Sir Hugh Orde: ‘War is easy. Peace is the difficult prize’
2nd December 2009
Sir Hugh Orde is the former Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and current President of the Association of Chief Police Officers.
Introduction by Gyles Brandreth, former government minister, writer and patron of the Longford Trust.
Sir Hugh Orde OBE QM delivered the eighth Longford Lecture at Church House, Westminster, on 2 December 2009. As chance would have it, I first met Frank Longford exactly 40 years before, on 2 December 1969, at the Oxford Union. He had come to address the undergraduates on the subject of prison reform. We were bowled over by his eccentric charm, his apparent interest in us and our ideas, the zeal of his commitment to his cause and his passionate belief that ‘prisoners are people too’.
I last saw him in 2000, the year before he died. He was 94 and in a wheelchair, but his mind was still sharp and his zeal undiminished. ‘Prisoners are people too,’ he said. ‘Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, when I met him, he struck me as the most normal man I’ve ever seen.’ Frank sipped at his sherry (we were in the Peers’ Dining Room at the House of Lords) and reflected a moment, before adding: ’Dennis Nilsen was different. He’s impressive. Tall, good-looking, quite strong. I suppose you have to be strong to strangle people.’
With barely any coaxing the seventh Earl of Longford, KG, PC, would talk happily and at length about the ‘celebrity’ murderers of his acquaintance, but if you pressed him he would also talk – reflectively and more slowly – about the countless unknown inmates that he had known across the years. For most of his adult life, Frank Longford was a prison visitor. He told me that he believed it was the only aspect of his life that had been in any sense worthwhile. ‘When Saint Peter asks me, “What did you do down there?” I shall say, “I visited prisons for over 50 years.”’
‘Why did you do it?’ I asked.
‘It was my social work. The need was so obvious. It made such a difference to them. When I was in the Attlee government I let it slide, but I began actively again in 1951 and, apart from a short break when I was in the cabinet in the sixties, I’ve done it ever since.’ Travelling in his own time and at his own expense, he visited many hundreds of prisoners in every part of the country, some only once, others regularly, over many years. ‘Until I was injured in a fall recently I went about twice a week. I am hoping to start again soon.’
I asked him what he thought the prisoners got out of meeting him. He said simply: ‘Encouragement, hope, the strength to keep going. And practical help now and again.’
‘Encouragement, hope, the strength to keep going. And practical help now and again.’ Well, that could be the mission statement of the Longford Trust, founded in 2002 in the great man’s memory. And the evening of 2 December 2009 at Church House exemplified what the trust is all about.
Church House was crowded. In the audience were all sorts: Longfords, MPs and peers, probation officers and social workers, judges, journalists, broadcasters, police officers, prison officers, celebrities, former prisoners and even the odd celebrity who was also a former prisoner. (I think Frank would have approved.) On the stage were a series of compelling photographs taken by one of the recipients of a Longford Scholarship – an ex-offender who has gone on to study photography with financial help from the trust.
In place of Jon Snow (who usually chairs the annual lecture but was away on location in Brazil with his day job, Channel 4 News), Rachel Billington, author, daughter, trustee, and, most recently, editor of Inside Poetry, an anthology of poetry by prisoners, gave a wry, warm and witty introduction to the proceedings. We then saluted the winners of this year’s Longford Prize. Two special awards were made to KeyRing, which works with those with learning difficulties and disabilities who come into contact with the criminal justice system, and to Junior Smart, a former gang member who dedicated to reducing knife crime. The main prize went to the campaigning organisation Inquest, which supports the families of those who have died while in custody.
Finally, Sir Hugh Orde got to his feet. Born in 1958, he joined the Met in 1977. He was tipped to become Metropolitan Police Commissioner, but is now Head of ACPO, the Association of Chief Police Officers. He was formerly – for seven years – Chief Constable of the Northern Ireland Police Service. His lecture was based on his experience in Northern Ireland and entitled: ‘War is easy. Peace is the difficult prize’.
You are about to read the lecture, so that I do not need to tell you what he said. But perhaps I should tell you that I think the audience at Church House was surprised by what they heard. I was seated near an elderly Oxford academic who explained to me that Frank Longford would have approved the theme of Sir Hugh’s address because Frank’s best book (according to my informant) was probably his first: Peace By Ordeal: An Account from First-Hand Sources of the Negotiation and Signature of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, published in 1935. The academic went on to confide, ‘This man Orde should be interesting. He was there, after all. We will get first-hand stuff, but be warned, he’s a policeman. It will be very dry.’
