Concerns have been raised that the unit to replace the Historical Enquiries Team could see a closer role for convicted terrorists and former Garda members overseeing probes into Troubles-era terrorist murders.
A Fermanagh terror victims group and the TUV are alarmed that legislation for the new Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) is to be framed at Westminster – with only limited scrutiny by MLAs.
However, the Department of Justice said the Executive leaders back the move and that the Assembly must approve the final legislation.
The Stormont House Agreement (SHA) has proposed the HIU to complete the work of the now defunct Historical Enquiries Team (HET) in reviewing all outstanding Troubles related deaths. The HIU will have full policing powers in such cases. It will also review outstanding Police Ombudsman legacy cases, having equivalent powers to that body in such cases.
It will begin work in two years, the PSNI’s new Legacy Investigations Branch probing cases in the interim.
The SHA says the UK government makes clear that it will make “full disclosure” to the HIU. However, critics have noted HIU will have only “full co-operation” of all relevant Irish authorities, which some believe is a lesser level of accountability.
Kenny Donaldson of Lisnaskea-based South East Fermanagh Foundation, said there appears to have been “a calculated decision taken” to have the HIU shaped by Westminster.
“This will mean that the victims and survivors community would have limited scope to influence legislation which directly impacts their lives,” he said. “One has to ask the question, why?”
Taking the HIU out of the PSNI implies that local police cannot be trusted, he added.
He also raised concerns that the Policing Board, including “former convicted terrorists”, will govern the HIU even more closely than it governed HET, despite potential “major conflicts of interest”. And he fears former RUC and UDR officers will be excluded from working for HIU.
TUV leader Jim Allister said it was “a bizarre arrangement” given that policing and justice are devolved issues. “It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Stormont parties, particularly the DUP, want to be able to claim that their hands are clean when it comes to the legislation.”
The related Stormont Executive implementation group meets “in private” with proceedings “in secret” he said, expressing concern that the legislation could include former Garda officers while excluding former RUC and RIR officers from HIU.
A Department of Justice spokesperson said the decision to pass the legislation through Westminster was agreed by the Stormont Party Leaders Group, which would be faster than Stormont.
“There are aspects of the legislation which relate on a UK-wide basis and as such, would need to be passed through Westminster.”
Key decisions will be taken by party leaders, and scrutiny will be provided by the Justice Committee; the Assembly must approve the legislation for it to come into force.
A DUP spokesman said any HIU legislation will be agreed by the five Executive party leaders.
“Jim [Allister] needs to get up to speed and realise the Haass process did not achieve an agreement therefore what it states is wholly irrelevant,” he said.
“He is referring to an irrelevant document to scaremonger and only achieves causing unnecessary distress, particularly to those innocent victims who have already suffered too much.”
A UUP spokesperson said that as victims no longer have access to the HET, the intention is to pass the enabling legislation for the successor as quickly as possible.
“Parliament rather than the Assembly is the quicker route.
“If Mr Allister has a detailed alternative proposal on how we could pass the required legislation in a timeframe that isn’t a further insult to victims we’ll be glad to hear it.”