Lessons from the past and building for the future
I was very glad to accept the invitation to come here to this morning’s event on “victimhood and dealing with the Past”. The extent to which the legacy of the past has implications for both the present and the future cannot be underestimated. If we are to build a better future, we must be prepared to learn from the lessons of the past.
I have consciously tried, since becoming Chief Constable, to take up every opportunity to speak about dealing with the past. I believe there is a need for transparency and public debate on this important issue. However, on some occasions, the hunt for media headlines and the necessary editing to fit programme time slots can mean that this complex issue is dealt with insensitively or indeed inaccurately.
I know there have been times when I have been frustrated by headlines resulting from comments I have made as Chief which have been reported without context and will have therefore unnecessarily caused hurt.
The Term Collusion
In particular, this has been the case when answering questions about the much debated term of “collusion”.
Collusion is a term I have been asked about on any number of occasions as Chief Constable. For some people, anything other than an outright acceptance of the assertion of collusion is immediately viewed, not only as defensive but clear evidence that I am either naive or continuing to act as part of a state cover-up for the wrongs of the past.
Of course, none of the above are accurate. I will not defend bad policing just because I am Chief Constable; nor am I naive; and I am certainly not a servant of the state – I am a servant of this community.
Every section of our society suffered pain and loss during the troubles. The past is the present for those who suffered as a result of our dark and grievous history. It seems that for some people, a finding of collusion in the death of their loved one is an important part of gaining closure. For other people a finding of collusion simply conpounds their grief by failing to fully articulate a broader account of what happened in the past.
The term collusion is a grey area. It is not defined in law. There have been a number of interpretations of the term by many intelligent people who have examined the past in Northern Ireland. It is not my role to put forward another definition, nor indeed should it be the role of the Chief Constable to agree or disagree with any of the definitions put forward by others. So why am I raising it?
I am raising it because this term – which has no agreed definition – is damaging policing; not just policing in the past but policing in the present day. And if we are not careful, it will damage policing in the future.
A few bad apples or collusion?
None of what I say is about defending the indefensible.
Over recent years there have been numerous Ombudsman Reports; Public Inquiries; Judge-led Reviews; as well as the ongoing legacy Inquests – all of which tell us that policing in the past was not always as it should have been.
The problem was much bigger and more complex than the “few bad apples” analogy that has been articulated previously. In the absence of any regulatory framework for managing “agents” police officers were left to set their own standards, they were unaccountable to the law because there was no law. They were unaccountable to their fellow citizens. Policing was being done in a vacuum that allowed unregulated practice. Honest individuals were placed in impossible situations, having to choose between bad and worse. Many people lived; but some people also died as a result of that practice.
So…. “Playing God”; “the end justifies the means”; “collusion”?
Whatever term is used to describe it, it was not right and it was not what policing was supposed to be about.
While there is no criminal charge of collusion; if there is evidence the law is broken, there are a range of charges that can be brought – Conspiracy to Commit Murder; Withholding Information; Assisting Offenders; Misfeasance in Public Office and many more.
There should be no hiding place for anyone who broke the law or acted with criminal intent – be they police officer or paramilitary.
A significant difference between investigating police actions in the past and investigating paramilitaries in the past – is that the police kept records. They were different times and the record keeping was not to the standards that it is today, but I have ensured that the Ombudsman has unfettered access to the millions of pieces of information the Police Service holds.
With each Ombudsman Report that publishes, parts of the story of policing are laid bare. It is right that policing is held accountable and that lessons are learned – but the investigations do not tell the full story of policing in the past. A story of bravery and of loss.
Although there is no agreed definition, the term collusion signals malevolent intent. Intent is an issue that is rarely discussed in all the public debate on collusion. Over the years, through all the Public Inquiries; Ombudsman Reports; and different reviews of policing during the troubles, the number of police officers who were shown to have had a sinister intent were a very small number and a small number of police officers have been prosecuted for criminal acts.
In my experience, the majority of people who choose to become police officers do so because they are motivated to do good – in simple terms to protect life and serve their community. The same was true of the majority of police officers who joined the RUC. They served with great integrity and they sought to protect life and to protect the community.
The environment in which they worked was chaotic - terrorist attacks were happening on a daily basis, and many lives were being lost. Investigations struggled to keep pace with the rate of murder and serious injury. The pressure was extreme. In these extraordinarily difficult and dangerous circumstances, the intent with which the vast majority of decisions were made was for the protection of the community. But they were, on many occasions, decisions and judgements that should not have been taken; and, I believe, would not have been taken if there had been a proper regulatory framework in place.
The RUC recognised the almost impossible situation they were in and the Da Silva Review makes reference to the fact that the RUC had asked Government for a framework, guidance or legislation on many occasions. Nothing was forthcoming.
