Victims’ families oppose disbandment of HET

April 6, 2010

By Brónagh Murphy

Families of local victims who lost their lives in some of the worst atrocities of the Troubles have strongly criticised any prosposal to end the work of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) before it completes its examination of all the murders it was set up to investigate.

During the week, Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, announced that he felt a line should be drawn under the work of the HET within the next three years.  Mr Baggott said there had to be a point when historic investigations would come to an end so police could focus resources on the present and future.

However, following the widespread criticism of his comments, the Chief Constable issued a letter to press outlets offering clarification of his remarks.  He acknowledged that his comments had caused anxiety and distress to families of victims but added that he felt the three year limit to be realistic timeframe for the HET to complete its work.

The proposals have been met with anger and opposition, particulary from families of murder victims whose cases still are to be examined.

In February The Examiner reported how the Reavey family from Whitecross received the report into the HET’s examination of the murders of their three brothers, John Martin, Brian and Anthony.  The brothers were shot dead in their home in January 1976.

However, other local families still await the outcome of investigations in the murder of their loved ones.  The report into the killings of Trevor Brecknell, Michael Donnelly and Patsy Donnelly in Silverbridge in December 1975 is just one local case that remains under review by the HET.

Silverbridge attack

The loyalist gun and bomb attack in Donnelly’s Bar in Silverbridge and the murder of the three Reavey brothers in Whitecross were just two of the cases which were reviewed by the HET.

In February the Reavey family received a report into the killings from the HET, however the families of the Silverbridge victims are still awaiting the findings from that investigation.

The loyalist gun and bomb attack in Silverbridge in December 1975, which claimed the lives of Trevor Brecknell, Michael Donnelly and Patsy Donnelly, is just one of the thousands of HET cases which remains outstanding.

Trevor Brecknell’s son, Alan, opposes any disbandment of the HET until such times as all 3,269 murders it was set up to investigate are examined.  Failure to do so, he says, will result in inequality with some victims being treated differently to others.

“There should be no time limit on the work of the HET,” Alan said.

“I think all families of victims should to be contacted and have their cases reviewed.  If not, we don’t have a level playing field for everyone and there may always be accusations that some people got fairer treatment than others.”

Having first met with the HET in 2006, his family is expecting to receive a report detailing its investigation into the attack that killed his father in the coming weeks.  As has been extensively reported previously, the report is expected to confirm security force collusion in the attack.

“We have had a close relationship with the people who have been carrying out the review and, while not wanting to pre-empt what will be in the report, there is fairly strong evidence to suggest that there were members of the security forces involved in the attack,” Alan said.

Political comments

SDLP MLA, Dominic Bradley, says any plans to abolish the HET puts at risk the confidence of victims and survivors in the PSNI’s investigation of past atrocities.  “The HET has been one of the better initiatives in addressing the past and has done good work in investigating some of the worst atrocities of the last 40 years including the activities locally of the Glenanne Gang, the Kingsmills Massacre, the murder of Majella O’ Hare, and the Miami Showband massacre. It is not the full answer but it has been part of the answer on how best to support victims and survivors and secure accountability for the horrors of the past,” Mr Bradley said.

“There is no evidence to date that the HET could conclude its work in three years as over 2500 deaths still await investigation.  One of the primary concerns must be to secure the confidence of victims and survivors in addressing the past.

“Deadlines- both the three years of the Chief Constable or the five years of Eames Bradley are arbitrary and are not the best way to reassure families, hurt by the absence of truth and justice,” he said.

Sinn Féin MLA Mickey Brady said all cases must be properly dealt with before any proposal to wind up the HET is accepted.

“When the HET was first formed we voiced concerns about its ability to get to the core of the issue around collusion. The evidence of the intervening years would appear to back those concerns up. Like other efforts in the past it seems that those at the top of the chain, the handlers and their superiors have been exempt from investigation,” Mr Brady said.

“The reality is the important people here are the families who are seeking the truth.  If Matt Baggott is setting out a timeframe to wind up the HET then it needs to be done in a way that reassures those families who wish to use this mechanism that their particular cases will be properly dealt with first.”