Belfast Telegraph

Ombudsman 'smeared' officers with Loughinisland collusion report

Former RUC officers challenge Police Ombudsman findings in High Court

By Alan Erwin

Northern Ireland's Police Ombudsman had no legal power to publish "damning" findings of RUC collusion with loyalists who massacred six Catholic men, the High Court has heard.

Counsel for a group of former officers claimed the watchdog report into the Loughinisland atrocity smeared their names without a proper chance to respond.

The legality of the published conclusions is the subject of a rehearing after a judge who heard the original case stepped aside to ensure bereaved relatives' confidence in the final outcome.

Raymond White, representing the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers' Association, is seeking to have the Ombudsman's report quashed.

UVF gunmen opened fire at the Heights Bar in Loughinisland, Co Down as their victims watched a World Cup football match in June 1994.

The men killed were: Adrian Rogan, 34, Malcolm Jenkinson, 53, Barney Green, 87, Daniel McCreanor 59, Patrick O'Hare, 35, and Eamon Byrne, 39. Five others were also wounded in the attack.

In June 2016 the Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, said collusion between some officers and the loyalists was a significant feature in the murders.

He found no evidence police had prior knowledge, but identified "catastrophic failings" in the investigation.

A challenge mounted by Mr White and Ronald Hawthorne, a former sub-divisional police commander, resulted in a ruling last December that the report was procedurally unfair.

Mr Justice McCloskey said it failed to make clear the findings did not apply to Mr Hawthorne.

But lawyers representing the Ombudsman and victims' families argued that the judge should withdraw due to his role as a barrister in separate litigation 16 years ago.

Despite rejecting claims that he could be seen as unintentionally biased, Mr Justice McCloskey consented to a limited re-hearing in front of a judicial colleague.

The watchdog also agreed to remove any references to Mr Hawthorne from its report to ensure he is not connected to any alleged wrongdoing - a move seen as complete vindication for the former police commander.

As the fresh hearing got underway before Mrs Justice Keegan, it was stressed that the retired officers unequivocally support the function and role of Dr Maguire and his team in scrutinising police conduct and holding officers to account.

David McMillen QC said: "This is a question about the extent of the Ombudsman's powers, not a challenge to the institution of the Ombudsman in itself."

Central to the case is the claim that insufficient rights were given to those subject to final determinations.

Mr McMillen told the court his clients do not accept the Ombudsman's power to investigate and publish conclusions in the way it did.

"We say his findings and determinations were damning and they traduced the good name of the officers concerned without the opportunity to respond," counsel claimed.

"We also dispute the factual content and findings of the report in almost every respect."

Setting out his clients' case, the barrister also acknowledged the scale of the outrage at the Heights Bar.

"Six people were brutally murdered by terrorists in an attack motivated by pure sectarianism," he said.

"It's one of those landmark cases in the terrible history of the Troubles were almost everybody remembers where they were when they heard of the atrocity."

Barra McGrory QC, representing the Police Ombudsman, countered that the Police (Northern Ireland) Act gave his client the required statutory power to make the determinations contained in his public statement.

But Mr McMillen claimed everything had been "lumped in" as potentially criminal activity.

"What could be more explosive than when the Police Ombudsman promulgated this report and said there was collusion?" he asked.

"The Ombudsman was bound to know that was the only word picked up and repeated ad nauseam in the press and by certain members of the public who would be quite properly outraged by a finding that there was collusion."

Following final submissions Mrs Justice Keegan confirmed she was reserving judgment on the challenge.

The case continues.

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