Thursday, 8 September 2011

Now it can be told

Last week's Sunday Telegraph made much of a story that our troops were being encouraged to report improper conduct by our soldiers whilst engaged in the action against Iraq. Adverts had been placed in magazines likely to be read by troops and these added that the information could be given anonymously if the informant so wished. Information gained would go to a specialist team.
The Secretary of State has set up the Iraq Historic Allegations Team ("IHAT") to investigate the allegations with a view to the identification and punishment of anyone responsible for wrongdoing. He has also set up a separate Iraq Historic Allegations Panel ("IHAP") to ensure proper and effective handling of information concerning cases subject to investigation by IHAT and to consider the results of IHAT's investigations, any criminal or disciplinary proceedings brought, and any other judicial decisions concerning the cases, with a view to identifying any wider issues which should be brought to the attention of the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has not ruled out the possibility that a public inquiry into systemic issues may be required, in the light of IHAT's investigations and the outcome of the existing public inquiries, nor that there may be prosecutions in the light of those outcomes, but he says that it is premature to set up such a public inquiry now while these other inquiries and investigations are going on.
These IHAT inquiries had a checkered history almost as soon as the team was instituted. The PIL has a history of going back in history and then lodging demands for an investigation.
The main investigation into the sort of incident alleged has now reported it's findings. Pretty grim reading. Mention is made of a conspiracy of silence; this was first commented upon following the court martial of a number of soldiers charged with the assault upon an Iraqi civilian.
By the end of the trial, all charges against the remaining defendants were dropped due to a lack of evidence, including a charge of manslaughter against Cpl Payne.
Mr Justice Stuart McKinnon criticised the soldiers for failing to properly answer questions and accused them of putting up a "wall of silence".
So, rather a long preamble to what is my reason for this edition. In 1970 I was sent to Northern Ireland as a Warrant Officer of the Army Investigation Branch. There was a very small detachment of investigators but I was on the strength of the Provost Marshall NI as an assistant. One of the first things I was asked to look at was the way the Army dealt with internal security incidents where troops had opened fire and killed or wounded a civilian. There were also a number of serious allegations regarding the way that our forces had acted during house searches or arrests. Prior to my arrival, these had not been investigated by the resident team. If the incident or the claims were considered to be serious or widespread, a group of investigators would come from the mainland and deal with them. This was often many weeks after the incident and the claims had already made their way into local history as fact. They were then trooped out every time allegations were made as to Army conduct.
I very soon realised that any contemporaneous routine investigation would not suffice. The normal line of questioning of witnesses building up to the interview of a possible offender was tortuous. Scene of crime techniques were not possible whilst areas were still disturbed and forensic facilities in the province were limited. This meant that the findings were so delayed that Urban Myth prevailed.
When our forces respond to an incident they are required to make a immediate radio report to their HQ. This was known as a Contact Report and was very short and rudimentary. I felt there was scope here for the service investigators to assist. We would attend as soon as a contact report was made. If possible, we would go to the scene of the incident and record written statements from the military personnel, These would not follow what were then known as Judges Rules where evidence was taken with a view to presentation at any trial. I presented the idea to senior RUC personnel, The Coroner and HQ NI and a protocol was established. Copies of the statements taken would be passed to the relevant RUC commander for their consideration. If they considered that legal action should be instituted against military personnel that individual would be re-interviewed in full accord with the Rules, A neat device but quite legal. I left Ulster in mid-1972 and the protocol was working as designed. It also survived without criticism in the Lord Saville inquiry into events on Bloody Sunday.
I have no direct knowledge of the procedures used in Iraq. There is a strong suggestion that the Ulster protocol was not followed. It is only my assumption that this may well have led up to the situation which created IHAT. There is a similar unit in NI but that looks at all deaths and not just those involving HM Forces.
There may be other IHAT work that results in a public inquiry. Mr Shiner has other arrows in his quiver. The latest report says it finds no evidence of institutional brutality, Well, it was only looking at one incident so a pattern would be hard to find, The numbers of soldiers who piled into Baha and his fellow detainees was pretty impressive though. There is some history that the Baha inquiry may have missed.
Whilst it may be unsettling to seek to further the IHAT work by way of anonymous reports it is little different to the procedures of Crime Line and another forces police organisation Getting the true details is an essential duty. Think of the concept of one bad apple. I prefer the idea of a bad barrel that turns good apples bad. The voices of human rights groups are very loud and we risk losing the approval of our actions if these are furthered by dubious means.