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Those involved in the Troubles should not be part of investigating unresolved deaths

The proposed Historical Investigations Unit must be entirely independent in order to give justice to victims.

Image: PA

“I WOULD LIKE answers. I want to know first and foremost if she was an informant why her handlers didn’t step in and protect her… Ultimately I just want to be able to give my mummy a voice and turn her back into Caroline Moreland, my mummy, and not Caroline Moreland, the IRA informant.”

These are the words of Shauna Moreland, Caroline’s daughter, in a BBC Spotlight programme dealing with the abduction, interrogation and murder of a young mother of three by the IRA in 1994, broadcast last Monday. The UK state is implicated in this IRA killing, not just because if Caroline Moreland was an informant her handlers failed to protect her, but also because the notorious British agent “Stakeknife” may have been a leader of the squad that executed her.

This must be an entirely independent investigation 

This is exactly the kind of case that is meant to be dealt with by the new Historical Investigations Unit, proposed under the Stormont House Agreement. In some cases the Unit might bring justice, in some new information. In all cases it will put the victim at the heart of the story. But there is one catch – unless the new Unit is fully independent of those that were involved in the conflict it will do more harm than good, finally destroying the faith of victims and survivors that the state will ever allow them answers.

The UK state has never yet taken seriously its duty to investigate properly unresolved deaths during the conflict. In 2001, in reference to a number of cases brought by CAJ and others, the European Court of Human Rights demanded independent, prompt, effective and transparent investigations. The UK responded with a “package of measures” which has failed to meet that legal requirement. In 2008 the UN Human Rights Committee urged the UK to conduct:

“As a matter of particular urgency given the passage of time, independent and impartial inquiries in order to ensure a full, transparent and credible account of the circumstances surrounding violations of the right to life in Northern Ireland.”

So abject has been the failure that CAJ believes there has been a deliberate policy of cover-up which has led us to call the current approach an “apparatus of impunity.” Last year Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner on Human Rights, warned the UK government that it could not “wash its hands” of investigations of human rights violations, adding that “until now there has been virtual impunity for the state actors involved.”

A new chance for truth and justice for victims

Now the Stormont House Agreement, which involved the Northern Ireland parties and the UK and Irish Governments, provides victims with a new chance for truth and justice. It proposes the establishment of a “new independent body to take forward investigations into outstanding Troubles-related deaths.”

The problem is that the Agreement is vague and its ability to meet the needs of victims and broader society depends upon the legislation drafted to implement it. For this reason, CAJ, academics and individual experts have drafted a model implementation bill with a view to influencing the official drafting. In our “shadow” bill we explore in the necessary level of detail how the past-related elements of the Stormont House Agreement could be implemented in a way that would be human rights compliant. We decided to put forward practical proposals, within the parameters of the Agreement, rather than producing what we would think of as a perfect model.

The independence of the new body is the paramount consideration. As things stand, the body responsible for disclosing official documents to inquests and other investigations is the PSNI’s Legacy Support Unit. Key figures in this Unit are former RUC Special Branch officers and there have been extraordinary delays in the production of intelligence and other sensitive material. RUC Special Branch, together with MI5 and secret military units, were responsible for running a “dirty war” in the North for 30 years.

More and more cases like that of Catherine Moreland are coming to light where both paramilitaries and the state bear some responsibility for deaths. Unresolved murders cannot be easily divided into “paramilitary” and “state involvement” cases – many were both.

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Those involved in the conflict should not be trusted to investigate it 

Because of all this, our shadow bill provides that those who served with the RUC or in British military regiments which operated in the North should be excluded from any role in the new Historical Investigation Unit, as should anyone who had any involvement with illegal armed organisations.

We have made this point to the UN Human Rights Committee which is this year investigating the UK under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman operates a similar exclusion policy in relation to ex-RUC members for its legacy work and this is a central element of its independence.

A criminal investigation is a complex business and all must at every stage be independent of those who are under investigation or who may come into the frame during the process. Those who sift and edit documents are a key part of the process. The new Unit must be able to take control of the evidence directly, using staff with no connection to alleged perpetrators, and without having to go through the tainted Legacy Support Unit.

Otherwise, the new arrangement will be compromised from the start. Victims and survivors, people like Shauna Moreland, need a new and effective investigation unit – not yet another betrayal.

Brian Gormally is Director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), Northern Ireland’s leading human rights NGO.

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