Monday, February 2, 2015
PSNI: Back to the Dead End
One strange fact underlying the new Belfast Project subpoena originated by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and served on Boston College by American prosecutors: The PSNI investigative unit that requested the first Boston College subpoenas in 2011 no longer exists, and destroyed itself politically with its sloppy and reckless approach to the past. So now a new police unit seems to be traveling down a road that was a literal dead end for its ruined predecessor, although there are also some questions about which part of the PSNI is managing the new subpoena.
The Historical Enquiries Team (HET), established in 2005, was staffed by contractors – many reportedly drawn from their prior service in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Protestant-dominated police agency replaced by the PSNI. It was the HET that asked for subpoenas of Belfast Project materials in 2011, supposedly as an effort to solve the case of Jean McConville's still-unsolved 1972 kidnapping and murder.
In 2013, a damning report from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary found the HET to be unmoored and adrift, operating in an "absence of coherent and prescriptive policies."
But the police unit tasked with investigating the violent past in Northern Ireland did have some policies, and those weren't better news: "We found that the HET, as a matter of policy, treats deaths where there was state involvement differently from those cases where there is no state involvement."
Its credibility shattered, the HET suddenly discovered last summer that there wasn't enough money in the PSNI's budget anymore to pay for its existence. The team was closed, many of the contractors were let go, and subsequent negotiations in Northern Ireland's government led to a very general agreement that would, among other things, eventually create a new "Historical Inquiries Unit." No one appears to be in a hurry to open that new investigative body, and news reports this week suggest that the PSNI is hoping to get it started in, oh, I don't know, how about a couple years from now?
In the interim, a smaller Legacy Investigations Branch will do the work of the shuttered HET and the proposed HIU. This totally isn't a rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic: The HET and the LIB and the HIU are the same, but totally different. Clear?
So while no one actually knows what the PSNI should really do about killings committed during the Troubles, and the service drifts between different bowls of alphabet soup with no clear plan or intent, someone at the PSNI has decided to throw a new international subpoena (or subpoenas; we don't know) at the past.
By the way, one of the other elements of that same agreement in Northern Ireland that's supposed to lead to a new unit for the investigation of historical crimes: A proposal to create an oral history archive so people can speak honestly about the past. They don't seem to have consciously intended to engage in open farce, but the fact that no one burst into nervous giggling as they offered this alleged proposal suggests the seriousness of the agreement. I mean, what the hell – an oral history archive on the Troubles? What could possibly go wrong? Maybe they could interview Richard O'Rawe.
In any event, this is what the PSNI's press office has been saying in response to news media inquiries regarding new Belfast Project subpoenas: "Detectives in Serious Crime Branch have initiated steps to obtain all the material from Boston College as part of the Belfast Project. This is in line with the PSNI's statutory duty to investigate fully all matters of serious crime, including murder."
So while the LIB winds down the HET and spins up the HIU, the SCB is also apparently doing its own separate investigations into Troubles-era violent crimes. You can feel the thought and planning at work.
An alternative approach would be to slow down and reach a secure and detailed policy agreement about the investigation of the past, but whatever. Judging by the effects of the 2011 subpoenas, there's not much of an outcome to worry about anyway. Although we may end up with some new police acronyms after a few more failed branches of an obviously confused agency.