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Inquiry lesson we can all learn, now, for free

(Newton Emerson, Irish News)

And so it begins. The 20 former RUC officers requesting anonymity in the Robert Hamill Inquiry will be invoicing that inquiry for their legal advice and representation. Now that they have brought their appeal to a judicial review, professional fees will be substantial and the inquiry is obliged to pay up. This is exactly how the cost of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry was propelled into the stratosphere.

In fairness, it is difficult to see how this situation can be avoided. Everyone summoned before an inquiry as a witness is entitled to legal assistance and they will naturally use that assistance to their own advantage. Although the attorney general has guaranteed that nothing revealed by a witness during the Robert Hamill Inquiry will be used in a criminal prosecution, witnesses could still face civil proceedings arising from their testimony. As a result, any refusal to fund legal representation would fall foul of the human rights act. So there is simply no getting around the need for a lawyer at every elbow.

Still, the high price of establishing the truth seems to suit this government rather well. Last week it emerged that computer costs for the Bloody Sunday Inquiry had topped £34 million – which, by coincidence, is exactly the same as the Historical Enquiries Team budget for examining every unsolved murder from the Troubles.

It is strange that the government should be so forthcoming with this figure when it normally refuses to discuss information technology overspending on the grounds of "commercial confidentiality". It is also strange that the media refused to regard the figure as a case of overspending at all, preferring to portray it as another tiresome example of the inescapable cost of complex inquiries.

However, there is no good reason why the Bloody Sunday Inquiry's computer bill should have been allowed to balloon to this size. Why was a 3D digital model of the Bogside commissioned at such expense, for example, when a cardboard model would have served just as well for illustrative purposes?

This is surely a story of weak financial control rather than inevitable inquiry inflation – or at the very least, a story of both. But it seems that the latter story finds more favour, for it has useful illustrative purposes of its own.

In July, Labour minister Tessa Jowell rejected calls for an inquiry into the London tube bombings by claiming that the "latest estimate" for the cost of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry was £400 million. This was presented as a reason not to hold such an inquiry, rather than a reason to re-examine the inquiry process itself.

It is fair to speculate that the government hopes to illustrate this once and for all in Northern Ireland by setting up four set-piece inquiries into the murders of Robert Hamill, Pat Finucane, Rosemary Nelson and Billy Wright, giving each of those inquiries a blank cheque, then tut-tutting afterwards about the terrible expense of it all. If so, on the basis of recent coverage, it is also fair to speculate that this strategy will succeed in closing down demands for further inquiries.

However, the financial argument is only half an argument. To be consistent on inquiries the government must either accept that cost is no object and stop complaining, or accept that cost is an object and do something about it – and there is plenty that ministers can do to make the inquiries they commission more affordable.

Under the 2005 Inquiries Act, it is the minister rather than the inquiry chair who is in overall control. This is the reason for the Finucane family's current concerns but although the act makes ministers less accountable it also makes them more responsible. For instance, the Inquiries Act empowers Secretary of State Peter Hain to set the terms of reference for an inquiry, vary those terms at any time, set time limits, change those limits at any time, amend or revoke disclosure restrictions, release Northern Ireland Office documents and bring existing inquiries under the new legislation. So if Hain complains that inquiries are protracted and expensive, isn't that his fault for failing to set the right terms, set the right limits and unlock the right filing cabinets?

What a pity we are relying on our tribal representatives to ask that question. If the Hamill family had received the help they clearly deserved the inquiry into Robert Hamill's murder might not ever have been necessary. That's one lesson we can all learn, right now, for free.

September 8, 2006

This article appeared first in the September 7, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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