Time to admit the limits of dealing with the past

It is pretty clear that the State – or a part of it at any rate – is moving towards closing legal process in three years for dealing with the past and that anything further will be dealt with and funded privately. In the wake of the Saville report, nothing is to be gained by Westminster and Stormont prevaricating about this any longer. On Monday David Cameron referred all further cases to the Historical Enquiries Team which in March the Chief Constable announced would close down in three years. Eyebrows might be raised at the idea that this was a decision for him. He can only have taken it if he believed operations would have satisfactorily been concluded by then. On the face of it, how can he know and on what basis has he decided in advance?

The HET budget for this year, the last in a cycle, has been cut to £5.9 million and its staff from 181 to 122. By next year it will have spent £30.9 million, £3 million short of £34 million allocated.

From 11 bald answers ( 1217-1228) given to a battery of questions from Owen Paterson just before the election and FOI requests to the PSNI, we can glean something about the HET’s record but nothing like a full picture. From the terse replies it is difficult to reconcile some of the statements. A full analysis is needed.

  • At its inception in January 2006 the HET was tasked with investigating 3259 deaths.
  • By mid –April this year they had made 27 arrests, 15 had been charged and 2 have been convicted of murder. Operation Ballast, the huge case or series of cases against the UVF emerging from the murder of Raymond McCord jnr, has been controversially handed over to the PSNI. No ongoing case is republican. In this area, republican omerta seems complete.

The HET’s success however is measured by other forms of clear up.

  • 33% or 667 families have had ” positive engagement” with the HET, 341 Catholics, 229 Protestants and 107 “unknown”. What about the high figure of 67% who have declined engagement or haven’t replied? They are still informed of outcomes.
  • Of 1463 cases currently on the books, 662 or 45% are considered closed. Can the remaining 55% be cleared up in three years? And how are cases closed? Is a look at the papers enough? How rigorous are  follow-up investigations?  
  • Of 858 victims’ families dealt with, 95% found the HET “professional”, 86% were satisfied or very satisfied with the answers given and 68% found them very beneficial.

The HET backlog for the final three years is self evidently bigger than the 45% clear-up over four years. What will be the budget for the final period and who will pay? The new Justice department or a mix of Stormont and the NIO?

The DUP need to develop a clearer line.  Peter Robinson wants full disclosure,  implying that this can only be achieved voluntarily.  Jeffrey Donaldson on Question Time last night called for justice over 3000  unsolved murders. The nationalist focus has moved on to the “Ballymurphy massacre” raised by SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie with the Prime Minister on Tuesday. Gerry Adams has called for an international inquiry. While this is an issue in its own right, it may also be invoked by Sinn Fein in order  to deflect pressure from the IRA record.  On that record, Sinn Fein point to the imprecise facts of a global figure of republicans sentenced to a total of 100,000 years.

A clear analysis of the objectives and performance of the HET is overdue. It would also greatly help public confidence if the authorities produced the record of convictions and sentences served by paramilitary group. For decades, they have been unnecessarily coy about this. The BBC used to keep a rough tally but I have failed to find any other source.

Without getting bogged down in a wrangle over equivalence,  raw statistics on responsibility for deaths  bear recounting ( from McKittrick). 

IRA     all Reps   UVF   all Loy   Army   All sec forces   Other      Total  

1760    2151      555      1076      301        365               81              3673  

On all the issues of dealing with the past, it is time for all sides to come clean.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • aquifer

    ‘A clear analysis of the objectives and performance of the HET is overdue.’

    You just gave some performance figures relating to the objectives of satisfying the families.

    The victims are dead, but we can assume that they would want their families to be content.

    Loyalist politicians make it their job to demand paybacks.

    Easier than administering cutbacks.

  • Christina Martin

    Not all victims are dead.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    Cunning plan by the devious Engleze government? They overpsend and overrun on their own report, which should have been and international one anyway and then they say we made such a pigs Mickey on running the last one that we cant afford to have any more.

    In any investigations e.g. Ballymurphy shooting, where the Engleze troops/government are under investigation the international route needs to be taken.

