Pat Finucane’s death is a terrible stain on Britain’s record in Northern Ireland

The Guardian, 12th December 2012

The De Silva report into the brutal murder of Pat Finucane, coupled with the prime minister’s searing confession to parliament, revealed probably the worst atrocity by the British state within UK jurisdiction in recent times.

Pat Finucane was a respected Belfast solicitor who had often represented republicans during the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. On 12 February 1989, he was assassinated while eating Sunday lunch at home in front of his wife, who was wounded, and their three children.

His murderers were loyalist gunmen, one of whom, Ken Barrett, eventually pleaded guilty when put on trial in September 2004. However, this was not just another of the many grisly loyalist killings at the time. Special branch agents were directly involved and, with IRA terrorism widespread, encouraged loyalist terrorists to kill republicans. So did the army’s secret Northern Ireland intelligence agency, the force research unit (FRU), a team of army officers tasked to recruit and train double agents within the paramilitary organisations.

Pat Finucane had republican sympathies but he was a lawyer, not an activist, still less an IRA member. Yet, as De Silva confirms, the FRU and other state security officers obstructed the subsequent police murder investigation which would have exposed their complicity.

The Finucane family fought bravely for many years to get the truth out into the open and wanted a public inquiry. The Labour government pledged to hold one as part of the peace process. But when I was secretary of state for Northern Ireland from 2005 to 2007, the family would not accept one under the 2005 Inquiries Act – the only vehicle available – because evidence from the security forces could be given confidentially. Their position was entirely understandable – why should they trust the British state that had killed Pat?

But the reason for this restriction was to enable the security forces to provide key evidence without compromising sources or methods and therefore their ability to continue confronting terrorism. The impasse remained until more recently, when the family apparently indicated they would accept a 2005 act inquiry.

Nevertheless, De Silva has revealed that British government agents, supposedly acting in the name of democracy and the rule of law, totally betrayed those principles: a truly horrendous stain on Britain’s record in Northern Ireland. The prime minister should be held to his pledge that the attorney general will examine possible prosecutions and that other cabinet ministers will ensure that lessons are learned and nothing like this can ever happen again.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/12/pat-finucane-death-stain-northern-ireland

Pat Finucane’s Death is a terrible stain on Britain’s record in Northern Ireland

Guardian

The De Silva report into the brutal murder of Pat Finucane, coupled with the prime minister’s searing confession to parliament, revealed probably the worst atrocity by the British state within UK jurisdiction in recent times.

Pat Finucane was a respected Belfast solicitor who had often represented republicans during the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. On 12 February 1989, he was assassinated while eating Sunday lunch at home in front of his wife, who was wounded, and their three children.

His murderers were loyalist gunmen, one of whom, Ken Barrett, eventually pleaded guilty when put on trial in September 2004. However, this was not just another of the many grisly loyalist killings at the time. Special branch agents were directly involved and, with IRA terrorism widespread, encouraged loyalist terrorists to kill republicans. So did the army’s secret Northern Ireland intelligence agency, the force research unit (FRU), a team of army officers tasked to recruit and train double agents within the paramilitary organisations.

Pat Finucane had republican sympathies but he was a lawyer, not an activist, still less an IRA member. Yet, as De Silva confirms, the FRU and other state security officers obstructed the subsequent police murder investigation which would have exposed their complicity.

The Finucane family fought bravely for many years to get the truth out into the open and wanted a public inquiry. The Labour government pledged to hold one as part of the peace process. But when I was secretary of state for Northern Ireland from 2005 to 2007, the family would not accept one under the 2005 Inquiries Act – the only vehicle available – because evidence from the security forces could be given confidentially. Their position was entirely understandable – why should they trust the British state that had killed Pat?

But the reason for this restriction was to enable the security forces to provide key evidence without compromising sources or methods and therefore their ability to continue confronting terrorism. The impasse remained until more recently, when the family apparently indicated they would accept a 2005 act inquiry.

Nevertheless, De Silva has revealed that British government agents, supposedly acting in the name of democracy and the rule of law, totally betrayed those principles: a truly horrendous stain on Britain’s record in Northern Ireland. The prime minister should be held to his pledge that the attorney general will examine possible prosecutions and that other cabinet ministers will ensure that lessons are learned and nothing like this can ever happen again.

Western policy on Syria is failing on a monumental scale

The only way forward for Syria is to broker a political settlement, in consultation with Russia and Iran.

Peter Hain The Guardian 22/10/12

Russia and Iran have been culpable, there has been a catastrophic failure of diplomacy by the west and its allies. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s call for a ceasefire and an arms embargo is a welcome challenge to the west’s floundering policy. Britain, France and the US, as well as their allies, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, need to recognise that neither side is going to win the civil war engulfing Syria. Nor will the Turkey’s call for western military intervention to halt the humanitarian disaster resolve the crisis. A political solution has to be the priority.

The Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, is reported to be willing to consider the proposal by the UN-Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, for a ceasefire for the four-day Eid al-Adha holiday on 26 October. The western powers and the Arab arms suppliers should urge their friends in the opposition to declare they will reciprocate if Assad makes good on his tentative promise.

Western demands for regime change were never going to work because this isn’t simply a conflict between a savage regime and the Syrian people. Assad and the ruling Shia-aligned Alawite minority form a tenth of the population and fear being oppressed by the Sunni majority. Christians and other minorities are similarly nervous. Together, those behind Assad constitute nearly a third of Syrians.

The war has also become a wider proxy for Sunni versus Shia, and Saudi Arabia versus Iran. There is also bitter suspicion at the west’s real intentions from Russia and China and their allies. They insist that they never authorised UN backing for military force to depose Muammar Gaddafi last year, and refuse to be “tricked” again. The Iraq invasion also poisons trust of the west. Libya today – its people at the mercy of warring militias and jihadist opportunists, the US ambassador assassinated – is hardly a good advertisement for repeating that regime-change recipe in more complex Syria.

