial proceedings to deal with unexplained deaths, not some form of historical investigation.

Some unionists politicians wrongfully argue that there is a political imbalance or bias in these inquests, thus justifying their opposition to them.

That is not true and a serious slur on the independent judgment of the judiciary, who have impartially and carefully selected those 93 deaths.

Doubtless they involve controversial killings by the security forces, but that simply reflects the nature of our troubled history.

The Pat Finucane judgment is a significant judicial decision by the highest court in the land and a vindication of the dogged struggle of Geraldine Finucane and her family. While the decision does not direct the government to set up an independent public inquiry, the terms of the judgment are such that the government is now obliged to establish such a public inquiry.

The basic facts surrounding this cruel murder are known and it is clear that there was high level collusion between the loyalist gunmen that carried out the murder and the RUC and intelligence services.

What is not known, is how high up in the chain of command in the security services was authority given to carry out this criminal attack. In addition, we know nothing about the political plumbing within Whitehall, that may have given either explicit or tacit approval for this unlawful action. Not only does Geraldine Finucane and her family deserve answers, but we as a society - supposedly grounded on the rule of law - deserve to know the full truth.

So now in order to complete the legacy jigsaw, it is necessary for the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, to implement the multi-party Stormont House agreement, in respect of a series of bespoke legacy institutions to comprehensively address the past.

In particular, Karen Bradley needs to show resolve on setting up as soon as possible, the Historical Investigations Unit, which is the primary legislative responsibility of the Westminster government.

Belfast Telegraph


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