'Work needed' over Troubles probes
More work is needed to instil public confidence in the way unsolved murders from the Northern Ireland Troubles are investigated, inspectors have warned.
Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) said further improvements must be made by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) on how it handles the legacy probes.
The HMIC has examined current arrangements two years on from its damning report on a now defunct PSNI team - the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) - that had been reviewing more than 3,000 conflict related killings.
Inspectors alleged the HET did not probe killings carried out by the military with the same rigour as those committed by paramilitaries.
The HET was axed last year and has been replaced by a new PSNI investigation unit - the Legacy Investigations Branch (LIB). This body is carrying on the work of the HET until a new proposed independent investigation team is established.
The creation of the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) was agreed by Stormont's leaders and the British and Irish governments as part of December's Stormont House political deal - however, the whole accord is now in jeopardy due a major row over welfare reforms.
In the follow-up report, the HMIC said "progress has been made" but "further improvements are required" to the way legacy investigation work is carried out.
Inspectors said the challenge for "enhancing public trust and confidence" continues.
Of the 20 recommendations made in the original HMIC report, inspectors found that 10 had been implemented; two were part-implemented; three were no longer applicable since the demise of the HET; and five remained outstanding.
The HMIC expressed particular concern about vetting arrangements to ensure officers engaged in the work had no previous links to the cases; the management of intelligence; and in regard to the openness and accountability of the LIB.
HM Inspector of Constabulary Mike Cunningham said: "It is vitally important that the public can have trust and confidence in the way legacy investigation work is carried out.
"HMIC recognises that improvements have been made against the 2013 recommendations, and that a small number are no longer directly relevant given the transfer of work to the Legacy Investigations Branch; however, there are still improvements that could be made.
"We hope that this report of our follow-up inspection will help to inform those who are responsible for carrying on this very important and sensitive work."
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton welcomed the HMIC report. He said it acknowledged that the majority of the 2013 recommendations had been implemented.
"It also acknowledges that some of these recommendations have been overtaken by other events, including the formation of Legacy Investigations Branch (LIB) and the proposal of a Historical Investigation Unit (HIU), through the Stormont House Agreement," he said.
"There are a number of recommendations highlighted in today's report that require further attention. In the days and weeks ahead, we will consider carefully how to make progress against the recommendations which are relevant to the PSNI.
"We will involve the Policing Board (the PSNI's oversight body), the Department of Justice and the Northern Ireland Office in our considerations, given their roles both in terms of accountability and the future implementation of the HIU.
"Accountability, openness and transparency go to the heart of public confidence in dealing with the past; and this is recognised in the recommendations made by HMIC.
"I have already stated that I would welcome an independent scrutiny panel, appropriately vetted, which would have unfettered access to Legacy Investigation Branch.
"Given the Policing Board will have accountability responsibility for the HIU once it is established, I would welcome the same accountability to be applied to the LIB during the interim period."
Mr Hamilton added: "While I understand that for some people, the perception of independence will only become a reality when dealing with the past sits entirely without the PSNI; this is an issue that only our legislators can solve. As a police officer, I can only ensure the PSNI fulfils its legal duties.
"In addition, it is critically important to remind all of those with responsibility for policing; that I face a rapidly reducing budget and my first priority for reducing resources must be to keep people safe in the present day.
"The absence of a more holistic solution to dealing with the past leaves the PSNI in an invidious position, caught between financial constraints; overlapping, competing and occasionally contradictory legal obligations and public expectation. It is my view that the PSNI continue to bear the brunt of a broader failure to deal with the past.
"The Stormont House Agreement offers an opportunity for a more coherent approach to the past, and I have given my full support to the establishment of the HIU.
"In an effort to support its implementation, the PSNI will continue to meet with and provide assistance to all of those responsible for the establishment of the HIU as required in the months ahead."
The HET, which was set up in 2005 and funded to the tune of £6 million a year, ultimately closed due to budgetary pressures - but before that, it had already suffered significant reputational damage.
In 2013, HMIC claimed the HET's approach to investigations was inconsistent and had serious shortcomings.
Inspectors examined the team after it 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.