By Mike Ritchie, Senior Advocacy Director
This morning the Belfast High Court delivered a devastating judgment in support of families affected by the state collusion. The judgment was in relation to the investigation of the “Glenanne Gang”, a UVF/RUC/UDR unit responisible for scores of killings throughout the 1970s in Mid-Ulster, and whose reach stretched to Dublin and Monaghan.
In 2010, then Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris wrote a letter to the legal representatives of UVF victims telling them that they would not get an investigation into the wider questions raised by the activities of the Glenanne gang. The most significant wider question was the extent of state involvement in the gang and its murderous activities, including the deaths of at least 89 people.
In writing this letter, Drew Harris, who is now Deputy Chief Constable, was subverting a decade of assurance that the UK government had given to the Committee of Minister of the Council of Europe that investigations into state killings would be carried out independently and would examine patterns, links to reveal systematic violations by the state of the right to life enshrined in Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
The vehicle to carry out these functions was the Historical Enquiries Team (HET). It had established a unit that was institutionally independent of the RUC and the PSNI in that it was based in England and had no members who had ever been in either of those forces. It was operationally independent as it did not have to seek leave from the PSNI in relation to its investigations and it had its own finances. This was how the HET was sold to the European oversight mechanism as a creditable response to European Court judgements in a range of state killing cases in 2001. From its foundation in 2005 Relatives for Justice, with many families, held no confidence in the HET or its assertions of independence. This position was vindicated in 2014 when Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Policing found that the HET was indeed lacking in independence and indeed acting illegally when examining cases where the state was implicated.
However, it was on the basis of the PSNI’s assurances of independence that the Committee of Ministers signed off on its supervision in 2009.
That was when Drew Harris made his move. In 2010, he brought the HET in under his control as head of Crime Operations Branch of the PSNI. He removed investigative functions from HET officers; they could no longer arrest and question suspects. He took control of their budget, and he closed down their thematic investigation unit which was cross referencing the individual investigations for links, patterns and systems drawing out the involvement of RUC personnel and wider collusion.
When Drew Harris wrote his letter, the families asked the courts to review the matter. Today Mr Justice Treacey gave his devastating assessment, accusing Drew Harris of an “extreme” abuse of power in closing down this exercise in analysing collusion. By doing so, he made it clear that “the state is not genuinely committed” to addressing the concerns of families, despite all its claims to Europe.
By defending the integrity of the right to life as spelt out in numerous European cases, the court has driven a coach and horses through DCC Drew Harris’ attempts to cover up the past actions of the RUC and the policy of collusion. This former RUC officer made a pledge to defend and protect the reputation of RUC. This despite being the second most senior officer in the PSNI, and a key part of the “new beginning to policing”. Is this what he was doing when he wrote the letter to the victims of the UVF?
The other implication of this judgement is that it adds further pressure for the establishment of Legacy mechanisms of the Stormont House Agreement and an immediate unlocking of any barriers to the Legacy Inquests, including that of the endemic failures in disclosure by the PSNI. These cases are not going away, for all that Drew Harris wishes they would. The PSNI shows its continual disdain for transparency in its failure to provide disclosure to inquests and in civil cases, most recently in respect of another set of UVF agents involved in killings and the attempted murder of John Flynn. Only immediate moves to fully implement the SHA mechanisms in an independent and human rights compliant fashion can resolve this continual violation of victims’ rights.
Drew Harris is the man at the head of PSNI legacy affairs; it is surely time for him to resign. He is a reminder of the political policing of the past and the contamination of current policing by the cover up of the past. His role in this case is the last straw.
Out thoughts are of course with all of the families this evening. Society owe them a debt for their courage and tenacity. We also pay tribute to the work of the Pat Finucane Centre.
A Summary of the judgment can be found here Summary of judgment re Glenanne Collusion Report