It wasn’t. It was human, humane, and packed with revealing anecdotes, hard facts (some unexpected), and thought-provoking insights. I would say that it showed the need in Northern Ireland for ‘the strength to keep going’ and provided ‘encouragement, hope – and practical help now and again.’ Lord Longford would have approved.
The 2009 Longford Lecture Text
Thank you for the opportunity to deliver the Lord Longford Lecture. It is indeed a great honour to address you. The topic I have chosen is one that is very important to me as an individual, but not in the routine of policing. It is a truly unique project created to deal with a set of circumstances that occurred over time.
The years between 1968 and 1998 in Northern Ireland were known as ‘the Troubles’ – a massive understatement about a period that led to 3,268 deaths, thousands of injuries and billions of pounds worth of damage. The sheer awfulness of that time was captured in the book Lost Lives: The Stories of the Men, Women and Children Who Died Through the Northern Ireland Troubles. It was written by four journalists and an academic: David McKittrick, a highly respected journalist and correspondent for the Independent in Northern Ireland; Seamus Kelters, a news editor for the BBC; Brian Feeney, a lecturer and columnist on Irish history and frequent reporter in Northern Ireland on those subjects and indeed politics; Chris Thornton, a former crime correspondent and now producer for the BBC; and David McVea, a lecturer. It listed in date order all those who died, together with a short story around the circumstances of their deaths. It is without question an incredibly powerful reminder of that time, and was also the starting point for this particular story. Some entries are just a few lines:
‘Entry 80; July 19 1971, Henry Cole, West Belfast, Civilian, Catholic, 47, from Donegal Pass. He died an hour after a bomb containing shrapnel exploded very near his house – having being thrown at an army patrol. All but one of the windows in his home were smashed in the explosion, his bedroom was filled with broken glass, soot and smoke. He had a history of heart disease.’
Others run into pages.
‘Entry 1992; February 17, 1978, Thomas Neeson, Civilian Protestant, 52, married, 3 children, car salesman. He was one of twelve people who died when the IRA left a firebomb at La Mon House, a country hotel outside Belfast. In the ensuing fire those trapped in the main dining room were burnt to death and more than thirty others were seriously injured in the attack.’
That particular entry runs to three pages. I met many of the families of those who were simply a few lines in that book.
This story is around policing the past, which weighs heavily on many spheres of activity in Northern Ireland, and policing in particular. This is not just a Northern Ireland phenomenon. It is equally true in the Balkans, in Colombia, Uganda, and Rwanda, to cite a small sample from across the globe. I have seen it first hand in South Africa. It is without question true that the past and its memory play on the present and future. It is said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Perhaps there is some particular resonance in this currently as sadly news from the province is not good: young people being recruited into Dissident Republican groups who would not even have been born when the Troubles were at their height.
In relation to Northern Ireland the counter argument is that people are condemned to repeat the past because they remember it too well. In their paper An Urge to Remember, the Vice President of the US Institute of Peace, Judy Barsalou, and Victoria Baxter of the UN Foundation, also identify this tension: ‘The urge to honour the dead and remember violent struggles is as prevalent as the impulse to repress terrible memories and move on.’
The argument of whether to draw a line under the past and move on, or whether to commit scarce resources to this issue, is central to where I began as Northern Ireland’s Chief Constable – with a Police Service undergoing enormous and historic change and a budget designed to meet the current policing needs.
You can make your own minds up, but I was very interested, in the context of the policing debate, in facing up to some of the key issues around our history, in particular the reinvestigation of the many murders that took place, and on which fulcrum, public confidence still tottered frequently and somewhat precariously.
Many of the murders remained unsolved. For others there were convictions. In all big questions remained outstanding for families. And these were families from every community in Northern Ireland who, as we were to find out, knew almost nothing about the circumstances of the death, about the investigation and, in many cases, about its outcome. Staggeringly in all the mayhem, there were people who did not even know there had been an inquest into the death of their loved one or indeed a conviction where one had taken place. What I did sense was an opportunity, based on the new dispensation post-1998, an opportunity to help to underpin the peace process from a police perspective.
It is an interesting coincidence that two years ago President Mary McAleese [of Ireland] spoke here [the 2007 Longford Lecture] on ‘Changing History’. She said: ‘With a new confidence in our future Ireland has begun to look the past in the face’. Discussing the new optimism she continued: ‘The benefits of this sea change in attitudes cannot be overstated – it has released into Irish society a new mood of dispensation to talk with fresh openness and without fear about things that were once, in some quarters, taboo.’
