Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

It's not perfect but at least the HET offers some hope

In spite of its limitations, the Historical Enquiries Team offers relatives the best route towards closure, says Alan Murray

Can you remember what you did 30 years ago to the day? Probably not - unless you were involved in a serious road-traffic accident, got married or had your first child that day.

If you witnessed a murder, or were caught up in an explosion, you'd probably remember the chilling details. Of course, if you committed the murder, or caused the explosion, you probably would be disinclined to remember your role in the event - especially if detectives came knocking on your door.

When he announced funding of £24.3m for the Historical Enquiries Team in 2005, then-Secretary of State, Paul Murphy hoped a six-year timescale would suffice to review 3,265 Troubles-related killings.

The objective was to bring answers to the bereaved and pursue new evidence. To date, 1,309 deaths have been reviewed.

'Maximum permissible disclosure' to families about the circumstances of their loved-ones deaths is a core principal of the HET programme, but many families will be left with unanswered questions about the roles of certain prominent individuals. For instance, will Jean McConville's family ever learn from the HET the name of the merciless mastermind who sanctioned and ordered their mother's abduction and murder? Will that cold, calculating IRA figure ever admit his involvement in Mrs McConville's disappearance, or other disappearances in that bloody era?

Will the HET identify now seemingly acceptable figures in the unionist community who gave the nod for, or committed, brutal sectarian murders in the chaotic 1970s?

The small number of HET reports that I know of, don't. Nevertheless, they do bring a degree of closure to families of utterly innocent individuals around whom allegation, or slurs, may have swirled at the time of their deaths.

Unearthing what actually happened in many cases is pretty straightforward - especially if the casualty is a soldier, or a police officer, killed by the IRA, or an IRA activist shot dead by the security forces. But even within those set-piece incidents, unanticipated quirks, or innocent coincidences, emerge which place the deceased at a place where he or she was never expected to be, leaving someone facing a challenge they never expected to meet.

In the paramilitary world, the role of informants will greatly restrict the 'maximum permissible disclosure' objective - especially where matters of national security arise, for example where MI5 has a particular interest. For instance, will we ever learn the full extent of Freddie Scappaticci's role in the murder of many fellow informants? Probably not. Evidential opportunities can arise from retained evidence being subjected to new forensic procedures upon which reasonably safe prosecutorial conclusions arguably can be based.

And, of course, within the loyalist paramilitary fraternity there is always the possibility that someone facing a serious terrorist charge can be persuaded to make copious statements about former associates.

Processing 30 or 40-year-old murder cases to trial stage without the original witnesses, or police officers who took statements and interviewed the suspects, is a daunting task, but for some families, it is the ultimate measure of the HET's commitment.

Some lobby for a so-called 'truth commission' but, if summoned, is the IRA leader behind Jean McConville's disappearance and others likely to admit his involvement? He hasn't to date.

That's why, for the families of the 'Disappeared' and other victims of the Troubles the HET - in spite of the limitations placed upon it - is the only process they can rely upon.

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