Early Retirement of head of PSNI’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET)

Goodbye Dave Cox And Good Riddance!
Ed Moloney
The Broken Elbow
September 7, 2013

I was delighted to hear that the former head of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), former Scotland Yard detective Dave Cox has been forced to take early retirement in the wake of a damning report by the British Inspectorate of Constabulary which found that the HET, under his direction, had treated killings carried out by state forces with less rigour and scrupulousness than paramilitary cases.

The HET, set up in 2005 as part of the peace deal, was supposed to investigate all 3,300 killings between 1968 and 1998. Cox’s sacking is an official admission it failed in this task.

This conclusion will have come as no surprise to readers of thebrokenelbow.com who learned of the HET’s bias and disregard for ordinary victims of violence from two pieces we published back in January 2012 dealing with the case of Patrick McCullough, a 17-year old Catholic who was gunned down by Loyalists near his North Belfast home in 1972. You can read themhere and here.

His case was highlighted by his brother, Catholic priest Joseph McCullough who wrote to The Irish Times about officialdom’s uncaring attitude towards Patrick’s death. No serious attempt had been made by the police, Fr Joe said, to discover who pulled the trigger and the HET’s attitude he described as “abysmal”. The police ineptitude or worse was in stark contrast to the efforts ofIrish News reporter Sharon O’Neill who able to discover not only that the UVF had killed Patrick McCullough but to put names to the killers who, she wrote, were well known in the area as the culprits.

Only when his letter was published and the HET shamed in public did officers from the unit contact him. Fr Joe was also interviewed by thebrokenelbow.com  and he told of how after his brother was killed in a drive-by shooting on the Antrim Road, the police – in those days the RUC – never came near the home to explain what happened or to update the family on the investigation.

But the home was visited by the British Army who invaded the street in which the McCullough’s lived. They were ostensibly searching the area for weapons but the only house they raided was the McCullough’s, a respectable, peaceable family with no history of republican activity. Fr Joe suspected they were going to plant  weapons in the house to discredit the family and thereby justify the Loyalist killing and would have had the local parish priest not intervened.

All these circumstances strengthened the suspicion that perhaps Patrick McCullough’s killers and the security forces were colluding together. To add insult to injury the RUC then lost all the paperwork on the case and so Patrick McCullough’s sad death was forgotten. I wrote about the case because of the contrast with all the energy officialdom has recently invested in investigating the Jean McConville case where the IRA was the culprit.

The pro-security bias of the HET lies behind the scandalous treatment of the McCullough family and evidence for it can be found in the HET’s official video which is still available on YouTube. This is what I wrote in January, 2011:

The film features four victims, the son of a Catholic shot dead by the UDA; the sister of a British soldier shot dead, presumably by the IRA; the husband of a victim of the IRA’s Shankill Road Fish Shop bomb and the brother of two Catholic men killed by the UVF.

And what’s missing? Well any relatives of people killed by the police or army, that’s who’s missing. Seemingly they don’t rate a mention on the HET video and that is not insignificant surely? It means they don’t really appear on the HET radar and in such a way are almost airbrushed out of existence. The video provides a subliminal and fascinating peek into the HET’s consciousness.

That’s not to say that in the video the HET’s commander Dave Cox does not at all address the issue of security force collusion in killings. He does, but look at how he deals with it: “Could his death have been avoided, was there collusion? Most times we are able to actually answer and dispel those worries.”

In other words: “Our work is about nailing all those terrible terrorists and setting minds to rest about the role of the RUC and army.” It’s an approach that dovetails exactly with the state narrative of the Troubles, with the state and its forces on the good side and everyone else on the bad side. Problem is, it wasn’t ever as simple as that.

Here’s the video and Dave Cox’s appearances start at 1 minutes 7 seconds:

And confirmation of this bias was there in the Inspectorate of Constabulary’s report published this July, which detailed all the various ways in which security force killings were treated more leniently than others by the HET (e.g. soldiers who pulled triggers were never interviewed under caution, meaning it would be so much harder to charge them if evidence emerged during questioning of a crime. If they claimed to be sick they could avoid being interviewed, and so on. None of this magnanimity was shown to non-security force suspects).

The pro-Army/Police bias was so intense that it was codified into the rules governing the HET’s investigations. Add to that the fact that the HET’s intelligence branch was stuffed full with former RUC Special Branch officers and the result is all too predictable.

Here is what the HET Operational Guide states:

“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 the laws of the UK and military Standard Operating Procedures of that time.” (HMIC report, pp 74-75)

So, there you have it. The official body charged with investigating Northern Ireland’s troubled and violent past is set up on the basis that killings carried out by soldiers were probably lawful whereas those committed by groups like the IRA were crimes. So no need to investigate security force slayings with any enthusiasm or vigour.

It is not possible to deal with this subject without making two comments. One is that the approach of officers like Dave Cox and his colleagues in the HET are confirmation that for many in the British security apparatus the war against the IRA goes on. In theory the peace process was supposed to signal a score draw in the battle between the British state and republicanism; in practice ‘la lotta continua’ in the British mindset. The IRA has stopped shooting soldiers and policemen and stopped planting bombs; but the British are still trying to put republicans in jail.

The other obvious comment is that all this happened on Sinn Fein’s watch but the party charged with overseeing Nationalism’s interests in the peace deal did nothing to stop it, not even to issue warnings about the HET’s all too obvious bias. The HET’s faults were exposed by an academic from a Belfast university not by a Sinn Fein minister or Assembly member (nor any SDLP ones either) and it took seven years to get rid of the man responsible for them. What, one may ask, is the point of being in government if such things are allowed to happen under your nose and you do nothing about them?

Anyway Dave Cox will soon be taking the Liverpool ferry back home. It will be good to see the back of him.