It was into that space, so well described by the President, that we sought to introduce our contribution to facing up to the past from a police perspective. So what was all of this to do with me? In terms of my involvement in the province, I have spent almost a decade of my professional career there. Initially I was in day-to-day command of the Stevens’ Team, a group of detectives under the leadership of the then [Metropolitan Police] Commissioner, Sir John Stevens, now Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington. We were reinvestigating the unsolved murder of Patrick Finucane, a Belfast solicitor who was murdered by a Loyalist paramilitary group. In the book Lost Lives, he is entry 3012:
‘Civilian, Catholic, 38 married, 3 children, lawyer. A prominent defence solicitor, who was shot by the UDA/UFF at his home in Fortwilliam Drive in the Antrim Road district in an incident which gave rise to long-running controversy. Allegations about his death were still being levelled by human rights groups in 1999, more than a decade after his death. He was killed as he and his family were eating a Sunday meal. UDA members knocked down the front door with sledgehammers and used a revolver and a pistol to fire 14 shots, all of which hit him. His wife was wounded in the foot during the attack, which was witnessed by all three of the couple’s children.’
That was a truly complicated case, but in policing terms a reasonably successful investigation which, 14 years after the murder, led to the arrest, prosecution and conviction of a man for an appalling crime. But while I was reasonably satisfied that at least one person had been brought to justice, the family, without question, was unsatisfied with the outcome – not because the individual would only serve two years under the terms and provisions of the Belfast Agreement, but because they wanted a public inquiry into the wider circumstances of his death. That inquiry is yet to be held.
In September 2002 I was appointed Chief Constable of the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] during a time of immense change. I served as the Chief Constable for exactly seven years, retiring from that position in September of this year. They were difficult and on occasions extremely challenging times, but hugely rewarding. Sadly near the end of my tenure the past came back to haunt us and Sappers Azimkar and Quincy were assassinated outside Massereene Barracks on 7 March this year as they prepared to go to Afghanistan later that evening. One of my officers, Constable Stevie Carroll, was murdered on 9 March 2009 by Dissident Republicans as he responded to a call for help from a distressed citizen in Lurgan. Sadly Lost Lives needs a new and updated edition, entries 3713 to 3715, something I hoped I would never have to say.
It was soon after my appointment that it became clear to me that if we were to move policing on in the new world post-Belfast Agreement, our history would act as an unwelcome anchor unless we thought very carefully about how we, as a police service, could contribute to a process that brought some resolution to the many victims’ families who had so many unanswered questions about the circumstances surrounding the deaths of their loved ones. I was clear that to achieve a lasting peace the difficult territory of the past had to be confronted. Peace was indeed the difficult prize.
The challenge was complicated by the lack of a collective memory about the past. There was no common past. Professor Daniel Bar-Tal in an essay entitled Collective Memory, Intractable Conflict, Education and Reconciliation, argues that all nations and ethnic groups need a common past in order to structure social identity and solidarity. We were far from such a state. Policing itself was subject to wildly different accounts and interpretations, ranging from heroic fighters of evil to co-conspirators and assassins. There was without question a growing willingness to face up to some of these issues in a rather disorganised way, but what was absent was any determined effort to find a model to meet the needs of the community in coming to terms with or acknowledging the past.
Again, to remind ourselves of President McAleese’s speech in 2007, she said: ‘With a new confidence in our future Ireland has begun to look the past in the face. We are prising open the sealed space between historiography and history…’ She continued: ‘These old narratives are now giving way to a more considered story …Where previously our history has been characterised by a plundering of the past for things to separate and differentiate us from one the other, our future now holds the optimistic possibility that Ireland will become a better place, where we will not only develop new relationships but will more comfortably revisit the past.’
Louis Bickford of the International Centre for Transitional Justice says there are two overlapping paradigms for confronting past memory and transitional justice. The transitional justice paradigm relates to the legal responsibilities of the state and the international community to promote the rule of law. It requires that post-conflict states meet four responsibilities:
(1) truth-telling about what happened in the past;
(2) prosecutions of perpetrators;
(3) reparations for victims; and
(4) guarantees of non-repetition through institutional reform.
Documentation is essential to each of these processes. I will come back to that later.
