Hugh Orde 'staggered' by North’s lack of progress on the past

Ex-PSNI chief speaks out on the Troubles and the failures of historical investigations

Today, he wonders, as everyone else flounders trying to bring forward a solution that will win the support of both communities, if a model he created 14 years ago still might have useful application.

Dealing with the past, the unsolved killings, the wounds, the misery left, is a very emotive and explosive subject, though it is one which Boris Johnson, newly-installed in No 10 Downing Street, has quickly waded into.

Early in July before he won the election for Conservative Party leader Johnson told the Sun newspaper that “we need to end unfair trials of people who served Queen and country”.

A report found that some killings committed by the British army and Royal Ulster Constabulary during the Troubles were reviewed with 'less rigour' than other cases

He also told the newspaper he would look at the issue of a proposed law change whereby former or serving British soldiers, including those who served in Northern Ireland, would not face prosecution for alleged offences that were more than a decade old.


Shortly after entering Downing Street Johnson appointed former British army officer Johnny Mercer as minister for veterans, prompting Sinn Féin to raise concerns that Johnson's government would extend a proposed amnesty for ex-soldiers to former soldiers who served in Northern Ireland.

This is all against the toxic backdrop of the campaign on behalf of Soldier F charged in relation to two Bloody Sunday killings.

More generally it is also against the equally poisonous backdrop of the failure to deal with the past in Northern Ireland.

It is almost ten years since Orde stood down as chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. He has moved on but there is one issue that still riles him, still triggers his passion, and that is the mortal wound inflicted on the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary in 2013.

‘Less rigour’

That year a report from an inspectorate team headed by another English former chief constable Stephen Otter found that the HET reviewed some killings committed by the British army and Royal Ulster Constabulary during the Troubles with "less rigour" than other cases.

That effectively was the death knell for the HET, even though it stumbled on for about another year. Nationalists wouldn’t go near it after that.

Orde, still furious, feels that Otter had no understanding of the HET or Northern Ireland, and all its complexities. "It's the only thing I really got angry about in policing," he says, recalling the publication of the inspectorate's report in Belfast in July 2013. He had stood down in 2009 with Matt Baggott taking over as PSNI chief. Baggott accepted the inspectorate's report in full – an additional matter that infuriates Orde.

“If I had been there when the report came out I would have called a press conference and thrown it in the bin on live television. I would have said, ‘Now what are we going to do? We are going to keep going. Take me to court if you want.’ We would have finished it.

“The ultimate success of the inspectorate’s report was to stop the one thing that was trying to do its best to do something about the past.”

The remit of the HET was to review some 3,500 Troubles-related killings. They got through 2,000 of them and, as Orde believes, if it had continued its work those reviews could be finished by now.

Instead the past remains an insoluble and debilitating drain on Northern Ireland. Thousands of people who were injured or maimed or bereaved continue to suffer trauma and deep physical, emotional and mental pain.

Prosecution rate

One of the key proposals currently being considered by the British government is a new Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) that would have more clout than its processor, the HET.

Last October eight members of the House of Lords with direct experience of Northern Ireland voiced their opposition to the HIU. They included former Northern secretaries Peter Hain, John Reid, Paul Murphy and Tom King; Chris Patten, whose report on police reform led to the creation of the PSNI; and the former Church of Ireland primate Archbishop Robin Eames.

They noted how, of the HET cases which were concluded, “only 17 were referred to the public prosecution service, and only three resulted in prosecutions for murder”.

With such a poor prosecution rate they argued that, rather than create the HET’s proposed more powerful successor, the HIU, it would be far better to use the £150 million earmarked for that organisation for victims and survivors of the Troubles.

In July the Northern Ireland Office published a summary of some 17,000 public submissions to its consultation on the past.

It was clear in those responses that there is nothing approximating to an agreed view on the past or on the HIU. Different families, as victims’ groups acknowledge, have different requirements: some just want the truth while others seek truth and justice. Others worry about the rewriting of history while a “clear majority” feel an amnesty or statute of limitations for Troubles-related offences would “not be appropriate”.

Johnson, in the aforementioned Sun interview, raised the possibility of an effective amnesty for former British soldiers. But an amnesty for one would result in a demand for an amnesty for all – which would infuriate many victims and their representatives.

The issue is contentious and live but despite the consultation there is no deadline for when the British government will pronounce on the way forward.


The evidence from the HET is that, while truth is possible, there is very little prospect of justice by way of prosecutions. Politicians must know this but because the past is such a sensitive and emotional issue, most appear incapable of negotiating a path to a solution.

Orde, as straight-talking as he was in his chief constable days, has no such reservations. He believes that the fact that the HET, which addressed killings chronologically, was getting close to more modern-day murders was a factor in its demise. “I think it just suited people to get rid of it.”

He still has faith in his design of the HET which was established in 2005 and effectively folded in 2014. It was pressure from families that prompted the HET, he explains: “I realised in 2003 when I started thinking about this that the chances of getting a conviction were close to zero simply because of time, not because of lack of ambition.”

“The notion that even further down the line that the HIU is going to bring any satisfaction of any nature through a judicial nature is absolutely bonkers,” he adds.

“There is less chance now, not more. All they are going to do is raise false hope among families that something is going to happen.”

Orde trenchantly argues that the HET, had it been allowed to complete its job, would not have done away with all the hurt but at least Northern Ireland would be far further on in confronting the past.

As Orde expresses it the HET was designed to do what was possible. “We realised from the beginning it was never going to be perfect. We realised some families would not want to go near it.

