Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Pat Finucane: Why Killing A Lawyer Matters

Pat Finucane, 1949-1989
David Cameron today apologised to Geraldine Finucane and her family for the role the British state played in the murder of her husband.  Pat Finucane was a Human Rights lawyer, and had successfully prosecuted several trials in defending Nationalists against the State.  In a difficult time, human rights were being breached regularly; internment without trial had been regularly deployed in the North, and Catholics were systematically discriminated against.  The State was effectively a protestant, loyalist, unionist machine, designed to suppress the growing minority.  In those circumstances, if the State turned its beady eye on you, the avenues for protection were limited.


Many of Finucane's clients were terrorists, criminals, and men and women of questionable standards.  That, of course, matters little.  They were still entitled to fundamental level of decency, in terms of fair procedures and due process, and in terms of their treatment while in the custody of the state.  The legal system has a presumption of innocence attached to it, and even in extremis, there are rights owing to the accused that are important for every citizen.  Rights exist to limit government. As democratic citizens, people agree to subject themselves to the law, and offer to the state a monopoly on the use of force and violence, and the power to deprive the liberty of its people in appropriate circumstances.  These are awesome powers, and in order for the state to retain its legitimacy, it needs to exercise them judiciously.  Arbitrary detention, inappropriate use of force, and minority oppression are extraordinary and debilitating abuses of that power.  They regularly featured as characteristics of the administration in Northern Ireland during the troubles.

Pat Finucane studied the law, understood the law, and used the law in so far as he could to protect the rights of individuals who found themselves targeted by the state.  He attempted to use the law, the rules by which the state itself was constituted, to assert those rights.  Many of the people he represented were poorly educated, not having had access to the kind of resources - economic, social, educational - that protestants would have had in the North.  Finucane's was a genuinely rare talent, one of great value to the Catholic people of the North of Ireland.

From the State point of view, Finucane was an irritation.  They had been developing processes, behaviours and custom that operated in a context of impunity.  There was little accountability, there were few voices capable of articulating, in the language of the state, the valid position of the oppressed.  As the State apparatus drifted further and further from a recognisable rule of law, it became less capable of operating within any rule of law.  It was what Tocqueville had called the tyranny of the majority.  Pat Finucane reached into the structure of the state itself, and was bending it back into shape.  He was holding a light to the State itself, and saying 'look what you have become'.  Naturally, the establishment did not react well.

The murder of Pat Finucane was facilitated by the state.  The State was now murdering people not because they were offensive to it, but because they were offensive to the mutation that the Northern State had become.  Rules meant little any more, and the mutation was becoming the new normal.  The protections that all citizens had thought they enjoyed - in a liberal, democratic nation - were being flouted with impunity.  The sore spread; police units across Britain, and south into the Republic of Ireland, suffered too.  The rights of individuals, particularly minorities, were systematically dismantled.  Institutionalised racism in the Stephen Lawrence case, individual privacy being violated in the phone tapping scandals, and countless miscarriages of justice all spring from a failing in the State to hold itself to the highest standards.  It's no surprise that the most egregious infractions of An Garda Sioch├ína happened in Donegal and the border counties.

The State fails, and fails often.  The British State and its failures have been in particularly stark relief as she emerges from an extended period of Empire and power.  She is not a failed State, but her's is most certainly a failed Empire.  There is nothing in today's news, nor in the trajectory of the State, to suggest that the death spiral that consumed her Empire has any chance of stopping, now that that demise has most firmly planted itself on her shore.  Just as Britain denies Europe, she denies her own very existence, as a pale, faded, and ragged Union Jack swirls around the eternal sinkhole of oblivion.

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