A former police chief tasked with investigating Troubles crimes has expressed hope that controversial legacy legislation can be amended to gain support from victims’ families.
Jon Boutcher, who heads an independent cold-case initiative called Operation Kenova, that is investigating a series of killings from the conflict, told MPs that the Government was open to talking about potential changes.
The former Bedfordshire chief constable has received broad support from the victims’ sector in Northern Ireland for the approach he and his team have taken in examining historical killings.
Giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Mr Boutcher said victims were concerned that a review of unsolved crimes planned in draft Government legislation would be “superficial” and not proactively seek fresh information.
Families are concerned, and I understand this concern, that their cases will be looked at superficially, that only the readily available information will be considered
Former chief constable Jon Boutcher
The Government’s contentious legacy Bill is currently going through Parliament.
It proposes a new approach to dealing with the conflict, with more focus on truth recovery rather than criminal justice.
Its most controversial aspects are the promise of immunity from prosecution for perpetrators who agree to provide information to a new truth body, and a move to end conflict-related civil cases and inquests.
Mr Boutcher said without changes to the Bill he was concerned it would turn into “a shop that no-one’s going to visit”.
Under the plans, unsolved cases would be subject to reviews undertaken by a new Independent Commission for Reconciliation and Information Recovery (ICRIR).
Mr Boutcher said the Government needed to provide more detail on what the reviews would entail.
“Families are concerned, and I understand this concern, that their cases will be looked at superficially, that only the readily available information will be considered,” he said.
“There won’t be the active seeking out of lines of inquiry and the robust recovery of material that’s held with the intelligence agencies previously that was kept within those agencies and not shared even with inquiries post-conflict and the Troubles.
“That needs to be set out in straightforward simple language so those families know they are going to get a review or investigation, call it what you will, that will make sure that every possible line of inquiry has been explored for them to understand what happened to their loved ones.”
Mr Boutcher said the Government may seek to claim that an intensive reinvestigation process could take decades. He described that as “poppycock and nonsense”.
“We’ve got tried and tested processes that gather information very quickly,” he said of Kenova’s working practices.
The long-serving officer added: “I would want the Bill to be acceptable to the victims’ groups and the interested parties. I think the Bill does need to have some amendments which the NIO assured me they are keen to talk to me and others about.
“I think all efforts should be made by everybody to try and work to amend this Bill to something that could receive broad consensus.”
Mr Boutcher also told MPs that the Bill was “silent” on the delays inherent within the justice system in Northern Ireland, as he said that progress on Operation Kenova was being held up by a lengthy wait for prosecutors to review more than 30 evidence files.
“What isn’t in the Bill, and needs to be in the Bill, is clarity around the criminal justice process and the efficiency and effectiveness of the timing of that,” he said.
“I don’t think the director of public prosecutions (Stephen Herron) would disagree with me that it’s not acceptable that decisions take so long.”
PSNI deputy chief constable Mark Hamilton told committee members that the police would not offer an opinion on policy choices made by the Government.
However, he highlighted that the Bill set out an approach that was significantly different from the current model.
“Our work has been founded solely upon trying to follow the investigative principles as enshrined in the European Convention (on human rights) and also then the various and numerous deliberations of many courts over the years,” he told MPs.
“In reading this Bill, obviously it declares at the outset that it’s about limiting legal proceedings, it’s about limiting criminal investigations, it’s about limiting police complaints. That is a departure from the current arrangements.
“It talks about conditional immunity, which obviously doesn’t exist in the current arrangements where the police service is concerned.”
Stormont’s Justice Minister Naomi Long also gave evidence to the committee.
She criticised the content of the Bill and also the Government’s bid to hasten its journey on to the statute book.
“The speed with which the Bill is being pushed through Parliament risks not only creating bad law, but further undermining confidence in the whole process,” she said.
On the Bill’s objectives, she noted that all Stormont’s parties were opposed to them.
“These new proposals are fundamentally flawed and an irresponsible interference with the justice system,” she said.