The "effective closure" of the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) which investigates past killings of the Troubles will take place by the end of this year, the PSNI said today.
More than 300 temporary jobs will be lost due to budget cuts of more than £50 million imposed on the PSNI by the Department of Justice, said PSNI assistant chief constable Alistair Finlay.
The HET was set up in 2005 to investigate 3,200 cold case killings of the Troubles. Inquiries have been held into more than 1,800 of these killings but more than 900 killings have yet to be investigated.
The HET has been in a state of temporary suspension after an official investigation found it investigated some killings in which British soldiers were involved with “less rigour” than it investigated other killings.
The DUP blamed the cuts on Sinn Féin and SDLP opposition to welfare reform which is resulting in the British Treasury imposing a graduated series of multi-million pound financial penalties on the overall Northern Executive budget. These £50 million in cuts must be implemented by next April.
Many of the officers investigating past killings, some of whom were retired RUC officers, had temporary contracts. But Mr Finlay said that all temporary workers contracted through the employment agency Grafton would lose their jobs by the end of this year, with more than 300 people affected.
“With cuts of this magnitude, as a Police Service, our immediate obligations must be towards keeping people safe today. The loss of these posts by the end of the year will effectively mean the closure of HET,” said Mr Finlay.
“In the last number of weeks, we have made it clear that the current financial challenges would mean there would be change in how the PSNI responds to the demands of the past and the pace at which we can service the demand,” he added.
Mr Finlay continued: “The PSNI understands the importance of dealing with the past and that a huge deal of hurt and pain continues for the many people affected by our troubled history. If we are to achieve a safe, confident and peaceful society, dealing with the past is an issue that our society must address. However, achieving a solution lies well beyond the remit of policing.”
The PSNI is legally required to investigate unresolved killings. Mr Finlay said it was anticipated that a “much smaller” Legacy Investigations Branch will be established to look at past killings.
Added Mr Finlay: “As a Police Service, we will continue to meet our legislative responsibilities with regards to the past. This includes investigations where there is new and compelling evidence; as well as our responsibilities in responding to the requirements of coronial inquests.”
DUP MLA and Policing Board member Jonathan Craig blamed the closure of the HET on Sinn Féin's and the SDLP's refusal to sign up to welfare reform. "The public can now see across government how the actions of the SDLP and Sinn Féin are impacting the public," he said.
“The biggest impact will be on those families who are awaiting a report into the death of their loved one. This will compound the hurt for many families who are still awaiting their case being reviewed,” he added.
SDLP Upper Bann MLA Dolores Kelly said the announcement on the HET gave "greater impetus to the proposed talks on the need to deliver truth and justice to victims and victims' groups".
“Whilst the HET had lost the confidence of victims, and many victims’ groups, it was the only show in town. Coupled with the financial pressures now faced by the Office of the Police Ombudsman, we are very concerned that dealing with the past now has no champion,” she added.