Hutchinson debate flags up other questions of the past


Wherever you stand on the "should Al Hutchinson stay or go?" debate, the latest suggestion that the Police Ombudsman should suspend the investigation of historic cases once again emphasises the drawbacks of the piecemeal way Northern Ireland is addressing its past.

Victims Commissioner Patricia MacBride has expressed her concern that the suspension "will have a detrimental and damaging effect on victims and survivors".

Ms MacBride is worried that "cases where investigations have already taken place and where reports have not yet been published, will sit in limbo until a review is conducted of the most effective way of managing those investigation reports".

The victims commissioner fears that families who have waited years will be told they must wait again. She describes that as "an untenable situation".

Currently the Police Historical Enquiries Team examines unresolved murders committed during the troubles.

When cases involve allegations of police malpractice or collusion, then they get referred to the ombudsman's office.

The courts are also getting drawn into the examination of the past, with the attorney general ordering that a series of new inquests be held into controversial deaths.

All this is in addition, of course, to high profile probes like the Bloody Sunday, Billy Wright, Rosemary Nelson or Robert Hamill inquiries.

The Eames Bradley Group On The Past recommended replacing this piecemeal approach with a single "Legacy Commission".

However, this suggestion got lost in the furore over the proposed £12,000 recognition payments to the families of all those who died during the conflict, irrespective of whether they were paramilitaries, security force personnel or civilians.

Boston College

Sinn Fein - which doesn't cooperate with the police HET team - has suggested an independent international truth recovery process, with UN backing. But unionists are distinctly cool about the idea.

At one stage the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, appeared keen on replacing expensive lawyers with a panel of historians, tasked with establishing an authoritative view of the past.

Anyone who has witnessed historians argue over different interpretations of episodes in modern history may reserve judgment over how feasible such a project might prove.

Moreover, the events surrounding the oral history project at Boston College show that opting for a "story telling" approach isn't without its complications.

Having offered former paramilitaries a guarantee that their testimony would not be used until after their deaths, the college is now fighting attempts to subpoena its tapes, apparently as part of a PSNI investigation into the "disappeared".

With agreement on creating any new structures to deal with the past apparently impossible, both the Stormont politicians and the Northern Ireland Office may be tempted to shrug their shoulders and conclude that the current piecemeal system is the only option.

However, the controversy over Al Hutchinson's handling of historic cases vividly illustrates how this approach can damage those agencies which bear the burden of trying to discharge multiple duties.

The Criminal Justice Chief Inspector Michael Maguire reports that "with some exceptions" there were "no major concerns around the (Police Ombudsman's) investigation of current cases".

Yet Sinn Fein is calling for Al Hutchinson to resign now, whilst the DUP is accusing the ombudsman's critics of launching a "vendetta" against him.

The majority of the ombudsman's work is meant to involve complaints against serving police officers - but that work has been completely overshadowed by the complaints about Mr Hutchinson's handling of past atrocities like the Loughinisland shootings and the bombing of McGurk's bar.

Mark Devenport, Political editor, Northern Ireland Article written by Mark Devenport Mark Devenport Political editor, Northern Ireland

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    This is the problem with us, we spend so much time looking back we just can't go forwards. What should be top of the agenda is generating a vibrant private sector. This would result in more employment, an overall improvement in our well being with less reliance on the public sector. Proper jobs for the proper people of Northern Ireland. Yet what do we keep doing, looking back over our shoulder.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Until the state admits its role in the conflict, people will still look over their shoulder. The state should release all its information; identify what atrocities they carried out, or allowed to be carried out. This would allow republican and loyalist organisations to do likewise. A decision to prosecute all involved, soldiers, RUC personnel, republican or loyalist, could then be made by the PPS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Whats the point of prosecuting them if they are only going to be released again. Look forward and not back. Will you ever get the truth released by all parties. What will it all cost, the only ones to benefit are the legal eagles and the politicans who want to keep us in the past for while we are throwing bricks at each other they get away with mismanagement of our economy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    That's an interesting point, but look at it another way: Why should state forces escape prosecution, while thousands of loyalist/republicans have historic political charges on the books. Either prosecute all, or wipe the slate. How many state forces have escape prosecution, while republican/loyalist prisoners' lives are still affected by their past; can't get certain jobs, go to certain countries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I am bemused by your logic, which, appears to me to be along the lines of "forget about previous crimes, we need jobs", as if the two are related. How about "forget about past crimes, we need good weather next summer". To try to carve out "justice" as a luxury for better economic times is unacceptable. If someone gets killed today.. at which point do we say "no longer worth attention"?


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