TWENTY years on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement over one third of killings carried out in Northern Ireland during the Troubles are still being investigated by police, The Detail can reveal.
There were over 3,200 homicides in Northern Ireland from January 1969 to the signing of the agreement on April 10 1998, while hundreds more people were killed elsewhere in violence linked to the conflict.
New figures obtained by The Detail show that 1,186 of the Northern Ireland deaths are still part of the caseload of the Legacy Investigation Branch (LIB) of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The figures represent an increase on numbers reported last year.
Former Church of Ireland Primate Lord Robin Eames, previously co-chair of the Northern Ireland Consultative Group on the Past, told The Detail: “The police facing these ongoing enquiries are trying to unravel things that happened years ago.
“Where evidence is possible they’re prosecuting, where evidence is possible they are following it up, but in many cases the trail is cold and so they have still on their books this percentage of cases and they’ve been unable to get them further.”
The latest PSNI figures form part of a report by The Detail examining the backlog of legacy cases currently being dealt with by various agencies across Northern Ireland. This also includes:
- 53 legacy inquests with the Coroners Service (these cases relate to 94 deaths).
- 27 legacy files actively being considered by the Attorney General’s office.
- 165 historical matters currently under investigation by the Police Ombudsman’s office, where a further 258 such cases are pending.
Lord Eames added: “First of all you have to relate that fact to the whole issue of what the legacy problem is.
“People look for justice. One person will expect to see somebody in the dock accused of a particular crime. Somebody will say that’s justice.
“Somebody else will argue ‘I simply want to know what happened’ and the third person doesn’t really know what they want. We also have to acknowledge many of the victims of those years are passing on.
“What Denis Bradley and I said in our report all those years ago is that it’s one thing to investigate crimes to get a prosecution, it’s another to realise that as time goes on and time passes, much of those enquiries will have to be centred on simply ‘what do we know happened all those years ago.’
“It’s a question of, do you keep those investigations going after all these years or do you simply say, ‘this is part of our history, and there is nothing we can do about it?’”
But he added: “That is the opinion that many people are forming at the moment and it is very frustrating for relatives and victims. I know many of those people and I can share some of their sheer frustration.”
LEGACY INVESTIGATION BRANCH
Of the 1,186 killings that the PSNI’s Legacy Investigation Branch is assessing:
- 45.5% are attributed to republican paramilitaries.
- 23% are attributed to loyalist paramilitaries.
- 28.5% are attributed to the security forces.
- For the remaining 3% of deaths, the background of those primarily responsible is unknown.
An IRA bomb exploded during a Remembrance Sunday ceremony in Enniskillen in November 1987, just over ten years prior to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The events which led to the bombing and its aftermath form part of the police’s current legacy caseload.
Despite ten arrests being made in relation to the bombing, nobody has ever been convicted in connection with the attack.
The bomb killed eleven people initially. A twelfth victim died in December 2000 after spending 13 years in a coma. 63 others were injured.
One of the 63 was Jim Dixon. He was 49 when the bombing occurred and married with three daughters.
He told The Detail: “It was the nastiest operation that the IRA ever conceived. I was on the operating table for 27 hours. I survived against all odds. My life has been a living hell for 32 years.
“My skull factured like an eggshell. The eye sockets in my skull disintegrated into my head, the roof of my mouth was blown out.
“My right hand jaw was missing from my chin to my ear. I had nine ribs broken and two hips smashed.
“My pelvis was broken and my leg badly smashed. I wasn’t really a candidate for living.
“I have had three operations this year. I had my 41st operation about three weeks ago. The worst operation I ever had was the one before that. They took the bone from my hip and put it into the roof of my mouth.
“I can’t swallow. I have to suck my food. My tongue is 80% paralysed.
“Every day is a living hell for me but if an IRA man came to my home, I would treat him as a friend. I would give him the gospel because I don’t want him to go to hell.”
Mr Dixon concluded: “For the most part, the politicians see the injured as an embarrassment. They don’t want anything to do with them.”
GRIDLOCK OVER LEGACY INQUESTS
Of the 94 deceased who make up the legacy inquests being dealt with by the Coroners Service, The Detail has found:
- 60% were civilians who were not members of paramilitary organisations, 33% were members of republican paramilitary groups, 3% were involved in loyalist paramilitarism and 4% were members of the RUC.
- 81% were Catholic and 19% were Protestant.
- 55% were killed by state forces, 28% were killed by loyalists and 17% were killed by republicans.
- Nine of the killings occurred after the Good Friday Agreement was signed but are still considered legacy cases by the Coroners Service due to their political nature.
The British and Irish governments, together with Stormont politicians, have failed to implement a system for effectively dealing with the past.
This impasse has meant that Troubles-related cases are being dealt with by various agencies of the Department of Justice, the Coroners Service being one.
Some unionist politicians have described these coroner-led inquests as a ‘witch-hunt’ against former security force personnel.
Arlene Foster previously stated: “The focus on the state has been an attempt to rewrite history and blame the state, while in reality the vast majority of murders were as a result of terrorist activity… I totally oppose the current one-sided focus on what the state did.”
Her party’s decision to oppose the release of funding to deal with legacy inquests, in the absence of a wider agreement on dealing with the past, was rejected by the High Court in Belfast, prompting calls for the UK government to step in.
Of the ‘witch-hunt’ allegation, Paul O’Connor from the Pat Finucane Centre argued: “Only four soldiers have been convicted of shooting civilians while on duty in Northern Ireland, in circumstances where the courts ruled they were guilty of murder, and all four were freed after just five years of their life sentences.
“In stark contrast, tens of thousands of republicans and loyalists have spent time in jails during the Troubles, totalling an estimated 100,000 years. Compare this with the total of 20 years served by military personnel and what we are seeing now hardly amounts to a witch-hunt.”
