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Talks pave way for Finucane murder inquiry

The family of murdered solicitor Pat Finucane have taken part in talks with the British Government which could lead to a public inquiry into the infamous killing.

The surprise development was revealed by Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson in the House of Commons and follows years of deadlock over one of the most controversial cases of the Troubles.

The Army, police and intelligence service have been implicated in the 1989 murder, which was carried out by loyalist paramilitaries who doubled as security force agents.

The Finucane family rejected efforts by the previous Labour government to conduct an investigation under the 2005 Inquiries Act and claimed it gave ministers undue influence over the outcome.

Mr Paterson had declared an interest in resolving the Finucane case, but while many observers believed the new Government would opt to draw a line under the issue, details have now emerged of efforts to broker an inquiry acceptable to both sides.

The Northern Ireland Secretary has now announced he has provided more time for discussions to continue.

Mr Paterson said: "In my written statement of November 11, I set out a period of two months during which I would receive representations as to whether it is in the public interest that I should establish a public inquiry into the death of Patrick Finucane.

"As part of this process, my officials have had a constructive meeting with representatives of the Finucane family and a further meeting will be arranged.

"In light of the fact that useful discussions are under way between the family and the Government, I have decided, with the agreement of the family, to extend the period during which I will receive representations by two months.

"When this further period has concluded, it remains my intention to consider the family's views carefully and in detail, along with any other relevant representations I receive, before taking a decision as to whether or not it is in the public interest to hold a public inquiry into the death of Patrick Finucane."

Human rights groups that have spent decades examining the circumstances of the murder believe it could unlock information on the allegations of more widespread collusion between the forces of the state and paramilitary groups in the North.

The security forces have often said that maintaining agents inside paramilitary groups was a necessary evil that saved lives during the decades of violence. But critics claim covert efforts to defeat the Provisional IRA cost large numbers of innocent lives.

Sections of the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries labelled the Catholic solicitor an IRA member. The allegation has been denied by the Finucane family, who have said the police and army wrongly associated the lawyer with the alleged crimes of his clients.

In a statement issued to Press Association Ireland after Mr Paterson's comments, the Finucane family's lawyers, Madden & Finucane, revealed that "constructive" talks had taken place.

But they said further discussions were needed if the family's goal of an independent inquiry was to be reached.

The family lawyers said: "We refer to the statement of Owen Paterson made today in relation to the extension of time to continue discussions.

"The Finucane family have campaigned for 21 years for a public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the murder of Pat.

"The essence of a proper inquiry is independence.

"The family's legal team, led by Peter Madden of Madden & Finucane, met with the NIO (Northern Ireland Office) legal team in London in April last year and the discussions then were worthwhile.

"However, due to the pending General Election at that time, a further meeting was postponed.

"The Madden & Finucane legal team met the Secretary of State's advisers last Thursday, January 6, and again the discussions were constructive."

Mr Madden, a former friend and colleague of the murdered solicitor, said: "Although these were constructive and useful meetings, the fact remains that the independence of a tribunal is fundamental.

"It is hoped that the family's concerns will be addressed and that a mechanism will be established which would result in a public judicial inquiry fully independent, which will have the support of the Finucane family, and all those who have supported the family in their long campaign."

Mr Finucane was a high-profile solicitor in the North in the 1980s and his clients included alleged IRA members.

Sections of the security forces labelled him a republican sympathiser, or even an IRA member.

The claim was rejected by the murdered man's family and by a police officer who gave evidence at an inquest in the wake of Mr Finucane's killing.

Members of the loyalist Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), a cover name for the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), shot the solicitor 14 times in front of his wife and three children as they ate dinner at their north Belfast home in February 1989.

But security forces are accused of inciting the killers and using agents to carry out the murder, before then covering their tracks.

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