The memory paradigm seeks to promote a culture of democratisation in part by creating a ‘never again’ mentality. Depending heavily on cultural and other methods of educating and reminding people about the past, it also relies substantially on documentary evidence.
As it turned out, the Historical Enquiry Team set up by the Police Service of Northern Ireland was to be the first major new societal step towards addressing a number of these issues. I always envisaged that it would be part of a wider process. My hope was that other approaches would run in parallel, providing alternative solutions to our approach. The Consultative Group on the Past, chaired by Lord Robin Eames and Denis Bradley, retired Deputy Chairman of the Policing Board for Northern Ireland, reported only last January, setting out proposals for dealing with the wider issues. It has spawned much controversy and debate. The Northern Ireland Office launched a consultation on the consultation and is quietly assessing those submissions currently.
My thinking around this difficult and imprecise subject was helped greatly by a number of quiet conversations I had with some immensely dignified individuals from a whole range of backgrounds. I happen to believe quiet conversations should be just that, so I won¹t explain them in detail. They should be quiet and they should be private; but they were an essential way of widening my understanding of the difficult issues I was facing. I spoke with the families of police officers, soldiers, civilians, and terrorists from the different Republican and Loyalist factions. All, unsurprisingly, had one thing in common – they had lost someone. Many had lost several of their loved ones. All who I spoke to had not seen justice in the traditional sense, and their views on policing were informed to a greater or lesser extent by that experience. Many of the cases remained unsolved. Certainly the questions, the haunting issues, from the achingly personal to the labyrinthine conspiracy theories, remained unanswered. Indeed, of the 3,268 murders 2,002 were never solved. Many convictions of people for those crimes were overturned on appeal, and many had no faith in the criminal justice process anyway.
There was, however, a common strand across the groups. The majority wanted to know more about what had happened. They wanted to know about the investigation. Their questions varied greatly. Some were highly organised and had carried out their own detailed investigations with the help of groups that work in Northern Ireland, some of which are represented here including British Irish Rights’ Watch, the Pat Finucane Centre, and Families for Justice. Indeed we were presented with files and documents by some, and even names of suspected killers. In Northern Ireland such detail was not unusual. It simply added to the complexity of the situation.
Many were convinced that the deaths of their loved ones were a direct result of collusion, whilst others had received no support and simply wanted to get on with their lives untroubled by us raking over the coals. There was clearly going to be no model that could simply be universally applied.
These conversations that I had were instrumental in the development of the distinct Historical Enquiries Team approach which is both family-centred and human rights compliant around the need for a full independent and effective investigation into every death.
I was very clear that the issue could not be consigned to the ‘too difficult’ tray, although I have to say it was quite tempting. From a pragmatic point of view, if we didn¹t face up to the challenge, we would be continually revisiting old cases in an unstructured, disorganised way over a prolonged period of time. This would lead to the resurfacing of old accusations and old suspicions, and detract from the reforms made in policing over recent years. I felt we would slowly be weighed down by individual cases that came to our attention in a variety of ways. Officers employed to police the present would be moved across to deal with the past, leaving us exposed in key areas of police investigation to deal with the crime we were currently facing. We had to come up with something completely new to deal with this challenge.
We also had genuinely to believe this was the right thing to do. It required a real commitment to tell the stories ‘warts and all’ and convince the majority of families that this was also the right thing to do. We were concerned that without critical mass in terms of support we would be in a bad place. I refer back to those quiet conversations as underpinning this process and giving me the confidence to pursue this to completion, but I would add to the equation the emerging evidence that we as a police service were already delivering on the Patten reforms. And the real changes we were delivering in terms of modernising the police service were proof that we were up for the challenge and committed with an equal determination to deliver backwards as well as forwards.
So I did feel we had a mandate to take these broad ideas to the next stage, based on what I had been told by those who knew best – the families of victims. During the discussions some clear principles had emerged that would be essential to gaining trust and confidence, and to the success of the process. Unsurprisingly many of these learning points were enshrined in Strasbourg case law. The cases of McKerr, Brecknell, McShane, Reavey, O’Dowd, all of which are Northern Ireland cases, underpinned the human rights principles around Article 2 of the Human Rights Act, namely the right to an independent and effective investigation – a simple phrase, but one with substantial consequence in terms of a history where allegations of collusion by the state with terrorists were endemic. In essence, it meant we would have to create a team of investigators with no connections whatsoever to Northern Ireland to run alongside our colleagues in Northern Ireland and dealing with the less contentious cases. This one principle would add hugely to the complexity and potential cost of our endeavour.
