Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Shock revelation will hurt force's credibility in eyes of nationalists

Review: Dr Michael Maguire
Review: Dr Michael Maguire
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

It's a sign of how seriously the PSNI took the Police Ombudsman's latest revelation that it held a press conference to address the matters raised before they were even in the public domain.

Four hours after Dr Michael Maguire yesterday issued a statement - embargoed until midnight - PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin appeared at an embargoed press conference.

The force clearly didn't want this story breaking without its response included. It's fully aware of how much is at stake.

The PSNI's failure to disclose "significant sensitive information" to Dr Michael Maguire's office is not just a legacy issue. It affects how nationalists view police in the here and now.

The force's handling of Troubles-related issues has already undermined its credibility with the community it is so eager to court. Its reputation will take another battering with the latest revelation.

Dr Maguire's office and the PSNI have been at odds about much over the years but, on this one, the force yesterday put its hands up and took a hit.

It apologised unreservedly and announced that it sought to give the ombudsman full and unfettered access to its legacy systems. That's a very significant and long-overdue step.

Expect some politicians who have an instinctive antipathy for Dr Michael Maguire's office to oppose this move. But it should be remembered that the ombudsman is not just for one community. He deals with cases brought by bereaved families from every section of society, including relatives of murdered security force members.

The PSNI insists it didn't deliberately withhold any information. Mr Martin said it could not deal with the volume of legacy material. There are 44 million pages of records. They aren't stored in one place, but are on paper, microfiche and microfilm, at a range of locations.

Yet given our history, victims' families understandably remain dubious. The Kingsmill families were highly sceptical when in 2016 a palm print found on the getaway van was finally matched to a suspect. The PSNI had mistakenly failed to match it twice. The 30 families of UFF victims affected by the latest mistake are equally distrustful.

Fionnbharra O'Hagan was just five years old when his father Bernard, a Sinn Fein councillor, was shot dead by the UFF outside Magherafelt College where he lectured. He had been told shortly beforehand that Army files containing his details had fallen into loyalist hands.

The O'Hagans have long claimed collusion. Nobody was ever arrested over the 1991 murder. The family say that although many staff and students witnessed the killing, only two witness statements were presented at the inquest.

Mr O'Hagan said the ombudsman's revelation reinforced his historical view of police. "There was no transparency then and there is none now," he said.

It's the PSNI's battle for the hearts and minds of younger nationalists that is really what's at stake in this latest controversy.

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