Dealing with the Future by Dealing with the Past: Chief Constable

Chief Constable’s speech at British-Irish Association conference
George Hamilton
06 Sep 2014



When President Obama visited us in June 2013 he said these words “You set the example for those who are seeking peace. You are their blueprint to follow. You are the proof of what is possible.”   (President Obama Speech, Waterfront Hall, Belfast 17/06/13)

It is often easy to forget the progress that has been made in Northern Ireland.

This year’s conference theme is on the Future – and I thank you for the opportunity to be part of your discussion this afternoon. But of course any talk of the future must also facilitate discussion on our past: because to talk about the future, we must be ready to talk about our past.

Obama’s words were a huge compliment; but also a huge challenge.

To live up to such an accolade, requires constant, tireless and selfless work.  It requires us to face up to the difficult issues; to respond to the needs of our society.

There are many areas that remain unresolved; but it is the past more than any other, which “continues to confound the sense that Northern Ireland has left the troubles behind.”     (Peace Monitoring Report, 2012)   

The extent to which the legacy of the past has implications for both the present and the future cannot be underestimated.  Time has passed and huge progress has been made; but for many, the pain is still real and still raw.

A policing role in dealing with the past

I have the privilege of being the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, at a time when the community, together with civic and political leaders, including those gathered here today, are being challenged to take the next steps towards securing a safe, confident and peaceful society.

As Chief Constable, my role is to deliver a Police Service that is fit for purpose; our job is to keep people safe.   Today, however as Chief Constable, I also find myself with a significant role to play in trying to deal with the past.

It was not a role referred to in the Patten Report; yet the past has a very significant impact on both the operational side of policing and the way in which we are perceived by the community. It is a role that presents very real dilemmas and is coming under increasing financial, legal and ethical challenge. In recent weeks, the financial challenges have been brought into starker focus. The status quo is now simply not an option.

I want to talk about first of all –


3260 people lost their lives between 1969 and the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Many of the cases remain unresolved.

The very cold reality is that the older a case, the harder it is to prosecute. While some cases will lend themselves to further progress through the judicial system, with forensic science providing the greatest opportunities; judicial closure is increasingly unlikely in the majority of cases. Memories have faded; witnesses and suspects may have died. The hurt however will not have faded and many families still have questions they want answered.

Understanding that something had to be done, and in the absence of others taking responsibility for dealing more holistically with the past, the PSNI formed the Historical Enquiries Team in 2005. HET, as it became known, was a genuine and unique attempt by policing to provide a process through which to address over thirty years of unresolved deaths. Its creator, Sir Hugh Orde, was clear from the outset that it could not be a stand alone solution to dealing with Northern Ireland’s past. However, no broader solution to the past was ever agreed and in the intervening years, the continually evolving HET project was left in unclear territory, somewhere between truth recovery and serious case review. This lack of clarity could only lead to problems and the work of HET remains on hold following the publication of last year’s challenging HMIC report following the work of Professor Patricia Lundy.

Landscape of legal processes

The absence of a holistic approach to dealing with our past has left a landscape of legal processes to address the pain caused by Northern Ireland’s troubled history. These include police investigations, which PSNI have a responsibility for, coronial inquests, public inquiries, Police Ombudsman investigations and the Criminal Cases Review Commission; all of which PSNI has legislative responsibilities to in terms of disclosure.

There are new requirements for review, re-investigation and disclosure on an almost weekly basis.

It is not just the sheer numbers of cases, but the complexity of the processes and the resources required. The pace at which we can deliver on the growing demand has become an increasing public confidence issue.

It takes significant time and resource to bring a case before the courts. The officers and staff that work on these historic investigations are the same officers and staff that I rely on to investigate murder and other serious crime in the present day. The caseloads that they balance are significant, and they must prioritise their work accordingly. The inevitable delays only serve to add more pain to families who await answers over the deaths of their loved ones.

Delays are also a significant issue in disclosure, as evidenced by recent media coverage of delays in PSNI disclosing material to some of the ongoing legacy inquests. There is little public understanding of the PSNI’s duties in this established legal process. Disclosure is an unwieldy and complex exercise, involving the review of large volume of documentation and balancing competing legal obligations.

Review, investigation and disclosure on historic cases are professional duties that no police officer would seek to avoid. However, the legacy of the troubles means that the level of historical cases for which the PSNI has responsibility is on a scale which no other Police Service in these islands has to respond to.

The Policing dilemma: prioritising finite resources between yesterday and today

I want to be clear – the PSNI are committed to fulfilling a role in responding to Northern Ireland’s troubled past, not least because we are legally obliged to do so, but because dealing with the past is essential to a safe, confident and peaceful future.

