Belfast Telegraph

Watchdog never capable of telling the whole story

The Police Ombudsman's critics must accept his office was never intended as a truth-recovery vehicle, says Alan Murray

Is Al Hutchinson doing a good job as Police Ombudsman? Notwithstanding that, will he survive the mounting reports criticising the competence of his office and his stewardship of it?

Whoever replaced Nuala O'Loan, even her critics would admit, was on the proverbial hiding to nothing.

Her high-profile cases couldn't have been higher - the Omagh bombing inquiry and the ring of police informers within the UVF in north Belfast, to name but two.

Her reports, although some may have legitimately queried their conclusions, soared high too in terms of the huge media interest that they generated.

Al Hutchinson would have toiled vainly to match Dame Nuala's propensity to titillate and shock via her conclusions - had he chosen to do so.

But from the off, Hutchinson resolved not to seek the media spotlight personally, or tread where Dame Nuala had sparkled.

But that isn't the essence of the criticism he has been facing. What has primarily been highlighted - and publicly criticised - is the manner of the running of his office.

The review presented to Justice Minister David Ford in June damningly referred to "weak leadership" and "toxic office politics" at the highest levels in the Police Ombudsman's office.

Mind you, such toxicity was not unknown during Dame Nuala's time and there existed a considerable measure of disquiet among experienced local staff about procedures and measures taken during O'Loan's tenure.

No systematic political meddling was identified in the report handed to Ford by the chairman of the Community Relations Council, Tony McCusker, who was asked to review the workings of the office following the resignation of the Ombudsman's chief executive, Sam Pollock.

A inquiry by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJI) has yet to be published, but if reports of the thrust of its content are accurate, then Hutchinson is portrayed as a man who has lost the trust of his senior investigators.

And if the CJI report does find that allegations of police wrongdoing during the Troubles may not have been fully and properly investigated, then Hutchinson may not survive long in office. Some victims' campaigners have already called for the former Mountie's resignation.

Hutchinson was saying nothing publicly yesterday, but investigators who have carried out inquiries into historical cases for other agencies point out that the Ombudsman is hugely restricted in his scope to make definitive findings on culpability.

"Almost without exception, no matter what case you look at from 40, or 30, or even 20, years ago, you will discover that the file is seldom complete," said one experienced source.

"Witnesses have perished, evidence has been destroyed, or lost, memories have faded and even files have been lost.

"You seldom can review an historical case without discovering that some critical material is missing, or that recollections crucially conflict." The source added: "It's not that you don't want to be positive and apportion blame; it's usually that the available evidence does not permit you to do that beyond doubt.

"The Ombudsman probably has suspicions in many cases that wrongs were done, but the evidence remaining precludes him from reaching the conclusion that someone is guilty."

Others familiar with the track on which Al Hutchinson may be coming to grief - the journey into our violent past - also point out that opinions are sharply divided on the role of the police overall.

"If it is on investigations into past events that Al Hutchinson's office is being criticised - and that does appear to be the case - then people have to accept that the Ombudsman's office is not a truth-recovery vehicle," said one legal source.

"Hutchinson and his teams of investigators might suspect that a police officer, or officers, have done wrong, but without the evidence he cannot reach that conclusion and publicly state that.

"A truth-recovery tribunal - if one is ever set up here - might, within its terms of reference, be able to offer that proposition, but the Police Ombudsman's office is not able to go there."

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