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New body for probing Troubles deaths may take two years to begin work

By David Young

A new independent body for investigating Troubles murders could take two years to start work, the Chief Constable has said.

George Hamilton said he was anticipating an 18 to 24-month time-frame for the legislation required to create the proposed Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) to run its course.

Mr Hamilton vowed that, in the meantime, the PSNI's newly assembled Legacy Investigations Branch (LIB) would pursue the cases in a professional and determined manner and would not repeat the mistakes of its controversial predecessor, the Historical Enquiries Team (HET).

The creation of the HIU was agreed by Stormont's leaders and the British and Irish governments as part of December's Stormont House political deal, which resolved a series of disputes destabilising power sharing in Belfast.

The HIU will take on the criminal justice element of investigating the past while a separate truth recovery mechanism will endeavour to give relatives the chance to learn more about their loved ones' deaths without the prospect of conviction.

"It's probably 18 months to two years away before the creation of the HIU. In the meantime our statutory responsibilities don't change," said the Chief Constable.

The LIB started work at the start of the year after the axing of the HET.

The HET, which was set up in 2005 to investigate more than 3,000 murders, ultimately closed due to budgetary pressures, but before that it had already suffered significant reputational damage, with inspectors alleging it did not probe killings carried out by the military with the same rigour as those committed by paramilitaries.

The HET, which was funded to the tune of £6m a year, was envisaged as an arm's-length unit outside the direct operational control of the PSNI. Its 200-plus workforce was made up of agency workers, many retired police officers, and when the PSNI was forced to cut its agency contract due to budget pressures the HET was a direct casualty.

In its stead, the PSNI has taken responsibility for the HET's caseload into a newly formed and less well-resourced internal unit. The LIB currently has 50 officers, with 20 more due to start at the end of March.

"We think it is a smaller but much more professionalised and more agile department with greater accountability and transparency," said Mr Hamilton.

The Chief Constable rejected any suggestion the LIB would simply mark time until the HIU was set up.

"At the moment, with the pressure and push on resources and the reconfiguration we are needing to do just to try and maintain service delivery at current levels on normal everyday policing, I wouldn't be deploying 70 people to the Legacy Investigations Branch just to mark time," he insisted. "It is a genuine effort based on professional judgment and volume of work to fulfil our legal responsibilities to investigate these things."

In 2013 HM Inspectorate of Constabulary claimed the HET's approach to investigations was inconsistent and had serious shortcomings.

The HMIC report was commissioned after the HET was criticised in an academic report that claimed the HET afforded former soldiers preferential treatment during interview and did not properly investigate deaths involving the Army.

"All the standards that HMIC said were lacking have now been fixed, we would argue," said Mr Hamilton.

"And we have invited HMIC back to do a health check against the recommendations - have we done what they recommended, both in the spirit and letter of it? We are pretty confident that's going to show we have."

Major investigations currently prioritised by LIB

At present the Legacy Investigations Branch is prioritising three major investigations:

The Bloody Sunday shootings in Londonderry in 1972.

Reassessing the evidence in the cases of around 200 individuals sent so-called on-the-run letters by the Government assuring them they weren't being sought by police.

Allegations that a defunct Army unit, the Military Reaction Force, carried out indiscriminate shootings during the Troubles.

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