Belfast Telegraph

Many pitfalls await next man to toe the Troubles tightrope

It should be a plum appointment. But the new police ombudsman will inherit an office in crisis, says Alan Murray

The salary is one of the highest on offer, the job interesting and challenging and the penalty for failure a generous retirement fund. So who wouldn't want the job of Police Ombudsman?

It won't be a question of who might be attracted by the post - more a battle of whom Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness can manage to agree on to fulfil the role for the foreseeable future.

And therein lies the problem. Will the new incumbent be a practitioner with a light touch? Or will Al Hutchinson's successor be of the heavy hand and stride towards the recesses of the past that plunged the former Mountie into controversy and, ultimately, disaster?

The Police Ombudsman's role should be the mechanism almost solely for determining how our Police Service functions and moderating any excesses that the current crop of officers perpetrate.

But in our tortured society the Police Ombudsman is expected to police the past, too; ever-mindful of the political sensitivities surrounding the different atrocities and controversies that are carted to his desk.

Nuala O'Loan enthusiastically embarked on excursions which took her into the very depths of the 'dirty war', garnering her enemies by the jeep-load as she stripped away layers of planned concealment and subterfuge. Al Hutchinson was never going to follow her lead and, whatever the reality of his efficacy in control of the helm of the good ship Police Ombudsman, the comments of his former chief executive, Sam Pollock, torpedoed him grievously below the water-line.

The Canadian's light touch on past alleged RUC misdemeanours may have been greatly flammed up for political reasons, but there are others with no political axe to grind who fulminate that investigations into more recent alleged shortcomings by serving officers were prevented from going for the jugular.

The Justice Ministry is currently considering what to do about one such allegation in relation to a reasonably simple complaint which ran into the sandbank within Hutchinson's office.

Whether we will ever know why that happened will depend on whether the Minister for Justice and his officials decide whether they need to know how the brick wall emerged and who constructed it. The First Minister is aware of the particular case, as is Sinn Fein, but the latter declined to press Hutchinson for answers for as-yet-unexplained reasons.

For Robinson and McGuinness, the overall difficulty will be agreeing on a Police Ombudsman who both can live with and whom their constituents can abide.

With the current incumbents of the Attorney General's office and the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions both hailing from the nationalist community, the appointment of a police ombudsman from a perceived nationalist background would leave Robinson at the mercy of another rampaging Jim Allister attack.

A police ombudsman who decided to pursue a path akin to Nuala O'Loan's warts-and-all probes would perhaps not be most welcomed by either Peter Robinson or even Martin McGuinness.

DUP aides are at pains to point out a wholesale revisiting of past alleged security force misdemeanours at the direction of the Attorney General is not on the agenda, as some have suggested, although the reopening of some inquests involving fatal security force actions may explore that avenue - regardless of Peter Robinson's assurances to the party faithful.

A prospective police ombudsman who felt inclined to plough that furrow would not be what the First Minister would welcome. Martin McGuinness, though, will be assessing candidates from a different perspective, so a meeting of OFMDFM minds will be a challenge.

Whoever is appointed to the post has major surgery to perform on a complement of investigators somewhat bewildered about what the preferred investigative line to follow is. Is it the most thorough, most rigorous probe with everyone pulled in for questioning no matter their standing in the community? Or is it a more light touch approach that recommends no more than future behaviour be improved? Who would follow Al?

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