Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Policing the police

COMPLAINTS PROCEDURES: New ombudsman is a step in the right direction

but in our divided state they are even more problematic. Somehow a

but in our divided state they are even more problematic. Somehow a balance must be struck between the public's right to have grievances properly considered and the police's freedom to do its job fairly and effectively.

Speculation about the report by Dr Maurice Hayes, to be published tomorrow, indicates that the government is about to accept the concept of an ombudsman _ replacing the present Independent Commission for Police Complaints _ with powers to investigate independently of the RUC.

Strangely, this recommendation is in line with what the ICPC has long advocated. Its chairman, James Grew, has wanted the Commission to be able to order its own investigations, on its own initiative, rather than have to wait to be called in by the RUC. There has been resistance, in the past, from government and police _ fearful of hampering the RUC, or inviting a flood of complaints _ but circumstances have forced a re-think.

After the events at Drumcree and their aftermath, badly damaging nationalist confidence in police impartiality, drastic measures are needed to prove the effectiveness of the complaints procedure. Where police are believed to have overstepped the mark, people must feel there is someone _ like the proposed ombudsman _ to act on their behalf. The old system, whereby commission members could direct or monitor the RUC's own investigations, is no longer good enough.

Any new procedure must have built-in safeguards against malicious complaints, and Dr Hayes has apparently provided these. It could be all too easy for individuals or organisations to overload the system with bogus complaints, frustrating the work of both the ombudsman and, more important, the RUC. In any case, the adoption of independent investigations will be costly, in terms of money and manpower.

Critics of the new scheme _ the detail of which demands the closest scrutiny _ will argue that whatever is done to prove the RUC's impartiality, there will be no satisfying a sizeable section of the population. Police morale, and effectiveness, may suffer, if there is a fear of over-zealous investigation.

If an acceptable political solution emerged, it would solve many problems at a stroke but, in the meantime, unusual procedures are necessary to provide the maximum consensus. The justice system, at all levels, must not only be fair, but be seen to be fair.

Attacking democracyCOWARDLY ACTION: Public representatives deserve community suppTHE early morning attacks on the homes of two SDLP councillors in Londonderry demonstrates the risks which those who enter public life in Northern Ireland must be prepared to run. The smashing of windows in the homes of Pat Devine and Jim Clifford was a blatant attempt at intimidation which must be condemned by all those who believe in constitutional politics.

Despite denials by Sinn Fein that its supporters were responsible, the victims have no hesitation in pointing the finger at republicans. The SDLP says the attacks are designed to dissuade others from standing for the party at the local government election, and to prevent complaints about vote-stealing. The prospect of any electoral pact between the SDLP and Sinn Fein must now be just a distant dream.

Those who have the courage to put their heads above the parapet and run for a seat in the local council chamber deserve every support. They are seeking to serve the community and to better the lot of those whom they represent. By contrast, hoodlums who throw stones under cover of darkness are cowards who must be rejected. The attacks on the homes of councillors Devine and Clifford represent an assault on the democratic process. Such incidents cannot be defended.

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