Helping families lift the lid on unsolved murders
The PSNI's Historical Enquiries Team offers victims' relatives their final hope of uncovering the truth about their loved-ones' last moments, says Alan Murray
The acquittal of south Armagh man Kevin Crilly over the assassination of Captain Robert Nairac earlier this month will not be quite the final chapter in the enduring story of the murdered officer.
Nairac's death 34 years ago at Ravensdale Forest in the course of what many consider a bizarre undercover operation has at least one final examination to undergo.
Investigators from the PSNI's Historical Enquiries Team (HET) will shortly reach for the Nairac file and commence a standard, but thorough, review of all the circumstances leading up to his death - from the brief given to him by his Army commanders to the last moments of his life and the possible dismemberment of his body.
These may not be details that the Nairac family may wish to examine, but they will be offered the opportunity to engage with the HET investigators - in common with all the families of the 3,257 victims whose deaths they are probing.
Currently, the HET unit based at Lisburn is concluding investigations into deaths caused in the Troubles up to the end of 1976 - nearly half of the entire death toll over the three decades of turmoil. Not every case is signed-off, but the vast majority are completed, archived and the relatives briefed.
Of the 2,540 incidents which resulted in deaths here since 1969, 1,100 cases covering 1,400 deaths have been reviewed and reported on.
Not every bereaved family engages with the HET - some preferring not to know any more of the gruesome details about how their loved ones died.
But many do engage and ask questions and the benefit for them is sometimes discovering for the first time why a father or a brother ended up unexpectedly in the place where he met his death.
For others, it is simply the comfort of knowing that in their final minutes as they lay dying, their loved one was treated with tenderness and respect.
Not all are greatly comforted, but many families ask numerous questions that have troubled them for years - perhaps decades - about the circumstances of their relative's death.
"Simply being told what he, or she, was wearing at the time of their death, like a blue shirt or a red blouse, evokes memories and can help close relatives personally relate to the event more easily," one person familiar with the process explained.
Some families do not engage initially with the HET, but upon completion of their report the unit contacts the family of the deceased again and offers a further invitation to review the final report on the death.
This procedure of a second contact from the HET unit does, in quite a number of cases, cause families who initially said no to the opportunity to liaise with the investigators to change their minds and seek an opportunity to review the report.
It is estimated that of those families who initially decline the offer to liaise with the HET around 40% change their minds and ultimately decide to take up the offer of dialogue.
Overall, around 68% of the families of victims eventually say yes to the offer of liaison and consultation - the remaining 32% of families either cannot be located, or simply say no to either liaison or a copy of the review report.
For most bereaved families, the HET unit's investigation is the only opportunity currently available to bring closure to them that no other form of inquiry can.
It is done away from the glare of publicity and away from the influence, or guidance, of politicians - some of whom had a direct hand in some of the deaths currently being investigated.
As they continue their trawl through 30 to 40 cases a month, the nine HET teams under director Dave Cox are examining a tranche of deaths of what they describe as the "forgotten fatalities" - the hundreds of British soldiers sent to Northern Ireland in the 1970s where they lost their lives.
Apart from the difficulty of tracing the families of those forgotten soldiers in Britain, the HET teams discover that few of the families reached ever heard a word from the Army after the burial of their relative.
Unlike local casualties, few of the Army deaths ever receive the publicity accorded to the victims of atrocities, like the slaughter at Loughinisland or the carnage at Claudy. The Nairac case is really the only Army fatality most of us could readily recall and give some detail about without picking up a book.
Because of the HET's work, many of the Army casualties' families have now engaged with the reviews and have been pleased with the dedication shown by investigators.
The HET project is a simple, but painstaking, procedure that no truth commission could ever hope to emulate and, for most families, it is the only means of getting answers to the questions that have haunted their lives for three decades and more.
The HET may soon run out of funding for answering the nagging questions about deaths during the Troubles that have dogged many families.
It may not uncover all the evidence surrounding an incident, but it can, in most cases, bring closure that no rambling political activist and a cast of highly-paid lawyers will ever achieve.