12 Oct 2011 : Column 315
House of Commons
Wednesday 12 October 2011
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
BUSINESS BEFORE QUESTIONS
Transport for London (Supplemental Toll Provisions) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr Owen Paterson): With permission, I would like to make a statement. Following my statement to the House last November in relation to the murder of Mr Patrick Finucane, I have considered this case very carefully. I want to set out today how the Government intend to proceed.
The murder of Mr Finucane, a Belfast solicitor, in front of his family on 12 February 1989 was a terrible crime. There have been long-standing allegations of security force collusion in his murder. The former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Lord Stevens was asked to investigate the murder in 1999. He published his overview report in 2003, concluding that there was “collusion”, that the murder “could have been prevented” and that the original investigation of the murder
“should have resulted in the early arrest and detection of his killers.”
“strong evidence that collusive acts were committed by the Army…the RUC…and the Security Service.”
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister invited the family to Downing street yesterday so that he could apologise to them in person and on behalf of the Government for state collusion in the murder of Patrick Finucane.
The Government accept the clear conclusions of Lord Stevens and Judge Cory that there was collusion. I want to reiterate the Government’s apology in the House today. The Government are deeply sorry for what happened. Despite the clear conclusions of previous investigations and reports, there is still only limited information in the public domain. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have committed to establishing a further process to ensure that the truth is revealed. Accepting collusion is not sufficient in itself. The public now need to know the extent and nature of that collusion. I have, therefore, asked the distinguished former United Nations war crimes prosecutor Sir Desmond de Silva QC to conduct an independent review to produce a full public account of any state involvement in the murder.
Sir Desmond is an internationally respected QC who will carry out his work completely independently of Government. He has worked for the United Nations on major international issues in Serbia and Sierra Leone. In 2005, Kofi Annan appointed him to be chief prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone. In 2010, he was appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council to the independent fact-finding mission to investigate the Israeli interception of a Gaza aid flotilla. His track record in carrying out this work speaks for itself.
“from the extensive investigations that have already taken place, to produce a full public account of any involvement by the Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Security Service or other UK Government body in the murder of Patrick Finucane. The review will have full access to the Stevens archive and all Government papers, including any Ministry of Defence, Security Service, Home Office, Cabinet Office or Northern Ireland Office files that”
12 Oct 2011 : Column 336
“by December 2012, for the purpose of its publication.”
I have agreed the terms of reference with Sir Desmond, and I would stress that he is being given unrestricted access to these documents. He will be free to meet any individuals who can assist him in his task. It is, of course, open to him to invite or consider submissions as he sees fit.
The review will have the full support and co-operation of all Government Departments and agencies in carrying out its work. I have spoken to the Chief Constable, who has given his assurance that Sir Desmond will have the full co-operation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. This Government have demonstrated in the Bloody Sunday, Billy Wright and Rosemary Nelson cases that we will publish independent reports without delay. The same checking and publication arrangements will be put in place.
This has been an exceptionally long-running issue. The previous Government sought to resolve the issue after the 2004 commitment to hold an inquiry but were unable to reach an agreed way forward with the family. I am disappointed that the family did not feel able to support the process that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I outlined to them yesterday. I fully recognise that the family have pursued their long campaign to find out the truth with great determination. We do not need a statutory inquiry to tell us that there was collusion. We accept that, and my apology in the House today reflects this. The task now is to uncover the details of this murder. The public should not be kept waiting for many more years for the truth to be revealed.
The Government have taken a bold step by asking an internationally respected figure to produce a full public account. Details in papers and statements that have been kept secret for decades will finally be exposed. The House will be aware of the extensive investigations that have already taken place in this case. I am clear that we do not need to repeat all the work that Lord Stevens has already carried out for the truth to be revealed. The investigations into the murder of Patrick Finucane have produced a huge amount of material. One man, Kenneth Barrett, was prosecuted and convicted of the murder in 2004. Taken together, the Stevens investigations took 9,256 witness statements. The Stevens documentary archive extends to more than 1 million pages; 16,194 exhibits were seized. This was one of the largest police investigations in UK history.
Lord Stevens carried out a police investigation to bring forward evidence for prosecutions. A 19-page summary report was produced in 2003, but the Stevens investigation was not designed to provide a public account of what happened. That is why Sir Desmond de Silva will now have full access to the Stevens files and all Government papers to ensure that the full facts are finally set out. The House will not want to pre-empt the details of Sir Desmond’s report. When the report is published, the Government will not hide from the truth, however difficult.
I strongly believe that this will be the quickest and most effective way of getting to the truth. Experience has shown that public inquiries into the events of the troubles take many years and can be subject to prolonged
12 Oct 2011 : Column 337
litigation, which delays the truth emerging. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have made clear for some time, we do not believe that more costly and open-ended inquiries are the right way to deal with Northern Ireland’s past.
