Austerity cuts are going to lead to police officers being taken off cases relating to unsolved crimes from the Troubles, Northern Ireland’s Ch Con has warned.
George Hamilton, the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, has said that £20m cuts to his budget mean that he will have to transfer detectives away from historical cases stemming from the 1969–1997 conflict and on to current criminal inquiries. Nearly 4,000 people were killed during the conflict and tens of thousands were injured.
The move is likely to be controversial given that one of the key nationalist demands in the negotiations aimed at restoring power-sharing in the Stormont assembly is that special police structures are established to investigate thousands of killings in the Troubles, including those involving security forces.
In an interview with the Guardian, Hamilton said: “We are facing a £20m cut this year on top of the £108m that has been given to us since I became chief constable three years ago. In fact, if you go back longer, there have been 15 years of cuts. So there constantly needs to be a recalibration of how the resources are divided up.
“I have always said that whilst I have got every sympathy for people who are still suffering as a result of the past, and the grief and the pain of families is still there … I have to prioritise resourcing today and tomorrow over investigating the past.”
Hamilton continued: “I still have some statutory obligations to do certain things and conduct some investigations, and we will do what we can. Yet one of the things we are looking at in coming to terms with the £20m cut this year is actually reviewing our approach to legacy investigations, possibly releasing resources out of them so that we are doing only the minimum legal requirement.
“That would allow us to reduce the amount of people within the legacy investigations branch and also potentially release some resources into more contemporary, current-day policing issues.”
He also said he had to be mindful about keeping within the law in terms of cutting Troubles’ legacy inquiries: “Certainly, reprioritising resources away for the past towards the current threats is inevitable.”
Describing current threats from anti-ceasefire hardline republican factions as severe, Hamilton said there has been one attack per month on his officers from the New IRA and other terror groups since the start of 2017.
“We have a gun attack on a garage in Belfast in which a police officer was badly wounded; we have had a roadside bomb in Strabane, and we have had a bomb at Holy Cross primary school in North Belfast. We even had a bomb under a police officer’s car which actually exploded in Derry-Londonderry while a bomb disposal exert was trying to defuse it.
“I think the actions of these violent dissident groupings show that there is a new sophistication in their capability … like that under-car booby-trap bomb is technology which came close to taking a life. What we are seeing in 2017 would appear to be a pattern of more concerted efforts to take lives in bigger catastrophic incidents than the previous more ad hoc disjointed way they [the dissident republicans] were operating in the last few years.”