A police unit set up to reinvestigate conflict-related killings has been totally compromised by the malign influence of the murderous Special Branch and should be scrapped, according to a new report.
The Historical Enquiries Team (HET) was set up by PSNI Chief Hugh Orde in 2005 with a 34 million pound budget to re-examine killings during the conflict.
But a leading academic who was given unprecedented access to the team for two years said that the HET’s investigations were being “controlled” and “censored” by former RUC Special Branch officers.
University of Ulster lecturer Dr Patricia Lundy drew up the report after being given full access to the HET, including access to meetings and personnel.
The HET was part of an attempt by the PSNI (formerly RUC) to gain the trust of the nationalist community.
“It appears that ‘the old guard’ play a key role in the management and access to intelligence and perform a censoring role in respect of disclosure,” wrote Dr Lundy.
“All aspects of intelligence are managed by former RUC and Special Branch officers.
“At the time of the research, the Intelligence Unit (IU) was staffed by 18 former RUC and Special Branch officers.”
Two former RUC Special Branch officers and a former British army soldier hold key senior positions within the HET.
The report found that the “strategic positioning” of former RUC officers, and particularly those with a Special Branch background, “not only undermines actual but perceived independence”.
One PSNI officer who had been seconded to the HET was Chief Philip Marshall, who was later accused of “deliberate and calculated deception” during the Omagh bomb trial.
The British Army was found to have regularly failed to pass on the names of former soldiers identified in controversial killings to HET investigators.
HET requests to the British Army were effectively binned, the report said.
Only one fifth of senior RUC detectives who originally investigated conflict-related killings had “positively engaged” with the HET.
While the unit was reported to be investigating more than 1,000 cases during the two-year study, Dr Lundy said the figure actually referred to the number of cases that had ‘gone into the system’.
“It is my opinion that a very creative use of language has been employed to describe a process which in the majority of cases is essentially a ‘desktop review’,” she writes.
Raising concerns that “political considerations” appeared to impact on HET’s decision-making process, the report states: “HET are acutely aware of the extreme sensitivity of the cases under review and their likely political ramifications.
“There has been a nervousness or lack of confidence in ‘rolling out’ the process and reluctance on the part of senior management to make difficult decisions and deliver perceived unpopular findings.”
Dr Lundy said it was now time for the unit to be scrapped and replaced with an international and civilian structure.
Sinn Féin Policing and Justice Spokesperson Alex Maskey said the report highlighted “some very fundamental flaws and serious concerns”.
“Unless addressed, the issues highlighted in this report will continue to act as a barrier to confidence building for the PSNI within the community,” he added.