Research by Professor Bill Rolston on Families’ Views and Experiences of Historical Enquiries Team

Satisfaction with the HET: Relatives’ Views – Executive Summary

The Full Report can be read heres HET research- Relatives Views by Prof Bill Rolston


In their July 2013 report on the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) noted ‘high levels of satisfaction with the performance of the HET team’ identified in three surveys carried out between 2009 and 2011 (page 15). It also concluded on the basis of its own research: ‘Some families were extremely satisfied with their engagement with the HET process and others less so’ (page 53). However, the HMIC spoke only to 13 families.

Consequently in November and December 2013 I set out to interview as many families as possible with a view to ascertaining satisfaction levels. The interviewees were accessed through a wide range of NGOs dealing with victims of the Northern Ireland conflict as well as a number of solicitors’ firms supporting families in their dealings with the HET.

The interviewees

82 people agreed to be interviewed. Seven had refused to engage when approached by the HET and three had initially engaged but later withdrew. This is significant as the surveys noted by the HMIC did not talk to similar people.

Main Findings

  • Only 12% of those interviewed were unequivocally glad that they had engaged with the HET.
  • 41% said they were definitely not glad that they had done so.
  • 74% agreed that the HET should be disbanded.


Those who had engaged with the HET (75 of the 82 interviewees) were asked if they were glad they did so. Their replies were classified as: ‘glad’, ‘not glad’, ‘mixed feelings’, and ‘strategic’. The last meant that they were satisfied not with the process itself but for what it had confirmed as regards their scepticism about the process.  The results for relatives of a range of victims are as follows:

Victim Yes No Mixed Strategic Don’t know
Catholic Civilian 5 16 12 7 1
Protestant Civilian 1 4 0 1 0
IRA 1 8 4 3 0
Sinn Fein 0 1 0 0 0
Loyalist paramilitary 0 1 0 0 0
British army 0 1 0 0 0
UDR 1 3 1 2 0
RUC 0 1 0 1 0
Total 8 35 17 14 1


  • Only 12% of those who engaged were glad they did so. This ranged from a high of 17% for relatives of Protestant civilians to a low of 6% for relatives of IRA members.
  • 41% of those interviewed said they were not glad they had engaged. This ranged from a high of 67% for relatives of Protestant civilians to a low of 39% for relatives of Catholic victims.
  • A quarter of those interviewed had mixed feelings about engaging. This ranged from a high of 29% for relatives of Catholic victims to a low of 0% for relatives of Protestant victims.
  • 17% of those interviewed concluded that the exercise was valuable in strategic terms. This ranged from a high of 29% for relatives of UDR members and Protestant civilians to a low of 17% for relatives of Catholic civilians.

Reasons given for satisfaction included the attitude of the HET officers and the information gained from engagement.

  • ‘They were nice people, never rude or aggressive. They were sympathetic and charming’ (relative of Catholic civilian killed by loyalists).
  • ‘I am very glad. We were one of the fortunate families. We got information which gave us closure. If it had been a different outcome, I might have concluded otherwise’ (relative of UDR member killed by the IRA).

Reasons given for dissatisfaction included the health consequences of engaging and the failure of the HET process to disclose any new information.

  • ‘Emotionally it has nearly killed me. It’s like they have murdered my mum all over again’ (relative of IRA member killed by the British army).
  • ‘Our expectations were high but the results weren’t even low grade. I would give the 0 out 10. A total waste of time and money’ (relative of Protestant civilian killed by the IRA).

Those who had mixed feelings tended to echo the positive views of those who were satisfied alongside the negative views of those who were dissatisfied.

  • ‘I’m glad to have been involved because I got one small piece of useful information. But I wasted seven years for that’ (relative of IRA member killed the British army).

Those who are classified as strategic stressed that their engagement confirmed their suspicions.

  • I’m glad because it showed them up for doing nothing. It confirmed my cynicism (relative of UDR member killed by the IRA).
  • I regret that there was no proper investigation, that they didn’t pursue witnesses. But it pushed the family to look for witnesses themselves and that has been positive (relative of IRA member killed by British army).