    Many British people seem to think that the behaviour of the troops on Bloody Sunday was one off, that is clearly not the case and as long as they resist coming clean on collusion, their spy network and the behaviour of the Engleze troops, then more enquiries we should be the order of the day.

    Equally, the time has come for SF/PIRA to confirm the details of their own campaign e.g. why did they target off duty soldiers, Protestants civilians and bomb civilian areas with the inevitabe losss of civilian life.

  • Johnny Boy

    Why they selected soft targets is clear, because they were soft targets, that’s the nature of terrorism. I’d be more interested in the truth of who was involved, and in what capacity. Also why were catholics targeted, were they really victims of gangster violence rather than political violence?

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit

    Hundreds/Thousands of pepole joined the IRA in response to events like BS – who they are is irrelevant (to me)just as I dont want to know the identity of those who pulled the trigger on BS – but the leaders of PIRA (and military inteligence) should have to explain their strategy.

  • Johnny Boy

    I broadly agree in the principle of the whole truth coming out from all sides and it is probably the best that can be realistically achieved for the families of all victims.

    Perhaps you are right about the who, but I have to admit I am uncomfortable with the current SF incumbents in Stormont due to their involvement in the violence of the past. I’d like to see a changing of the guard. Fresh face all around would be welcome in fact.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Thanks for this, I hadn’t known about these mixed messages from police and government about the HET or the budgetary situation.

    I’d just like to praise your use of Troubles statistics to get focus on the big picture – and why so much focus is rightly on Republicans in all this – a hobby horse of mine, as an earlier thread this week testifies.

    No ongoing HET case relates to any of the 59 per cent of killings carried out by Republicans? So much for unionists being “paranoid” about this issue, as some would have people believe. But as well as killing 981 Protestants, Republicans also killed 448 Catholics during the Troubles (303 Catholics were killed by the security forces), so Republican omerta is an issue for all of us, not just Protestants / unionists. And this is saying nothing of the Loyalist killings, we need to know about ALL of this stuff.

  • Seymour Major

    Just to add to that list of demands you mention, Norman Tebbit has weighed in with a demand for an Inquiry into the bombing at the Conservative Party Conference held in Brighton, 1984.

    I just want to comment on the narrower point of what resources the Government can commit to further Inquiries.

    There are two things which distinguish Bloody Sunday from other events in the troubles. One is that there was a previous enquiry where there was a finding against the victims. The other was that an arm of the state was involved in the killings.

    The first distinction, is not, in my view particularly important as a ground for deciding whether or not to have an Inquiry.

    If there is to be any further Troubles Inquiry by the Government (this includes Ballymurphy) it would concentrate only on those cases where an arm of the state was involved. The point which has been ringing loud and clear is that the State should judge itself by higher standards. I totally agree with that principle.

    I think that if money was no object, this Government would probably go for it. The apology which followed Saville’s findidings has enhanced the Prime Minister’s reputation in Northern Ireland. It would do no end of good towards the healing process if further opportunities were taken to make an apology in public.

    The Government has pressures in other directions. In a situation where there is a budget deficit of £156bn to close, they need to save every penny they can and set examples where they can. A few hundred million on Inquries might look like a “drop in the ocean” Is that a good enough argument?

    Not from my point of view. Only last week, David Cameron announced an enquiry into an excessive number of deaths at a hospital in Staffordshire. I dont have any problem with that. This is an extremely serious situation where patients seem to have died because of some institutional negligence. Furthermore, it is connected with the NHS, which is an arm of the state.


    How does that square up with Ballymurphy? Why is Staffordshire more serious? How does the Government distinguish that?

    Owen Paterson agreed to meet the victims. That is a good thing. I wont gainsay the outcome of that meeting but I presume an inquiry will be refused on financial grounds.

    A conservative like me needs a proper answer to that question.

  • Johnny Boy

    I don’t think the Staffordshire enquiry and a Ballymurpy enquiry equate. The focus on Staffordshire would be to ensure that failing systems are fixed and not repeated throughout the NHS. A Ballymurphy enquiry, apart from being of benefit to the victims and their families, would purely be political.

  • Briso

    Does that mean that relatively more Catholic’s than Protestants were killed in the troubles (taking into account their percentages of the overall population)?

