Looming court showdown could have major impact on cases
The Police Ombudsman For Northern Ireland (PONI) is facing an unprecedented three-pronged legal action challenging a recent damning report that could pause any progress on dozens of historic investigations, the Sunday Life can reveal.
Marie Anderson’s office is still wading through an already huge backlog — the fallout to lengthy litigation following findings of police “collusion” in the UVF murders of six Catholics in a bar in the village of Loughinisland in 1994.
That legal action, taken by the organisation representing retired police officers, wasn’t successful but did find that the then-Ombudsman had acted beyond his powers.
Sunday Life can reveal the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association (NIRPOA) is also behind this latest court move.
But it’s not acting alone. Another influential body is on board this looming battle: the Police Federation For Northern Ireland (PFNI), which represents rank and file officers. Also involved and putting their name to the action is a retired officer.
The development will be viewed as significant because it’s the first time two major players in policing have joined forces in this way.
“This has been on the cards for some time. It shows the strength of feeling out there,” said a source.
This new court action centres on a critical report over the RUC’s handling of almost 20 murders by the UDA/UFF in north-west Northern Ireland in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including the Greysteel and Castlerock massacres.
Operation Greenwich, published back in January, found many shortcomings, with the Ombudsman concluding that concerns raised by bereaved families about “collusive behaviours” were legitimate and justified.
The Ombudsman’s office has confirmed to Sunday Life that it has received correspondence advising of a potential legal challenge to Operation Greenwich.
“The Police Ombudsman has been advised that an application for a judicial review seeking the statement’s withdrawal has been lodged by a retired police officer, the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association and the Police Federation For Northern Ireland,” said a spokesperson.
Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson is considering the matter and would be “robustly defending” the legal challenge, added the spokesperson.
A spokesperson for NIRPOA said: “We have issued pre-action protocol letters. However, at this stage, the court as not granted leave for the judicial review and it would be improper for us to comment further at this time.”
The PFNI told Sunday Life: “We are very conscious of the families of victims affected by the horrific incidents, but for some time now the Police Federation For Northern Ireland has been concerned over the questionable approach and tone adopted by the office of the Police Ombudsman in relation to legacy cases.
“We have seen sweeping conclusions in PONI reports which appear to be based on opinion rather than evidence.
“We believe it is time to legally challenge the office of the Ombudsman, which is why we are seeking leave to apply for a judicial review in the High Court. We have joined with the Retired Police Officers Association, who feel particularly aggrieved at attempts to blacken the reputation and heroic work they did to thwart terrorism from whatever quarter and safeguard people and property.”
When the findings of Operation Greenwich were published, PSNI bosses said sorry for the litany of mistakes during what was a very turbulent time during the Troubles.
But there has been deep disquiet behind the scenes over how much these type of reports are damaging policing today.
Others have been more forthright in their criticism of the watchdog, questioning how it comes to a key finding such as “collusive behaviours”.
Supporters of the PONI and its work have told Sunday Life they believe this latest move is simply an attempt to block some uncomfortable truths from getting out.