Change in Policing
The support and guidance that policing required did not come until close to the Millennium – the same time as the peace process was starting to take hold. At that time a series of events happened that were to change policing for the better. It began in 1998 with the passing of the Human Rights Act. The embodiment of the HRA by policing has meant that the gathering and use of intelligence must be for the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.
Covert policing was recognised as a valid and important method by which to protect people and prevent harm but it needed a statutory footing. The difficulties and challenges of this area of policing meant it took two years to write the Regulation and Investigatory Powers Act, which was enacted in 2000, alongside the Human Rights Act.
At the same time a new and more comprehensive accountability framework for policing was created through the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the Office of the Police Ombudsman.
It was an Ombudsman’s Report into the first Omagh murder investigation that prompted the Blakey and Crompton Reports, which together with the Stevens Report provided a series of recommendations for the professionalization and modernisation across three important areas of policing – the investigation of serious crime; the use of covert policing; and the sharing of information between intelligence and investigative functions. While the Reports made difficult and uncomfortable reading, police officers wanted change and the Reports were all accepted in full.
I was part of the Team that was responsible for delivering the major changes that took place in response to the Report Recommendations and the new legislative framework. It was a colossal change project that took place amid wider organisational change as the newly formed Police Service of Northern Ireland undertook the 175 Recommendations of the Patten Report which signalled a New Beginning to Policing.
Building for the Future?
Policing has learned lessons from the past.
Today, PSNI is recognised as one of the most accountable and professional police services globally. Crime is at an all-time low and independent surveys tell us that confidence in policing is at an all-time high.
So, what’s the problem?
The problem is that twenty years on from the Agreement that brought peace to this part of the world, we still have no agreed, holistic structure for dealing with the past. The absence of a holistic approach has left a landscape of legal processes to address the pain caused by our troubled history. And amid this confused landscape, there is a constant sapping of public confidence in present day policing.
In particular, the constant adversarial debate on the ill-defined term of collusion maligns an entire organisation with malevolent intent and fails to tell the broader story of policing in the past. Nor indeed does the debate highlight the professionalism and good practice of policing today. This has an impact on policing in the present day. It is not unusual for our Neighbourhood Officers to have accusations of collusion thrown at them and a cooling in relations that are so tentatively built in both republican and loyalist communities.
The Patten Report signalled “A New Beginning for Policing”. But there was no mention in Patten of dealing with the past and my growing concern is that in the continued absence of a more comprehensive way to deal with the past, the New Beginning to Policing is at best being hampered; at worst being put at risk of failure.
The debate last week dangerously over-simplified the complexities of dealing with the past in Northern Ireland. The figures for PSNI’s Legacy Investigations Branch are in the public domain and clearly show that members of the armed forces are not the only people being investigated for their actions in the past. However, Legacy Investigations Brach is only one part of a confusing landscape of processes to deal with the past in Northern Ireland, which includes among others the coronial inquests, public inquiries, Police Ombudsman investigations, the Criminal Cases Review Commission, civil litigation and Freedom of Information.
The current piecemeal approach to the past is not working. The Police Service and the other criminal justice bodies of the present are neither resourced or set-up to adequately address the past.
And it does not feel that the story of our past is being told in a way that is fulsome or fair. The processes of law alone are not capable of healing the hurt caused by our conflict.
Around 3500 people lost their lives during the troubles. Many of the cases remain unresolved. The very cold reality is that the older a case, the harder it is prosecute. While some cases will lend themselves to further progress through the judicial system, with forensic science providing the greatest chances; judicial closure is increasingly unlikely in the majority of cases. Memories have faded; witnesses and suspects may have died. The hurt however will not have eased and many families will have questions they still want answered.
In a speech similar to this, just three months after becoming Chief, I warned that “action is needed if policing, and indeed our peace process, is not to be dragged backward.” Months later it seemed that action had indeed been taken, in the form of the Stormont House Agreement. I welcomed and offered my full support to all the proposals set out in that agreement which seemed to offer a more holistic approach to dealing with the past. But over three years on, little has changed and the cost to policing continues to rise, not to mention the costs to individual victims and to society as a whole.
For this reason, I was very glad to see the Consultation on Addressing the Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past finally published at the end of last week.
Further progress on dealing with the past will require political leadership and financial investment. I hope that we will see both materialise in the near future.
The politicians must take responsibility for making progress, but they cannot do it by themselves. It’s up to us - the people on this stage; the people in this room; and the many individuals and families who still hurt to this day – to help them find a way through.
As a society, we are still struggling to reach a collective way of acknowledging and remembering the hurt that that has been experienced by so many in this part of the world. Through events such as this one today, we need to try to understand, not just our own story and experience of the past; but the story and experience of others.
We must be prepared to go beyond our comfort zones; to be selfless; to be ready to listen and have challenging but respectful conversations. Perhaps it is in spaces like this one, that we can truly find a way of healing the pain of our past.