I am acutely conscious that the conflict in Northern Ireland saw over 3,500 people from all parts of the community killed and tens of thousands more injured. We should never forget the many terrible atrocities that took place. More than 1,000 of those killed were members of the security forces. I want to be clear that the overwhelming majority of those who served in the security forces in Northern Ireland did so with outstanding courage, professionalism and even-handedness in upholding democracy and the rule of law. The whole House will agree that we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.
The murder of Patrick Finucane has been one of the longest running and most contentious issues in Northern Ireland’s recent history. The appointment of an internationally respected and wholly independent figure to produce a full public account demonstrates the Government’s determination that the truth about this murder should be finally revealed. The House will recognise the spirit of openness and frankness with which we are dealing with this difficult issue. I would encourage everyone to judge the process we have established by its results. I commend this statement to the House.
Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab): May I first thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement and for the welcome that he has on many occasions extended to me in my new post? I greatly appreciate it, as I do the welcome I have received from many others, too. I am delighted to have been appointed the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I look forward to working in a bipartisan way with the Secretary of State whenever possible, as well as to working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive, and all its parties and representatives. I will, however, hold the Government to account and challenge them, where necessary.
Every community in Northern Ireland has suffered outrages, atrocities and murders, but today we are reflecting on the murder of Pat Finucane. His wife was wounded in the attack and his three children witnessed what no child ever should—the murder of their father.
Thirteen months ago, my right hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward), to whom I pay tribute today for all the work he did in Northern Ireland, asked the Secretary of State to honour the commitments of a previous Prime Minister and previous Secretaries of State to hold an inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane. That commitment was made as a result of an agreement between the British and Irish Governments at Weston Park in 2001. If peace and reconciliation are to be taken forward, we need to respect such agreements. The progress that has been made in Northern Ireland is built on trust. As we have heard from Judge Cory’s report, public inquiries have been held into the cases of Robert Hamill, Rosemary Nelson and Billy Wright, but not into that of Pat Finucane.
12 Oct 2011 : Column 338
take place under the Inquiries Act 2005, but today the Secretary of State has told us of his decision that there will no inquiry at all. Instead the Government have announced an inadequate review, although the whole country will welcome the apology. We are disappointed by that decision, and think that the Secretary of State should honour commitments that have been made.
The incredible scenes yesterday of the Finucane family at Downing street expressing their feelings of anger and outrage at having been completely let down by the Government show that this is no way in which to deal with such a difficult and sensitive issue. Will the Secretary of State tell us why he allowed the Finucane family to believe for so long that an inquiry would be offered to them? What discussions did he have with them before informing them of his decision? What advice did he give the Prime Minister that led the Prime Minister to invite the family to Downing street? They clearly believed that they would be offered something that would be acceptable to them; otherwise, why raise false hopes? What discussions had the Secretary of State had with his counterpart in the Irish Government before he made his decision?
Why, on the day on which the Irish Government extended by six months the Smithwick inquiry into the murders of Chief Superintendent Breen and Superintendent Buchanan regarding alleged Garda collusion, did the Secretary of State choose to deny an inquiry to the Finucane family? Does he accept that, while any form of inquiry takes time and carries a financial cost, it is possible for such inquiries to be both reasonable and not, in themselves, a barrier to the pursuit of justice? As for the proposed review of the Finucane papers, will he tell us how representations—including any from the family—can be made, what is the expected cost of such a review, where the hearings will be held, whether any will be held in secret, and whether witnesses will be called?
Everything that has been achieved in Northern Ireland since the mid-1990s has been achieved with consensus. The Belfast, St Andrews and Hillsborough Castle agreements were all achieved by means of consensus. The Northern Ireland Executive operate by consensus. There are many horrors from the past, many atrocities, many outrages on the part of both loyalist and republican terrorists, but there is an opportunity for Northern Ireland to escape the grip of the past by confronting the truth about past events. Will the Secretary of State therefore tell us what the Government’s policy is for dealing with the past? Having denied a public inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane, will he tell us what additional resources he will provide for the Historical Enquiries Team?
The people of Northern Ireland have made real progress, but we must never take such progress for granted. It has taken real effort, commitment and trust. I agree with the Prime Minister: let us do the right thing. May I ask the Secretary of State to think again about an inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane because it is the right thing to do? Seeking the truth and honouring agreements means that the cause of justice is served, and with it the cause of a better future for Northern Ireland.