Interviewees were asked if they thought the HET should be disbanded. 74% agreed, 17% disagreed, and 9% were undecided. The breakdown by the main categories of victim is as follows:  71% of relatives of Catholic victims, 43% of relatives of Protestant victims, 94% of victims of IRA members and 71% of victims of UDR members.

Overall assessment

Repeatedly those who were dissatisfied returned to a number of themes. They pointed to hostility on the part of HET officers:

  • ‘X was a listener, but Y would interrupt and was dismissive. He kept saying “we’re not here to second guess”, or “go to the Ombudsman if you are unhappy”. He rejected any suggestion of collusion ‘(relative of Catholic civilian killed by loyalists).

The lack of disclosure of information was also emphasised, along with a disclosure in meetings which was not followed up in the final report:

  • ‘Most questions were answered by “That will be dealt with in my report”’ (relative of IRA member killed by the British army).
  • ‘They said verbally that they thought my brother wasn’t an informer, but they didn’t put that in the report. They said they couldn’t confirm or deny it’ (relative of Catholic civilian killed by IRA).

Some people claimed to have caught out the HET lying to them.

  • ‘They said X, who was there that night, refused to engage; but X has since told us they never approached him’ (relative of Catholic civilian killed by loyalists).
  • ‘They said the Investigating Officer refused to be interviewed but the family found out that he hadn’t been approached’ (relative of UDR member killed by IRA).

The inadequacies of the final report were also to the fore in people’s criticisms.

  • ‘It was like a newspaper report, nothing more. It told me nothing I didn’t know’ (relative of British soldier killed by IRA).
  • ‘It was 30 pages of drivel: “we don’t know this, we don’t know that”’ (relative of Catholic civilian killed by loyalists).
  • ‘Anything in that report was what I told the HET. I had kept a scrapbook. They took it away and used it as the basis for the report’ (relative of Protestant civilian killed by IRA).

Those interviewed reiterated the assurances that had explicitly or implicitly been given to them when they first engaged: that the HET was independent, and that it would leave no stone unturned in investigating their relative’s death. The failure to deliver on those expectations was at the core of people’s frustration. And a commitment to delivering on them was seen as the only realistic way forward for any replacement body.

  • ‘The HET was given powers to review. They should have been given powers to reinvestigate’ (relative of Catholic civilian killed by British army).
  • ‘They said that one of the soldiers ‘sounded sick over the phone’. He may be old, but so are Nazi war criminals and they are being prosecuted’ (relative of Catholic civilian killed by British army).
  •  ‘It’s not a question of disbanding but of getting a government appointed body to do the job and act in the interest of people like us. You can call them anything you want as long as they go about the law’ (relative of UDR member killed by IRA).
  • ‘Any replacement to the HET is pointless unless they have legal powers to make soldiers talk’ (relative of Catholic civilian killed by loyalists).

What is clear beyond doubt is that for the bulk of the 82 people questioned the HET has not worked and their sense of disappointment is profound:

‘It took me most of my life to try to come to terms with the death of my father, the disintegration of the family and growing up in care. I believed in the peace process and the potential for change. But now I’m left wondering if anything has changed ‘(relative of Catholic civilian killed by British army).


After the HMIC reported, HET operations were put on hold. More recently, the Haass and O’Sullivan draft document suggested that the operations of the HET and the Police Ombudsman be transferred to a new body, the Historical Inquiries Unit. Given the failure of politicians to agree on implementing such an innovation, the question of the future of the HET is back on the agenda and will have to be answered sooner rather than later.

Will it be sufficient to implement the HMIC recommendations and get back to ‘business as usual’? Good policy can only be based on up-to-date and inclusive research. The HMIC talked to 13 families before their highly critical report on the HET was published. My research involved over six times as many families who were reaching informed conclusions on the basis of critical information, including that produced by the HMIC.

In contrast to HMIC’s conclusion that there was ‘an almost universal desire for it [HET] to be retained so long as improvements were made to the way it works’ (page 101); this research has found that an overwhelming percentage (74%) of a cross-community sample of victims’ families  (82 interviewees) was of the view that HET should be disbanded.


Bill Rolston

Belfast, January 15, 2014