David Cameron’s recent high-minded rhetoric at the UN general assembly ignored the presence of al-Qaida fighters among the west’s favoured rebels.Assad and the minorities and other popular forces that support him fear becoming victims of genocide, so will fight on. If the Syrian regime was somehow toppled without a settlement being in place, the country would descend into even greater chaos.

Russia is determined not to allow that anarchy, mainly because Syria provides its only Mediterranean port in the region. Iran also has key interests, malevolent or otherwise. Syrian refugees have already flooded into Turkey and Lebanon, the latter destabilised, with its police chief assassinated, and now plunged into a political crisis.

The only way forward is to broker a political settlement, with Russia using its leverage to ensure that Assad negotiates seriously. Without pandering to Vladimir Putin’s ruthless rigidity, engagement with Russia is critical – as is consultation with Iran. Otherwise a settlement will not happen.The guidelines for a political transition approved by the five permanent members of the UN security council at the Geneva conference in June still provides the best road map – but only if the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and their allies drop their current stance and help to implement it.

However unpalatable, Assad may have to be granted immunity in order to get him to sign up and stop his barbarity. All state employees, including those in the armed forces, must be allowed to keep their posts, to avoid a repeat of the chaos caused by America’s de-Ba’athification in Iraq. A Yemen-type process may even figure. There, a hated president did not resign but did not stand for re-election. A coalition government of national unity could then prepare for Syrian elections, due in 2014.

The current British-American policy is failing on a monumental scale. Unless there is a radical change, all the hand-wringing and condemnation is either empty or hypocritical – or both.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/oct/21/west-policy-syria-failure-russia-iran

Last Man Standing Review

Jack Straw is a supreme connoisseur of politics and his memoirs are for political connoisseurs: very much in character, crafted with literary elegance – erudite, forensic and fascinating. Always a consummate politician – possessed of “guile and low cunning”, as his old ministerial boss Barbara Castle memorably put it – his book is a tour de force through the fluctuating fortunes of the Labour party from the mid-1960s to the 2010 election defeat.

Our two stories ran in parallel, but on quite different trajectories, from youth radicalism to cabinet office. In his early 20s, Jack was the bright president of the National Union of Students when in 1969-70 the anti-apartheid campaign I found myself leading burst on to the rugby and cricket fields of Britain with direct action against all-white South African teams. He was supportive but careful to distance himself from our controversial militancy.

His account, laced with memorable anecdotes about Labour’s tortuous journey into self-destruction in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then eventual recovery and success in the 1990s, is a sound guide to outsiders wanting some insight into this crucial period. He is rightly generous to Neil Kinnock who, he remarks persuasively, would have made an excellent prime minister. But he also rejects the conventional wisdom on Kinnock’s successor, the widely admired John Smith, with whom he had a breach when he bravely argued for the abolition of the iconic Clause 4 of Labour’s constitution nearly two years before Tony Blair reformed it. Straw believed Smith was not fit to be prime minister. The reason, he rather brutally gives, albeit “with some trepidation”: Smith’s heavy drinking. Such frankness about senior colleagues applied also to the Commons office of Mo Mowlam, “whose floor was littered with her underwear, and who might, if you were unlucky, suddenly decide, in the middle of a conversation, to change some of it”.

He is also disarmingly but engagingly revealing about the pain of his father’s anger toward his mother (never witnessing “any tenderness between them”) and then his father’s abrupt departure, leaving her alone to bring up her children. An even more startling revelation – especially to those like me who worked closely with him in government – was: “I’d always been prone to ‘impostor syndrome’ and felt what I had achieved was bound to be taken away from me.”

He gives a real insight into being a cabinet minister – what the Private Office is like, the ministerial car drivers, the close protection officers, and the role of cabinet committees – laced with exquisite incidents that carry the reader along.

With an impressive grasp of history and a deep Labour party hinterland, he stood out among younger, more technocratic ministers. I found him commendably outspoken in cabinet, not least over the growing collapse in public trust suffered by both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s governments. But then Jack also lost the trust of Blair because of his manoeuvring on Europe and a calculated shift of allegiance to Brown – to be arbitrarily demoted after five years as a respected foreign secretary, though his own explanation is growing differences over the Middle East.

As a formidable constant in top cabinet posts throughout Labour’s 13 years in government – home secretary, foreign secretary, leader of the Commons and lord chancellor – he is well placed to give his take on the dominant issues, including Iraq, and the frustrated plots of colleagues as Gordon Brown’s premiership disappeared into a quagmire. He ends with a hilariously self-deprecating description of getting lost on London’s buses and learning to drive again, after 13 years of being guided and transported by protection officers.

A big hitter with acute political antennae, he nevertheless gained a reputation for delivering legislation that bit back in unexpected ways; his well-intentioned but deeply flawed 2000 act reforming party financing a good example. A senior Labour MP was recently acclaimed by colleagues when he quipped sourly: “We need a one-clause bill to repeal all Jack’s acts.”

As a self-confessed “anorak”, Straw had a nerdish obsession for factual detail, which often got in the way of his ability to win an argument. But his photographic memory and prodigious appetite for devouring official documents left colleagues in constant awe. He was also good to work for, delegating well, listening and encouraging a team spirit.

Some memoirs by former Labour politicians generated headlines and big serialisation fees – promptly to disappear, quickly remaindered. This book will stand the test of time. Straw’s account of Labour’s journeys in and out of power over nearly five decades is a must for serious students of government and politics.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/oct/14/jack-straw-last-man-review