The successor to the HET will continue its work for as long as it needs to, despite its stated aim of finishing after just five years.
That is according to DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, who said the new Historic Investigations Unit (HIU) will be better-equipped than the HET ever was to probe the litany of Troubles murders before it.
In addition to replacing the HET – which had the job of reviewing thousands of unsolved killings – this new body will also take on the Police Ombudsman’s “legacy work”.
Asked if five years is a long enough time to complete such a task, Mr Donaldson said: “It may or may not be – we just can’t be sure at this stage. But what is clear is that no case will be left unfinished.
“The HIU will continue its work until it has reviewed all of the murder cases.”
The plan to create the HIU is part of the recent Stormont House Agreement, which aims to resolve many of Northern Ireland’s outstanding problems around justice, cultural expression and finances.
The document says: “In order to ensure expeditious investigations, the HIU should aim to complete its work within five years of its establishment.”
But Mr Donaldson said this is a “target”, not a limit.
Asked if the HIU could continue for 10 or even 15 years, he said: “Who knows? This will go where the evidence leads, and if it takes longer for the HIU to complete their work then so be it.”
He added: “We’re absolutely clear, as are the other parties, that they will not complete their work until all the cases have been examined.
“It takes as long as it takes.”
Mr Donaldson said: “It has full powers of investigation – full police powers. The HET didn’t have that.
“The HET could undertake a review of a case, but it had no powers of arrest or powers of full investigation.
“[The HIU] can arrest suspects they believe may have been involved in a murder and they can have access to all records and forensic materials in pursuit of their investigations.
“So effectively they have the same powers as the PSNI in terms of investigating unsolved murders. That was not the case with HET.”
Asked about staffing levels, he said it was “early days”, and funding too needs to be worked out.
In addition to stronger powers, Mr Donaldson said the Irish government have agreed to co-operate fully with the HIU in providing information or access to records relating to Northern Irish investigations, adding this is “absolutely” an improvement on the situation with the HET.