12 Oct 2011 : Column 339
Northern Ireland issues in a bipartisan manner. He is sitting next to the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain). The right hon. Gentleman, the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) and the right hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward)—who are also present—all played a distinguished part in bringing Northern Ireland to where it is now, continuing work which, in fairness, began under Sir John Major, whose role is often forgotten. I very much hope that we shall continue to work closely with one another. We met privately on Monday, and we have talked today. My door is always open, and I hope that we shall discuss these matters together.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the chronology. I wrote to the Finucane family within weeks—on 28 June last year—asking to meet them. I met Mrs Finucane in November last year, and I think I was the first Secretary of State to meet her since the right hon. Member for Neath met her in 2006. I said then that we had inherited an impasse. We entirely respected the position of the Labour Government, who had committed themselves to a public inquiry, but the right hon. Member for Torfaen had introduced the Inquiries Act 2005, and there appeared to be a jam. We wanted to unlock that jam, and we went into the process in a genuinely open-minded way.
On 11 November last year I issued a written ministerial statement, which the hon. Gentleman will have read, setting out various criteria against which we would make a judgment and inviting representations. It was a very open process, and we took representations. We were still in discussion with the family at the end of the two months, and we extended the period for a further two months. Until yesterday, I last saw Mrs Finucane in Washington on St Patrick’s day. I gave her an assurance that we wanted to come to a conclusion and resolve the impasse, but we could not do so during the Assembly election period. I promised that that would happen soon after.
It has taken longer, however. This has not been an easy issue to resolve, but what we have done is incredibly bold. We believe that by inviting the family to Downing street so that the Prime Minister can make an apology in person, we have moved the whole argument on.
The original justification for a public inquiry was, bluntly, to put the British Government on the spot and to prove that collusion had happened. We have accepted Stevens and Cory, and by making this bold apology—the Prime Minister made it in a full and frank manner, and I have repeated it today on the Floor of the House—we believe we have created an opportunity to move the argument on.
The question now is how do we get to the truth? That was clearly stated towards the end of today’s Prime Minister’s questions. As we have made clear in the build-up to this statement, we firmly believe that costly open-ended inquiries are not necessarily the best way to get to the truth. Speed is also an issue. Past inquiries have taken a long time. The hon. Member for Gedling mentioned Smithwick. That offers a classic example of the trouble we can get into with an inquiry. It had to be extended. The new Government tried to get an interim report in June and to limit the process to November, but it looks as though they will have to extend that.
12 Oct 2011 : Column 340
documents and there will be more than 9,000 witness statements. That is where the truth lies, and we want to get the truth out. I hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will come round to agreeing that our approach is novel, bold and brave. It will cost approximately £1.5 million. The main offices will be in London, but obviously that is up to Sir Desmond, and he will certainly be visiting Belfast.
I met Sir Desmond this morning. I have appointed him, and his letter of appointment will be in the Library. He is very keen to get going and to meet the family. How he relates to the family and others is entirely up to him. He can invite people to attend. He does not have the power to demand that witnesses attend, but he will have powers—real powers, I hope—to get access to a huge archive of data. That is where the truth lies—we know the truth is in there—and we now all have an interest in getting to the truth.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the past. As he knows, that is, sadly, a fraught issue. The Minister of State and I have been holding talks since we came into office last June; we have talked to all the political parties and to numerous interest groups. I know about the debate in the Assembly this week. Sadly, as the hon. Gentleman will find out when he goes there on Thursday, there is no consensus on the past. He mentioned the Historical Enquiries Team, which is looking into 3,268 deaths. We are very supportive of it and have always supported it, and we know that it is giving extraordinarily high levels of satisfaction to the families who have so far received reports, but oversight of it is a devolved responsibility, so the hon. Gentleman should discuss funding issues with the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, David Ford.
The Government in Westminster do not own the past. The solution to the past lies very much in the hands of local politicians. We will help to facilitate things, however. I will continue our talks and I will make further statements on our approach soon.
Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for providing me with early sight of the statement, and I agree with him that accepting that there was collusion is not in itself enough, and that we need to get to the truth of who did what. If that is established, will he confirm that any necessary prosecutions will go ahead? Although it is totally right that we praise the quality of the people who served in the security forces in the past and the outstanding way in which they carry out their work now, we must find out the truth in order to protect the image of those people, who deservedly have a high reputation.
I do not believe that it was necessary to spend so much money on past inquiries. It was the Prime Minister’s response to the Saville inquiry that satisfied people in Northern Ireland. Since then, we have had inquiries that were, perhaps, expensive and that did not reach the truth. I therefore support the Secretary of State’s decision and agree that what is important is not how we get to the truth, but actually getting to the truth.
