A political row erupted today as plans to disband the team set up to investigate more than 3,200 unsolved murders from the Troubles were unveiled.
PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott sparked concern today when he said he hopes to be able to wind up the ‘cold case’ review team within three years despite the large number of cases it still hasn’t looked at. But he added that the work of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) should go on for as long as necessary.
And he also rejected loyalist claims that ‘cold case’ detectives were breaking the terms of an agreed Government amnesty by pursuing paramilitaries over past killings.
SDLP MLA Alex Attwood was critical of the plan to close the team down in three years. He said the concern is that there is now “a hurry to try to draw a line under the past”.
“The notion that HET could be finished in three years when it still has 2,500 cases to review doesn’t seem feasible and to create these deadlines does not create consent,” he said.
But DUP Policing Board member Ian Paisley Jnr said: “This time last year HET didn’t even know if they would survive and I am sure if big issues remain after 2013 then this could be stretched. I cannot see why Alex Attwood is so exercised when it was the board which asked the Chief Constable to set targets for what could be achieved by 2013 and it is in no way hard and fast.”
Sinn Fein board member Alex Maskey said: “We have never given Matt Baggott carte blanche on HET and have pointed out the serious shortcomings we have seen in HET. Some families have drawn comfort from the work of HET but others have come away very angry from their engagement with them.”
UUP member Basil McCrea said: “There has been a political failure to agree on how to deal with the past and the HET was left as the only show in town. It began as a way of looking at the files and trying to help the families but then became really effectively an investigative wing which was not really the intention.”
Mr Baggott moved to allay fears this morning when he said the team’s work would go on as long as necessary. “The Historical Enquiries team was originally set up for five years and we have now extended that by another three years. The Human Rights Committee of the Northern Ireland Policing Board were informed last week of the timescales for the completion of this work,” he said.
“My personal view is that I want to set a three-year timescale within which we will have resolved as far as we can the outstanding investigations.
“Victims will always come first and I am very mindful of the needs of the victims' families.”
Senior loyalist William ‘Plum’ Smith, who last week argued a document released by the British and Irish governments in 2001 proves an undeclared amnesty was agreed in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement, said: “The chief constable would have no knowledge about that, but the point is this was not something agreed between (then Secretary of State) Mo (Mowlam) and me, it was part of the understanding of the two Governments.
“But there is a need to develop some mechanism to look at the past that everybody can buy into and which gives as much closure to the families as possible.”