A team of detectives set up to investigate more than 3,000 unresolved murders in Northern Ireland is on the verge of being shut down after it was set up to fail, Sir Hugh Orde has said.
The Province’s former chief constable established the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) as an innovative way of meeting the demands of victims of republican, loyalist and state killings for more information about their loved ones’ deaths.
The unit was severely criticised by inspectors and a halt was put to publishing new reports.
Sir Hugh said: “My sense was we were set up to fail.”
The senior officer, who now heads the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), returned to Northern Ireland to take part in the West Belfast Festival.
He was in discussion about dealing with the past conflict with BBC journalist John Ware.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) produced a report on the HET which contained withering criticisms, including that it investigated some cases more rigorously than others. But Sir Hugh said the watchdog’s inspection was out of context.
The former head of the HET, Dave Cox, has said at one stage it was more like a publishing house, such was the pressure to publish a large volume of reports.
Sir Hugh said it was impossible to prosecute all historical cases and police could not resolve the issue alone.
“The critical bit of this for Northern Ireland was around, I felt, being really open and transparent and trying to give legitimacy to respecting the past and policing the future.
“My frustration now is how do you take dealing with the past forward?”
He said when he established the HET he expected politicians to bring forward a broader solution.
The latest effort to deal with the past foundered with the end of all-party talks chaired by former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass over Christmas without agreement.
Sir Hugh added: “I personally don’t believe the legal process will resolve the issues for everyone here that has a right to something and at the minute they have nothing – that is not right.”
Sir Hugh said the HMIC’s criticisms were not fair. Among them were that the HET did not investigate killings by members of the Army as rigorously as those by paramilitaries.
The senior officer added: “People from outside don’t understand the complexity and emotion and versions of the truth and history that people have.”
He said not every family needed a full-scale independent murder investigation like one he previously worked on probing state collusion in loyalist killings.
The HET, which in many cases provided information to families rather than produced prosecutions, was partly a recognition of that.
Sir Hugh said he took a risk to establish the unit.
“The more risk you take because it is the right thing to do, the more vulnerable you are to be attacked.”
He commented: “We created probably the most impressive, depressing, archive of murder in Europe.”