Mr Paterson: I am grateful to the Select Committee Chairman for his support for what we propose to do. Decisions on prosecutions are entirely in the hands of the local Director of Public Prosecutions, so if this review reveals information that justifies the DPP taking
12 Oct 2011 : Column 341
action, that is entirely down to him. As I am sure the Chairman knows, on seeing the Stevens papers the previous DPP found that not enough cases met the threshold requirements. I entirely endorse the Chairman’s comments on getting to the truth so that we can honour the vast majority of those who worked in the security forces, bravely defending law and order and democracy. That is exactly what we want to do. There is no offence of collusion, so we need to get to the detail, and I am confident Sir Desmond will do so.
Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. He said: “The public now need to know the extent and nature of that collusion” and the “task now is to uncover the details of this murder.” How can that possibly be achieved when Sir Desmond cannot compel witnesses to give evidence to his inquiry—which is not really an inquiry? That has created grave disappointment in Northern Ireland. I ask the Secretary of State to review yesterday’s decision and to establish an independent public inquiry that will empower witnesses to give evidence about the true nature and extent of collusion.
Mr Paterson: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. However, the simple answer to it is no; we are cracking on. We think we have found a solution to the conundrum that was not resolved by the last Government. They had the clear policy of holding a public inquiry, but that was not acceptable under the 2005 Act. We think that through our bold measure of a public and personal apology to the family and going ahead with a review of this huge archive—1 million pages, 9,000-plus witness statements, 16,000 exhibits—we will get to the truth. We strongly believe that this is the right course of action, and that we can then move on from this impasse, which we must do because the situation has been festering.
Stephen Lloyd (Eastbourne) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement and share his view that the independent review should be conducted by such an honourable, experienced and reputable figure as Sir Desmond de Silva; I believe this is the right way forward. I also appreciate the Secretary of State’s commitment that all arms of the Government will offer unrestricted access to Sir Desmond. The murder of Patrick Finucane was a desperate and despicable act and I applaud the Government’s determination to get to the truth. Finally, may I ask the Secretary of State to keep the House informed of the progress of Sir Desmond’s investigation?
Mr Paterson: I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Sir Desmond is an independent figure, and it is not for us to interfere in any way in how he conducts the review and the manner in which he proceeds. We have to get the message across that he is an independent figure, and a man of extraordinary integrity and international standing. He is not going to take any advice or accept any interference from the Government. That is not his role. We have appointed him, he is independent, and it is up to him to report back to us in December 2012.
12 Oct 2011 : Column 342
up by Tony Blair as part of the peace process, and in breaking the promise that we gave, we are damaging the very foundations of that process. The independent inquiry was fair to everyone; it was fair to the family and the soldiers.
Let me set out my fear. The Secretary of State has said today that he has reached a verdict: there was state collusion. No account has been given of the process by which that verdict has now been reached, however, and we do not know collusion by whom or collusion about what. In this process, we must be fair to the armed forces: we must be fair to those soldiers and members of the police who may need legal representation now. What are they meant to do? Will the Secretary of State guarantee that any men and women who may face prosecution in the future because of his verdict today will be able to have a fair trial?
Mr Paterson: I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has not supported what we have done. I pay tribute to his work as Secretary of State. He managed to pull off the great coup of seeing the final plank of devolution put in place. Getting the devolution of policing and justice was not an easy task. We worked together, supporting him strongly at the time, and it was a considerable achievement. The House should recognise that and be grateful.
Obviously, given the right hon. Gentleman’s knowledge, I am disappointed by his comments. I do not wish to make a tiresome point, but I did write to Mrs Finucane and met her—he did not. He had three years to resolve this and did not do so. We talked about it privately and we both know how extraordinarily difficult the conundrum was. He stuck to the line, which we have heard again from his successor—it is totally understandable and coherent—that a public inquiry was offered, under the Inquiries Act 2005. We inherited a logjam; I really felt that this issue was festering. People must get hold of the boldness of what we have done. The Prime Minister has invited the family in to apologise in person. We are going to have a really thorough review. Sir Desmond is not a patsy; he is a man of extraordinary integrity and international repute. I fear that the report may be very difficult for us, but we will come to the House, as we did with Saville, with Nelson and with Wright, and make appropriate comments.
“I have uncovered enough evidence to lead me to believe that”—
of Patrick Finucane…could have been prevented.”
“I conclude there was collusion in”—
“and the circumstances surrounding”
it. The problem is that there is no offence of collusion, which is why we have appointed Sir Desmond. As I said in answer to a previous question, should evidence come forward that, in the opinion of the DPP, goes over the threshold, the legal process will take its course.
Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con): This widespread though not unanimous support for the statement by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister has been seen before when other Prime Ministers
12 Oct 2011 : Column 343
and Secretaries of State have taken initiatives to break logjams. I put it to the Secretary of State that getting to the truth is an important part of coming to terms with history. May I end by saying that we should respect and support lawyers, journalists and families who stand by those who are victims or potential victims, those who are accused and even those who have been convicted, because representing the unpopular and the marginal is an important part of an open and democratic society?
