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Britain agrees to public probe of Belfast lawyer's 1989 killing

Alleged collusion to be investigated

LONDON -- After 15 years of bitter arguments, Britain agreed yesterday to open a public inquiry into the assassination of a Belfast attorney who specialized in defending Irish Republican Army suspects.

Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy confirmed he would introduce legislation permitting a fact-finding commission into allegations that intelligence officers from the Northern Ireland police and British Army colluded with the killers of Patrick Finucane.

Roman Catholic politicians and Finucane's family have long campaigned for an independent inquiry.

Murphy said some of the tribunal's work would have to be conducted behind closed doors to protect British intelligence.

"Because this case deals with issues of national security, much of the proceedings will have to take place in private," he said.

Finucane was shot 14 times in the head on Feb. 12, 1989, in front of his wife and three children as they sat down to a meal in their Belfast home.

Finucane's family reacted cautiously to the announcement of the inquiry.

Michael Finucane, the victim's son and a lawyer himself, said he feared the tribunal would be "controlled and restricted" by Britain.

He said his family planned to accept an invitation from British Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss the matter face to face.

"Until we get to ask the prime minister some questions about what exactly his government proposes to do, we can't endorse or agree to cooperate with any form of inquiry. We simply do not know what form of inquiry this is," Michael Finucane said.

Three special investigations led by Sir John Stevens, now commander of London's Metropolitan Police, have established that the British army and Northern Ireland police had agents and informers in the Ulster Defense Association, the paramilitary group that killed Finucane. A Canadian judge, Peter Cory, presented Britain with reports in 2003 recommending that public inquiries be opened into four cases, including Finucane's.

Britain refused initially to open a probe into Finucane's killing because a Belfast militant, Ken Barrett, was on trial. Barrett pleaded guilty last week to the murder and received a 22-year sentence. He will probably be freed from prison soon under terms of the 1998 peace accord.

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