The establishment of the Historical Enquiries Team in 2005 was a world first attempt retrospectively to solve thousands of historical murders.
While there was scepticism from the start about this cold cases team due to the enormity of the task, it was an unprecedented move to bring closure to more than 3,200 families whose loved ones were killed during the Troubles, and potentially bring perpetrators to justice in some cases.
The future of a large number remains uncertain after Chief Constable Matt Baggott announced plans to axe the team in 2013, insisting that the time frame would enable all unsolved Troubles killings to be reinvestigated.
But SDLP Policing Board member Alex Attwood said there is “absolutely no way” the cases to be reviewed by HET could possibly be completed in that time.
“There is no evidence over the last five years of the HET that it would be able to manage 2,000 more cases in three years so I do not think to date I can see this work done in three years. I think it is a bad move to be putting time limits on this because victims and survivors want truth and accountability and that should not be subject to time limits. I also do not think the Chief Constable has kept the board fully in the loop about this,” he said.
Mr Baggott said he was confident all killings could be looked at in that period and said he was extending the life of the HET, originally to be closed next year. “We looked at what we’ve done historically in the timescale and I think it is a reasonable ambition, which has been predicted against a review that looked at victims’ needs and the length (of investigations), to set an ambition to deal with that effectively in three years,” he said.
Mr Baggott said there had to be a point when a line was drawn under historical probes so police could focus on the present and future.
DUP Policing Board member Ian Paisley jnr said Mr Baggott had an operational requirement to manage services and the board had an operational responsibility to “hold him to account, not to tell him what to do”.
“He is setting a target which is in line with what the policing board asked him to do which is to clear historical cases by 2013. So I really don't know what all the excitement is about, because the chief constable has been told that money is not infinite, it is finite,” he said.
But Victims' Commissioner Patricia McBride, whose brother was an IRA member killed in the conflict, asked what would happen if three years did not prove to be enough time.
“So does that mean after three years we are just going to stop and whatever hasn't been done won't be done?” she said.
Northern Ireland’s Human Rights Commissioner Monica McWilliams said a time limit should not be set on the process.
Pressure on to historical enquiry cases in three years
The pressure will now be on for the Historical Enquiries Team to wind up all its cases within the next three years.
Established in September 2005 to review all deaths relating to the conflict between 1969 and 1998 — a total of 3,268 — questions are now being asked about whether the team will be able to close cases that are yet to be reopened. Some of the big cases that may be reopened by the HET in the future include:
- The Loughinisland shooting in June 18 1994 when six Catholics Adrian Rogan (34), Eamon Byrne (34), Patrick O’Hare (35), Malcolm Jenkinson (53), Daniel McCreanor (59) and Barney Green (87) — the oldest victim of the Troubles — were shot dead by UVF gunmen in The Heights Bar.
- The murder of 20-year-old Catholic student Eamon Quinn, who was gunned down by the UVF in his flat in the Holy Lands on October 8 1982. An inquest was told he was killed because of his religion.
- The shooting of Official IRA member David Nocher who was gunned down by the UVF as he cleaned the window of a shop at Greencastle where he worked on October 29 1983.
- The IRA bombing at the Ulster Polytechnic at Jordanstown on November 4 1983 which killed RUC inspector John Brian Martin (27), Sergeant Stephen Fyffe and Sergeant William McDonald.
- The murder of Margaret Caulfied, a Protestant, who was shot dead by the UDA/UFF in Kilcoole Gardens, Ballysillan, on May 7, 1986, two weeks after her wedding. Her husband, a Catholic, was shot, but survived.
- l Death of Robert Glover, a Protestant father of three, who was killed by an IRA car bomb on November 15, 1989, on the Ballygawley to Dungannon Road. The IRA said he was a member of a firm supplying material to the security forces.
- The UVF attack at Boyles pub, Cappagh on March 3, 1991, when IRA members John Quinn (23), Malcolm Nugent and Dwayne O’Donnell, were killed.
- lThe UVF murder of Rose-anne Mallon (76), who was shot as she watched television at Cullenrammer Road, Killymoyle. The UVF said they were trying to kill her nephews.