The head of the PSNI has said it was never his intention to hurt anybody by appearing on a panel to talk about dealing with the past alongside Spike Murray.
George Hamilton issued the statement yesterday evening after the News Letter reported that some Troubles victims were upset by his appearance with the Sinn Fein man at Tuesday’s West Belfast Festival (Feile an Phobail) event.
Mr Murray, a former terrorist, had served 12 years in jail over explosives offences.
Also on the panel was loyalist Winston ‘Winkie’ Irvine of the UVF-linked PUP.
Ken Funston from the victims’ campaign group the South East Fermanagh Foundation, told the News Letter it “alarms” victims and survivors to see the PSNI chief constable in such company, and that a number of Troubles victims had rung him to voice their dismay.
Mr Hamilton said: “I have the utmost respect for the families of victims and would never seek to cause offence or be dismissive of their grief and pain.
“I never intended my attendance at the West Belfast Festival to seem disrespectful.
“I took part in the ‘Stuck in the Past’ discussion to outline the challenges facing PSNI in investigating legacy cases.
“Conversations like this really matter – if we want to talk about the future, we need to be ready to talk about our past.
“I will take every opportunity to engage with anyone who has a meaningful contribution to make towards progressing the way ahead to deal with our past.
“I believe that having such conversations help ensure a better future for our children and future generations.
“It’s not easy, but we must do everything we can to provide a safe, peaceful and confident society for the generations to follow.
“Indeed, as chief constable it is my responsibility to have uncomfortable, difficult conversations.
“I recognise that my role is an integral part of building and maintaining the peace but I will not allow that to fetter or restrict my ability as a police officer to enforce the law without fear or favour.”
Mr Hamilton had taken part in a similar event at the West Belfast Festival with former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness in 2015.
He acknowledged people may feel not much progress has been made since then.
During his appearance on Tuesday, he made the striking revelation that the PSNI has 45 million pieces of paper concerning legacy matters.
He also spoke about the inadequacies of the police’s computer system, and the worsening ability of his staff to operate them.
He said: “There are three legacy IT systems that don’t talk to each other, which are not entirely searchable, that the knowledge of even how to use them is disappearing as people leave the organisation.
“We are sitting on mountains of materials, all of which we need to go through.”
The News Letter had also asked the police about what action is being taken to improve these inadequate systems, but it did not address this in the chief constable’s response.