Belfast Telegraph

'After my term as the Police Ombudsman ended I couldn't get a job here, something about having no leadership skills... I wasn't nominated to House of Lords, I applied. Thankfully I was accepted, and I just love the place now'

Baroness O'Loan on her fight against abortion, her tears for victims of Troubles, and making friends with unionist critics in Upper House

Former Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan
Former Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan
Nuala O’Loan being made a Dame by the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2008
Nuala O'Loan, former Police Ombudsman, and her husband Declan
Serving as Police Ombudsman in 2006
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Q. You recently secured the DUP's support to challenge the abortion amendment in the House of Lords. Given the friction with the party when you were Police Ombudsman, was that uncomfortable?

A. No, not at all. It was a very positive development to see a united voice from Northern Ireland. It shows how much human life is valued here. The letter from Lord Eames and myself to the British Government opposing the amendment secured around 20,000 signatures.

They included politicians and Church leaders from across the community. My speech in the Lords was played in one Presbyterian church. It's been an amazing show of cross-community solidarity. Not a single Northern Ireland MP or peer supported the abortion amendment.

Q. But your views are out of step with public opinion. The Republic voted overwhelmingly to lift its ban on abortion and polls here show a majority in favour of liberalising the law. Aren't you Canute-like trying to stop the tide?

A. I was very disappointed with the referendum result in the Republic. I spend a lot of time there and have asked people why they voted that way. Many men have told me they don't think they should have an opinion, that it's up to the woman. Well, it takes two to produce a child. People have become more liberal on abortion out of pragmatism, not because they believe it's morally right.

Politics operates in cycles. The tide will turn - it's happening in the US where they are rowing back from abortion. One day another generation will look back in horror and say: "Why did they kill their babies?"

Q. As Ombudsman you were known for your empathy with victims. When you hear the stories of Sarah Ewart and other women with crisis pregnancies, does it not alter your viewpoint?

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A. I have huge sympathy for Sarah Ewart and for all women in that situation. But these things aren't simple. I look at the other side, too. Parents have been told their baby will have Down's. They've opted for an abortion and later found out the diagnosis was wrong. A friend was told her baby had anencephaly. She didn't have an abortion. The baby was healthy.

I understand that some pregnant women face difficult social and economic circumstances. But a lack of support is not a reason to kill the baby. We can spend millions going to war with Iraq. We need to get the services right to enable women to have their babies.

Q. Abortion is due to be decriminalised here if devolution isn't restored by October 21 with new regulations in place by March. Can campaigners like yourself stop it?

A. No, the big battle is lost and I'm profoundly sad about that. Sinn Fein won't do a deal with the DUP before the deadline. They'd only have to fight for abortion and same-sex marriage again in the Assembly.

It's far easier for them to let London legislate. That just leaves them the job of reaching accommodation with the DUP on an Irish Language Act, which is very doable.

Q. So where does your anti-abortion campaign go now?

A. I've tabled an amendment in the Lords seeking the postponement of the repeal of the Offences Against the Person Act until the new system is in place in March.

I'm deeply concerned about that five-month limbo period. During it there will be no room for conscientious objection among medical staff. Abortion pills can be given out in schools and parents may not know if their underage daughters have taken them.

Q. Did you oppose the same-sex marriage amendment?

A. No, I didn't. As a Catholic I believe in sacramental marriage but it's entirely within the remit of the State to legalise same-sex marriage.

Q. You're 10 years in the House of Lords. Given your history of challenging the Establishment as Police Ombudsman, is it really a natural fit for you?

A. Well, I wasn't nominated to the Lords, I applied for membership. After I finished my seven years as Police Ombudsman in 2007 I couldn't get a job in Northern Ireland.

I applied for several posts but wasn't successful. I asked why once. I was told that I "didn't have leadership skills".

The writing was on the wall for me in Northern Ireland. My husband Declan (O'Loan, former SDLP councillor) said I should look elsewhere. He suggested the House of Lords. I am delighted its appointments commission accepted my application. I love being in the Lords. It's where laws are made and I've been able to contribute to the recent abortion and Brexit debates, and many others over the past decade.

Q. A fellow Northern Ireland peer is Lord Maginnis. When you were Police Ombudsman in 2001 he likened you to "a suicide bomber" and said you had "outlived (your) usefulness". What is your relationship with him like?

A. Ken apologised to me a long time ago. He is one of those people that I never thought I'd get to know but the House of Lords changed that and I'm glad.

I believe what he said placed my security and that of my family at risk at the time. But I accepted his apology. It's water under the bridge and I get on fine with him now.

