Justice Minister David Ford has shocked an IRA victim by telling him the much-vaunted new Troubles investigation unit “might at best produce one or two prosecutions”.
Mr Ford has not denied making the comments about the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) last week to Ken Funston, whose brother Ronnie was shot in the back while tending to his cattle on the Fermanagh border in 1984.
Speaking to the News Letter, Mr Funston slammed the now-defunct Historical Enquiries Team (HET) report into his brother’s murder and added that he felt “betrayed” by Mr Ford’s view that the soon-to-be incorporated HIU would offer virtually no hope of justice for his brother.
The Justice Minister’s comments would appear to put him on collision course with the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) and the DUP, which both argue that HIU will offer a substantially better investigative experience for victims than the HET, with full policing powers and access to state documents.
Mr Funston was meeting Mr Ford as advocacy manager for the South East Fermanagh Foundation (SEFF), as part of a victims delegation led by UUP MLA Sandra Overend.
The UUP told the News Letter: “This latest revelation from Mr Ford adds a further and very serious question mark against our ability to support these proposals.”
The minister was asked to comment on the likely prosecution rate which HIU might deliver. He responded that “the HIU might at best produce one or two prosecutions,” Mr Funston said.
Mr Funston told the News Letter: “We were shocked to be totally honest, considering the way this legislation is being trumpeted by the NIO, British Government and by the Assembly – that we are putting a procedure in place giving a lot of victims this hope that there will be a thorough investigation into the death of their loved ones. But the reality is, the whole thing is a sham.”
Looking at the legislation, he believes HIU will be “a box-ticking exercise as far as what innocent victims will get out of the process. There is a hierarchy of victims – and the security forces are at the bottom of it.”
Mr Funston’s brother Ronnie, 28, was tending his cattle on the family’s border Fermanagh farm when he was shot in the back by the IRA in 1984.
“It was ethnic cleansing,” Mr Funston said. “My family had to sell the farm cheap quickly and move away. I know of many similar cases.”
The UUP, which had arranged the victims’ meeting with the minister, fully echoed Mr Funston’s concerns.
“If David Ford is thinking the Historical Investigation Unit (HIU), which will cost in excess of £150m and last at least five years, will produce less than a handful of convictions, that is news to us and we have been engaged in the Stormont House implementation group from the very beginning, receiving and debating several detailed papers from the Department of Justice on the establishment of the HIU,” a UUP spokesman said.
“It calls into question whether the HIU is about delivering justice for victims, or a mechanism for opening old police and security force files to paint the state and its agents as the villains of the Troubles.
“We started the week with serious reservations regarding the Government’s plans for the establishment and working of the HIU. This latest revelation from Mr Ford adds a further and very serious question mark against our ability to support these proposals.”
Kenny Donaldson of the SEFF, who also attended the meeting, said the HIU is “inherently flawed”. “The body needs to be free from political interference, the appointment of the director must be independent of OFMDFM, there must be written into the bill a reciprocal commitment by the ROI government to provide ‘full disclosure’, and there must also be a guarantee that families unhappy with their HET report can have it reviewed by HIU.” The bill must also guarantee that nobody will be immune for their past actions, he added.
A spokesman for Mr Ford confirmed that he did not see HIU getting many prosecutions.
“During a short discussion on the proposed Historical Investigations Unit, the minister said that he wanted the HIU to be as thorough and transparent as possible but it was unlikely that there would be a large number of prosecutions,” the spokesman said. “The minister is conscious that the longer it takes to establish the HIU, the more difficult it is to gather reliable evidence to secure a prosecution.”
It is understood that the HIU will look at around 1,000 murders that had not been reviewed by the HET.
UUP MP Tom Elliott has expressed concern that the NIO is rushing the legislation through Westminster – not the Assembly – without the promised formal public consultation.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly said that the emerging shape of the legislation was not what was agreed in the Stormont House Agreement and was concerned that it would not provide adequate disclosure on the past by the UK government.
In recent days the Alliance Party and DUP told the News Letter they backed moves to put Stormont House Agreement approach to dealing with the past into legislation, including the HIU. However, the UUP, SDLP and Sinn Fein all expressed reservations – at least on the basis that details of the bill were still being finalised during talks.
Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly said the draft legislation so far “doesn’t reflect what was agreed at Stormont House ... particularly around maximum disclosure for families”.
• The DUP, UUP, SDLP and Alliance Party will take questions from victims in the Long Gallery at Stormont on Wednesday night at 7.30. The evening is billed as “Stormont House Agreement – political breakthrough or SHAm?”.
New Troubles unit will be much better than HET: DUP and NIO
The Northern Ireland Office and the DUP have both told the News Letter that the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) will offer much more to Troubles victims than the previous Historical Enquiries Team (HET).
DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said: “Whilst the HET provided information which many families felt was valuable and allowed them some closure about the murder of their loved one, the Historical Investigations Unit can offer a greater prospect of justice which we believe is key for many victims.
“The criminal investigations element of HIU, unlike HET, will have full police powers to investigate deaths and will be bound to examine these cases in a fair and equitable way. This is an enhancement of HET and offers the best prospect of justice. This criminal investigations element will have full police powers of arrest and the right to lawfully question potential witnesses and interrogate suspects. They will also have access to modern evidence gathering techniques. The HIU will complete investigations into those cases that have not previously been the subject of an HET review and will also be able to look again at the earlier cases where new evidential opportunities emerge.
“In addition, the creation of a new body with ring-fenced funding will guarantee the work will continue.”
A Northern Ireland Office spokesman said the key advantages of the HIU over the HET were that it would carry out “a full investigation rather than a review of evidence”, that it would have “policing powers to carry out investigations” and that it would have “access to relevant UK government papers”.
“The commitments made in the Stormont House Agreement provide for the HIU to carry out a full investigation of remaining HET cases, rather than simply a review of evidence.”
Details of how the institutions will work are subject to ongoing multi-party talks, he said. Proposals will be introduced in a bill for scrutiny by Parliament shortly and will be subject to a legislative consent motion in Stormont, he added.