Opinion: ‘The Director of Public Prosecutions has ordered a review of the prosecution in this case. It is not a consideration of reinstating the prosecution’
The late Pat Finucane and I established our law practice in 1979. We represented a wide range of clients, but human rights was and remains the core of our practice.
Central to this work is the primacy of the legal system, safeguarding fundamental rights and respect for due process.
In 1989 a British minister, Douglas Hogg, abused parliamentary privilege to state that some solicitors were sympathetic to the IRA. Shortly afterwards, Pat Finucane was killed by British agents.
While parliamentarians enjoy the right to absolute privilege, with this right comes responsibility. It cannot and must not undermine or replace the primacy of the rule of law.
Last May my clients Pádraic Wilson, Seamus Finucane, Breige Wright and Maura McCrory were found not guilty at Belfast Crown Court.
They were charged with a number of serious offences, including membership of the IRA, attending IRA meetings and conducting an investigation on behalf of the IRA.
They had been arrested four years before that, held in custody and questioned about these offences. They then had to wait for the Public Prosecution Service to determine whether or not to prosecute them. Prosecutions then ensued and they were awaiting trial when the main prosecution witness, Maíria Cahill, refused to give evidence against them.
After four years of investigation, after being acquitted in court, my clients have now had to endure trial by media and judgment by political leaders.
BBC Spotlight broadcast a programme rehearsing the same allegations that were made but not stood over in the court proceedings.
I wrote to Spotlight before the broadcast pointing out that my clients were found not guilty by a court and that the BBC was not acting in the public interest by broadcasting unproven allegations.
Despite what some press reports have said, my clients did not apply for an injunction to stop the broadcast.
It is right that at a public trial, allegations have to be justified and proven. Not so for Spotlight or other media, it would seem. Spotlight was selective in the choice of material used in the broadcast.
Some members of the media, together with politicians, including the Taoiseach in the Dáil, repeated these allegations into the public domain as if they were true.
Such a situation is unprecedented in my experience. One newspaper said that my clients were found not guilty in a court of law but guilty in the court of public opinion. There is no court of public opinion. The setting aside of the judicial process in favour of judgment by some members of the press and media is a highly dangerous precedent. The cornerstone of our society and democracy is respect for the rule of law.
My clients are considered by the law to be innocent of all charges. We are governed by the rule of law. The law found my clients not guilty. That should be the end of the matter.
Politicians who are sworn to uphold the law would never fail to observe the rule of law. So why have they done so in this instance? Only they can answer that, but it looks very like political opportunism without regard for the rights of citizens who are considered by the law to be innocent of the allegations made by Maíria Cahill.
The Director of Public Prosecutions [in Northern Ireland] has ordered a review of the prosecution in this case. It is not a consideration of reinstating the prosecution. Allegations have been made that the prosecution of my clients was politically motivated. It remains to be seen what went on behind the scenes in the prosecutor’s office during this process and I would expect all this to be made public. I will be asking for full disclosure of the prosecution process.
My clients had nothing to do with the allegations of sexual abuse and rape. They were charged in court with conducting an IRA investigation into the allegations. Three of them were alleged to have conducted a “forced” investigation: in other words, an investigation that Maíria Cahill didn’t want. However, Maíria Cahill wrote a letter to the IRA Army Council complaining that a previous letter of hers wasn’t replied to and that in her view, the intention of the IRA was honourable.
We haven’t seen the first letter but it would be interesting to know its contents. She would have been questioned about it in court, but of course we didn’t get there because Maíria Cahill didn’t want us to get there and Spotlight failed to publish the letter, so the public won’t have known about it.
Cahill’s first letter
This is a good example of how some of the press and media run their so-called court of public opinion. The public still don’t know what Maíria Cahill’s first letter to the IRA was about. Those members of the press and media who followed up on the Spotlight allegations have ignored the judgment of the court in Belfast. The press and media, who have enormous influence over public affairs, have, in my opinion, stepped over the line and breached my clients’ fundamental rights.
Freedom of the press is a very important right in a democratic society but with that right comes responsibility.
My view is that this issue goes beyond this one case and throws up fundamental issues of competing rights that warrants further scrutiny.
- Solicitor Peter Madden is founding member with Pat Finucane of Madden & Finucane Solicitors of Belfast