Responsibility for Troubles crimes could be removed from the justice system and given to a new parallel quasi-legal body encompassing the roles of the police, prosecutors and the courts.
Sources close to the Haass talks have told the News Letter that detailed proposals would strip the PSNI of any role in investigating pre-1998 Troubles events and give that responsibility to a new force.
While the suggestion is likely to be welcomed by the PSNI command team, it will probably be met with deep unease by former RUC officers.
Yesterday the parties held separate meetings with Dr Haass ahead of the first face-to-face negotiations of the entire process today.
None of the parties to the talks are allowed to copy the draft deal being discussed meaning that details are second or third hand, allowing each party to put its spin on aspects of the proposals.
But many of the details of what is being discussed have now emerged. Among them are plans for a parades body similar to the Parades Commission but with an appeal mechanism, and for a policy of designated flag days in unionist-controlled councils, with nationalist-controlled councils allowed to not fly the flag at all.
It is understood that dealing with the legacy of the Troubles would be divided between two bodies. The first, the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU), would become a police force for Troubles crime, removing that responsibility entirely from the PSNI.
Much as ‘bad banks’ have been used to take toxic assets from struggling financial institutions, the concept is that the new body would free up the police to deal with today’s crime, whether that comes from terrorists or other criminals.
The HIU, which appears to have been inspired by the US special prosecutor system famously used in the Watergate scandal, would have the power to compel sworn testimony and to conduct interviews under caution. It would also be able to compel the state to release documents relevant to its investigations.
But it would appear to be set up as an alternative policing and justice system, potentially opening up any aspect of the Troubles. And, in a proposal which would appear to go against established principles of justice, the body would combine the investigatory, prosecutorial and judicial processes. That factor, described by one figure close to the talks as “suspiciously Soviet”, is likely to see a slew of High Court applications for judicial review of its decisions.
It is understood that former members of the RUC would be barred from serving on the body and even individuals who have links to the RUC would not be allowed to work on its investigations.
The second body, the Independent Commission for Recovery of Information (ICRI), would be a ‘truth commission’ in all but name.
The body, as it is proposed, would appear to have more focus on the state than on former terrorists. Removing investigations into Troubles events from the Police Ombudsman, it would be able to compel former police officers to give evidence – something which at present is voluntary – but would not have power to compel former terrorists.
Dealings with former paramilitaries would not be in public hearings but rather in private through unspecified ‘intermediaries’. Any information they gave would not only be anonymised but would be covered by a ‘limited immunity’ – the same as that which protected Martin McGuinness from prosecution when he admitted to being a former IRA commander during evidence to the Bloody Sunday inquiry.
However, if other evidence emerged elsewhere – such as a DNA breakthrough or a confession – there would be nothing to stop prosecutions.
Yesterday the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said that he was open to discussions about an official Northern Ireland flag – in line with the regional flags for England, Wales and Scotland – but only if there was an acceptance of the Union Flag as the national flag.