Mr Paterson: I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. He served as a Northern Ireland Minister and is aware of the sensitivities of issues in Northern Ireland. He is absolutely right to say that lawyers and politicians who stand up for unpopular, controversial views have every right to speak and every right to life. That is why this murder is shocking, and it is why we want to get to the truth and find out what happened.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I begin by welcoming the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) to his post as shadow Secretary of State, and I look forward to working with him. He has good experience of Northern Ireland and I am sure that we will have useful exchanges in the weeks and months ahead.
I welcome what the Secretary of State has said today in the House. The murder of Pat Finucane in my constituency was an atrocious, terrible, despicable crime. Every person involved, either in carrying out that murder or complicit in it, deserves to be brought to justice—let there be no mistake and equivalence on this issue. Does the Secretary of State accept that across Northern Ireland reasonable people on all sides agree that the idea of more costly, open-ended inquiries into such crimes is simply not reasonable, not least on the grounds of expense, but also because it has been proved that they do not bring closure and elevate certain crimes above others? He has already referred to the fact that more than 3,000 people have been murdered, 1,000 of them in the security forces. We owe it to all the victims to ensure that all murders are investigated, that their relatives are equally cherished and that there is justice for everyone. In going forward, an absolute assurance must be given for those who have died that the interests of terrorists and those who carried out terrorism are not elevated to the same status as those who protected communities and who were totally innocent.
Mr Paterson: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and for welcoming our proposals, and I admired his wholehearted denunciation of this terrible crime. I agree with him; I think that the approach of the Historical Enquiries Team is correct. It is treating every one of these appalling deaths—3,268 deaths is a dreadful number—in an equal manner. In some cases, its attempts meet with great difficulty, as there is limited evidence—limited forensics, no DNA and so on. I admire the consistent record of satisfaction that the HET has given to the families who have received reports so far.
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I commend my right hon. Friend’s selection of Sir Desmond de Silva for the task. Sir Desmond is an outstanding international lawyer. He prosecuted war crimes in Sierra Leone in very difficult circumstances, and it is worth the House recalling that it was he who managed to indict Charles Taylor for war crimes, establishing for the first time under international law that Heads of State did not have immunity from
12 Oct 2011 : Column 344
prosecution for war crimes. Sir Desmond is a fearless lawyer. May I ask my right hon. Friend for some clarification? Will Sir Desmond be treated by the machinery of government, and by everyone involved, with the courtesy that would be extended to a High Court judge? What exactly are his powers?
Mr Paterson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome of Sir Desmond’s appointment and I wholly endorse the description of him as fearless. The House perhaps does not know that as a young barrister, aged 28, Sir Desmond represented 16 individuals facing death at the gallows, and that he saw off several assassination attempts and the 16 people were acquitted. He is someone of real international integrity and repute. I did say that I would place his letter of appointment in the Library, and it is for a distinguished lawyer such as my hon. Friend to decide whether the powers are similar to those of judges or other lawyers. The Government have said that we will make available all the papers that Sir Desmond wishes to see, and I do not think that I can make a more open or clear statement than that.
Paul Murphy (Torfaen) (Lab): In 2004, I announced the inquiries into the deaths of Nelson, Billy Wright and Hamill, and in September of that year I also announced an inquiry into the Pat Finucane case. It seems to me that we were under an obligation to do that because of agreements that had been held, and anything that falls short of that obviously will not get the support of the Finucane family. They did not support the idea of an inquiry under the 2005 legislation, but they certainly will not support this so-called “inquiry”. However distinguished the lawyer, it simply is not going to work. I urge the Secretary of State to think again.
Mr Paterson: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I pay tribute, again, to his distinguished work in Northern Ireland, but I would remind him of the position that I just described to one of his successors, the right hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Mr Woodward). We were facing an impasse. We fully respected what he had done and the reasons for introducing the 2005 Act, following the Saville inquiry, which was getting out of control—everyone understood that. We understood the commitment he made at Weston Park, but this was going nowhere. It is no good having a Mexican stand-off, with things going nowhere, because we want to move Northern Ireland on. This is an extraordinarily fraught and difficult case. I think that we have been very bold and courageous in making this apology—a full, frank apology to the family, given face to face with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in Downing street—and then working with the family to establish the truth.