    Not that there is any particular political point to be made here, I’m just curious.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit


    re. “Ballymurphy”

    I’m not sure they will need money – they probably only need the British not to try and block an international enquiry and to promise to enusre that soldiers turn up. They could easily secure the funding by public donation.

    Such an enquiry could he held in the south and the soldiers could give video evidence if the British were too sensitive to have in Ulster.

  • Mick Fealty

    Can have it lodged as a pedantic point of order, and as a former resident of the place, that most of those ‘Ballymurphy’ killings took place in and adjacent to what had been up until the night before the mixed ‘estate’ of Springfield Park, and not Ballymurphy.

    It was a terrible three days and nights with 24 people killed in gun battles all over Northern Ireland.

  • Alan N/ARDS

    Somebody needs to come up with a formula to sort out the past. This island needs to move on. I have no idea how it can be done. I would like our politicians at Stormont to sort it out, but unfortunately many of them have dirty secrets to hide. Just like both the Irish and British goverments. Maybe our churches could lead the way and sponsor a reconciliation and healing process. People have been saying recently that the truth can set us free. But only the whole truth.

    Jonny Boy
    I totally agree. There will probably be no real reconciliation here until we lose the last of the “troubles politicians” from all sides. These people played their part in keeping the troubles going. We need fresh faces and more compassion at Stormont.

  • Itwas SammyMcNally whatdoneit


    as a former resident but also Mr S O’Toole is it inapropriate for you to share your thoughts on the topic with us?

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Depends what way you look at it! But here are the figures:

    There were 1,521 Catholics killed, of which 365 were terrorists and 1,101 civilians and 55 Catholics members of the security forces. That’s 43 per cent of the total killed, with Catholics around 35 per cent of the NI population (though lots of people were killed outside NI too so it’s not a completely accurate percentage and hard to measure that).

    If you break it down further, 1,073 Catholics were killed at British hands – 303 by the security forces (9 per cent of all deaths) and 727 by Loyalist terrorists (21 per cent of all deaths) – so 30 per cent of the total of Troubles deaths fell into that category. Republicans killed 448 Catholics which was 13 per cent of all Troubles deaths.

    British deaths were about a third higher again, at 1,967 or 56 per cent of all Troubles deaths. Of this, 167 were terrorists, 1,059 were in the security forces and 741 were civilians.

    So Irish vs British deaths more or less match the NI population split, but of course the British deaths include quite a few in mainland Britain too, so taking the NI population splits only gives you a rough idea of proportionality of killing to population.

    In terms of perpetrators, it massively over-indexes on the Catholic side – responsible for 59 per cent of the killings, while being about 35-40 per cent of the NI population during this period. The inverse is true for the British side, 60+ pr cent of the population in NI and combined British killing percentage was 39 per cent (about 30 per cent Loyalist and 9 per cent security forces).

    I wouldn’t lump them in together because I think it’s unfair to regard police and soldiers as taking sides – for the vast majority of the Troubles they were in the middle keeping the peace. But if you regard the security forces as British and Ulster Protestants as British then it is interesting to look at them together. Excuse also the shorthand monikers and there are issues with lumping people in together, it’s just to give a rough idea of the overall pattern.

  • Mr Crumlin

    Alan – they did – it was called eames/bradley but it was ditched by the same unionists who now want a resolution. Just because it wasn’t popular doesnt mean it wasn’t the way to deal with this issue.

  • anne warren

    Each player has skeletons in the wardrobe that they don’t want to see tumbling out.

    Leaving aside bomb victims, does any Protestant want to admit s/he took up a gun to murder an innocent catholic going about his lawful business in the name of sectarianism? Does any soldier want to admit killing innocent people in Ballymurphy in the name of obeying orders? Does any IRA member want to admit killing Catholics after “a trial” in kangaroo courts in the name of defending the republic?Will anyone admit to collusion in the name of defending the status quo?

    And if they do, what’s the outcome? We are vindicated, themmuns are beyond redemption and deserve the worst?
    Would drawing a line under all the horrors we have all suffered since NI was founded be so bad or so difficult? Can no one look in the mirror and say “Mon semblable, mon frère?”

    Where are you going NI? Anywhere? Nowhere fast?