An insight into why this is the case came this week in a leaked report on another of these bodies – the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). The HET is a special police unit which was set in 2005 up by the PSNI chief constable to re-examine murders committed during the Troubles. A report by a University of Ulster academic, who was given unprecedented access to the team for two years, has called now called its independence and effectiveness into question.
The main point of the report by Dr Patricia Lundy is that that the HET has been compromised by the presence of so many former RUC and Special Branch officers in senior positions. This is despite assurances given at the time of the establishment of the HET that it would recruit the majority of detectives from outside Northern Ireland and would limit the involvement of former members of the RUC, particularly Special Branch.
According to Dr Lundy the HET is over reliant on former RUC officers. "It appears that ‘the old guard’ play a key role in the management and access to intelligence and perform a censoring role in respect of disclosure," she writes. "All aspects of intelligence are managed by former RUC and Special Branch officers". At the time of the research, the Intelligence Unit (IU) was staffed by 18 former RUC and Special Branch officers.
In November 2007 the HET had 166 staff, including 67 former RUC officers. Two former RUC Special Branch officers and a former British army soldier hold key senior positions within the HET. It is the view of Dr Lundy’s that such "strategic positioning" of former RUC officers, and particularly those with a Special Branch background, "not only undermines actual but perceived independence".
One PSNI officer who had been seconded to the HET was Detective Chief Inspector Philip Marshall, who was later accused of "deliberate and calculated deception" during the Omagh bomb trial. The British army was found to have regularly failed to pass on the names of former soldiers identified in controversial killings to HET investigators. HET requests to the British army were "invariably returned with a negative trace ", the report said. Only one fifth of senior RUC detectives who originally investigated Troubles-related killings had "positively engaged" with the HET.
While the unit was reported to be investigating more than 1,000 cases during the two-year study, Dr Lundy said the figure actually referred to the number of cases that had ‘gone into the system’. "It is my opinion that a very creative use of language has been employed to describe a process which in the majority of cases is essentially a ‘desktop review’," she writes.
It is also Dr Lundy’s assessment that "political considerations" have impacted HET’s decision-making process. Her report states: "HET are acutely aware of the extreme sensitivity of the cases under review and their likely political ramifications" and that there has been a "reluctance on the part of senior management to make difficult decisions and deliver perceived unpopular findings."
This report is damning of the HET, but the criticisms it makes are applicable to all the other resolution efforts and to the peace process more broadly. The problem is that the past is very much the present, and that any attempt to uncover the truth has the potential to call into question the credentials of those who are holding up the current settlement. This is true for both the unionists and Sinn Fein, but most of all for the British who want to perpetuate the myth that they are above the conflict. They cannot allow efforts to resolve the past to be truly independent and run the risk of producing the "unpopular findings" that would serve to undermine the settlement.
A good example of this came in the same week as the leaked report on the HET, when it was revealed on BBC’s Panorama that Britain’s electronic intelligence agency GCHQ recorded mobile phone exchanges between the Omagh bombers on the day of the attack. This information was neither used to prevent the attack or to aid the investigation into those who carried it out. The victims’ relatives rightly ask why, and reiterate their call for a public inquiry. But the British aren’t going to agree to anything that could expose their complicity in the atrocity. It really shows up the fundamental rottenness of the peace process that its preservation is dependent on the denial of truth and justice.