Imagine you were launching a new medicine for arthritis and in your application for approval from the FDA you employed as technicians people who had huge numbers of shares in your company and stood to make a fortune if the FDA gave your product a green light, that you only canvassed patients who had reported health improvements and ignored those who had gained no benefit or whose health had suffered from taking your medicine and that when it came to deciding which arthritis sufferers were to be tested financial rewards were given to those who praised your medicine, who were in effect on your side.
Photo: Graffiti attacking the work of the Historical Enquiries Team, Mount Vernon Estate, Shore Road, Belfast. Photo Keresaspa, Wikipedia.
How successful do you think your application to the FDA would be, especially if all these unsavory facts came to light in the course of an outside inspection of your health trials? Not very successful is the answer. In fact the company responsible for such fraudulent testing should be put out of business and the executives responsible punished.
Well, something very similar to that has just happened to the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) in Belfast, a force of mostly retired policemen who were appointed by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to investigate all the violent deaths of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. It was set up to do what the politicians on Northern Ireland has so far failed to agree, which is to set up a mechanism to deal with the past. The reasoning is simple: only when the past is dealt with can the future be built for otherwise the past will keep on coming back to haunt the present.
After years of discontent at the behavior of the HET and an academic study that found that the body was not doing its work in a proper fashion, last week the British Inspectorate of Constabulary issued its own report and it was a damning indictment. In fact the report, which can be accessed in full here is eloquent testimony to the mistake of getting people who were responsible for some of the violence to investigate the violence.
The principal conclusion of the report comes in this devastating sentence: "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." In other words, incidents in which the victims were killed by the British (and the report deals only with British Army caused deaths) are investigated less rigorously than where the perpetrators were paramilitaries like the IRA.
All sorts of biases were built into the HET structure and modus operandi to achieve this result, the gravest of which was the employment of former RUC Special Branch officers by the HET to supply the body with the intelligence it needed to do its work. The Special Branch became notorious for manipulating intelligence operations in such a way that agents were often given a carte blanche to commit murder, as happened in the case of the killing of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane. The killers were given official protection, other police inquiries were obstructed and culprits were not brought to justice. Readers interested in this should get hold of this book.
This is how the HET justified its double standards:
"HET maintains it is not appropriate to compare the review processes in military cases with reviews of murders committed by terrorists. Soldiers were deployed on the streets of Northern Ireland in an official and lawful capacity, bound by laws of the UK and military Standard Operating Procedures of that time."
To which extraordinary statement, one is tempted to ask, "Yeah, go tell the victims of Bloody Sunday that."
In other words the HET from the outset regarded all military killings as lawful by virtue of the fact that the killers were in uniform. Although the RUC was not included in this report, one must presume that the HET will regard police killings in the same light. This approach meant that the only body charged with investigating NI's violent past started on the assumption that crimes were only committed by paramilitaries and not by the state, even though the facts and a community's 40-year experience says otherwise.
The HET gave soldiers preferential treatment compared to others it investigated. If a soldier suspected of involvement in a killing wanted to avoid being questioned by the HET all he or she needed to do was report in sick. The HET never investigated whether the sickness was real. When the HET questioned paramilitaries, they did so under criminal caution, i.e., the person could be charged. When it questioned soldiers, there was no caution. Former RUC officers were sometimes put in charge of investigations of incidents involving military perpetrators, even though the rules said they couldn't. In one case the RUC was a friend of the original investigating detective. The HET referred several dozen cases to the PSNI for criminal investigation but not one involved a British soldier. And so on.
The lesson from the report on the HET is that this attempt to investigate the past operates by double standards. That is an important issue for myself. Over the past two years and more I have been fighting a well-resourced and well-financed attempt by the PSNI to obtain the IRA files lodged in the Boston College archive. The way the British have gone about this is in direct contrast with the sloppy and half-hearted efforts by the HET to investigate state killings during The Troubles. When it comes to offences committed by the IRA, there are no stops pulled; when it comes to crimes carried out by British soldiers, nothing happens. Irish-America needs to makes its voice heard on this issue and demand from the U.S. government that it pressure the British to convene an independent, international inquiry into Northern Ireland's past.
In the meantime I can recommend these two articles for those interested in knowing how the HET's inbuilt bias actually affected individuals and their families:
Supreme Court Rules Against Belfast Project Plea (WG, April 17, 2013)