Retired police officers have welcomed an apparent DUP commitment that no former RUC members should face investigation for ‘non criminal misconduct’.
A UK government legacy proposal, based on the Stormont House Agreement, would have left police alone subject to such investigations.
The probes would have been applicable in allegations against the RUC, even without evidence pointing to criminal conduct or breaches of existing legislation. The controversial plan angered many former officers, victims’ groups and politicians such as in the UUP.
There had been long-standing concern, including among contributors to the News Letter Legacy Scandal series of essays, that the DUP had not taken a tough enough line in opposing the new legacy proposals, which also include the creation of new Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) with full police powers.
However, speaking at the DUP’s manifesto launch in Belfast on Thursday, party leader Arlene Foster moved to allay fears. In her party’s hardest-hitting rejection to date of aspects of the legacy plan, Mrs Foster said the main focus should be on those who killed 90% of the Troubles victims, and on getting truth and justice for those victims’ families.
In response to a question from the News Letter about the DUP legacy stance, she said: “We are very clear that any historical investigations unit should not have the power to look at non criminal actions by former police officers.
“The ombudsman does not have the power to do that, why in heaven’s name would any unit that was constructed have the power to do that?”
The chair of the NI Retired Police Officers’ Association (NIRPOA), Ray Fitzsimons, said: “We welcome the statement from Mrs Foster this, morning in response to the question from the News Letter, and we look forward to further discussion with the DUP leadership.”
However, Mr Fitzsimons added: “There are further assurances we are seeking in relation to legacy issues.”
A number of unionist representatives and political commentators have expressed concerns in recent days that new legislation – including the creation of the HIU and the offence of ‘non criminal police misconduct’ – will be fast-tracked through Parliament.
The NIRPOA has also previously spoken out against the new Historical Investigations Unit with full police powers, as has the Police Federation for Northern Ireland.
Writing in the News Letter earlier this month, federation chair Mark Lindsay described the government’s legacy bill as “toxic and unacceptable”.
He said: “The proposed legislation has the potential to put officers in the dock and demonise them for how they policed Northern Ireland during a vicious and protracted terrorist campaign.”
Mr Lindsay added: “In our evidence [to the NI Affairs Committee], we told MPs that the legacy bill was perverse because it sought to equate the actions of murderers and bombers with the actions of those who worked tirelessly and courageously to bring them to justice and create the conditions for peace.”
This week, Ulster Unionist peer Sir Reg Empey said the sweeping powers of the HIU would be “used for a witch hunt” of former members of the security forces.
He said: “I appeal to the DUP to abandon the idea of a parallel police force to carry out such investigations.
“The DUP has now moved its position to have a UK-wide body to do this. That is just as wrong as having it confined to Northern Ireland.”
Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie said: “The proposed new charge of non criminal misconduct against RUC officers – even deceased officers — will allow reputations to be destroyed, even though no criminal offence has been committed.”
Also addressing the NI Affairs Committee earlier this month, former assistant chief constable Chris Albiston, said: “We do not see any mention anywhere of non-criminal politicians’ misconduct or non-criminal civil servants’ misconduct or non-criminal military misconduct, or non-criminal terrorist misconduct, so why mention non-criminal police misconduct?
“Because the legislation has been drafted to satisfy the agenda of a particular political grouping within Northern Ireland, and we object to it.”
The DUP response to the government’s consultation on legacy last year raised concerns about the police misconduct element, but was less emphatic than Mrs Foster’s comments yesterday.
That submission said: “Investigations into retired officers should be for criminal behaviour. It would be an overhaul of established practice for civilians to be pursued for alleged disciplinary matters as public servants, when retired or deceased. Retired officers deserve the same protections to ensure procedural fairness as anyone else. They should be entitled to independent legal advice.”
The submission added: “There is no detail on what government is intending to capture under the term, non-criminal police misconduct, referenced liberally throughout the consultation documents. However a host of offences are already available on the statute books for significant misconduct.”
Addressing the New Letter’s question on legacy at the manifesto launch yesterday, Mrs Foster said: “We will not support anything in a legacy legislation that will damage innocent victims or cause them re-trauma.”
She also said: “On a very fundamental and basic level why would we impose something on the victims here, the innocent victims, which they didn’t support? And we will not be supporting something that innocent victims do not support as a way forward, that is a very fundamental point for us and something which we continue to talk to innocent victims about and as you have referenced the police.”
Mrs Foster said she will continue to engage with the NIROPA and other stakeholders . “It is important to emphasise 90% of those who lost their lives lost their lives as a result of paramilitarism and therefore we should be concentrating in how we get to the truth about those issues, and that is very important for us as well.”
Mrs Foster’s comments on legacy were warmly applauded by party members.
l Morning View: DUP clarity on RUC legacy is welcome