By Bob Hand
CSCE Staff Advisor
The United States Helsinki Commission recently held two hearings focusing on human rights developments in Northern Ireland. The first, “Human Rights and Police Reform in Northern Ireland”, held March 16, 2004, dealt specifically with human rights and police reform. The second, “Northern Ireland Update: Implementation of the Cory Reports and Impact on Good Friday Agreement”, held May 5, supplemented the first one by examining the recently published Cory Collusion Inquiry Reports.
Reports of Collusion
Following decades of violence in Northern Ireland, the April 10, 1998, “Good Friday Agreement” provided a new avenue for peace by calling for devolved government, decommissioning (disarmament), police reform and other human rights measures. The process of implementing the agreement, however, has proven to be difficult.
In the summer of 2001, the Governments of the United Kingdom and of the Republic of Ireland met at Weston Park to resolve numerous problems which developed in the peace process. There, the two governments agreed that, among other things, “certain cases from the past remain a source of grave public concern, particularly those giving rise to serious allegations of collusion by the security forces.” They therefore agreed to “appoint a judge of international standing from outside both jurisdictions to undertake a thorough investigation of allegations of collusion” in six prominent murder cases, adding that, “in the event a Public Inquiry is recommended in any case, the relevant Government will implement that recommendation.”
On May 29, 2002, the Governments of the United Kingdom and of the Republic of Ireland appointed former Canadian Supreme Court Justice Peter Cory to fulfill this task, agreeing to publish his final reports. On October 7, 2003, Justice Cory delivered two reports to the Government of the Republic of Ireland and four reports to the Government of the United Kingdom. That December, the Irish Government published the reports it had received and announced its approval of a Public Inquiry in the one case as recommended (Cory found no evidence constituting a basis for the directing of a Public Inquiry in the other). It was not until April 2004, however, after many public appeals and legal action, that the British Government published the reports it had received from Justice Cory.
While Cory recommended Public Inquiries in all four cases, the British Government approved only three. Regarding the fourth — that of murdered Belfast lawyer Patrick Finucane — Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy noted not only the current prosecution of one individual, Ken Barrett, for the murder, but also the possibility of further prosecutions.
Secretary Murphy indicated that “the way ahead” will be set out only at the conclusion of prosecutions. In contrast, Cory found “strong evidence that collusive acts were committed,” making this “one of the rare situations where a public inquiry will be of greater benefit than prosecutions.” Cory argued that a Public Inquiry “should be held as quickly as possible” in order “to achieve the benefits of determining the flaws in the system and suggesting the required remedy, and … to restore public confidence in the army, the police and the judicial system.”
Justice Cory appeared before the Helsinki Commission on May 5 to discuss these issues. Other witnesses included Geraldine Finucane, widow of Patrick Finucane, and the non-governmental organization Human Rights First’s Washington office director, Elisa Massimino.
Helsinki Commission Chairman, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), opened the hearing by reciting the obligations undertaken by the Governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic Ireland in the Weston Park Agreement of 2001. Chairman Smith emphasized that “the precise wording of the agreement was ‘will’, not ‘may’” with regard to the establishment of a Public Inquiry if recommended. Mr. Smith underlined that the timely implementation of Justice Cory’s recommendations is necessary to restore citizens’ confidence in government, the rule of law, and to ensure peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. Expressing deep disappointment in the British Government’s decision regarding the case of Patrick Finucane, Smith argued that “we owe it to the memory of those slain, their families, and every person in Ireland who cherishes justice to see to it that the British Government immediately commences the Public Inquiry as promised in the Weston Park Agreement; no exceptions, no excuses.”
Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) welcomed the witnesses testifying before the Commission and acknowledged their contributions to the ongoing struggle for justice and peace in Northern Ireland. Mr. Cardin supported the sentiments stated by the Chairman and expressed his own hopes for a rapid resolution to the stalemate in the peace process. Noting the Helsinki Commission’s emphasis on implementation of OSCE commitments, Cardin added that “we don’t just speak about a problem, we watch it and follow up to make sure action is taken. And I can assure you that this commission will do just that.” Other Commissioners in attendance included Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA), and Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-AL).
