Belfast Telegraph

'It's essential Government deals with the past'

By Liam Clarke

Al Hutchinson would really rather be talking about budget cuts and the reduction in levels of incivility which has been achieved amongst PSNI officers, both of which will be documented in his forthcoming annual report.

Instead, the Police Ombudsman is bogged down in the most controversial killings of the Troubles.

The criticism for his handling of them is so damaging that he has said he could resign if it further damages his office and its work.

The lowest point so far came when a single report into the UVF massacre of 15 Catholics in the 1971 bombing of McGurk's bar was widely criticised.

The first draft, which contained factual errors, was withdrawn amidst calls for Mr Hutchinson's resignation.

The final report, which accused the RUC of "investigative bias", was then rejected by Matt Baggott, the PSNI Chief Constable (right).

The Criminal Justice Inspectorate report, due out today, will probably see such changes as evidence that reports can be "buffeted". Mr Hutchinson doesn't see it that way.

"We did have failures in the McGurk report, I apologised for this, and I withdrew the report and engaged with the families.

"In the course of that engagement one of the family members signposted a critical piece of information that our investigators were not aware of, and that changed the flavour of the investigation.

"That was a positive thing out of a negative experience," he argued.

Asked about Mr Baggott's refusal to accept his report, he replied: "The Chief Constable is a responsible adult. If he disagrees with me, and the police have disagreed with Nuala (O'Loan) in the past, they are held accountable through the media, through the families, through the Policing Board."

Dealing with the murky history of the Troubles is clearly not a task he relishes.

"I say in my annual report that it is extremely important that the Government deals with the past because it is destroying this office," he said.

"I am prepared to handle these historic cases as long as it is my statutory duty, but I would really prefer that it was carried out by another body. I make no bones about that.

"It damages our day job, of handling police complaints, where we enjoy high confidence levels. I think we do it very effectively, and the statistics bear that out," he added.

He pointed out that he achieves all this while absorbing 5% annual cuts over four years in his £8-£9m annual budget.

Only about £900,000 of this total is allocated to dealing with the past.

The investigation of Troubles deaths is primarily handled by the Historic Enquires Team (HET). However, since it is part of the PSNI, it has to call Mr Hutchinson in where it uncovers accusations of police wrongdoing.

Then he must run a parallel investigation with, as he puts it, "clear firewalls" between what the PSNI detectives and his officers are doing.

Often they must interview the same witnesses separately, and not share notes. Mr Hutchinson has set up a special directorate to handle his share of the historic investigations.

He has also put in a business case for £1.2m more a year to increase its staffing from 17 to 37.

In the bid, which has been accepted in principle, he estimates that it would enable him to clear a backlog of 80 cases in four to six years.

"But here is the problem," he said wearily.

"We have already moved, since we put in the business case, to 127 historic cases given to us by the HET. We now know we could get another 40.

"In fact, we just don't know where this is going to end, but I have got a pretty robust plan to deal with it."

It's just as well he didn't say "cunning plan", like Baldrick in Blackadder.

Robust or cunning, the plan involves eventually ridding the Ombudsman's Office of the burden of the past.

Mr Hutchinson liked the proposals of Lord Eames and Denis Bradley that a single, unified body should be set up to deal with the past, rather than dividing the task between the Ombudsman's Office and the HET.

Asked whether collusion was widespread during the Troubles, he said: "I have no evidential base to comment on that." But he added: "A new agency needs to look at thematic issues like that, the broad issue of collusion, because evidentially you can tie together threads from several cases."

He does see difficulties in applying contemporary standards to the police work of 30 or 40 years ago.

Mr Hutchinson added : "We have to interpolate in between what were the standards of 1970 and what are the now."

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