The primary objects of policing also had to be established as an overriding principle, but tempered with our reality. In cases of unsolved crime, the ‘detection’ of offenders should be our main focus. However, the likelihood of solving cases was clearly going to be slight. Witnesses would be old or dead. Exhibits, if still available, could be contaminated or inadmissible. Informants and agents would be in the mix; the original paperwork incomplete or missing.
None of this surprised me at all. At the height of the Troubles, 497 people were murdered in one year. The forensic laboratory was blown up twice. Numerous police stations were blown up, stations housing much of the investigative material. Police resources, understandably, would have been stretched to the limit. Indeed the Strasbourg Court, in relation to one of the Finucane cases, said:
‘The Court did not consider it appropriate to indicate that the Government should hold a fresh investigation into Mr Finucane’s death. It could not be assumed in cases such as this that a future investigation could usefully be carried out or provide any redress, either to the victim’s family or in terms of providing transparency and accountability to the wider public. The lapse of time and its effect on evidence and the availability of witnesses could inevitably render such an investigation unsatisfactory or inconclusive.’ In other words, in deciding what was and what was not an effective investigation, time played a part.
Clearly, managing expectations would be critical, as our approach could not be seen to be 3,268 mini public enquiries. We simply couldn¹t manage that. It rapidly became clear that the family liaison role would be critical to our success.
The fact that evidential opportunities lost at the time would be hard to recover did not render the initiative worthless. We had to shift the focus to ensure that, mindful of our primary role as investigators, the driving force behind this initiative would be to deliver a meaningful outcome for the families. This was a unique approach, to our minds, which we adopted, recognising at the very start that it would not work for everyone, a fact we fully respected. For those who wanted to engage, the principle of ‘maximum permissible disclosure’ was the selling point. This was linked to openness – not the traditional starting point for a police investigation into such serious crimes, but this had to be different.
The phrase, ‘the principle of maximum permissible disclosure’ meant exactly what it said; we would tell the family everything we found, however difficult or challenging that may be, subject only to legal restrictions, for example Article 2 issues – in other words information that could put another life at risk would not and could not be disclosed. We also quickly realised that any chance of success would depend on all available paperwork being available to us from cases going back decades.
Whilst this sounds quite obvious, in logistical terms it was a huge task. We employed 33 staff to search every single police building in the 5500 miles that makes up Northern Ireland, and we have many. It took three years. In common with other forces at that time, there were no central stores for exhibits and files. Most cases pre-dated the computer databases we now have.
We found files all over the country, lining the lofts as anti-mortar protection in some places. At the time, police officers were moved frequently and they took their files with them. A Derry murder file might turn up in Armagh. Police officers took them with them on transfer, and of course many police officers were murdered themselves halfway through investigations.
But despite the passage of time and the bombing of stations we have recovered police material in 90 per cent of the cases we were facing, and some material in over 99 per cent. We have also co-ordinated searches within the Public Records’ Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Security Services, the Public Prosecution Service, media outlets and libraries that are actually very important in terms of open source material.
It was very expensive and it was painstaking. This was a vital foundation, underpinning the whole process which was to follow. In a Northern Ireland context, missing files would always have the capacity to undermine confidence very seriously, even if the explanation was perfectly legitimate.
Just as crucially, for families information was the key. There are still challenges around this area, not least that whilst government departments keep information, paramilitary and terrorist organisations do not.
Another essential principle was what the Historical Enquiries Team now terms the ‘family focus’. If a person is murdered today and a murder investigation ensues, the police time and resources invested in that investigation are focussed on procuring evidence in pursuit of conviction of the offender. In the course of that investigation, families will be kept informed and briefed at every step. However, they do not help shape the enquiry directly. Expert resources are not deployed in pursuit of the answers to family questions of a personal nature unless they are already an issue of concern to investigators.
Right at the very beginning of the HET process we trace families and ask them what they would like us to do, rather than tell them what we think they need to know, once the work is done. Obtaining answers to their specific questions – just as much as evidential opportunities – would help guide the work of the HET. The questions take us to the heart of the human and social tragedy and the most sensitive political and personal issues. Was he in pain? Was he alone? Had he had his breakfast? Why him? Could it have been prevented? Did the police protect an informer? Can I see the pictures, I never got to say goodbye? Why was he left lying in the road for 24 hours? (Answer: the victim’s body was booby trapped to kill the police officers who recovered it, something the family had never been told.)
