State cases form vast bulk of PPS legacy referrals

There 'must be a change' in the approach of the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) o ver the disproportionate number of state-related cases it is asking police to look at, an erstwhile MLA has said.

Saturday, 11th February 2017, 10:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 1st March 2017, 9:23 am

Peter Weir, a qualified barrister who was a DUP MLA for North Down until the Assembly was dissolved this month and is standing again in Strangford, suggested that fresh statistics about the PPS’ work form part of a “growing body of evidence” that the security forces are being overly scrutinised when it comes to Troubles-era crimes.

He was speaking after a News Letter analysis of the data. Last week a Press Association report led with the fact that just six out of 18 cases which the PPS had asked police to investigate in recent years concerned alleged crimes by state forces. However half of those 18 cases were nothing to do with legacy issues, and are irrelevant to the debate on any possible imbalance with regard to the past.

Concentrating solely at the nine cases which do involve legacy matters shows that six are focussed directly on the state, and another three are connected to Stakeknife – an IRA man-turned-informer, believed to have been former Belfast man Freddie Scappaticci (something he denies).

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In other words, at least two-thirds – and perhaps all – of the nine legacy cases relate to some kind of potential wrongdoing by the state.

There have been concerns from observers including the moderate pro-Union politician Trevor Ringland that the Stakeknife probe is primarily focused on potential state wrongdoing instead of focusing on the leaders of one of the IRA’s most murderous units, its security squad.

This concern persists despite subsequent assurances by the policeman in charge of it that he will go where the evidence take him, including against the IRA if need be.

The legacy figures all cover the period since 2011, when Barra McGrory took over as the Director of Public Prosecutions. All cases here stem from referrals which were made to the PPS by others who believed they had come across possible evidence of a crime.

In turn, the PPS looked at the evidence, and then asked police to find out more and report back to them.

This action by the PPS is known as a “35.5 request” (although it is actually an order, since police must do as asked).

Questioned about the fact the list – set out in detail in the story below – is skewed heavily towards alleged state crimes, the PPS said not all matters which are raised with the PPS require them to ask police to become involved.

“This may be because the matter is already under investigation by the chief constable; the matter has been exhaustively investigated previously and no new evidential opportunities are available; or it is considered that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that an offence may have been committed,” it said.

“Many of the referrals come from the attorney general or coroner in the context of a request for an inquest, or in relation to evidence which has been provided to a hearing.

“Should the director in his consideration of the evidence make a decision not to request information from the chief constable or to initiate a prosecution, the attorney general or coroner can progress proceedings.”

Reacting to the PPS’ comments, Peter Weir said: “There is a growing body of evidence which demonstrates a one-sided approach to dealing with the past.

“During the troubles 10% of deaths can be attributed to the state, but once again we see that the vast majority of investigative effort is focused on these... There must be a change to the current system where referrals from the DPP to police are so focused on the actions of the state.”

A separate set of figures, released by the PPS on January 30, dealt with decisions taken to prosecute Troubles-cases, as opposed to decisions to ask police to investigate. Since November 2011 (when Mr McGrory took up post), the PPS opted to prosecute seven Troubles-related cases linked to republicans, three linked to loyalists, and two involving the military.

Roughly 3,700 have people died in Troubles violence.

Republican paramilitaries killed around 2,100 people (around 60%), loyalists killed around 1,100 people (about 30%), the Army and SAS together killed around 300 people (8% of the total, just over half of them civilians), the RUC killed roughly 50 (1%, also about half civilians), and the UDR killed eight. Of all the dead, the biggest single group killed were civilians, almost 2,100 deaths, the great majority Catholic.


Most of the nine cases which the PPS decided should be passed to police came from other arms of the justice system. They were:

• The Attorney General John Larkin. He had referred the Army killing of civilian John Pat Cunningham in 1974 to the PPS following an HET review of the file. One man is being prosecuted in relation to this case.

The Attorney General also referred two other military shooting deaths – those of James John Bell in 1980 and Aidan McAnespie in 1988; they were also civilians. A “preliminary examination” of these cases has been undertaken by the PSNI.

• Police Ombudsman. He referred two Stakeknife-related cases to the PPS, concerning “paramilitary and possible state offences”. These are being investigated by Bedfordshire Police.

• The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which is responsible for investigating potential miscarriages of justice. It referred a case concerning possible perjury to the PPS, following an HET investigation. There are few other details about this case. The PSNI are investigating.

• The Court of Appeal. It made a referral to the PPS based on the quashing of convictions for false imprisonment. The PPS said Bedfordshire Police are now leading an investigation into a “failure to disclose possible role of Stakeknife to investigating police” in the case.

The Court of Appeal also referred a case to the PPS concerning the “withholding, concealment and destruction of surveillance evidence”, linked to an incident in the Lurgan area – something now being investigated by Scottish police. Both of these referrals followed reviews by he CCRC.

• The other case which the PPS asked police to investigate arose from a BBC investigation into the Military Reaction Force in 2013. Ex-members of this unit admitted to killing unarmed civilians in the early ‘70s. The BBC has reported 18 people were thought to have been shot by the unit, two fatally. PSNI is investigating.

With nine cases in all having been passed to police since 2011, the PPS was asked how many referrals it had received in total for potential offences which could have been considered for police investigation; broken down by state crimes, and by republican crimes.

It said it did not collate these statistics, but added that each case “is considered solely on the evidence provided, fairly and impartially”.