Raymond McCord has long campaigned on behalf of his son, Raymond Jr, who was killed by the loyalist UVF in north Belfast in 1997.
A 2007 PONI (Police Ombudsman Northern Ireland) report found state collusion played a role in the death. The case forms part of the legacy inquest backlog.
Mr McCord dismissed claims that these inquests were disproportionately directed at the security forces.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “I’m from the unionist community so I have a right to say that. I have a right to say it because my son was murdered and I have a right to say it because the state covered it up.
“Every time you get somewhere, the state, and I emphasise that, the state, puts up another brick wall for you to knock down, and that’s what it has been for over 20 years.
“I’ve met a lot of families from the Roman Catholic community – and I hate saying that ‘Roman Catholic’, it should be the victims’ community – who are great friends of mine, who I would never have met, only for the tragedy they suffered and the tragedy my family suffered too. “
He added: “I would love to see more unionist families coming out and speaking out. For myself, from the unionist community, there is a stigma attached to me as if you are betraying the state and you’re betraying unionism.
“Very few Protestant families speak out for fear that it could happen to another member of their family or themselves.
“I have seen what happens. I’ve got dozens of threat letters delivered to me by the police. There’ve been attempts made on my life, I’ve had to move house several times. I can’t go out walking like ordinary people do. I can’t walk through unionist communities.
“That comes with it, so I can understand families from the Protestant community not doing it.
“Victims have been used as bargaining chips. The people who were active, the murderers, both loyalist and republican, and security force people as well, they’ve got great concerns about the truth. They don’t want it out.”
HISTORICAL OMBUDSMAN INVESTIGATIONS
The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (PONI) was established as part of an overhaul of justice launched after the 1998 accord. The office was to handle new complaints against police, but it also has a heavy caseload of historical cases.
The office cited money and resources as a stumbling block to dealing with such issues.
PONI stated: “Funding limitations impact on the number of investigators available for our historical work.
“There are 25 investigators and five members of support staff within our Historical Investigations Team.
“It is not possible to simultaneously investigate all the historical matters which have been brought to us. As a result, we have a prioritisation policy which informs the sequence in which matters progress to investigation.
“We have a historical caseload of 423 complaints or referrals, chiefly relating to murders which occurred in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
“165 of these matters are currently under active investigation within a total of 25 investigations. Ten of those are ‘thematic investigations’, which together concern allegations about the conduct of members of the RUC in relation to around 200 murders.
“These include murders allegedly perpetrated by the loyalist ‘Glenanne Gang’ and those committed by the UDA in south Belfast and the northwest - including the Sean Graham’s bookies murders and Greysteel.
“We are also investigating police actions in relation to murders by republican paramilitaries, including the murder of police officers.
“The remaining 15 investigations relate to single incidents. Included among these cases are a number in which our enquiries are complete and we are now in the process of drafting public statements.
“The remaining 258 matters are currently awaiting investigation. We are also continuing to receive, on average, around 60 new historical complaints each year.”
One of these cases awaiting investigation is that of Thomas McErlean. Thomas was 20 years old when he was murdered in the infamous attack on mourners in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery in March 1988 by Michael Stone.
Two other men also died; Thomas Murray and IRA member Caoimhín Mac Brádaigh.
The events transpired just over 30 years ago, ten years before the Good Friday Agreement was signed.
Thomas McErlean’s sister, Debbie McGuinness, spoke with The Detail about her brother and his case.
She said: “My mummy and daddy ran a fruit stall which Thomas helped out at. He was also working for the ACE (Action for Community Employment) scheme in Divis flats. They were training him up.
“He was a real family man who just loved his two boys and his wife Anna. Both the boys were like miniature versions of their daddy. Tucker was two and Stephen would have been one.
“There was very little between all of them. I think Anna was three months pregnant with Lindsay when Thomas died.
“Thomas was always a very witty person and a bit of a joker but very caring. He loved animals. He once took a rabbit in from outside and took it into his bed because he was worried that it was cold.
“He was just moving on with his life with his young family. He was just settling down.”
Mrs McGuinness pointed out that it was her mother who previously did most of the work on Thomas’ case.
“Both my parents have since passed on and my mummy was the main campaigner. She was a very clever woman who knew a lot of people and she met a lot of people through her efforts to find out more information about Thomas’ murder.
“She knew people everywhere. She did this for 24 years. I think that’s typical of a lot of families of victims who were murdered during the Troubles.
“Their parents were the ones who fought on their behalf and a lot of that generation are now dead. We are now finding it is passing down the generations.
“We just want closure. We want our questions answered; where did Stone get the gun, how did he know the police weren’t going to be there, who was in that white van?
“There are still no answers and there are a lot of questions. I believe there was collusion.”
Thomas was at the funeral of the three IRA members killed by the SAS in Gibraltar when he was murdered.
On this, Mrs McGuinness commented: “There was a stigma attached to us because Thomas was killed at that funeral. You only need to look back at the papers and see what was said, ‘IRA funeral.’
“He only went to a funeral. You know what funerals are like in Ireland. People go to all sorts of funerals all the time.
“Thomas wasn’t picked out. He wasn’t political and we aren’t a political family. Any Catholic would have done for Stone.
“The way Thomas chased after Michael Stone didn’t come as a surprise. If he saw anybody hurt he would have run anywhere. It was no surprise to us at all.
“He chased down a man who was trying to kill a lot of people. He’s a hero who saved a lot of lives that day but lost his own through it. I just wish he was here.”
This article is published as part of a project by The Detail, with Queen's University Belfast, marking the 20th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The university will hold a major conference on April 10.