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

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