The Inquiries Bill completed its passage through Parliament yesterday. This legislation is a classic demonstration of everything that’s wrong with Britain’s role in Ireland.
At the Weston Park talks in 2001, the British Government agreed to hold a public inquiry into the 1989 murder of solicitor Pat Finucane if one was recommended by Canadian judge Peter Cory.
Cory reported that he found evidence that the Army, the RUC and MI5 had colluded with the loyalists who killed Finucane.
The Government then moved the goalposts by announcing that an inquiry would only take place when new legislation had been passed.
The legislation was condemned by a coalition of human rights groups in these terms:
The fundamental problem contained in the Inquiries Bill is its shift in emphasis towards inquiries established and largely controlled by government Ministers. This shift is achieved by the repeal of the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 and the terms of several of the Bill’s clauses. These clauses grant broad powers to the Minister establishing an inquiry on issues such as the setting of the terms of reference, restrictions on funding for an inquiry, suspension or termination of an inquiry, restrictions on public access to inquiry proceedings and to evidence submitted to an inquiry, and restrictions on public access to the final report of an inquiry. The Bill does not grant the independence to inquiry chairs and panels that has made their role so crucial in examining issues, particularly where public confidence has been undermined.
The Irish Government, the nationalist parties in Northern Ireland, Judge Cory and the Finucane family, all believe that the British Government has reneged on its Weston Park commitments with this bill.
Yet in the Commons debates, apart from the SDLP and a handful of Labour MPs it was barely even acknowledged that the Finucane case was the real reason for the bill.
This episode is a clear example of the failure of Westminster as a mechanism for holding the British Government to account for its actions in Ireland.
It is also a demonstration of the way those actions have undermined British democracy itself, because all future inquiries in Britain will take place under the terms of the new legislation.