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New unit investigating Troubles deaths may not start for 2 years

David Young

A

NEW independent body for investigating Troubles killings could take two years to start work, the chief constable has said.

George Hamilton said he was anticipating an 18 to 24 month time frame for legislation required to create the proposed Historical Investigations Unit (HIU).

He pledged that, in the meantime, the PSNI's newly-assembled Legacy Investigations Branch (LIB) would pursue the cases in a professional and determined manner and would not repeat the mistakes of its controversial predecessor, the Historical Enquiries Team.

The creation of the HIU was agreed by executive parties and the British and Irish governments as part of December's Stormont House political deal.

It will take on the criminal justice element of investigating the past, while a separate truth recovery mechanism will endeavour to give bereaved relatives the chance to learn more about the circumstances of their loved ones' deaths without prospect of conviction.

The LIB started work at the start of the year after the axing of the Historical Enquires Team (HET).

The HET, which was set up in 2005 to investigate more than 3,000 murders, ultimately closed due to budgetary pressures but had suffered significant reputational damage after inspectors alleged it did not probe killings carried out by the British army with the same rigour as those committed by paramilitaries.

Mr Hamilton pledged that the LIB would: n take on the 990 cases the HET had to yet to look at n review all the military cases the HET had already examined n look again at HET reviews that bereaved relatives were unhappy with n prioritise those cases with the best evidential opportunities.

The HET, funded to the tune of £6 million a year, was envisaged as an arms-length unit outside the direct operational control of the PSNI.

Its 200-plus workforce was made up of agency workers and many retired police officers.

The LIB has just 50 officers, with 20 more due to start at the end of March.

"We think it is a smaller but much more professionalised and more agile department with greater accountability and transparency," Mr Hamilton said.

The chief constable rejected any sug

gestion that it would simply mark time until the HIU was set up.

"At the moment, with the pressure and push on resources and the reconfiguration we are needing to do just to try and maintain service delivery at current levels on normal everyday policing, I wouldn't be deploying 70 people to the Legacy Investigations Branch just to mark time," he said.

"It is a genuine effort based on professional judgment and volume of work to fulfil our legal responsibilities to investigate these things."

Mr Hamilton said the failings publicly identified by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary had now been addressed.

"And we have invited HMIC back to do a health check against the recommendations - have we done what they recommended, both in the spirit and letter of it? We are pretty confident that's going to show we have."

At present the LIB is prioritising three major investigations: the Bloody

Sunday in 1972; the task of reassessing the evidence in the cases of around 200 people sent 'on-the-run letters' by the British government assuring them they weren't being sought by police; and allegations that a defunct army unit, the Military Reaction Force, carried out indiscriminate shootings during the Troubles.

At least two of those investigations are predicted to run for many years.

Mr Hamilton insisted other HET cases would be taken on while that work continued but said that he did not want to offer false hope about what could be achieved.

"I need to deal with people's expectations."

He added that much of the detail around how the HIU would work had yet to be determined. Issues around who will staff it and whether it will take possession of all files and evidence from the PSNI have not been hammered out.

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