“the #HET did not act legally in examining state killings”

Inconsistencies and shortcomings in policies, systems and practices threaten the legitimacy of the Historical Enquiries Team’s work, and risk undermining the confidence of the families of those who died during ‘the troubles’ in its effectiveness and impartiality.

So says the Inspector of Constabulary about the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) in a report issued today. Originally requested by the Chief Constable, the report looked at the work of the HET in cases with state involvement to see if it meets the requirements that would ensure it is compliant with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (i.e. independence, effectiveness, promptness, and transparency and accountability).

But the inspection found that:

  • the HET is not conforming to current policing standards in a significant number of important areas…

  • the HET treats state involvement cases differently as a matter of policy and this appears to be based on a misinterpretation of the law…

  • as a result, HMIC considers that the HET’s approach to state involvement cases is inconsistent with the UK’s obligations under Article 2 ECHR.

The full report is available here. It includes various details, such as that approximately 25% of the HET staff previously worked for the RUC, Special Branch or the Ministry of Defence but have to declare any past interest in a case (p.115), although elsewhere it is reported that a former RUC office led the HET‟s enquiry into a state involvement case (in breach of the HET‟s policy) and that the officer in question actually knew the SIO in charge of the original investigation (p.23). A central issue here is the staffing of the HET intelligence unit which includes former RUC Special Branch officers and, so, lacks the independence to be compliant with Article 2 (the report helpfully lists, on p.36, the cases where Article 2 rights have already been found to have been violated, in McKerr v UK for lack of proper investigation, likewise Jordan v UK, McShane v UK and Kelly v UK where medical access had also been withheld, the failure to prosecute for collusion in the case of Shanaghan v UK, as also Finucane v UK).  All these cases raised concerns about the independence of the investigating officers.

Getting his concerns (and his objection handling for the predictable Ulster exceptionalism) out quickly, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, Stephen Otter has added:

“HMIC is concerned that the inconsistencies we found in our review may seriously undermine the capability of the HET’s processes to determine whether the force used in killings during ‘the troubles’ was justified in state involvement cases, therefore potentially preventing the identification and punishment of those responsible…

…The HET was created and continues to operate within an extraordinarily complex social and political context, which presented those who established it with challenges unparalleled in UK terms.

However, this context makes it even more important for the HET to operate to the highest standards of effectiveness and impartiality, so that the people of Northern Ireland – and in particular, the families of the victims whose cases are being reviewed – can have confidence in it.”

Mark Thompson, of Relatives for Justice, was scathing:

“The report today by the HMIC is damning. It is clear that the HET operate with no policies, no procedures and no terms of reference. However in particular the treatment of victims of state violence is shameful.

“Today’s report outlines the substandard, non-compliant examinations of deaths by the HET in these cases. It outlines to families how once again British soldiers have been protected from prosecution…

“Today we know that the HET, under direction from the PSNI, did not act legally in examining state killings, and in our view after hearing the findings on the methodology and approach, did pervert the course of justice.”

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