Belfast Telegraph

Battle for independence has a long road to travel

The work of the Police Ombudsman's office must be transparent if it is to be effective, says Mick Beyers

Much has been said and written recently about the Police Ombudsman's office and whether or not it is fit for purpose.

This discussion is the result of numerous concerns accumulated over the past five years which relate to the capacity of the Ombudsman's office to investigate historic cases.

Recent reports into these cases have resulted in a questioning of the office's political will to conduct robust and impartial analysis.

These concerns stem from the length of time required to conduct investigations, the quality of the reports published and inconsistencies in what constitutes 'collusion' in the conclusions reached.

An independent police complaints mechanism is an outworking of the basic principle that, in a democratic society, the police must not be above the law.

Three reports into the Ombudsman's office from three distinctly different institutions - the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), the Department of Justice and the Criminal Justice Inspection (according to a leaked draft) - have identified political interference in the office.

This interference has resulted in widespread concern about a 'lowering of independence', particularly with respect to historic cases.

Significantly, CAJ maintains that this 'lowering' can be traced back to the recruitment of the second Police Ombudsman, Al Hutchinson, which raises very serious questions for the Northern Ireland Office.

Independence is crucial to the aims of the Police Ombudsman and to his statutory obligations. Without independence, the Ombudsman's office is unable to function properly and, therefore, the Ombudsman is unable to fulfil his primary statutory duty under Section 51 of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998: securing the efficiency, effectiveness and independence of the police complaints system and the confidence of the public and members of the police service.

Internationally, the British Government has argued before the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (the body which monitors compliance with judgments of the European Court of Human Rights) that the Police Ombudsman's office is the mechanism that fulfils its obligations to conduct independent, effective, prompt and transparent investigations.

However, outstanding concerns and the critical loss of independence (a key requirement for compliance) in effect mean that the Ombudsman's office also does not fulfil its international remit.

It is not lost on interested parties that, without the critical component of independence, the office is emasculated. Its ability to conduct effective investigations and to establish the facts and ultimately some truth - and in the process dispel myths - is deeply compromised.

Nowhere is this autonomy and transparency more essential than around the opaque historic workings of RUC Special Branch.

Therefore, police interference in the Ombudsman's office and the abuse of the office this constitutes is an equally grave matter for the PSNI.

This interference, the spectre of which was raised in CAJ's report, includes (police) 'gatekeepers' who withheld key intelligence from staff at the Ombudsman's office, as well as reports which were rewritten to exclude criticism of the RUC. Not only do these actions run counter to the interests of policing, they constitute a betrayal of the PSNI.

It's important to point out that the policing 'house' is divided into two sides: one which manages community policing and 'ordinary' crime and another, more opaque, side which deals with matters of national security and intelligence. It's this side of the house which liaises with the Police Ombudsman's office.

There are also questions for Al Hutchinson. If he continues to maintain that the Police Ombudsman's office is independent, then why not release the first, unseen 'final' version of the investigations into Loughinisland, McGurk's Bar and Claudy? The public could then compare the original version of the report with the released version and draw their own conclusions.

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