Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Third Report

1  Introduction

1.  As we prepare this Report, Ministerial responsibility for policing and criminal justice in Northern Ireland remains with the UK Government. These will be the last major policy areas to be devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive, on a date as yet to be determined. For as long as the Northern Ireland Office continues to hold these responsibilities, it will remain the duty of this Committee to exercise scrutiny on behalf of the electorate of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

2.  The inquiry that has led to this Report grew out of the Committee's discussions during one of its frequent visits to Northern Ireland. It became clear that there is great concern in the Police Service, in the Police Ombudsman's office and elsewhere that the cost of 'policing the past' is compromising—and will increasingly compromise—these agencies' ability to carry out their core functions. The more police resources that are committed to servicing the needs of the various historic inquiries, the fewer resources are available for crime prevention measures or for apprehending present-day criminals. Similarly, if the Ombudsman's staff are investigating an historic case, they cannot at the same time be working on a more recent one. A related concern is that the need to supply full evidence, including sensitive material, to historic inquiries may compromise the personal safety of covert sources of intelligence and undermine the position of those who still operate covertly.

3.  We therefore announced in November 2007 our intention to produce a focused Report as part of a continuing, broad inquiry into policing and criminal justice in Northern Ireland.[1] The terms of reference we adopted for this initial phase of our inquiry were to inquire into:

  • The financial and operational consequences for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) of servicing the various 'historic inquiries' into past events in Northern Ireland; and
  • The effect on the ability of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to bring accused persons to trial of provisions in the Inquiries Act 2005 and in other legislation requiring the police to divulge information which might identify a covert source

The bulk of our evidence, and therefore the bulk of this Report, centres on the first of these concerns.

4.  In the course of this inquiry, we visited Northern Ireland three times and the Republic of Ireland once, hearing formal evidence from several witnesses and holding a large number of informal meetings with interested parties. We also heard oral evidence at Westminster from witnesses and we received written evidence from a wide range of groups and individuals. To all of these we are most grateful. Our advisers for this inquiry have been Ken Armstrong, a former PSNI officer, and Jane Gordon, human rights lawyer and senior lecturer at Kingston University; we thank them for applying their considerable experience and expertise to the complex legal and procedural issues that arose during the inquiry.

5.  The wider context for this quite narrowly focused exercise has been the whole question of how the people of Northern Ireland should deal with the legacy of their past. Various proposals were made to us in the meetings we held. These included the creation of a memorial to the victims of violence; a day of remembrance; story-telling; and the establishment of a truth commission.[2] For us as a Committee to give full consideration to and to reach firm conclusions on such important matters in this Report would take us beyond our current terms of reference and into the issues that are being considered in great depth by the Consultative Group on the Past, which is co-chaired by Lord Eames of Armagh and Mr Denis Bradley.

6.  The Chairman met Lord Eames and Mr Bradley at Westminster in January 2008, and the Committee met them, together with other members of the Consultative Group, in Belfast in May 2008. We had a wide-ranging discussion, in an informal setting, which we found very helpful. We welcome the moving and inspirational speeches of Lord Eames and Mr Bradley of 29 May and we await the report of the Group with great interest. While the Committee hopes that the conclusions it reaches and the recommendations it makes in this Report will be of interest to members of the Group, it does not wish, in this Report or elsewhere, to anticipate any conclusions the Group may reach. Our inquiries may have taken place at the same time, but our work has been entirely separate.

7.  Some of those whom we met, or from whom we heard evidence, expressed a clear desire to see an end to the constant delving into Northern Ireland's past. We heard suggestions that a time limit on such work of five, seven or ten years should be set. It is not for us at this stage to endorse the setting of any arbitrary deadline. However, we do strongly believe that it is important that Northern Ireland moves towards a time when investigations into the events of the past are no longer needed. This does not mean that the past can or should be forgotten; and in particular, it does not mean a cessation of help to those who bear the scars of the Troubles. We endorse the suggestion made to us by Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, the first Victims Commissioner for Northern Ireland, that the whole question of compensation for the victims of violence and their families should be reconsidered. Too many people in Northern Ireland continue to suffer today as a result of events that took place in some cases decades ago; if the money spent on the public inquiries into the past had instead been spent on relieving the plight of such people, a real difference might have been made to their lives.

8.  Whilst any crime committed by a person in authority is particularly reprehensible and must be investigated as thoroughly as possible, it is important that the establishment and conduct of inquiries into such crimes is not allowed to distort the overall picture. This clearly shows that responsibility for more that 90% of deaths attributable to the security situation during the Troubles rests with paramilitary groups. According to the respected publication Lost Lives, there were 3703 deaths attributable to the security situation between 1966 and 2003. The publication attributes alleged responsibility as follows:

Republican paramilitaries: 2158 deaths

Loyalist paramilitaries: 1099 deaths

The security forces: 365 deaths. (Most of which have not been attributed to criminal activity.)

9.  In this Report, we look first at the work of the Historical Enquiries Team of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. We then consider the historical investigations of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, before turning to the various statutory inquiries into the past. Finally, we look ahead to the burdens likely to be imposed by the forthcoming contentious inquests. The Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office, Paul Goggins MP, told us that he would take our conclusions and recommendations very seriously; we welcome that statement of intent, and we await the Government's response with interest.

1   Northern Ireland Affairs Committee Press Notice, No. 2 of 2007-08, 22 November 2007 Back

2   These initiatives, together with others, were identified by Healing Through Remembering as essential components of an integrated approach to dealing with the past in its report "Healing Through Remembering Report 2002" Back

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