DUBLIN (AP) — Britain offered a public apology Wednesday over its forces' murky role in the 1989 killing of a Belfast lawyer and pledged to publish a report into the extent of police and army involvement in the attack.
The government appointed a leading human rights lawyer to review a mountain of secret evidence into the slaying of Patrick Finucane. The investigator, Desmond da Silva, is supposed to publish his findings by December 2012.
"The government is deeply sorry for what happened," Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, told lawmakers in London.
Finucane's family expressed fury that Britain had dismissed their long-held demand for a public, court-style investigation into the killing. Two members of a Protestant paramilitary group, the Ulster Defense Association, shot Finucane 14 times as he was eating a meal with his wife and three children in their home.
Finucane's widow, Geraldine, called Britain's decision "nothing less than an insult." She said her family's lawyers should be permitted to peruse confidential British documents and question witnesses from Northern Ireland's police, British Army intelligence unit and Britain's domestic spy agency MI5.
"We are being asked to accept the result of a process from which we are completely excluded ... a shoddy, half-hearted alternative to a proper public inquiry," said Mrs. Finucane, who was herself shot and wounded in the 1989 attack.
But Paterson said a fact-finding inquiry would be financially wasteful, too slow and unnecessary. He noted that a senior English police officer, Sir John Stevens, spent more than a decade probing the case. In 2003, Stevens concluded that police and army intelligence agents encouraged the targeting of Finucane and supplied guns to his killers.
Paterson said the bulk of Stevens' evidence — 9,256 written statements, 10,391 documents exceeding 1 million pages, and 16,194 exhibits of potential evidence — has remained secret, but de Silva would be free to read it all and report its contents.
"The public now need to know the extent and nature of that collusion," he said.
Britain has funded fact-finding probes into several of Northern Ireland's most controversial killings, most notably "Bloody Sunday" in 1972, when troops shot to death 13 unarmed Catholic protesters. That investigation took 12 years and cost nearly 200 million pounds ($300 million).
Paterson made his announcement a day after the Finucanes held a closed-door meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron and Paterson in London.
De Silva, 71, didn't comment. He is currently on a United Nations panel investigating Israel's use of force against Gaza-bound ships in 2010. He has also overseen United Nations war crimes investigations in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Paterson said de Silva would re-interview senior former security officials, pore over the Stevens archive and "produce a full public account. Details in papers and statements that have been kept secret for decades will finally be exposed."
"When the report is published the government will not hide from the truth, however difficult," Paterson said.
At the time, the Ulster Defence Association said it killed Finucane because of his high-profile defense of Irish Republican Army clients and because the UDA believed he was an IRA member too. Three of Finuane's brothers were IRA members, but Stevens said he found no evidence that Patrick Finucane was in the underground organization.
The outlawed IRA spent three decades shooting and bombing in the hope of forcing Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. Militants within Northern Ireland's Protestant majority attacked Catholics in a bid to terrorize the IRA's host community.
Both paramilitary camps ceased fire in the mid-1990s to permit peace talks that produced the Good Friday peace accord of 1998 and, ultimately, a stable Catholic-Protestant government for Northern Ireland. But the question of British state involvement in the Protestant side's bloodshed remains a point of bitter contention. Finucane's case has the highest profile internationally because of his status as a lawyer.
Pat Finucane Centre documents on case, http://bit.ly/oEvmQ9
2003 findings of collusion investigator John Stevens, http://bit.ly/nf1scR