The Police Ombudsman recently threatened to take the Chief Constable to court, alleging that the PSNI failed to hand over information about historical crimes to investigators.
This dispute, which hinges upon different interpretations of the law about holding information, highlights some of the problems and confusions around the many independent and quasi-independent bodies which exist at the edge of politics in Northern Ireland.
For a small region, we have a baffling array of ombudsmen, commissions and commissioners. All of these organisations and individuals are paid for by the taxpayer.
It is important for society to subject public life to a degree of scrutiny. We need champions for certain groups and officials who assess whether government and other parts of the public sector are doing their jobs properly. Problems arise when the purpose and scope of such bodies is misunderstood, or when they deliberately extend their remit, to push an agenda or simply to justify their own existence.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is one of the most obvious examples. It failed to convince two governments that its recommendations for a Bill of Rights were not covered by existing legislation or that its paper reflected circumstances unique to Northern Ireland. Still, the Commission continued to champion its work as zealously as any lobbying organisation and surrounded itself with an industry of like-minded allies, which sustained a number of high profile careers.
The Police Ombudsman’s position is different, but there are similarities. His authorities and powers are often exaggerated or misunderstood. His office is not a judicial post, nor are his opinions definitive or legally binding. He merely gives an opinion.
A perception has been encouraged, particularly, it must be said, by nationalist politicians, that the Ombudsman’s role is confront the police. This notions is misplaced and it is likely, only, to damage confidence in the rule of law.
In Northern Ireland we need to make sure that there is greater clarity around the roles of organisations like the Police Ombudsman. We should also look at the size and functions of the whole industry which surrounds devolved government.
Why is it possible for some people to carve out entire careers pushing a particular agenda, through commissions, councils and quangoes, at the taxpayer’s expense? The Finance Minister, Simon Hamilton, has admitted that the public sector needs to be reformed. He could start be reviewing the functions, size and usefulness of many of these organisations.