Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris of the PSNI was on the witness stand again yesterday (24.11.2014 ) answering questions about the length of time it has taken to hand over documentation relating to three shoot-to kill incidents 32 years ago when RUC officers shot dead six men.
As a frustrated John Lecky (senior coroner) pointed out to the witness, the disclosure process has now lasted “longer than the second world war”. He also reminded those present that this hearing was taking place 32 years to the day after Michael Tighe was killed by RUC officers – one of the six deaths at issue in this inquest. Relatives for Justice attended the inquest pre-hearing along with Tommy and Gregory Carroll, brothers of Roddy, another of the six men killed in 1982. RfJ has supported all of the families over the past two decades.
The public face of former RUC officers is the NI Retired Police Officers Association (NIRPOA). This organisation in its submission to the Haass talks last year castigated inquests into controversial state killings as nothing more that show trials of police officers and British soldiers. Drew Harris claimed to have no knowledge of this negative attitude or, indeed, of the submission.
He did however finally provide some information about the tone of seminars arranged to brief NIRPOA members on inquests and other legacy matters. He had previously sought to describe these as informal and focussed on practical information and support with no notes of proceedings. Gradually, more information has filtered out about the nature and scope of the meetings. For this hearing, he finally provided notes recording the discussions which suggest an entirely different agenda (see quotes below).
The quotes attributed to then DCC Judith Gillespie, Drew Harris and the PSNI Senior Legal Advisor all indicate that the purpose of the meetings was to reassure former officers that the PSNI would defend the legacy of the RUC and put its activities in the best possible light through the inquest process. When challenged on how his own words have been recorded, Drew Harris replied that he had no recollection of the words used.
In respect of the Legacy Support Unit (LSU) now responsible for redacting the information before it is released to the families’ legal teams, it emerged that all key staff are former RUC Special Branch officers. They review papers and propose Article 2 (right to life), Article 8 (privacy) and Data Protection redactions. Harris refused to accept that his staff were too cautious in what they wished to cover up. However, he was forced to accept that there could be “a perception of bias” in the fact that the LSU staff have served with RUC witnesses who will be called to give evidence to the inquest.
This contamination contravenes European case law which requires mechanisms investigating state killings to be independent and seen to be independent. Instead, Drew Harris has ensured RUC Special Branch is all over the information management of legacy material.
He was challenged over the system which had now put former Special Branch officers at the heart of a process of disclosure characterised by delay and excessive redaction. Counsel also put it to him that, by employing former Special Branch officers to the key positions, he had not only (to use his own words at the last hearing) bought in the “corporate memory” required to manage sensitive information, he had also bought “corporate allegiance” to reputation and name of the RUC.
After watching Drew Harris over the course of four and a half hours of examination, he displays little awareness of the credibility gap there is over the reputation of the RUC in general and Special Branch in particular. He also seems blind to the danger this has to the capacity of the PSNI to win the trust of the wider nationalist and republican community.
He has presided over the establishment of a disclosure system that really amounts to obstruction and cover up to protect the illegal actions of the state during the conflict. In this at any rate, he has continued the legacy of the RUC in whom he has such great pride.
Notes from NIRPOA legacy seminars
Then DCC Judith Gillespie confirmed that ‘our interests are similar’ and “the PSNI is determined to play our part in the defence of the RUC”.
Then ACC Drew Harris went on to assert to the NIRPOA that: “We don’t dissociate ourselves from what happened in the past. I have a great pride in my RUC service.”
The Senior Legal Advisor in attendance then confirmed during a Q&A: “The bedrock of what we are trying to do is to protect our people. To protect the reputation of the organisation and to protect people’s security”