Open letter to elected representatives from Chief Constable George Hamilton

  • 15 December 2017

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To all Elected Representatives with responsibility for Policing in Northern Ireland

I read carefully every word of the open letter published in the Irish News last week (Friday 8 December) by the Glenanne families. Out of respect for their position, I have already replied privately to the families, but I felt it was important that I write publicly to you about the ongoing risk to public confidence in policing and the need for urgent progress on 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. Within weeks of becoming Chief Constable in 2014, I spoke about this issue, warning 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 for dealing with the past. In particular, the proposal for the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) would remove the responsibility for the investigation of acts of violence during The Troubles from the PSNI; allowing us to concentrate on Keeping People Safe in the present and the future.

The initial timescales that we were given for the institutions to get up-and-running was approximately three years. Three years have passed and, despite the efforts of officials working on legislation, nothing has changed. As Chief Constable I am frustrated and concerned. But this cannot compare to the raw hurt and pain that grieving families experience.

I will be appealing the judgment which the Glenanne Families wrote about in their open letter.

I find myself in an impossible position. The High Court has found that while I have a legal obligation to investigate the circumstances of the Hillcrest bombing and other related cases, my organisation is not sufficiently independent to conduct that investigation. Some may presume the remedy to this dilemma would be to outsource the investigation to an external police service – something that would be likely to cost in the region of £60 million over 5-6 years from a policing budget which has been cut by £180 million over the last three years. There are insufficient detective resources immediately available in the UK to conduct this investigation, even if the financial resources were made available to me.

Furthermore, this type of external investigative solution (if it were achievable) is also under legal challenge – an ongoing judicial review is challenging the independence of the Kenova investigation, by Bedfordshire Police, into the activities of the agent known as Stakeknife because it is being funded from the PSNI budget for which I am Accounting Officer. In these circumstances it is in the public interest that clarity is sought from the Court of Appeal as to what the law permits or requires PSNI to do in relation to investigating the past.

I have no more desire for prolonged legal wrangling than the families do. It is a damning indictment that in the continuing political vacuum on dealing with the past; witnesses and members of grieving families are passing away without resolution. The Hillcrest bombing case is one of a number which are challenging the independence of the PSNI. While these cases relate to so-called “legacy” incidents, I am concerned by their potential implications for the delivery of effective, operationally independent and accountable policing in the present day.

I believe that the right place for any legacy investigation is the Historical Investigations Unit. The failure to make progress on the Historical Investigations Unit over the last three years has come at both a financial cost and a cost to confidence in policing. And that cost will continue to increase the longer that the ongoing delay continues.

I have already had to transfer detectives from working on current terrorist and child protection investigations to deal with disclosure of documents in legacy cases. Millions of pounds that could be spent on protecting communities across Northern Ireland are being spent on defending a succession of legal challenges in the High Court.

I wish to make it clear that I do not see PSNI’s role as preventing the truth from emerging or protecting State interests. There can be no hiding place for those who break the law – where there is evidence to indicate police wrongdoing, we refer it to the Police Ombudsman for independent investigation. Where legal proceedings require disclosure, we provide it. If material has to be withheld to protect life or other vital interests, we put the information before the Court to let it decide whether public interest requires disclosure. The problem underlying the recent open letter is the lack of appropriate structures to deal with the past. It needs to be fixed urgently and I respectfully call upon you to do so.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland is an organisation that I feel proud to lead. Over the last 16 years the officers and staff that I work with have embraced and driven change. It is an organisation that is recognised as one of the most scrutinised and human rights compliant Police Services globally. A recent report to the United Nations, by one of their Special Rapporteurs, observed that of all the different elements of the Peace Process, “the area in which most progress has been achieved, and one that.. deserves to be highlighted, relates to police reforms.”

These achievements are being put at risk by the continuing delay in dealing with the past. I fully accept that reaching agreement on such a challenging issue is not easy for those in political leadership. However, as a society, we have come too far and achieved too much to give up. Progress needs to be made. We owe it to all of those who have suffered; and we owe it to the children and young people of today who have the right to a safe, confident and peaceful future.

Chief Constable

Keeping People Safe