Q. Who impresses you in the House of Lords?

A. It's been my privilege to get to know Lord McColl. He and his late wife June were doctors. They spent most of their holidays working on hospital Mercy Ships abroad. They restored the sight of countless African children suffering from river blindness.

There is Baroness Campbell who was born with spinal muscular atrophy. She uses a wheelchair and relies on a ventilator to breathe. Speaking is very hard for her yet she is an indefatigable campaigner for the disabled. She is an inspirational woman, tiny, and wears the most beautiful clothes in jewel tones.

I have also been pleased to get to know Lord Trimble. I was impressed with what he said about his daughter Vicky and her (gay) marriage. He is a very brave and good man whose contribution to Northern Ireland isn't recognised enough.

Q. As a democrat, do you believe the House of Lords should be abolished?

A. No, I don't. It's in a process of constant reform. I disagree with hereditary peers, but I don't support political parties nominating either. They end up just rewarding faithful servants.

I'm against an elected second House. It would present too many problems. Imagine a Labour MP and a Conservative peer for the same constituency?

The independent commission currently appoints some peers and I think that should be extended to cover the entire House. It works well. If the commission sees a skills deficit in one area - like medicine or architecture - it appoints peers from that field. The Lords is far more meritocratic than people think. It has plenty of high-calibre members, but we certainly need more women, as only around 25% are female.

Q. You were born in England. Tell me about your childhood and how did you come to Northern Ireland?

A. I was born in Hertfordshire, the eldest of eight children. My father was a solicitor's clerk from Dublin. He died when I was 13 and I helped raise my brothers and sisters. We didn't have much money.

I won a scholarship to a boarding school, and went on to study law at King's College, London.

Declan was a student there and we met at a dance in the Catholic chaplaincy.

He is what brought me to Northern Ireland. We have five sons and two grandchildren.

Q. Has Northern Ireland been home since you married?

A. No. In early married life we decided we wanted an adventure. We gave up our jobs, rented out our home and set off for the African bush.

We had one son and I was seven months pregnant with my second baby so I couldn't be vaccinated against cholera or typhoid. I dismissed all warnings of health risks and told those delivering them that women had babies in the bush all the time. I gave birth in a very primitive hospital and developed malaria.

But I fell in love with Africa and never regretted my time there. You have to leave your comfort zone and do things you never thought you would. Otherwise, you become smug and useless.

Q. Marie Anderson has recently taken over from Dr Michael Maguire as the Police Ombudsman. Do you have any advice for her?

A. It's a very tough job. My guiding principle was that everything I did should be evidence-led. You have to be accountable and respectful to everyone. Above all you must be impartial. Marie is very capable and I wish her well.

Q. Do you support an amnesty for Troubles-related offences?

A. No. Very few cases from the 1970s and 1980s will end up before the courts because evidence gets lost and witnesses die. But an amnesty is incompatible with international human rights standards. It doesn't send out the right message either. How can we prosecute kids for throwing stones at the police but not prosecute someone for murder if the evidence exists? You cannot ignore serious crimes and operate only when it is politically convenient. If you do, people won't respect the law - and that is a difficult and dangerous place to be in.

Q. Do you believe that severely injured former paramilitaries should be entitled to a victims' pension?

A. I understand objections to compensating those who themselves planted bombs or took life. I realise how that would cause distress. But I can also see how people became involved in the Troubles because of their environment growing up. I don't know if it's the right approach to be judgmental about it 40 or 50 years later. If someone is living in poverty and facing serious health issues, is it so wrong to give them a pension which would pay for a carer rather than have the duty of looking after them fall to a child or grandchild? It's like prisoner releases, a very difficult situation but one we must face up to.

Q. As Police Ombudsman you wept when hearing victims' stories. Have you stayed in touch with families?

A. Yes, I have, particularly through the charity Wave. The cases of the Disappeared in particular have touched me deeply. There are so many people still fighting for justice. I stay in contact with the Omagh bomb families. I try to go as often as I can to the memorial service in August.

I did cry at times when I was Ombudsman. Tears are a necessary indulgence. I put them away to do the job properly. I was no use to anyone if my emotions took over.

Q. You had called for Karen Bradley to be sacked as Secretary of State. What would you like Julian Smith to do differently?

A. First and foremost, he must listen to all sides of the community. He needs to be much more active than his predecessor, especially on the talks front. He should get out and about more too.

I hope he does his homework and understands the nuances here in a way that Karen Bradley never did. Nuance is very important in Northern Ireland.

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