At the end of the HET investigation, every family is given a written report to keep. It outlines the circumstances of the death, the original investigation, the further investigation work conducted by the HET, and outcomes and answers to the family questions. The document is a very significant piece of work, prepared to the same Œmaximum permissible disclosure¹ family-centred standards. This is completely new ground for UK policing, perhaps world policing. It is truly customer-focussed.
Above all, in a country where victims have been politicised by the various parties for political advantage, it was also key that this would be a fair and impartial process. No family would be more important than another. He who shouts loudest would gain no advantage and the vast majority of long suffering quiet victims would be heard. We were galvanised by a determination to deliver for those who had no voice or no support at all.
So we had the makings of a plan, but we needed to operationalise these ideas. Where to start? To the best of my knowledge, nothing of this volume and complexity had ever been attempted before. There was a new devolved assembly; there were fears on all sides that the institutions could not withstand the destabilising impact of a spotlight on past events; and a real fear that having brought about the new Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Patten process, growing confidence in policing and its new structures would be stymied by constant references to the controversies of old.
However, we were not put off and set ourselves the task of convincing government. There was no pre-existing model. The original timescales and business case we submitted were a best guess. Many were only too willing to decry the chances of success from the very start. One local politician told us frankly: they will set you up with not enough time, not enough money and let you fail. In darker moments the sheer scale was daunting but we were convinced that doing nothing was simply wrong.
We also believed that a refusal to act could do more damage than any possible political instability created by opening up old cases. Families to whom engagement with us had given fresh expectation could not be let down again. Rightly we were asked, and challenged, is this police business? Success, in reality, was answering family questions, offering a measure of resolution where possible, and in a few cases progressing new or remaining realistic evidential opportunities. But we did know prosecutions were not going to be the principal measure of success. Convictions, whilst not impossible, were unlikely.
Perhaps understandably, with so much at stake, and no clear path to follow, political support was not all that evident, although many were watching from the sidelines.
We did have some incentives for the decision makers. There was a continuing stream of cases from the UK making their way to the European court for breaches of the Human Rights Act. The demands of the past were stretching the police service currently, and there were the growing voices of victims who had seen an opportunity, and wanted their voices to be heard.
Following a series of meetings in 2004, convened to discuss this particular issue, we wrote a paper entitled, ‘War is easy. Peace is the difficult prize’ – a quote borrowed from that tireless campaigner for peace, Martti Ahtisaari. The Secretary of State, Paul Murphy, granted £34 million on the back of that paper. Initially for a four-year period, it was extended by the Treasury to six years.
Nevertheless, we had support, a starting point, and a reasonable amount of funding to make a difference. So we took the risk, and it was one worth taking. I remain deeply grateful to Paul Murphy, his ministers and senior officials who provided that added momentum and gripped the opportunity to turn our vision to reality. Without this support, I am very clear we would not be here today.
Having secured funding, the project was now deliverable against a challenging timescale. I felt many were looking to see what happened next, and many still refused to engage. Each time we scratched the surface of the past, depending on the case we provoked reactions that ranged from complete indifference to outright fury. The right to an effective investigation is not tempered by an individual¹s background, however offensive or criminal it was. The reactions were on many occasions entirely understandable but difficult to handle. We now had to create a structure to deliver outcomes. A structure that was resilient, would stand up to scrutiny, and deliver an outcome in the form of some sort of resolution for the families.
The HET Process
As I mentioned at the beginning, one of the founding principles is the determination to be fair and impartial to all families, and this provided the starting point for developing the system. The HET applies a consistent professional standard to every case it reviews. Each case is approached independently. No case is more important than another. There is no hierarchy of victims in our world. The team makes no moral or political judgment about the victims. Each case follows the same five-step process:
· We collect papers and exhibits;
· We assess the material, and speak to families to find out what success looks like to them;
· We review material, to consider evidential opportunities and family concerns;
· We look at forensics and the opportunities new science has given us, certainly around DNA and fingerprints; and
· We prepare what we call the resolution report.
Every case is looked at on a chronological basis. We felt that was important because legally and ethically it would be wrong to expect families to engage if we hadn’t made those decisions ourselves, and the chronological basis seemed a sensible starting point. From a professional point of view looking at each case in turn allows intelligence links and similar fact evidence to emerge as the Troubles unfolded, and we had a database that allowed us to do that.