Justice Cory began his testimony by describing the four cases on which he reported to the British Government:
Patrick Finucane was a Belfast lawyer who was gunned down in his home in 1989. Cory listed several alarming facts uncovered through his investigation which point to collusion between the killers of Patrick Finucane and several government agencies. These included British military intelligence, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) Special Branch and the Security Service. Justice Cory also uncovered documents indicating that Finucane was a target in 1981, 1985, and in 1989 shortly before his murder. However, in order to protect the identity and safety of the agent, this information was not released to Patrick Finucane. According to Cory, this aspect alone constitutes evidence of collusion and requires the establishment of a Public Inquiry.
Billy Wright was a militant Protestant leader known for committing acts of violence and inciting others to do the same. He was killed in 1997 in the confines of the Maze state prison by militant members of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). Wright had been transferred to Maze because three members of INLA conspired to kidnap and execute him at his prior detention facility. However, a transfer to Maze was also granted to several INLA members. A prisoner’s list was circulated throughout the prison, which contained the exact times and locations of Wright’s whereabouts throughout the day. Other disturbing factors included a broken security camera, a large hole in the fence, and weapons that enabled the INLA prisoners to kill Billy Wright. Since Billy Wright was a prisoner in a state institution, Justice Cory concluded, it was the responsibility of the state to ensure Wright’s safety. He felt the above factors indicate collusion and thus recommended a Public Inquiry.
Robert Hamill was a young Catholic construction worker who was only 25 when he was kicked to death in 1997 in Portadown. RUC officers in an armored vehicle were positioned nearby but had an obstructed view of the violence. The senior RUC officer on duty tried to assist one of the men responsible for Hamill’s death by calling the man’s father and instructing him to burn the clothes worn the night of the murder. The officer further compromised his position by asking two of his friends to lie on his behalf, by telling the authorities it was one of them who placed the call. The officer later admitted to charges of obstruction of justice. Another man at the scene and likely involved in the attack was taken into custody only to be released without explanation. Justice Cory concluded the lack of accountability by the police and the attempt to destroy evidence warranted the establishment of a Public Inquiry.
Rosemary Nelson was a prominent lawyer who was killed when her car was blown up in 1999. She had taken on several prominent and controversial cases during which she was openly threatened by the RUC officers. Her clients were threatened and told to find a different lawyer, under advisement that Ms. Nelson would soon be dead. Aside from verbal threats there were also written threats, one appearing in a pamphlet entitled “A Man without a Country” which indirectly encouraged violence against Ms. Nelson and her work. A number of clients, independent agencies, and Ms. Nelson herself contacted the RUC and the Northern Ireland Office regarding the threats. In his investigation Justice Cory discovered that the Northern Ireland Office contacted the RUC for a threat assessment. That request was never answered. Due to lack of information the ministry concluded there was no direct threat and took no action. Justice Cory determined that the failure of both institutions to take preventive action and the mishandling of documents vital to the safety of Ms. Nelson constitute the possibility of collusion. Based on the evidence uncovered, a Public Inquiry was recommended despite what he considered to be a thorough investigation of the crime. Chairman Smith noted that Rosemary Nelson had testified before the U.S. Congress six months prior to her murder.
The last two cases discussed by Justice Cory were those on which he reported to the Irish Government:
Lord Justice Maurice and Lady Cecily Gibson were killed in 1987 when their car was blown up as they returned from vacation in England. Lord Gibson was a prominent judge who presided over a number of significant and controversial cases in Northern Ireland. Prior to his death he had been warned by both RUC and Garda (Irish police) officers to take all necessary precautions to ensure his safety. Upon completion of the investigation, Justice Cory found no material evidence linking the Garda to the deaths of Lord Justice and Lady Gibson. Although the circumstances surrounding the deaths are suspicious, Justice Cory concluded that suspicion may not be used as a ground for establishing a Public Inquiry.
RUC Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan were killed in a violent ambush as they returned from a Garda office in the Republic of Ireland in 1989. Justice Cory uncovered documents which pointed to collusion between the killers and a member of the Garda, which would account for the precise timing and execution of the assault. The clear presence of material evidence justified the establishment of a Public Inquiry, Cory maintains.
Concluding his remarks, Justice Cory praised the cooperation and dedication of the police and intelligence agencies assisting his investigations. Upon questions posed by Chairman Smith and other Members of Congress as to whether he was able to examine all the documents vital to his investigation, Cory commended all of the agencies he worked with for their contributions to the investigation.