“I know what the ambition was because I invented it. It was the only unique idea I ever had in policing. It was about to give families more information than they ever had before. And of course if we did get evidence we would run the case.”

One-off payment

Politicians, victims groups and community leaders have been struggling and failing for years to tackle this issue. In 2009 Lord Eames, with former vice-chairman of the North's Policing Board Denis Bradley, got close when they produced the report of the Consultative Group on the Past, more generally known as the Eames-Bradley report.

Orde says whatever the British government ultimately devises to deal with the past – if it can ever grasp that nettle – will be modelled on the template produced by Eames-Bradley – “but less effective, I would have thought”.

Eames-Bradley proposed a five-year Legacy Commission that would include an investigative body to replace the HET; an information recovery unit to allow the bereaved discover to how and why their loved ones were killed; £100 million for projects to address sectarianism and other reconciliation issues; and no more public inquiries into controversial killings.

Those proposals never were implemented, largely because of considerable public and political opposition to an additional Eames-Bradley recommendation that relatives of all people killed in the Troubles, including paramilitary families, should receive a one-off “recognition payment” of £12,000.

Well-placed sources said that Eames-Bradley had support for this controversial recommendation from several politicians, including the late Ian Paisley.

“Everyone seized on the compensation issue,” recalls Orde. “The only reason that went in was because at the private hearings people said they wanted such compensation but then they all denied it and sold it down the river.”

Still, he muses, perhaps it would have been better if the payment was excluded from the report.

The second major push was the December 2014 Stormont House Agreement which proposed the controversial HIU; an independent commission on information retrieval where perpetrators could tell the truth about their involvement in Troubles killings without fear of prosecution; and an oral history archive where victims and others could tell their stories of the conflict. The similarities with Eames-Bradley are obvious.

But, despite the consultation and all the wider structured proposals to tackle the legacy of the Troubles, nothing tangible has happened.

What families wanted

Orde believes that a realistic appraisal of what is possible is required. The search for perfection won’t work, is his argument – the best is the enemy of the good.

He knows that, considering the pain and trauma of the bereaved and survivors, it is difficult to urge realism, or to argue that if there were only three prosecutions from 2,000 killings that there would be even less prospect several years further on of many prosecutions arising from HIU investigations. Here some families acknowledge that the HIU won’t get justice for them but they contend that with stronger teeth it might have a better chance of delivering truth.

'People seem to have forgotten that, of the 3,000-plus people who died, the vast majority of them were not killed by the state'

Orde says the HET also sought to achieve convictions. What made it different, he adds, was that it was victims and families’ focused. “The first thing the HET did was sit down and ask the families what they wanted. We asked them what it was they hadn’t known in the past. They wanted to know all sorts of things: did the person die alone, was there someone with them, were they in pain, what way were they facing, was it a good investigation? All those things are really important to families, and that hadn’t happened before.”

If families didn't get justice they frequently got truth. Former BBC and Irish Press journalist Ann Cadwallader, a case worker with the Pat Finucane Centre human rights group, acknowledges that her book, Lethal Allies, partly was based on HET reviews. That book exposed the workings of the infamous Glennane Gang from mid-Ulster who, in regular collusion with RUC officers and Ulster Defence Regiment soldiers, was implicated in more than 120 loyalist paramilitary killings between 1972 and 1978.

Cadwallader isn’t universally approving, saying that some HET inquiries were “shoddily” handled, and that some of the work was “patchy”, but that generally it did good work and brought considerable consolation to a lot of families. “Without the HET, Lethal Allies would never have been written,” she says.

And not that there was much doubt the HET officially nailed the lie that the killings of ten Protestant workmen at Kingsmill in south Armagh was carried out by a splinter republican group, the South Armagh Republican Action Force. The IRA was responsible for the "purely sectarian" and "calculated slaughter" of the textile workers, the HET found.

Numerous other families, whether their loved ones were killed by republicans or loyalists, or the British army or RUC, also got varying degrees of relief. “The HET did exactly what I wanted to do, to work through from start to finish each case and try and bring some resolution to families,” says Orde. “If it got a conviction, brilliant; if we didn’t then the families would get some satisfaction. The satisfaction rates we had were in the 90 per cents. If families did not want to engage that was their absolute right.”

The former chief constable rejects the notion that it was biased in favour of British soldiers and the RUC. “There was no favouritism given whatsoever,” he insists, while adding, “But what people seem to have forgotten is that, of the 3,000-plus people who died, the vast majority of them were not killed by the state.”

He says he has memories of archive murder files from the 1970s relating to the killings of police officers. They were barely half an inch thick because the “cop investigating the murder of a cop one week was himself murdered the following week”.

‘We don’t learn’

Orde is 60. After the PSNI he was president of the Association of Chief Police Officers in England. He now runs a consulting business dealing with police reform and counter terrorism issues. He is also involved with Tony Blair's former chief of staff Jonathan Powell in international peace-process matters. He has been in "challenging parts of the world trying to negotiate" conflict issues and is coming to believe that people just can't or won't take the lessons of history. "What we learn is that we don't learn," he says.

He adds that he is “staggered” by the lack of progress on the past in Northern Ireland. “It is just tragic, absolutely tragic.”

“The consequence is that the families have nothing. If they think a new sort of quasi-legal police unit is going to investigate everything and is going to solve the problem well it isn’t, it just isn’t. It’s not going to get close.”

A Historical Investigations Unit modelled on the HET might have some chance, he allows. But – his anger still palpable – he can’t resist adding, “If it’s the same as the HET why on earth did they close the HET down?”

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times