Leaving the decision to conduct a police operation to families could potentially place families at risk of pressure from paramilitary groups or individuals with a personal or political vested interest in a particular matter. And of course families often change their minds. Having declined to engage at the beginning, we’ve found that over a third choose to engage by the end. They became quite enthused as the process went on.
On occasion we have to move away from our basic principle. Before we started the HET, I had already opened many cases in the Northern Ireland Police Service Routine Investigation Team, the CID offices, and those were all taken over by the HET. It would have been wrong to close cases that we had already opened and over 200 of those were put straight into the investigation.
Humanitarian considerations sadly became ever more pressing as families got older. We had to take some cases out of sequence in the hope we could give an outcome to a family member before he or she died. Sadly having had the experience of a result after the death of both parents of a completely innocent young man, it was a telling learning experience and we tried to avoid that where we possibly could. There were clearly cases of serious public interest; and there were linked series of murders, which had to be investigated in their totality.
In terms of our methodology, it was straightforward. It was in line with the European Convention on Human Rights Article 2: an effective, independent investigation. We looked at and frankly, identified, on occasions, any mistakes or deficiencies in the original case, which we reported back to families. We also set the context of the work and the operations that were going on at the time of the investigation.
Our approach concentrated on what evidence, if any, existed, what potential remained for gathering new evidence either from new lines of enquiry, missed opportunities, advances in forensic science, or whether any opportunity existed for turning existing information into evidence. We looked at that from eight core disciplines, ranging from the original case records and family concerns, through exhibits, to open source material. Over 3,000 books alone have been written on the Troubles and it was very difficult to say to a family, ‘I¹m sorry we’ve found no new information’, only for them to say, ‘have you read so and so’s book it’s all in there’.
We did not necessarily believe everything we read, but it was important to assess the evidence. We also looked at linked issues for analysis and we spoke to many of the original inquiry officers, the detectives who had tried to investigate these crimes during the Troubles.
If we identified realistic opportunities then we pursued them, and the investigation proceeded as a traditional police inquiry. Indeed many people have been arrested by the HET and files submitted to the Public Prosecution Service. More often, however, given the length of time that has elapsed, and taking account of issues I have touched on, the focus of the work switches to providing information and answering family questions and concerns. This was completed by providing a comprehensive report.
We put as much as we possibly could into those reports. We told the story; we explained the work undertaken by the original investigation; we discussed the intelligence with them as best we could, the exhibits and forensic evidence; and we had a conversation with the families on that basis. And on a basis of confidentiality, honesty and trust. The reports were prepared on exactly the same lines as everything else we did: with maximum permissible disclosure. We did explain at the beginning the limitations of that because, again it had to be an honest approach from the word go. And context was a very important factor. We explained our findings to families and, where there had been missed opportunities, that it did not always mean they could be re-created. But we talked those through with the families.
These documents are challenging to write, and great emphasis is placed on quality and much care put into them. There has been a continual evolution and improvement as a result of feedback from many families we have spoken to and who have had the benefit of these reports. And we consult regularly with many non-governmental organisations and specialist groups involved in looking at the past along with us.
We deliver these reports personally to families unless they request otherwise. The HET personnel will always be available to talk through the findings. Families can have representatives with them if they wish from those NGOs or indeed anyone they think can help them come to terms with what we tell them. We maintain contact after the report has been delivered to see if any further issues have arisen. We are committed to listening and will always re-examine a report if families raise further questions, or are dissatisfied with the outcome. If necessary, they have had the opportunity to meet with senior managers up to and including me, and I have met many families who have made that request.
We have now been operational since January 2006. 1,459 cases have been re-opened and 578 reviews completed. Over 932 families have engaged so far. We are responding to nearly 6,000 questions they have raised.
In my judgement, the work of the HET represents a genuine and committed attempt by the PSNI to try and help families of victims of the Troubles find a measure of resolution. As I briefly mentioned, it was intended to be part of a wider, societal effort to address the legacy of the past. In the event, other initiatives have taken longer to emerge than expected, and we have been a lone option for many families for some considerable period of time.
Northern Ireland remains a divided society, with strong under-currents of sectarianism and an embedded distrust of the police in some communities. We have had to work hard to try and break down these barriers. We have engaged with families from all communities and their representatives, including politicians, clergy, legal advisors, NGOs and others established to promote victims’ interests. We have learnt and benefited enormously from this interaction, which has resulted in a better understanding of the issues involved. We have developed incrementally from our initial vision. There was no science to this. I do think that we have become part of a wider solution to our difficult history, but we recognise that it will always be less than perfect.