But as Chief Constable, I have to balance this commitment with the very real demands of keeping people safe in the present day. It would be both unfair and irresponsible not to make clear the significant strain that the current piecemeal approach to our history is placing on the organisation I have responsibility for leading. The strain is being felt both in terms of operational resources and, significantly, in terms of public confidence.

I am on the record as saying that I want to fulfil our duties in the professional manner that victims deserve. But even if I had infinite financial resources, I could not service the current demand at the rate that is required because we have a limited number of officers and staff with the specialist skills and knowledge required for investigation and disclosure.

And the reality is that I do not have infinite resources. In fact, I face a rapidly reducing budget, with the level of cuts now so deep that there will be a substantial impact on our service delivery. Our priority must be to keep people safe in the present day.

How should policing be defined in Northern Ireland?

Section 32 of the Police Act NI requires I and my organisation to protect life, preserve order, prevent crime and secure justice. Fulfilling these duties on behalf of the community means dismantling the international criminal gangs trafficking human beings within our community; protecting the vulnerable behind closed doors, from crimes such as domestic violence or child abuse; responding to the economic threat posed by cyber and financial crime; and providing visible neighbourhood policing in our community.

It is also a fact that a small, but dangerous number of violent dissident republicans continue to plan attacks on police. While I can say with confidence that PSNI’s desire to keep people safe is greater than the terrorist desire to do harm; there is no doubt that the threat places a substantial financial and human burden on the delivery of policing in Northern Ireland.

We have thankfully had a relatively peaceful summer; but heightened community tensions over flags, parades and protests mean that the PSNI, for now, must be ready to prevent and respond to serious public order scenarios. As Chief Constable, I wonder how much progress we might make in ending such community tensions if we were able to deal with our troubled past; and plan for a shared future? The 2014 Peace Monitoring Report summarised the situation well by concluding that police have been “the shock absorbers for failures elsewhere.”  (Peace Monitoring Report 2014)

There is no doubt that policing, and indeed the criminal justice system, are being left to “absorb the shock” of the past.    In the absence of a more holistic solution the Police Service is left in a lonely position, caught between legal obligations; financial constraints; and public expectation.

Over recent years we have been striving to manage these difficult decisions. But the options I have around budgets have become extremely limited. Every choice I make has a consequence. If I put resources into one area of policing; I must take it from another. As Chief Constable, my immediate obligations must be to keeping people safe today. So, while we will continue to meet our legal obligations, there will now be change in how PSNI responds to the demands of the past and the pace at which we can service the demand.

These are hugely sensitive issues; and there is a massive risk to public confidence in policing.

Is it right that the Police Service should bear the brunt of a broader failure to deal with the past?

Where next?

There is a sense of urgency attached. Money will drive the change whether we want it or not. But, if we are courageous enough, the change can be harnessed as an opportunity to make a difference for those who have been hurt by the past. Achieving such change lies well beyond the remit of policing, although we will play our part. It requires all of us to be selfless; to go beyond our comfort zones; and have challenging conversations, such as the one initiated by the Attorney General almost a year ago.

Are the processes of current criminal law really capable of healing the hurt, establishing truth and answering questions regarding the conflict?

In the sixteen years since the Good Friday Agreement, while we have failed to agree a more holistic approach to the past, there has been significant work conducted quietly and diligently by the likes of Healing Through Remembering, the WAVE Trauma Centre and many more Groups.

This work in turn contributed to the substantial report by Eames Bradley; which itself contributed to the more recent Haass proposals. The results of all this work indicate that, while we seem to understand the need for change, there is no sign of political consensus on how to make progress.

I fully accept that reaching agreement on such a challenging issue is not easy. But, to continue to ignore, hesitate or procrastinate on the past will have unpredictable and far reaching consequences. If our own politicians cannot reach consensus on the issue, then it would seem appropriate and necessary to seek and accept much more “hands on” support from the British and Irish Governments; and indeed other interested and influential observers of our peace process.

The status quo is simply not an option. My view is that action is needed if policing, and indeed our peace process, is not to be dragged backward. We must strive for something better. We owe it to all of those who have suffered; and we owe it to the children and young people of today who have the right to a safe, confident and peaceful future.

In closing, I will quote Hannah Nelson, the school girl, who welcomed President Obama on his 2013 visit to Northern Ireland: “We should not let the past pull us apart and stop us from moving forward… Our past. Our future. It is all about time… It is in the present time that we need to be responsible, accountable people; and live to make a better future for ourselves.”  ( Hannah Nelson, Waterfront Hall, Belfast 17/06/13)