Kris Hopkins (Keighley) (Con): I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and the leadership offered by the Prime Minister, as well as his bold apology. I think it is absolutely right that we do that. I offer my sympathies to the Finucane family, as I do to the 3,500 other families out there who lost loved ones in a tragic period of the history of these islands. The truth is important, but I have a school in Ilkley that needs to be rebuilt, and after the obscene amount of money that has been spent on previous inquiries, I say to the Secretary of State that I would rather see taxpayers’ money spent there than on filling the pockets of lawyers in Belfast. Does he agree with me?
12 Oct 2011 : Column 345
Mr Paterson: I thank my hon. Friend for his question and pay tribute to him as someone who served in the armed forces in Northern Ireland at a very difficult time, trying to maintain the peace and to preserve law and order and democracy. He and I, as Conservatives, were elected on a platform of no more costly and open-ended inquiries and we are quite clear about that. I am more concerned, however, about the effectiveness of the inquiries. My worry, having met Mrs Finucane, is the time they take and the complication that they cause. I believe that our solution will get to the truth quicker than a public inquiry would have done.
Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): We all feel for Geraldine Finucane and her family today after what they found to be a pretty insulting and insensitive experience yesterday with the let-down in Downing street. We also feel for all the victims of the troubles, many of whom still deserve truth and not just from the state. Will the Secretary of State explain how the Finucane family clearly had a different understanding or impression of what was going to be offered yesterday? Will he also explain whether the Irish Government were fully briefed as the full partners of the Weston Park commitments on what was afoot and what was to unfold? Will the Secretary of State stop patronising the family and this House by talking about a bold move to resolve an impasse, because all he has done is bypass the case for an inquiry by setting up a twilight-zone review that will not be able to compel witnesses?
Mr Paterson: I resent that statement. I wrote to Mrs Finucane on 28 June, three weeks after we came to power, inviting her in. Unlike my predecessor, I had a meeting with her and her son and we set out very clearly in a written statement, which the hon. Gentleman saw on 11 November 2010, the criteria against which we could make a decision. It is most unfortunate—and we were genuinely very disappointed yesterday at the reaction, because we have looked at all sorts of options and we have been working on this. We made it clear—[Interruption.]We made it clear in our statement to the House that there was a range of criteria against which we would make a decision, bearing in mind the commitments and the position of the family. We talked about delays, we mentioned the political developments that have happened since in Northern Ireland. A whole range of criteria were very clearly laid out in a transparent manner in a written ministerial statement and at no stage did we give them any misleading information about where our decision was going. There has been nothing said in public.
I am in regular contact with the Irish Government. I was in Dublin last week, where I saw the Tanaiste, and the Prime Minister spoke to the Taoiseach yesterday. I spoke to the Tanaiste twice, I spoke to the Minister for Justice and Equality and I am in regular contact with the Irish ambassador. We are in regular contact and they knew that we were getting nearer a solution, but it is an incredibly sensitive subject and we made it quite clear to everyone that we had to talk to the family first.
Gavin Williamson (South Staffordshire) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Will he confirm that all the material and all the conclusions of Sir Desmond’s report will be made fully available to this House and the public regardless of how embarrassing that might be to Her Majesty’s Government?
12 Oct 2011 : Column 346
Mr Paterson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. We are absolutely clear. We have been quite open about previous reports—Saville, Nelson, Billy Wright. They were uncomfortable, difficult reports but we came straight to the House of Commons as soon as we could and made a statement. We intend to do that, whatever Sir Desmond uncovers.
Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): As others have said, the path to peace in Northern Ireland has been based on a willingness to negotiate and to honour agreements. I regret, as others do, the fact that the Finucane family would not accept a public inquiry under the Inquiries Act, but does the Secretary of State not accept—I say this not to score points, but as a genuine supporter of the peace process in Northern Ireland—that there is a real risk that public confidence in the Government’s good faith will have been undermined by this decision and that cracking on, as he put it, is not always the best way in Northern Ireland? What I learned there was that it is never too late, and I urge him again to reconsider.
Mr Paterson: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question and give credit to him for the work he did in his years as Minister with responsibility for security in Northern Ireland. We remain in touch—we even saw each other at the Conservative party conference last week, which he might be embarrassed to have on the record—and I am sorry that he does not agree. We had a problem. It was no good saying that we had inherited the Labour position of offering an inquiry under the Inquiries Act, which the family would not accept. We had to do something. We had to look at a way of resolving the issue, as we want to move on. I made it very clear to Mrs Finucane when I met her that we wanted to find a solution. Our solution was not to carry on with the impasse but to be imaginative. As I have said, I think our solution is bold and brave. I have great confidence that Sir Desmond will get to the truth and that we will come back here in December 2012 with a very robust report that will help move Northern Ireland on. It is not satisfactory that we do not know what happened in this case.
