Killings by British troops in Northern Ireland are to be re-examined after a major report claimed investigators were not rigorous enough in their questioning of members of the security forces.
The national police watchdog review also alleged that the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) was inconsistent, had serious shortcomings and risked losing the confidence of victims’ families.
Chief constable Matt Baggott confirmed today that deaths caused by military personnel are to be reviewed after admitting a deferential approach was adopted by investigators questioning the soldiers involved.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) were called in by Mr Baggott last year to review the workings of the enquiries team.
Its report today said soldiers were treated differently as a matter of policy, apparently based on a misrepresentation of the law.
It added: “This is entirely wrong and has led to state involvement cases being reviewed with less rigour in some areas than non-state cases.”
Details of who will carry out the reinvestigation have not been announced but police files on the SAS killings of eight IRA men gunned down as they attacked Loughgall Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) station in 1987 are likely to be among those reviewed.
The fresh inquiry involves around 2,000 cases which the HET has already examined.
Nationalists welcomed the report as a moment of truth but unionists claimed some were attempting to paint agents of the state as villains.
The HET was set up in September 2005 to investigate more than 3,200 unsolved murders between 1968 when violence first erupted on the streets of Belfast and Londonderry, and 1998, the year of the Good Friday peace agreement which lead to the formation of the powersharing executive at Stormont.
The aim of the unit, which consists mostly of retired police officers from forces across the UK, including the old Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), was to bring closure to many bereaved families who still had unanswered questions about the death or disappearance of their loved ones.
But after the HMIC was called in last year by Mr Baggott to carry out a major review focusing on killings involving troops between 1970 and 1973, it seems the work of the unit fell short of what it was meant to achieve.
The way it investigates has been strongly criticised in a report by a senior University of Ulster lecturer. Dr Patricia Lundy said her research indicated that interviews with soldiers were not impartial or effective.
The inspectorate’s report concluded the HET’s approach to state cases was inconsistent with European human rights legislation.
Inspector of Constabulary, Stephen Otter, said he was shocked at the systemic nature of the failures. He added: “It is just not defensible.”
“I think it is really sad that we have had to be brought in to do this when much of it was pointed out in 2009 (by Dr Lundy).”
Mr Baggot said all military cases will be re-examined for any opportunities to gather evidence in line with national standards.
“HET is unique and so is the task they fulfil. There was no easy or established template to be followed. Notwithstanding this, a differential approach to military cases is wrong. I give you my assurance that this has ended,” he said.
“I am sorry that HET put in place a policy that was wrong.”
In 2010 Mr Baggott said cases where evidence could be obtained from a crime suspect should be referred to the police service for investigation by a fully equipped team. But today’s report said since then 39 civilian cases were referred to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) but there were none involving the army.
Differences between state and non-state cases surrounded interviews, the amount of information disclosed before questioning and whether or not a person’s unfitness for interview was verified. In one case involving the death of a boy aged 11, killed by a rubber bullet, a soldier concerned was spoken to by telephone rather than having his state of health verified.
The HET sometimes adopted a “pragmatic” approach involving talking without cautioning a suspect, in the belief they could elicit more information for the families of the bereaved, but any material obtained by this method could not be used in court. The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) raised this with them in 2011.
The HET’s operational guide said: “HET maintains it is not appropriate to compare the review processes in military cases with reviews of murders committed by terrorists. Soldiers were deployed on the streets of Northern Ireland in an official and lawful capacity, bound by the laws of the UK and military standard operating procedure at that time.”
Mr Otter said everybody should be treated the same under the law, saying differentiating between state and non-state cases was wrong in law and in practice. He added there was no provision to vet whether or not investigators had been linked to the previous investigation, although he did not find that to be the case.
In one instance a former RUC officer led the HET’s enquiry into a state involvement case despite undertakings to the contrary and the express wish of the family.
The HET had initially been made accountable to the chief constable but nobody else within the force and Mr Otter said there was now some involvement from an assistant chief constable, affecting its independence.
He called for greater accountability for the HET and added it should be easier for people to complain about it. He warned the keeping of some records was below standard and declared the target of investigating 30 cases a month was still too ambitious.
The report made 20 recommendations.
Ulster Unionist member of the Northern Ireland Assembly Tom Elliott said: “’The UUP has been clear for some time that the mechanisms which are currently in place to deal with the past operate, on the whole, in an imperfect and imbalanced manner with some using it as a means to attempt to rewrite history painting the state and agents of the state as villains. That is not something which will be allowed to happen.”
Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly said a differential approach to army killings was an affront to victims’ families.
“The HET has institutionalised the hierarchy of victims of the conflict in our society,” he said.