Northern Secretary Peter Hain was today accused of insulting the Dáil after he and his officials criticised a debate on the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane.
The Irish Government and Opposition parties in the Dáil united last night behind a motion accusing the British government of going back on a pledge to hold an independent inquiry into allegations of security force collusion in the 1989 murder by loyalists of the Belfast solicitor.
As the debate took place, Mr Hain and his officials claimed the motion was flawed and misleading, because it suggested the inquiry the British government agreed to at Weston Park in 2001 would be held under the terms of the 1921 Act.
A Northern Ireland Office statement said: “The new legislation replacing the seldom-used 1921 Act – described by judges as ’restrictive’ and ’cumbersome’ - was introduced not because of the Finucane case, but because the whole system for inquiries was in dire need of reform,” he said.
“Judge Cory said that the inquiry should be ‘public to the extent possible’.
“The (British) government is in complete agreement with that.”
An investigation by former Metropolitan Police Commissioner John Stevens found evidence of collusion between members of the security forces and the loyalist Ulster Freedom Fighters.
Retired Canadian Judge Peter Cory also recommended a public inquiry into the murder and has joined Mr Finucane’s relatives, the Irish Government, Opposition parties, nationalists in the North and human rights organisations in criticising the British government for passing a new Inquiries Act last year.
They believe the legislation gives the British government too much of a say over what evidence would be made available to the Finucane inquiry and what could be heard in public.
The NIO insisted this was wrong.
“Ministers will have no say in who the inquiry calls or what evidence it sees. It will see absolutely everything that is relevant and it will have full powers to compel all documents and evidence to be produced and, crucially, witnesses to attend,” its statement said.
“The inquiry report will be published and anything that is held back - redacted – will be the bare minimum necessary to protect national security and fulfil the Government’s legal obligations.
“The inquiry’s conclusions – that is what happened and whether or not there was collusion – will certainly be made public.”
Nationalist SDLP leader Mark Durkan insisted today the Dáil had got its facts right and accused the NIO of spin and distortion.
The Foyle MP also said he would be raising concerns about the NIO’s briefing with Mr Hain and also politicians in the Irish Republic and United States.
“The Dáil got it right. What was wrong was the NIO’s slick spin,” he said.
“What was wrong was Peter Hain’s suggestion that the Dáil did not know what it was on about. That was an insult to the Irish parliament and to all of us.
“The Dáil got it right in calling on the British government to hold a full public inquiry into the Finucane murder, as it promised it would do at Weston Park.
“The NIO got it absolutely wrong when it said the British government is fully in agreement with Judge Peter Cory. It is not – and Peter Cory has made that clear as recently as a few weeks ago.
“The Dáil is right when it says any inquiry under the new Inquiries Act would be limited.
“The NIO is wrong when it suggests otherwise. The fact is that Peter Hain and other ministers would be able to determine what evidence from security sources could be made public at the inquiry.
“As if that wasn’t enough, they could go back for a second bite and censor the final report of the inquiry. That is what the British government’s Inquiries Act allows for.
“And it stands the Judge Cory’s requirement for an independent public inquiry on its head. State censored inquiries cannot be independent.”