Belfast Telegraph

Monday 28 July 2014

It's not about winners and losers but finding the truth

The response to Police Ombudsman Office inquiries into policing offers hope for a change in the way we approach the past, says Michael Maguire

Dr Michael Maguire, Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland
Dr Michael Maguire, Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland

The Police Ombudsman's Office deals with more than 3,000 complaints each year about the conduct of members of the PSNI. These include complaints of the gravest nature.

Readers may recall our report which looked at the police search for James Fenton (22), who was found dead in the grounds of the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald, in 2010.

Or our report which looked at the circumstances behind an attack outside Woodbourne police station in west Belfast, which left Seamus Fox (58) dead.

These investigations illustrate the principles and the practice behind our work: we carry out independent, impartial investigations, which are concluded on the basis of available evidence.

The nature of our work can mean that our findings are sometimes controversial. In particular, the application of the principles of impartiality and independence when investigating incidents from the Troubles has seen the findings of my office contested.

If Northern Ireland is to find a better way of dealing with the past, then I believe that collectively we are going to have to make changes.

My office is not exempt. We have revised the way we carry out investigations into complaints about historical matters. We have new investigative processes and are devoting more money than ever to the task.

I am resolute in ensuring this work is done.

In fact, I believe we are the best placed to do it: we have the power to get access to the information we need, we have more than a decade of experience and we have independence, enshrined in law.

The Police Ombudsman's Office cannot be blamed for investigating only the policing aspect of a given incident: that is all the law allows us to do.

Nor can it be blamed for looking at these matters: the law requires us to do. If there are other areas for investigation, that is outside the control of the office.

When investigations are complete, I will make a public statement which will give as clear an understanding of the events in question as is possible.

But the big change I would want to encourage and which is beyond my control to deliver is a change in the way in which some people look at the findings of reports about aspects of our past.

Some people seem to see reporting on the past as a zero-sum game, by which if someone 'wins', then someone else inevitably 'loses'. It's more complicated than that.

For example, I can forsee a situation in which I will report that the RUC did not deal properly with a particular incident and go on to explain the very challenging circumstances in which they were working.

Those who are hostile to the RUC will have to accept that not every police failure we identify is in itself evidence of a criminal act, or of conspiracy.

At the same time, those that view the RUC as the bulwark against the tide of terrorism will have to accept that fair criticism may on occasion be levelled at the force and, indeed, criminal acts, or misconduct, may be identified.

In that context, much has been written as said about 'collusion'. I am not afraid of the word 'collusion' – nor will I be held to ransom by it.

Collusion is not a crime, but that does not mean it did not take place. And those that see collusion in everything, I believe, are inaccurate and dilute the meaning of the word.

Maybe the key question is not about what the reports from my office contain, but rather what we all do with the facts that are brought forward.

Certainly, using the information to seek to defend 'us' and attack 'them' does us all a disservice.

The way in which Police Ombudsman's reports into current policing matters are largely received by all those with an interest in getting to the truth and improving policing gives me optimism that things can be dealt with in a different way.

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