Belfast Telegraph

Police watchdog rocked by report

Northern Ireland's police ombudsman's office has been rocked by a damning report that questions the watchdog's independence and could force the resignation of its figurehead.

The powerful monitoring group is a cornerstone of the region's new policing structures but it is under pressure after findings that it removed criticism of police from probes into murders from the Troubles.

The hard-hitting Criminal Justice Inspection report branded the organisation's management "dysfunctional", uncovered a major split in its staff, and found that Ombudsman Al Hutchinson has lost the trust of senior colleagues.

It cites reports where criticism of police conduct in some of the most controversial murder cases of the Troubles was removed without explanation, sparking angry attacks from the victims of violence.

The report, compiled by Chief Inspector Michael Maguire, said: "Our overall conclusion is that the flawed nature of the investigation process in historic cases, the divisions within senior management, and concerns around the handling of sensitive material have undermined confidence in the work of the OPONI (Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland) among some staff and key stakeholders.

"These issues have led to a lowering of the operational independence of the OPONI. It is an urgent requirement that these issues are addressed in response to this report."

The document is the third report to have recently challenged Mr Hutchinson's leadership, which first came under pressure when his chief executive Sam Pollock resigned claiming Government interference in the office.

But while Sinn Fein and the nationalist SDLP, together with victims groups, have said they believe the ombudsman's position to be untenable, Mr Hutchinson said he accepted the Criminal Justice Inspection report findings and was ready to repair the damage to his organisation's credibility.

The findings included that reports into atrocities from the Troubles, including the loyalist paramilitary bombing of McGurk's bar in 1971 which killed 15 people, were redrafted with criticisms of the police removed.

It also outlined concerns that police intelligence was not being properly presented to ombudsman staff, found "there have been serious divisions amongst senior management" affecting work and staff morale and that assurances given by the ombudsman over the provision and analysis of sensitive material were "not believed" by some senior managers.

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