In October 2000 the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (OPONI), with Dame Nuala O’Loan the first holder of the post. The Patten Report had considered the creation of such an office essential to achieving police accountability and a core element of ensuring a ‘new beginning’ in policing here. Since then it has been lauded internationally as the blue print for civilian complaints mechanisms.
Ten years on and all does not seem to be well in the Office. In April it was reported that the Chief Executive of OPONI, Sam Pollock, who had been in post since the office was created, had resigned over interference from senior civil servants. Both Al Hutchinson, the current Ombudsman, and the Department of Justice asserted the independence of the office and the propriety of the relationship. Nonetheless an inquiry was set up to investigate the allegations; this has yet to report.
In June CAJ published a reportinto the handling of historic inquiries by the Office. The report was highly critical of the reports of such investigations which have been published to date, primarily in terms of their findings on the issue of police collusion. Further, the report also documented numerous irregularities in the appointments process for the position of Ombudsman. CAJ expressed serious concerns as to the independence and impartiality of the Office. You can see an interview with Aideen Gilmore, Deputy Director of CAJ here. Many of the concerns raised were refuted by the Department of Justice.
But this week the issue has reached a new level of intensity with calls now being made for Al Hutchinson to resign. The Criminal Justice Inspectorate has been conducting its own investigation into the historic cases. This weekend the findings of the report have apparently been leaked and published by The Detail. It seems to be damning:
• A “lowering of independence” in the ombudsman’s office means it should now be suspended from investigating historic murders
• Ombudsman reports were altered or rewritten to exclude criticism of police with no explanation
• Senior ombudsman officials demanded to be disassociated from investigation reports after their original findings were dramatically altered without reason
• Ombudsman staff investigating some of the worst atrocities of the Troubles believe key intelligence has been deliberately withheld from them
• CJI inspectors uncovered major “inconsistencies” in ombudsman investigations of the Loughinisland, McGurks and Claudy atrocities
The response has been calls for Mr Hutchinson’s resignation from the Pat Finuncane Centre, British Irish Rights Watch and the Sinn Fein spokesperson on policing. The report should be launched very soon, but if these reports are true it is very worrying indeed, particular given how essential the work of the office has been to policing in Northern Ireland over the past decade.