Northern Ireland

George Hamilton: Historical Investigations Unit 'two years away'

George Hamilton

A new independent body to investigate Troubles murders in Northern Ireland could take two years to start work, the chief constable has said.

George Hamilton said he expected an 18 to 24 month timeframe for legislation to create the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) to run its course.

The unit was proposed as part of the Stormont House Agreement in December.

Mr Hamilton said in the meantime the PSNI's new Legacy Investigations Branch (LIB) would pursue cases.

He said the LIB would investigate the cases in a professional and determined manner and would not repeat the mistakes of its predecessor, the Historical Enquiries Team (HET).

The HIU will take on the criminal justice element of investigating the past while a separate truth recovery mechanism will offer bereaved relatives the chance to learn more about the circumstances of their loved ones' deaths without the prospect of conviction.

"It's probably 18 months to two years away before the creation of the HIU, in the meantime our statutory responsibilities don't change," the chief constable said.

The LIB started work at the start of the year after the HET was closed down. Mr Hamilton pledged that the LIB would:

  • take on the 990 cases the HET had to yet to look at;
  • review all the military cases the HET had already examined;
  • look again at HET reviews that bereaved relatives were unhappy with;
  • prioritise those cases with the best evidential opportunities.

The LIB currently has 50 officers, with 20 more due to start at the end of March.

"We think it is a smaller but much more professionalised and more agile department with greater accountability and transparency [than the HET]," Mr Hamilton said.

'Genuine effort'

The chief constable rejected any suggestion the LIB would simply mark time until the HIU was set up.

"At the moment, with the pressure and push on resources and the reconfiguration we are needing to do just to try and maintain service delivery at current levels on normal everyday policing, I wouldn't be deploying 70 people to the Legacy Investigations Branch just to mark time," he said.

"It is a genuine effort based on professional judgment and volume of work to fulfil our legal responsibilities to investigate these things."

Image caption The PSNI's Legacy Investigations Branch has taken over the work of the Historical Enquiries Team

In 2013 HM Inspectorate of Constabulary claimed the HET's approach to investigations was inconsistent and had serious shortcomings.

The HMIC report was commissioned after the HET was criticised in an academic report that claimed it afforded former soldiers preferential treatment during interview and did not properly investigate deaths involving the Army.

"All the standards that HMIC said were lacking have now been fixed, we would argue," said Mr Hamilton.

"And we have invited HMIC back to do a health check against the recommendations - have we done what they recommended, both in the spirit and letter of it? We are pretty confident that's going to show we have."

At present the LIB is prioritising three major investigations -

  • the Bloody Sunday shootings in Londonderry in 1972;
  • the task of reassessing the evidence in the cases of around 200 individuals sent so-called on-the-run letters by the Government assuring them they were not being sought by police;
  • allegations that a defunct Army unit, the Military Reaction Force, carried out indiscriminate shootings during the Troubles.

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