Belfast Telegraph

Troubles probe unit 'not ideal'

Northern Ireland's chief constable has conceded a new police unit to investigate historic Troubles killings is not ideal, but he rejected claims it will not be sufficiently independent.

George Hamilton said the PSNI's Legacy Investigation Branch (LIB) represented the best he could offer in the absence of a wider political agreement on how to deal with the region's troubled past.

Mr Hamilton's comments come as political leaders engaged in talks at Stormont remain at loggerheads over potential new mechanisms to address the legacy of the conflict.

The LIB, which will start work in January, is an internal police unit that is replacing the arms-length Historical Enquires Team (HET).

The HET is being axed at the end of the year as a consequence of budget cuts and in response to a number of critical reports about its operations.

The LIB will be staffed by 70 officers - around half the number of investigators that worked in the HET.

Mr Hamilton outlined the structure of the new unit to members of his oversight body, the NI Policing Board, in Belfast this afternoon.

During the exchanges he was challenged by Sinn Fein members, who insisted a legacy unit set within the PSNI was not independent, and therefore contravened the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

Mr Hamilton said case law from Europe made him confident the LIB was compliant with the ECHR.

But he added: "I realise there is no consensus on that view.

"I know it is not ideal but in the absence of any other solution brought about within a political and statutory framework I am duty-bound to do something.

"This is our best effort to deliver something that is fit for purpose, that is within budget, and is dealing with at least some of the hurt, in some of the cases, for those who are suffering from the hurt caused by our troubled past."

In its first months of operation, most of the LIB's resources will be directed to the investigation of the Army's Bloody Sunday killings in Londonderry in 1972 and on the ongoing review of evidence in the cases of so-called "on-the-run" republicans who received Government letters assuring them they were not being sought by the authorities.

The HET, which cost around £6 million a year, had been working through each unsolved Troubles case in chronological order.

Last year 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.

The future of the HET had been mired in uncertainty since those critical reports.

In additional to Troubles fatalities, the LIB will examine all unsolved murders in Northern Ireland pre-2004.

Relatives of 15 people killed in the McGurk's Bar bombing in Belfast in 1971 have been critical of how the HET handled its investigation into the case.

On what was the 43rd anniversary of the loyalist attack, some family members attended today's board meeting to hear Mr Hamilton defend the HET's successor.

The chief constable said: "We are acting in good faith, with best intent and we are doing the best we can within the resources available to us and also within the legislative requirements that are placed upon us."

Earlier Sinn Fein's Pat Sheehan had questioned the unit.

"It's disappointing that the new organisation that is going to be established now, the Legacy Investigation Branch, does not fulfil, in our view, the obligations under Article Two (of ECHR), particularly in respect of independence of investigations," he said.

But the DUP's Jonathan Craig said his party was "very, very content" with the LIB.

"We see this as a way of moving forward what is a very, very difficult situation for yourself," he told Mr Hamilton.

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