Regarding the murder of Patrick Finucane, Justice Cory stated that in this particular case a Public Inquiry ought to take precedence over the criminal prosecution in order to restore peace and transparency in the community. He compared the current state of ambiguity to a deadly disease: “In light of the suspicion that is there, it must be open. And if it isn’t then the suspicion grows like a cancerous sore and just will grow greater and greater until the exploration is made.” Justice Cory also shared his concerns with the Commission regarding the feasibility of a complete and thorough investigation due to the recent passing of two key witnesses in the case.
Mrs. Finucane followed Justice Cory. She spoke of her long and frustrating battle to learn the truth about the murder of her husband, an effort that has been sabotaged by long investigations and other delays. Delays in releasing the Cory Reports in the United Kingdom, for example, forced Mrs. Finucane to begin a legal battle to have them made public.
Although Mrs. Finucane and her family were skeptical at the onset of the investigation conducted by Justice Cory, she thanked him publicly at the hearing for completing a thorough and uncompromising investigation ahead of schedule while maintaining respect and compassion for the families of the victims. Despite the recommendation for a Public Inquiry set forth by Justice Cory and appeals filed by international organizations, governments, and law societies, she reported that the British Government has refused to establish such an inquiry. Recently on the floor of the United Nations the Government of Republic of Ireland called for a Public Inquiry. In conclusion, Mrs. Finucane asked the Helsinki Commission to continue to provide support and assistance in seeing this case to the end.
Ms. Elisa Massimino began her testimony by urging the British Government to fulfill its obligations under the Weston Park Agreement of 2001. She also noted that Justice Cory, the United Kingdom’s most senior policeman, Sir John Stevens, and the United Nations have all found evidence of collusion. Ms. Massimino stated that “a public inquiry would help to ensure that current policies, procedures, and structures are likely to withstand future prospects of institutional conflict and corruption of the kind that Northern Ireland has experienced in the past, and it would go a long way toward instilling long needed trust in the rule of law.” She added that a Public Inquiry would not interfere with any prosecution.
While hoping to address outstanding cases from the past, the Good Friday Agreement and the subsequent peace process also initiated changes to preclude new issues from arising. Reforming the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) into a Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) which would have the respect and support of all communities has been vital in this regard. Part of this reform included the establishment in 1998 of the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland to provide an independent and impartial police complaints service in which both the public and the police would have confidence.
The March 16 Helsinki Commission hearing largely focused on the practices, oversight, training and other activities of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Testifying before the Commission were Dr. Mitchell B. Reiss, Director of the Policy Planning Staff, U.S. Department of State; Nuala O’Loan, Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland; Paul Mageean, Legal Officer, Committee on the Administration of Justice; Elisa Massimino, Director of Washington office, Human Rights First; Jane Winter, Director, British Irish Rights Watch; and Brendan McAllister, Director of Mediation Northern Ireland.
In his opening statement, Chairman Smith stressed that proper police conduct is essential to maintaining a dialogue between conflicting parties in Northern Ireland, and only a police force which gains the confidence of the community can secure a lasting peace. Accordingly, Smith observed that some problems remain in policing, particularly the harassment of attorneys. Other Commissioners in attendance included Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-VA), Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), and Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (R-AL).
Dr. Reiss began his testimony by acknowledging that progress on human rights issues remains to be made, but internal reforms and supervisory bodies such as the Police Ombudsman and the Office of the Oversight Commission, headed by Tom Constantine, have guided the PSNI in a positive direction. “Despite the instability in the political process, the policing institutions have performed well over the past two years,” Reiss said. He was encouraged by recent opinion polls describing public attitudes toward Northern Ireland’s policing institutions, as they now indicate that half of Catholics have confidence in the PSNI, up from one-third in the late 1990s.
Nevertheless, Reiss remains concerned about reforming the Special Branch of the PSNI and stated that Sinn Fein, currently the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, should rethink its refusal to participate in the governance of the policing institutions.