Mr Speaker: Order. These are matters of the utmost seriousness and I very much appreciate the Secretary of State’s attempt to engage with each questioner, but may I gently point out that progress has been, to put it mildly, leisurely to date and if I am to accommodate all colleagues, which I wish to do, there is therefore a premium on brevity from Back and Front Benchers alike from now on. We will be led in this exercise by Mr Mel Stride.
Mel Stride (Central Devon) (Con): Thank you, Mr Speaker. I shall indeed be brief. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, not least his reiteration of the apology to the Finucane family for collusion. Will he confirm that although we will not be seeking uncosted and open inquiries in the future, sufficient resources, as deemed by Sir Desmond, will be made available to enable a full and serious review?
12 Oct 2011 : Column 347
Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I first pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of security forces who served in Northern Ireland with great professionalism and bravery. Last week, my family received the review summary report on the brutal murder of my loved ones, Robert and Rachel McLernon, on 7 February 1976. We are studying that at this present time. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that all innocent victims of violence—including Darkley, Teebane, La Mon and so on—have a right to justice rather than our yielding to the endless demands of a select few?
Mr Paterson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and I wholly endorse his comments on those who served. I have already said in previous responses in that I admire the work of the Historical Enquiries Team, which treats every one of these victims the same and does its very best under difficult circumstances and sometimes, tragically, with limited evidence, to get as near as it can to the truth.
John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government might have got this badly wrong? Will he also concede today that it was a crass misjudgement to invite the Finucane family across yesterday, raising hopes and expectations, only to tell them that the pledge of a proper public inquiry had been withdrawn? So that the House can be clear about the responsibility, was the misjudged decision his or the Prime Minister’s?
Mr Paterson: I regret the tone of that question. Sadly, the right hon. Gentleman has completely missed the point. We came in and inherited an impasse—I do not want to vex you, Mr Speaker, by repeating this. The previous Government, whom the right hon. Gentleman supported, was going nowhere on this and we had to break the logjam. I made the approach, I met the family, I put out the written statement and I discussed this with the Prime Minister. We are a collegiate Government and we worked this out together, but it was the Prime Minister’s personal apology in Downing street that was a very bold gesture to move this on.
Dr Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast South) (SDLP): Does the Secretary of State accept that cracking on in the wrong direction may not be the right thing to do and that this tragic case has roots that lead right back to this House and a previous Government? A Home Office Minister in this House pointed the finger at lawyers a few days before Pat Finucane was murdered and that was sufficient endorsement for a few people—elements in the police and security forces—to send out lunatics in the loyalist paramilitaries to plan the murder of three lawyers, two of whom, now deceased, were friends of mine. The dogs in the street knew at the time. In doing that, disrepute was brought on hon. Members across the House and those elsewhere who were members of the security forces and of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
We now accept that there was collusion. May I ask the Secretary of State whether the proposed review will confine itself to the narrow details of the murder of Pat Finucane, or will it include investigations into the wider collusion and plotting to kill those other lawyers? Does
12 Oct 2011 : Column 348
he know of the destruction of any papers? He will be aware that papers are brought in. I am concerned that Sir Desmond, who is a very honourable and highly reputable man, does not have the power to summon people and papers; his teeth have been removed and many of the papers have been taken out.
Mr Paterson: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was present when I read out the terms of reference, but they are very clear that the review is to draw on the extensive investigations that have already taken place—I have listed the organisations—into the murder of Pat Finucane. That is quite clear.
Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): The former intelligence officer and private investigator Philip Campbell Smith has admitted to hacking the computer of another intelligence officer on behalf of Alex Marunchak of News International. Campbell Smith was arrested for witness intimidation of the very same intelligence officer, who was supposedly the only officer from the intelligence community co-operating with the Stevens inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane. It is alleged that when he was interviewed by the police he admitted that a special branch officer working on the Stevens investigation gave that personal information. I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to allowing Sir Desmond access, presumably, to the police statement that was given, but if Sir Desmond wants to interview that special branch officer and that officer refuses, what powers will Sir Desmond have to get to the truth?
Mr Paterson: I am grateful for that question, and the hon. Gentleman has made some interesting comments. These are issues for Sir Desmond to resolve, but we believe that he will find the truth in the 9,000 statements taken under caution. We should not be under any illusion that some of the previous public inquiries got all witnesses to come forward. Indeed, the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) did not turn up to an inquiry and was fined £5,000 because, on a point of principle, he did not want to give information. We need to get away from the idea that a public inquiry will always bring witnesses forward and will always be more effective. We have 9,000 witness statements and 1 million pages to investigate as a route to the truth. I think that is a quicker way of doing things.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and his recommitment to recognising the dedication and bravery of the security forces, 99.9% of whom have obeyed, kept and upheld the law. Nothing that is said today should sully the names of those people. Does the Secretary of State understand that in Northern Ireland the track record of public inquiries is not perceived as good? Even where Governments have indicated that inquiries should not be expensive, they have been, and where Governments have said that they should bring closure, they have not brought closure. Does he accept that today’s statement and announcement should mean that we start spending scarce resources on the future rather than wasting them on the past?
