Belfast Telegraph

Police face court over refusal to release details of 60 Troubles murders including World Cup bar massacre in Northern Ireland

By Deborah McAleese and PA

The Police Ombudsman is to take the PSNI to court for refusing to provide information on police probes into 60 deaths, including the Loughinisland massacre.

Ombudsman Michael Maguire said that despite repeated requests in recent months the PSNI has failed to provide information to his office on more than 100 occasions.

He has now advised the PSNI that legal proceedings, in the form of a Judicial Review, is to be launched against the Chief Constable Matt Baggott "to compel the PSNI to provide his office with the information he requires to allow him to carry out his functions".

The action centres on recent and historic cases, that involve the deaths of 60 people. It is understood that one of the cases is the Loughinisland murders when loyalist gunmen killed six people as they watched the 1994 World Cup in the village bar.

The PSNI defended their position and said they had met their legal obligations but had to balance the release of sensitive information with the right to protect life.

Dr Maguire said that investigations have "been stalled by a PSNI refusal to provide certain material".

He added: "The police have taken the view that they will decide whether or not to provide us with information and in many cases have now decided not to.

"We cannot have a situation where any public body, and particularly the police, can decide whether or not it will cooperate with a criminal or misconduct investigation, particularly where legislation requires them to do so."

Dr Maguire said the legal action was unusual and unfortunate but necessary, adding : "The many thousands of people who make complaints to us every year do so on the basis that we have access to all the police information we need to independently investigate their complaint.

"That principle is enshrined in law and accepted across the community. Investigation by negotiation is not acceptable."

The PSNI said that while it recognises the statutory responsibility to provide information to the Police Ombudsman, it has a "legal responsibility for the care and management of all information that it holds", a responsibility which is taken "extremely seriously".

A PSNI spokeswoman said that police "are currently seeking to agree a solution with PONI (Police Ombudsman Northern Ireland) around these complicated, and sometimes unfortunately competing, legal issues.

"We will continue to fulfil our legal obligations with the primary consideration being that of protecting life."

The Policing Board said that the legal action by the Police Ombudsman is "a matter of great concern".

"Police cooperation and the provision of information to the institutions with legislative responsibility for delivering independent oversight and accountability of the PSNI is critical," a spokeswoman for the Policing Board said.

In September the Ombudsman signed an agreement with chief constable Matt Baggott covering how requests for information are made and related procedures.

The ombudsman's office said: "However, investigations into the circumstances surrounding more than 60 deaths - both those from the past and more recently - have now been stalled by a PSNI refusal to provide certain material."

The ombudsman's office includes a team of independent detectives drawn from outside Northern Ireland.

Relations have often been uneasy between members of the two organisations.

In October the association representing retired police officers said it will not encourage its members to engage with the ombudsman on certain historical investigations where breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights are alleged.

The body said an independent legal mechanism for assessing evidence should be introduced.

Then the ombudsman said the "extraordinary" actions of the former officers reinforced the need to be able to compel officers to assist its investigations and to produce all documentation in their possession.

Last year an inspection report said the PSNI was "co-operating" with the ombudsman over sensitive information.

Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland (CJI) examined the relationship between the two organisations.

There were concerns the PSNI was being unhelpful in supporting the ombudsman's investigations into historical cases.

On Tuesday an inquest preliminary hearing in Belfast was told it could be months before an ombudsman investigation into the 2005 death of a Belfast man shot during a loyalist feud was ready.

A lawyer for Craig McCausland's family, Padraig O' Muirigh, said the judicial review against the PSNI would be welcomed by many victims' relatives.

"It is an unprecedented move by the police ombudsman to take these measures."

The Policing Board, made up of political and independent members, oversees the force and makes major appointments.

A spokeswoman said: "Police cooperation and the provision of information to the institutions with legislative responsibility for delivering independent oversight and accountability of the PSNI is critical.

"The application for leave for judicial review by the Police Ombudsman is very significant and a matter of great concern. Board members will discuss this with the chief constable at its meeting this week."

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