Belfast Telegraph

A pledge to tread carefully through 30 years of war and bloodshed

The Police Ombudsman's director of historical inquiries, Paul Holmes, wants your views on which cases from the past should take priority

The Police Ombudsman's office is due to begin a new phase of historical investigations and we would like to get the opinions of members of the public on a particular aspect of that work.

Many of you will be aware that the Police Ombudsman has a role in the investigation of certain matters relating to Northern Ireland's past.

By 2007, we had more than 80 'historical' cases registered. You may recall, for example, the newspaper coverage when we looked at issues surrounding such incidents as the bombing of Claudy and of Omagh and the murder of Raymond McCord Jnr.

Under Al Hutchinson, we have established a historical investigations directorate and, during the past 18 months, we have conducted a comprehensive review of how we deal with serious allegations against police officers from the Troubles period, from 1968 to 1998.

Most of our investigations originate either from referrals by the PSNI's Historical Enquiries Team, or from complaints by members of the public.

The cases include deaths for which members of the RUC may have been responsible and allegations of criminality, or serious misconduct, by police officers. We currently have more than 130 'historical' cases and I expect that that number will rise.

Previous attempts - in 2008 and 2009 - to secure additional resources were unsuccessful. When policing and justice powers were transferred to Northern Ireland in 2010, Mr Hutchinson and I made a further business case to the Department of Justice (DoJ) for more resources.

I have recently started a recruitment campaign to fully staff the new directorate, pending formal approval of our business case by the DoJ. As those of you who read the Jobs section of the Belfast Telegraph will already know, we recently advertised a number of new posts within my directorate.

These new resources will allow us to finish restructuring our historic investigations directorate in order that we can resume investigations in the New Year. It will also allow us to deal with more of the cases in a timely way - which is what is urgently needed by bereaved families.

A dedicated communications unit will ensure that all concerned parties receive prompt and accurate information on the position of the cases that affect them. Our work will be based on the principles of independence, adequacy, promptness, public scrutiny and victim/family involvement.

There is one significant issue, however, which we have yet to resolve and that is the order in which we should investigate these cases. We simply cannot investigate all cases at the same time. To put it quite simply; which cases should take priority? And why?

During the past year, we spoke to various groups of people who we thought would have a particular interest in this topic. They included bereaved families, advocacy groups which deal with victims and survivors and solicitors who have experience in helping such families.

These discussions allowed us to draw up a draft policy to help ensure we have a consistent and fair method of prioritising our investigations.

This draft policy sets out criteria, which include a detailed weighting of a variety of considerations when deciding which cases to prioritise. The full detail of our draft policy is on our website, but these, in summary, are its main considerations.

In the first instance, we consider whether the alleged criminality in the case passed to us represents an ongoing and immediate threat to life, or threat of serious injury, or serious damage to property.

If we are satisfied that such threats do not exist, we look again at the nature of the alleged police behaviour and establish if there was a direct causal link between police action and the death (such as the firing of a police weapon).

We consider in detail the gravity of the alleged offence. This includes establishing if the alleged conduct by the police represents potential criminal behaviour, or misconduct. Alleged murder or criminal conspiracy would demand more immediate consideration than alleged police misconduct, for example. We consider whether there are pending legal proceedings in the case (such as an inquest) and the legal history of the case: has there been a proven miscarriage of justice, for example.

We also speak to the relatives of the deceased. The age, or the infirmity of partners or immediate relatives, is something we take on board. We are now very keen to get the views of members of the public on this draft policy, which we are also calling our 'prioritisation matrix.'

Do you think there are other criteria which we are not taking into consideration? Or do you think we are considering something which should not belong in our thinking?

What weight should be given to the different factors? And how would you improve the policy?

I would be very glad to hear the views of anyone who has thoughts on any of the specific points I have outlined.

In return, I assure you that I will consider those views carefully.

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