Why is law important? I know, a bit existential for today, but given we are beginning Lent and this is to be a time of reflection, let’s ask ourselves some reflective questions.
At the Pat Finucane lecture a couple of years ago international human rights lawyer Paul Siels said, “Law is humankind’s greatest invention”. I was working at the event and busy doing my thing, but that stopped me in my tracks, and it has stayed with me ever since. It is not without irony that the words spoken at that event proved this week to be prescient.
Law is meant to provide a moral compass for society, allow us a set of norms by which we agree to conduct society andprotect the vulnerable. We live in streets where for decades law was either disregarded or used as a tool in a weaponry of oppression. Those reading this paper who were subjected to the ignominy of its abuse will all know too well what happenswhen law does not work. It incites and prolongs conflict, harm and pain. But most of all the corruption of law leads to despair. Where can we go if we do not have the protection of law?
The single most important achievement of the Good Friday Agreement was the review of criminal justice. It was a recognition that the corruption of law needed to be ended if we were to truly ensure our conflict never happened again.
When the Supreme Court in London delivered its findings in the challenge by the Finucane family to the decision by the British Government not to hold a public inquiry, it was a finding in law. It was not about Weston Park, nor about governmental promises, nor about changing economic environments. It was about what was right in law. And with its clear non-political eye, saw that an inquiry was required into this pernicious example of state collusion in the killing of an officer of the courts.
When last week there was an announcement that inquests would at last have appropriate structure and funding this was because of the domestic and international courts refusing any argument that the application of the rule of law could be subject to political favour or will. Legal compliance is not subject to negotiation.
No matter who the citizen is, whatever their background, they should expect the law to defend them. No matter how big the power, whatever their political philosophy, they should expect the law to hold them to account. That is how it works. And it can remedy previous imbalance.
Right now, the long arm of those who abused their position and the law in the RUC, is reaching into the PSNI to undermine the courts addressing the crimes of the past.Alongside elements of the military and security services these vested interests are doing it because the law, through its courts and processes such as the Police Ombudsman, is holding previous members of state agencies and the narrative of the state as upholders of law and order, to account. This is a critical time. Confidence in the building of a truly human rights compliant system of law, order and justice relies on the rule law winning against politically motivated vested interests. Some will try to portray these developments as uneven or unbalanced. Quite the reverse is true.