In his questions to Dr. Reiss, Chairman Smith inquired about the need for rapid reform of the Special Branch and argued that the PSNI must disclose its training curriculum. Dr. Reiss agreed that provisions in legislation for the International Fund for Ireland authorizing assistance to promote human rights training for police, encourage police-community dialogue, and support mediation efforts would be beneficial to the police reform process.
Commissioner Hastings remarked that police reform and reconciliation in Northern Ireland would benefit by drawing on the expertise of others in nations having resolved similar problems. Dr. Reiss agreed and noted that experts had been brought in from Bosnia, South Africa, and elsewhere to provide their insight.
Ms. O’Loan stressed the importance of an independent Ombudsman, charged with investigating complaints of police abuses and making recommendations for policy changes. If necessary, the Ombudsman also refers cases for prosecution. Investigations are evidence-based and operate strictly under the legal mandate granted by Parliament; the office has jurisdiction only over PSNI, not the British military presence in Northern Ireland.
Ms. O’Loan continued by detailing the accomplishments and challenges her office has faced in recent years. She noted that PSNI has grown more cooperative since the establishment of the Ombudsman, even to the point where police officers are willing to volunteer evidence and testify against abusive colleagues. Moreover, O’Loan was pleased with a trend of decreased usage of firearms and rubber bullets by the police – a testament to the policy of the Ombudsman to investigate every incident in which a weapon is fired. However, Ms. O’Loan described how her office is stretched by the need to investigate historical cases of police abuses. She believed that such investigations are vital for the process of reconciliation, but described how they consume sizable resources and staff.
Chairman Smith asked O’Loan whether the Ombudsman had sufficient funding to study the historical cases of police abuse, inquired as to the Ombudsman’s contribution in police training, and asked how the Ombudsman acts to preempt abuse by problem officers. Ms. O’Loan answered that she had requested additional funding to cover historical cases, and that the matter was pending. She highlighted the human rights instruction the Ombudsman had provided to police trainees and described the Ombudsman’s early warning system for detecting abusive officers, which triggers an investigation of an officer if he is the subject of three or more complaints per year. Chairman Smith also reiterated to Ms. O’Loan a need to investigate complaints of the harassment of attorneys by the police and other authorities.
Following Ms. O’Loan, the Commission proceeded to hear from the remainder of the witnesses in its third panel. Generally, the third panel held a more guarded view of the progress of police reform in Northern Ireland in recent years.
Paul Mageean began his testimony by calling for the government, political parties, and civil society of Northern Ireland to issue a mutually binding written declaration of human rights principles. He argued that such a “bill of rights” would set a positive tone for policing and government activities. Mageean also cited specific violations of human rights by Northern Ireland’s policing and judicial institutions, including the continued use of emergency anti-terrorism legislation to try suspects without juries of their peers, “heavy handed” police tactics, politically motivated raids and arrests by Special Branch, delays in addressing sectarianism within PSNI, and the use of plastic bullets.
Elisa Massimino called for reforms to Northern Ireland’s criminal justice system. She understood that current legislative efforts at reform are underway, but she desired a quickened pace to establish a judicial appointment commission to “secure a judiciary in Northern Ireland that is reflective of society.” Massimino also wanted increased human rights training, the curtailed usage of emergency detention powers, and Public Inquires to determine if the police were complicit in the assassinations of Patrick Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, two human rights attorneys.
Jane Winter joined Massimino’s request for public investigations into police collusion in the Finucane and Nelson murders. In calling on the British Government to release reports authored by Justice Peter Cory, she garnered Chairman Smith’s support, and London did release the reports two weeks later.
Brendan McAllister described the role of his organization in providing expert advice to the police as they implement their reforms, particularly by facilitating dialogue and exchange programs with foreign police forces and communities that have dealt with similar problems. Mr. McAllister said the PSNI had made substantial progress in developing a concept of “community policing,” but the process requires a long-term commitment. McAllister warned, however, that the situation is tenuous in Northern Ireland due to the political vacuum created by the collapse of the territory’s executive and assembly.
Chairman Smith sensed from the testimony that the Ombudsman has done much to improve the quality of policing. Smith concluded by highlighting legislation that he had introduced, which has passed the House but is awaiting action in the Senate, that would authorize International Fund for Ireland monies to be spent on training the PSNI in human rights practices.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.
United States Helsinki Commission Interns Colby Daughtry and Irina Smirnov contributed to this article.