Northern Ireland

Jon Boutcher ‘at odds’ with Chris Heaton-Harris over legacy disclosure

The PSNI chief said it is poppycock’ to suggest that a crime could not be investigated because an agent was involved.

Chief Constable Jon Boutcher has called for the use of NCND to be reviewed
Chief Constable Jon Boutcher has called for the use of NCND to be reviewed (Liam McBurney/PA)

PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher has said he is “at odds” with Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris over the disclosure of some sensitive security force material in Troubles cases.

Mr Boutcher told MPs on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee it was “poppycock” to suggest that a crime could not be investigated because an agent was involved.

He also said the “iron curtain” of the British government using the policy of neither confirm nor deny (NCND) in relation to the identity of state agents was feeding a narrative of “collusion and conspiracy”.

Mr Boutcher was formerly the head of Operation Kenova, which investigated state agents operating within paramilitary groups during the Troubles.

Its interim report said the NCND policy should be reviewed.

Last month, a legacy inquest into the murder of GAA official Sean Brown was halted when a coroner said his ability to examine the death had been compromised by the extent of confidential state material being excluded from the proceedings on national security grounds.

During a hearing it emerged that state agents were among more than 25 people linked by intelligence to the murder of Mr Brown in 1997.

The British government has since launched legal action over how the coroner dealt with a Public Interest Immunity (PII) process in the case.

SDLP MP Claire Hanna said this was a “fairly aggressive approach” from London.

Mr Boutcher told the committee that he had a background in covert and undercover policing and had dealt with considerable amounts of PII applications.

He said he did not believe the “totemic approach” to the disclosure of sensitive material in Northern Ireland was correct.

He said: “What it leads to, and it is often driven by lawyers, is a perception in communities in Northern Ireland that there is a cover-up.”

Mr Boutcher said he was a “huge advocate” of what the security forces did during the Troubles, but added that where mistakes were made, they should be admitted.

He added: “We should be open to scrutiny so we can make sure we learn the lessons of that operational activity but also how we have managed agents during that process.

“By this absolute position of refusing to in any way concede any information, even internally, to legally constituted commissioned investigations, it has fed this narrative of collusion and conspiracy.

“What I find when I’ve looked at all the information is that generally it doesn’t prove there was any collusion or conspiracy, it shows that often the security forces did a great job.

“But, where there is a problem, do not hide it.”

Mr Boutcher continued: “I am taking a view, and legally I have sought very senior counsel advice, and I am at odds here with the Secretary of State, that we can give some information.

“But we cannot breach NCND where we will give the details of who an agent is, we can’t put anybody’s life at risk.

“But by this iron curtain approach, it leads to a lack of trust and confidence towards the security forces and it is unnecessary and the world has moved on from that.”

Mr Boutcher said he believed he was “bringing a new challenge” through his approach towards disclosure.

He said: “By saying you can’t investigate a crime any further because there is an agent involved, that is poppycock, that is not right.

“I think there has been an application of NCND in Northern Ireland which has restricted previous chief constables and investigators…it is like an anchor that holds us back.

“All I am asking is for them to be reviewed and recodified in the context of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

“Nobody who commits murders should be protected by the policy of NCND. I don’t think anybody could disagree with that.”