Belfast Telegraph

Assembly pressed on watchdog claims

The Northern Ireland Assembly must pursue allegations of Government interference in the work of the region's policing watchdog, human rights campaigners have said.

Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) director Mike Ritchie said his group's report on the office of Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson questioned its independence from government and from the police.

He said the findings pointed to a shift in how the office was viewed by interest groups since the previous ombudsman Nuala O'Loan produced a series of high profile cases that unearthed police wrongdoing in episodes that included paramilitary murder.

The ombudsman has defended his office, which has already said it battles to deal with current police complaints plus a swathe of allegations of misconduct from the era of the Troubles.

But Mr Ritchie was asked if his report had detected a perception that government had sought to influence the focus of the ombudsman's office after Nuala O'Loan stepped down in 2007.

The CAJ spokesman said: "There does seem to be a trend. People will remember that there were many controversies over some of Nuala O'Loan's reports, and the question we're simply asking - is that (government interference) what happened?"

"We don't have the answers to that. That is something that needs to be looked at in detail.

"But we're saying that the culmination of the last three to four years has been that we now have a situation where there's not so much controversy from the police in relation to some of the reports coming out, but there is controversy from the [bereaved] families. And we're saying, well what's the answer in relation to that?"

The CAJ report unearthed evidence that the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) allegedly influenced the recruitment process that led to Mr Hutchinson's appointment. Mr Ritchie said he hoped that in light of the devolution of policing and justice to Stormont, the Assembly would seek to press the new Department of Justice over the controversy.

The CAJ said it did not allege any wrongdoing on the part of Mr Hutchinson over his appointment, but questioned the NIO handling of the process, during which other applicants claimed the criteria were changed after they had applied.

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