The First Word:
“Dear Sir or Madam”

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
August / September 2001

When Northern Ireland comes to lunch, it can be uncomfortable. It nags at complacency and the notion that everything will be okay and peace will hold, even though there are signs that say otherwise.

On June 19 – a beautiful New York morning – I make my way to the Mutual of America building on Park Avenue for a National Committee on American Foreign Policy lunch to hear Geraldine Finucane and Peter Madden speak.

The NCAFP lunches are legendary in this city. For the past number of years Chairman Bill Flynn (also the chairman of Mutual) has hosted speakers from across the divide in Northern Ireland: Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, David Trimble, Gary McMichael, David Ervine – Loyalist, Unionist, Nationalist, Republican, and ordinary people like Finucane and Madden.

On this particular day, one day before my print deadline, my thoughts are not on Northern Ireland, and what strikes me most as Geraldine Finucane stands up to speak is how young she looks. How young must she have looked 12 years ago?

On my right sits her daughter Katherine, who looks to be just out of her teens. I want to ask her how old she was when her father died, but I don’t. When the Northern Ireland troubles come this close, it can be hard to find the right words.

“Twelve years ago on 12th February 1989 my husband Pat was murdered in front of myself and my three young children,” Geraldine Finucane begins, and I’m reminded that there is no such thing as an ordinary day or an ordinary life in Northern Ireland, though Pat Finucane’s life started out ordinary enough.

He was born on the Falls Road in Belfast, in a tight-knit community that had little but where people tried to help each other out when possible. He was the second child and oldest son in a family of eight. His father often worked two jobs so that his family had all they needed.

Pat did well at school and managed to gain a place at university – only the second person on his street to achieve such a feat – and in 1979 when he set up a law office with Peter Madden, one of his main desires was to give back to his community.

And there lies the probable reason why Pat Finucane was shot 14 times on that day in February, 1989.

He was a good lawyer and he represented his community well enough to cause resentment among the authorities who were claiming that reports of human rights abuses in interrogating prisoners were unfounded.

Finucane received death threats relayed to him by his clients who were advised by interrogating police officers to get another lawyer because he, Finucane, was not going to be around much longer.

In January 1989 the British junior home office minister, Douglas Hogg, told Parliament that he had received information “from people dealing in these matters” that “there are in Northern Ireland a number of solicitors who are unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA.” Hogg, it turns out, had been briefed by senior members of the RUC, including the chief constable.

Less than a month after Hogg’s speech, Pat Finucane was dead.

Geraldine Finucane believes her husband’s murder was a “calculated and well-devised strategy that operated as a policy through the whole of Northern Ireland…directed from the heights of government with all the key elements further down the line knowing exactly what their role should be and how to operate to keep this strategy in place.”

I would like to be able to tell you that Mrs. Finucane’s conspiracy theory is far-fetched, and get on with writing my First Word column on the features in this issue, brimming as they are with the “Irish American Experience.” (An Irish writer of note recently told me that there was no such thing as the Irish American Experience!) There’s Jim Flannery’s “Ulster Roots – Southern Branches,” about the Scots-Irish in the American South, and Peter Quinn’s poem “Remembrance,” which gutted me completely. There’s Matthew Brennan’s piece on the Irish Brigade, and Joe McBride’s review of The Claim, both showing the price that Irish immigrants paid to be Americans.

The Irish American Experience is all here in these pages. From the Famine to the success enjoyed by our Wall Street 50 at the top of the financial world. I want to say let’s celebrate. Let’s, as in Tom Russell’s song, call up all our ancestors to dance upon their graves.

But my mind keeps going back to Northern Ireland and the issue of policing and the disturbing possibility that agents of the British Army and RUC intelligence participated in Pat Finucane’s murder.

There must be an independent inquiry into the deaths of Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, a lawyer who also allegedly received threats from the RUC, and who, despite repeated calls for her protection from human rights groups, was killed by a car bomb in 1999 as she was driving to pick up her daughter from school.

There can be no lasting peace in Northern Ireland until there is a police force that can be held accountable. Bill Flynn made this point twice, once when he introduced Geraldine Finucane and again when he read out a recent letter received by Peter Madden informing him that he is now on a death list.

The letter doesn’t say who is threatening Madden. It doesn’t offer any police protection. It doesn’t even address Madden by name – in Northern Ireland they have form letters for such matters. Madden’s letter begins:

“Dear Sir or Madam.” ♦

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