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Proposed HIU 'veto' power criticised by campaigners

Dave Cox, head of the now-defunct Historical Enquiries Team in his Lisburn office in 2007. The proposed Historical Investigations Unit will take over its work. Picture by Paul Faith/PA Wire
Connla Young

Concerns have been raised over plans by the British government to “veto” information in reports by a new body investigating Troubles killings.

Details emerged yesterday in a policy paper published by the Northern Ireland Office on legislation to enact the Stormont House Agreement.

The political agreement last December proposed a Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) to replace the now defunct police Historical Enquiries Team and take over some of the work carried out by the Police Ombudsman.

It is intended to investigate unsolved killings and provide reports to families.

There are also plans to establish an Independent Commission on Information Retrieval for victims and an Oral History Archive.

The commission would offer immunity from prosecution on information it receives about Troubles-related deaths, although the British and Irish governments have insisted this does not represent an amnesty as the HIU would still carry out its own investigations.

Despite the current political crisis, work on a draft bill has continued throughout the summer and is expected to be completed in the coming weeks.

Relatives of Troubles victims have previously voiced concern about the independence of the planned HIU and some are worried that former police officers may be employed by it.

In the past the PSNI has been accused of withholding information relating to controversial killings.

Now fresh concerns have been raised over plans by the British government to control what information is published through HIU reports on “national security” grounds.

According to the policy paper published by Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, the HIU “ must protect information that, if disclosed, would or would be likely to prejudice national security (including information from the intelligence services)”.

“Where the HIU proposes to disclose information of this nature, it will be required to refer the matter to the UK government, which may prevent disclosure, if necessary.”

Brian Gormally, director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, said the issue of national security wasn’t raised in the Stormont House Agreement.

"One of the key achievements of the agreement was that bodies like the HIU are to be independent from everyone else including government, which means ministers should not be able to direct what it does," he said.

“It is with considerable alarm therefore that we note the Secretary of State is planning a power for herself to veto the inclusion of certain information in HIU reports, and is doing so on the deliberately vague and undefined grounds of national security, which in effect can mean whatever she wants it to mean."

A spokesman for the NIO said the “HIU will see all information the government has, but as this means they will receive and hold information which could endanger lives and jeopardise national security, the legislation will put in place controls regarding onward disclosure by the HIU. This is to ensure lives are not put at risk and security is not jeopardised.

"Existing bodies such as the PSNI are already subject to such duties, so these measures are not new.”

Ulster Unionist MP Tom Elliott last night said the public should be consulted on the plans.

He also questioned why the document states that UK authorities would give "full disclosure" of information they hold, while the Republic is committed only to "disclosure".

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