As the first Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), Richard Goldstone, said in relation to that conflict that ended 16 years ago: ‘Sometimes too much is expected from justice. It’s just one of the tools. There are others. But it’s certainly better than the old way of simply forgetting the past and allowing hatred and revenge to bubble up. Forgetting about the past is a recipe for disaster.’ He continued: ‘The customers of any justice system are the victims. They’re the people who have suffered and who call for justice and who are entitled to justice. The effect of these courts or of the truth and reconciliation system, as in South Africa, is to give an official, credible platform to victims, to tell their stories and get a public acknowledgement of what happened. And frequently, in my experience, that can begin the healing process. It can aid peace because it removes cause for revenge.’
Overall I think the results we have achieved to date speak for themselves. We had an independent survey conducted of the people and families we have worked with and 95 per cent said the Historical Enquiries Team was seen as professional. 66 per cent felt their questions were fully answered (and mindful of the questions being asked, we think that is fairly substantial). 74 per cent felt it was useful and, crucially, 86 per cent felt they were satisfied with the performance we had given. 70 per cent felt we had moved their world on. So in other words, I think we felt we had made a difference.
Finally, a word on the international aspects of our work. We were called to make a presentation to Strasbourg on what we were doing. In April 2008, together with the Director (retired Commander David Cox) and the Deputy Director of HET (DCS Phillip James), I gave a presentation to the Secretariat of the Committee of Ministers in Strasbourg on the work of the HET. As a result of this presentation, the Secretariat reported: ‘the HET can be considered as a useful model for bringing a “measure of resolution” to those affected in long-lasting conflicts. Such institutions could be viewed as playing an important role in satisfying the state’s continuing obligation to conduct effective investigations in violations of Article 2 of the Convention’.
It is interesting that only last month, as a result of the Strasbourg endorsement, we were visited by people from Chechnya and Russia to see what our work was doing and to see if there was any application in their world.
To conclude and bring us full circle, Professor Tony Hepburn commented in 1996 in a piece on Lord Longford’s [republished 1931] book Peace by Ordeal: ‘It would be one of history’s nicer touches if his ninetieth birthday year were to see an imaginative step by today’s politicians towards a resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict which Lloyd George’s sleight of hand avoided’. Well, two years later the world did move on and by 2002 there was much to be positive about. Indeed I am convinced that, despite those who are currently doing whatever they can to wreck all that has been achieved, the province will continue to move forward in what is now a very difficult end game. But end game it is.
However, the quote from Hepburn remains entirely relevant today. More imagination and risk taking is now required by the political leadership to deliver devolved policing and justice responsibilities in Northern Ireland. The conditions have been created to make this possible, one of those conditions, in my judgement, being a willingness to confront the past in its widest sense. We will not finish our Historical Enquiries Team investigations on time, and we now face the challenge of seeking additional funding to complete our task and I am determined we should achieve it, although it is not my responsibility any more. The economic arguments are very powerful, compared to the incredibly expensive legal public inquiry approach, which does not represent very good value for money in my terms.
In terms of outcomes, we still await the findings of these huge public inquiry events. The latest estimate of costs for the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, for example, is £188m. I remain to be convinced that when (and if) they publish they will achieve ratings like those from the HET in terms of outcomes. Of course, they are different events. I await that debate when we see the product, but I am not holding my breath.
The Eames-Bradley report is still work in progress and does, I think, provide some very alternative approaches we were seeking way back in 2005. It requires cooperation from ex-combatants to be really effective, but it is a thoughtful and important piece of work.
We have learnt much during our journey and amended our process on the back of that learning. We were over-optimistic around timescales for this immense task, but so what? We mobilised and we got started. Many delays were not foreseeable. We did not, for example, expect such interest in our work and the many additional questions that families as our investigations unfolded.
But overall, not only am I immensely proud of the whole team and its leadership for embarking on this challenge, but personally, in 32 years of policing, very little gets as close to self-actualisation as this. Maslow would have been proud of us. There is nothing more satisfying and humbling than a conversation with a family who now feel that we truly care and have brought at least some peace to their troubled minds after decades of pain.
I truly believe and would argue that the HET played, in my judgement, an important role in creating and maintaining the conditions that are still necessary to underpin the fragile peace, and creating the space for others to grasp the current opportunity to move Northern Ireland on and forward to an even brighter future.
Thank you very much.