Kevin — Britain's Botch/Killing lawyers, Laughing It Off

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Minneapolis Star Tribune Editorial
Britain’s Botch/Killing lawyers, Laughing It Off
April 7, 2004
Perhaps it’s natural to bear hard feelings toward lawyers who represent defendants accused of violence. But most people who feel this impulse shake themselves back to sense: Every accused person, they remind themselves, deserves the right to counsel. For a century or more, that idea has guided government in every civilized country in the world.
With the exception of England. There, lawyers who dare to take on an unpopular defendant risk taking on a bullet — sometimes with a little help from the government.
Just ask Geraldine Finucane, widow of a prominent Belfast lawyer, who one evening in 1989 watched — along with her three children — as a member of the Ulster Defense Association broke in on a family dinner. The masked gunman fired 14 bullets into Pat Finucane’s head, neck and torso.
The reason for this visit? The attorney had represented several key members of the Irish Republican Army — including hunger-striker Bobby Sands — and had also defended Protestant loyalists. But among the Ulster Orange crowd, Finucane was seen as an irksome obstacle. A top British official even complained to Parliament that lawyers like Finucane — those willing to defend suspects London didn’t like — were unethical.
That’s an unseemly enough story in itself. But the clincher of the Finucane drama — and many like it — is that throughout Northern Ireland’s 30-year “troubles” the British government not only knew about, but often abetted, loyalist paramilitary savagery in Ulster.
All of this, and more, is detailed in a report released last Friday by the British government — and it’s heartbreaking reading indeed. The survey details four murders — two involving attorneys — in which the British government was complicit. The Finucane case stands out only because the victim was so well known: Though British law enforcement was repeatedly warned that the lawyer was one of the loyalists’ top “shoot to kill” targets, it did nothing to protect him. And though it had plenty of evidence to prosecute the crime after its commission, it stood idle. Sometimes it even helped loyalists secure and dispose of murder weapons.
In short, Britain’s government didn’t put much stock in the rule of law during the conflict over governance of Northern Ireland. That grim fact ought to matter to people who’ve hardly given a thought to Northern Ireland’s strife.
Why? Because Britain is often hailed as the birthplace of the rule of law — as the first place where justice was truly blind and equal treatment scrupulously practiced. But recent stories of lawyers losing their lives simply for defending unpopular clients — and of MI5 operatives aiding and shrugging off such murders — do more than mar Britain’s reputation. They warn of a peril with universal application — one that some Americans have lately begun to mull: When government grows wanton and self-absorbed, the theory of justice is rarely practiced.