12 Oct 2011 : Column 349
more costly and open-ended inquiries. We believe this is a swifter and better route and I agree that if we can resolve some of these outstanding issues—I have gone on about the impasse—we can all begin to address problems of the present and the future. That is what we are trying to do.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): All the atrocities committed were condemned at the time, during the 1980s and 1990s, and there was no selective condemnation. Whatever the sources of the murders, they were condemned by both sides of the House. However, will the Secretary of State recognise that this case is different, because of the extent of collusion by the state, and that the integrity of the state itself is in question. Bearing in mind that there have been two previous one-person inquiries—by Stevens and Judge Cory—that have not reached a satisfactory conclusion, is it not understandable that the family who have fought so hard for justice are so disappointed by the decision that has been reached?
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): May I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and express my disappointment that the anger that has been expressed by the family is being used to indicate that the peace process in Northern Ireland is so fragile that it will somehow fall apart as a result of the disappointment of one family? The Secretary of State has given us details about the inquiry, but will he also tell us the cost of the inquiry so far and give us an assurance that this marks a permanent end to the expensive public inquiry process of dealing with the past, which has done nothing to heal wounds but has filled the wallets of lawyers?
Mr Paterson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. This is not an inquiry—it is a review—and I appointed Sir Desmond only this morning. To repeat, we estimate the cost to be £1.5 million. I entirely endorse the hon. Gentleman’s opinion that we need to move on. Let me pick up on an earlier comment. A few weeks ago, I was in Enniskillen, where I met about 100 young people who were asked their three priorities. Not one of them mentioned the past. I think there is a generational issue here. For those affected—the 3,268 people and any of their relatives and for the Finucane family—these events are absolutely, shatteringly appalling. Their whole adult lives have been dominated by them and we have to recognise that, but there is a new generation coming through and we have to think about them. That is why we have to resolve these outstanding issues and move on.
John McDonnell: Soon after I was elected in 1997, I led an Adjournment debate on the Finucane case and I do not doubt the Minister’s wish to move on. However, one thing I learned in that debate and afterwards was that unless the family sanctions the process of moving
12 Oct 2011 : Column 350
on, this will be a futile exercise. No one doubts the abilities of Sir Desmond de Silva, but, as has been pointed out, he will not have the legally enforceable right either to access papers or to demand the appearance of witnesses. I believe that unless the process has the family’s approval it will be tainted from the outset. The family was shocked yesterday. May I ask the Minister, before he takes the next step, to take a pause to allow the family to consider its position, come back and enter into more dialogue with the Government before we blunder into yet another mistake?
Mr Paterson: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman takes that attitude. I do not want to repeat myself too often, but we inherited an impasse. The solution proposed by his Government was going nowhere; indeed, it was not a solution and this was festering. We fully appreciate the horror of this murder and the international significance of it. We honestly believe that getting the Prime Minister to invite the family over and meet them in person was a bold, brave move, and we sincerely believe that the appointment of this international lawyer of impeccable integrity will get to the truth faster than would have happened under a statutory inquiry, which the family would not have accepted.
Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): It seems strange for the Secretary of State to say that the truth lies in the archives. It would then have lain in the archives for over 22 years; if the truth is there, why is someone not already in jail? Witnesses need to be called in a proper way, and that could happen only through a public inquiry. Clearly, this is more about the Conservative party looking to its manifesto and saving money than about justice being done.
Mr Paterson: I regret the tone of that contribution, which reduces the level of our debate, and I wholly refute what the hon. Gentleman says. I believe that the Prime Minister took a bold step. I think that the hon. Gentleman’s views will be refuted in December 2012.
Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): The Secretary of State said that his party was elected on a platform of no more expensive or open-ended inquiries, but I am not convinced that the coalition came into government with that stance. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has apologised for state collusion in the murder of Pat Finucane, but I was a bit disconcerted when the Secretary of State said in his statement that collusion was not itself a criminal offence. Representatives of the state have acted criminally; a criminal investigation should ensue. Prosecution of those complicit in the murder of Pat Finucane should come after that. May we have some guarantees that that will take place?
Mr Paterson: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that the Director of Public Prosecutions is, and should remain, wholly independent of Government. The previous DPP found that some cases did not achieve the necessary threshold. Obviously, should Sir Desmond reveal evidence in his report, in line with the independence vested in him, it will be entirely for the DPP to investigate and pursue it.
12 Oct 2011 : Column 351