PSNI Chief George Hamilton has warned that most conflict-related cases will be shelved as pressure is heaped on the force to cooperate with inquest investigations.
Addressing a conference at Queen’s University, Belfast, Hamilton delivered his response to a two-week judicial review of stalled inquests under Justice Weir. He said investigations would be dropped because of what he said were the “substantial costs” in dealing with the past and the low chances of securing prosecutions.
He also defended the force’s controversial Legacy Investigation Branch, which was set up last year to take over the work of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). The HET had provided families with reports on the deaths of loved ones during the conflict.
Mr Hamilton said his statutory responsibilities “do not require me to continue the work of HET; nor can I afford to take on the scale of this additional responsibility”.
“Instead, PSNI’s Legacy Investigation Branch will use a Case Sequencing Model to bring to the fore those relatively small number of cases which have the greatest potential to bring offenders to justice, particularly those who continue to be involved in serious crime today,” he said.
A review of dozens of the most highly-disputed legacy cases which are awaiting inquests decades after the killings took place concluded with sharp remarks directed at the tactics of both the PSNI and British military.
The MoD were accused of ‘thumbing their nose’ at the legal system during a hearing into the SAS killing of the Clonoe Martyrs, four IRA Volunteers gunned down at Clonoe.
Justice Reg Weir made the remarks during a hearing into the case in Belfast on Thursday, one of 56 conflict-related inquests being heard as part of the review.
“They are inclined to think they can thumb their noses to directions from the coroner and were quiet free to abandon promises they have made. That is not going to go on,” he said.
“The MoD is not short of money, it is busy all over the world fighting wars and it’s about to buy more submarines with nuclear warheads, so it’s not short on money.
“This is obviously very low on their list of priorities.”
Another review looked at the case of Patrick McVeigh, a 44-year-old father of six shot dead in Finaghy in 1972. A secret British Army unit known as the Military Reaction Force is suspected of the killing.
A barrister told the review that they would be in a position to release information on the murder in three months’ time, an answer which drew a sharp response from the judge.
Justice Weir said: “what do you mean when you say you’ll be in a position to send documents to coroner in 3 months. Are you saving for stamps?”
He said that the time had come to address legacy issues head on. “We are not parking anything anymore, no more parking,” he said. No more putting stuff behind the clock – and you’d better tell the people in the MoD that.”
There was similar criticism over the stalled inquest for three IRA Volunteers gunned down by the SAS in Coagh, Co Tyrone, in June 1991. The judge likened the apparent lack of action to fix the issue to a car getting a puncture.
“Instead of getting out and fixing it, the car just gets pushed into the ditch and left there,” he said. He branded some of the “excuses” offered by state agencies for the lack of progress as “preposterous”.
Barrister Mark Robinson, representing the MoD and PSNI, claimed work on the various cases could not be done simultaneously.
Judge Weir responded: “They could be done simultaneously if they were adequately resourced. The only thing stopping them being worked on is an absence of resources and the government provides the resources. These cases are being delayed because the government is not adequately funding the work.”
Delays in “security checking” police and military papers have repeatedly been used as the main excuse, such as the inquest of loyalist paramilitary shooting victim Terence McDaid, who was gunned down inside his north Belfast home by the UDA in 1988, including senior UDA member Brian Nelson.
Nelson also was involved in the UDA murders of defence lawyer Pat Finucane in 1989 and 27-year-old Gerard Slane the year before.
Justice Weir said in all the cases he has reviewed to date he has yet to find a “reasonable explanation” for the delays – “other than a disinclination to do the work”.
“And the motive for that others can judge,” he said.
Outside court, Mr Slane’s widow Teresa had a stark message for British Direct Ruler Theresa Villiers.
“I would appeal now to Theresa Villiers to get her government to hand over the information,” she said. “We need this information to move on. She is just prolonging our agony.”
“The government are waiting on us dying and our kids, but I have got news for the British government – this family and many other families will continue on this, because there are generations of families.
“We will keep going and we will keep fighting until we get the truth. All we want is the truth and justice for Gerard.”
Commenting on the ongoing review process, éirígí’s Pádraic Mac Coitir said that political promises to make the PSNI fully accountable had resulted in complete failure.
“The cases of those 97 murders presently under review have demonstrated the PSNI’s complete lack of accountability or loyalty to anyone other than the British state – not the coroners’ courts, and certainly not any Six County Policing Board.”
He said the PSNI was not fighting a rearguard action on behalf of the old RUC but “acting as the vanguard of the British state by covering up the truth of Britain’s dirty war in Ireland. In doing so, the PSNI is guilty of political policing in its cruellest, most corrupt and most unscrupulous form.”