A man with a radical new vision for policing

Sir Hugh Orde's approach to dealing with the legacy of sectarianism has lessons for UK

How do you tackle 2,000 unsolved murders stretching back more than 30 years? That was the dilemma that confronted Sir Hugh Orde when he was appointed Chief Constable of the new cross-community Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2002 in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement.

The controversial solution he came up with – to provide victims' families with what he calls "maximum disclosure" of everything known about the killings, even if the police could not convict a suspect – could be a model, he believes, both for police work with victims of unsolved crimes, and for other societies with a history of sectarian tensions.

That is the message that Sir Hugh, recently appointed president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) after just missing out on the top job at the Metropolitan Police, will deliver next week when he gives the annual Longford lecture, sponsored by The Independent.

"The question I faced," he said, "was were there alternative ways of dealing with unsolved serious crime where convictions are unlikely? In Northern Ireland, they were unlikely because of the lapse of time and the potential for loss or contamination of evidence, or for witnesses to have died or forgotten what they saw. And the longer a crime is unsolved, the harder it is to solve and therefore the less effort is put into it.

"But at the same time I was acutely aware that the families of the victims, who ranged from the widows of police officers and soldiers to the relatives of an IRA terrorist killed by the SAS, have not had satisfaction in any sense of the word. If I was going to move policing forwards, I was going to have to deal with the past first."

Sir Hugh's solution – initially greeted with scepticism by both human rights organisations and fellow police officers – was, as far as he knows, a unique one. "While we had to recognise that we were cops and our primary role was to investigate, we decided that before we did that, we would ask the families what it was that they saw as 'success'. And that is not a traditional murder investigation, trust me [Sir Hugh spent 25 years in the Met before going to Northern Ireland]. We ended up with a series of questions the families wanted answered. Some were predictable – 'Who did it?' – but others weren't. 'Who was with them when they died?' 'Did they suffer?' All of them had stories to tell about what they didn't know about these crimes. The stunning thing was how many families knew nothing."

In his lecture, Sir Hugh describes how, with a five-year grant of £32m from the Northern Ireland Office, he built up a 100-strong Historic Enquiries Team to go back over those 2,000 unsolved murders. "Lots of people at the time said it wouldn't work but we recently did a survey of the victims that asked if we had moved the world on for them, and did they feel they could get on with their lives as a result of what we had given them, and the short answer was 'Yes'."

Sir Hugh will also suggest that the lessons learnt from this experiment extend beyond the particular context of Northern Ireland. "As a result of what we did, the European Court at Strasbourg was able to remove certain special measures it had imposed on the British government after finding it wanting in providing effective independent investigations of some murders in Northern Ireland. And the secretariat in Strasbourg has now been holding us up as a model. Recently I had a group of Russians visit me to do with Chechnya."

His lecture will also reflect on the general treatment of victims of crime. "What we achieved demonstrates a different way of thinking about victims. Traditionalists might argue that the role of the police is to investigate crime and therefore the sort of work we did was for others to do. I would disagree with that. Victims are a key part of our work. They are citizens first and we have a duty as police to protect citizens and help them get on with their lives. And if this work we did made a difference to them, then it is of value."

Since taking the reins at Acpo, Sir Hugh has been making headlines – most recently with his remarks on the need to reconsider merging independent regional police forces to achieve greater effectiveness. He has a reputation as a straight-talker and that extends to teasing out the significance of the process he led in Northern Ireland over investigating unsolved murders. "We tend to overcodify everything to do with policing," he said, "but this shows that, when you allow police the freedom to succeed, they can be pretty impressive, so constraining them with formulas that say 'You must do X in situation Y' is not the right way to go."

Despite the upturn in activities by dissident republicans in Northern Ireland, he remains optimistic for the future. "It is a tricky time. The endgame is always difficult but this is the endgame. The DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] is currently saying they are not ready to move forward yet, but that potentially leaves a political vacuum, which is a feeding ground for these dissident republicans. They feel that Sinn Fein has not delivered devolution of police and justice. One theory is that the longer that goes on, the more potential there is for these fringe groups to recruit more."

Sir Hugh delivers the Longford lecture on 2 December, 6.30pm at Church House, Westminster. Tickets are free and can be booked at www.longfordtrust.org

Longford Prize: Prison deaths

*Inquest, a charity that has worked for more than 20 years with the bereaved families of those who have died in custody, has been awarded the 2009 Longford Prize, sponsored by The Independent and established as part of a trust in memory of the late Labour cabinet minister and outspoken prison reformer Lord Longford.

As well as its work with individuals, Inquest is also a lobbying organisation, recently persuading the Government to adopt many of its proposals for improving the coroners system so that it better serves the interests of all bereaved people. Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest, said: "Our small dedicated team is delighted to receive this award for upholding the human rights of bereaved people. We hope that this award brings wider attention to and understanding of our important work."

Commendations were also awarded by the prize judges to Keyring's Working for Justice project, which supports individuals with learning difficulties in the criminal justice system, and to Junior Smart for his work with gangs to reduce knife crime.

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