After prolonged investigations by the News Letter – in part dating back to 2006 – the PSNI has revealed that it has around 3,000 Troubles-related weapons which can potentially be tested for DNA evidence as part of legacy investigations.
The sheer volume of the weapons and the admission of continued viability of DNA testing on them prompted calls for a public inquiry, with some beleaguered campaigners having fought battles for decades for active investigations into the murder of their loved ones.
Kenny Donaldson, spokesman for Innocent Victims United, said: “The volume of weapons held by the PSNI is very substantial and many people will be surprised by the disclosure that around 3,000 weapons exist and are available as part of the legacy investigative process.”
In October then chief constable George Hamilton said that only 4% of outstanding Troubles murders could be solved because so many weapons had been decommissioned.
This prompted the News Letter to reopen the story of how the Forensic Service of NI (FSNI) had revealed in 2006 that it had “a container load” of Troubles weapons – and that it was confident of being able to exploit them forensically for prosecutions. A senior FSNI official made the boast to the Duke of York during a Royal visit to their headquarters in March 2006 which the News Letter attended.
The official said the technology then existed to allow them to test the weapons for DNA, screen out irrelevant DNA, and to tie the weapons to suspects via familial DNA links.
Since then the News Letter has persistently asked where the “container load of weapons” went and whether they were ever DNA tested.
Inquiries have seen a secretary of state quizzed face-to-face as well as the PSNI, Historical Enquiries Team and various other prominent politicians pressed for answers.
A criminal prosecution for the Omagh bomb fell through in 2007 due to concerns about relying on trace amounts of DNA.
However, since then other UK forces have confirmed FSNI’s 2006 boast that they had the ongoing viability to screen out irrelevant DNA and even to take DNA from sweat which has soaked inside guns.
The FSNI has confirmed to the News Letter this week that both these techniques are still technically viable to use in 2019 in the context of Troubles legacy. The PSNI has also confirmed that the 3000 weapons give potential DNA examination opportunities. Last year a 35-year-old man was convicted after police found his DNA on a 9mm pistol in Carrickfergus in 2017.
The admissions from FSNI and the PSNI came as the News Letter was about to publish a story highlighting that the FSNI had been unable to give any detail under the Freedom of Information Act on the volume or type of weapons it held during its Royal presentation in 2006.
UUP MLA Doug Beattie asked if DNA tests on the weapons might link them to politicians. “However politically inconvenient such an outcome might be, that is no excuse for not carrying these tests out,” he added.
IVU spokesman Mr Dondaldson said the news raises many new questions.
“The volume of weapons held by the PSNI is very substantial and many people will be surprised by the disclosure that around 3,000 weapons exist and are available as part of the legacy investigative process,” he said.
“Many will also question the previously bleak outlook painted by DOJ and the PSNI concerning future prosecutions given the clear ability to DNA test these weapons”.
Calling for a public inquiry, he asked if government has sought to “subvert the criminal justice system for reasons of political expediency?”.
In October ACC George Clarke flatly denied there was ever a “container load of weapons” and would only go so far as to confirm that the PSNI held “some” guns.
“There is no container full of weapons held by FSNI nor was there such a container in 2006,” he said. “FSNI did have in their possession at that time, for storage purposes only, some weapons which had been seized by PSNI over a number of years.”
But Mr Clarke told the News Letter last night that, in fact, police hold 3,000 relevant weapons.
One source in the victims sector responded: “3,000 weapons would constitute a substantial container load.”
Mr Clarke said that the PSNI Legacy Investigations Branch has over 1,100 investigations which relate to over 1,400 deaths during the Troubles. “These cases are reviewed in accordance with our case sequencing model,” he said.
“As each of these cases is reviewed, professional advice is obtained as to any current forensic opportunities which might exist using contemporary scientific methods in addition to any previous testing carried out. This includes the potential for DNA examination of related exhibits, which would include weapons connected to the investigation, for example by ballistic evidence.
“As was confirmed in our statement last year, the weapons held by FSNI in 2006, are now held by the PSNI and are available for examination in course of LIB enquiries. PSNI hold around 3,000 weapons. When recovered these weapons would have been tested to the standards of the time; as cases are reviewed the application of today’s scientific techniques is considered.”