RUC: guilty until proved innocent?

An interesting response from the Northern Ireland Retired Officers’ Association, which argues that a more robust scrutiny of the report, “would have done much to temper the outrageous comments of certain other public organisations with police and human rights related responsibilities, political parties with an anti-RUC agenda and other commentators”. The full statement below:

On Monday 22nd January 2007 the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland issued a very damning report on Special Branch and the RUCGC/PSNI. That report lays very specific charges against a number of officers who were in service during the period under investigation. Those charges taken together, amount to the most serious allegations of criminality that could be laid against any professional police officer or his/her service.

Consequently we have looked in the report to find the evidence to support the charges and to justify the wholesale condemnation that has followed both within the report and the public arena. Such evidence is totally absent and in its place we found assertions, generalisations and allegations all masquerading as fact. More sinisterly, it was the glaring omissions that are of most concern, as they allowed for the gross distortion and misrepresentation to the police and public alike, that this report represented a comprehensive, professionally and impartially conducted investigation.

Nothing could be further from the truth; the report is riddled with inaccuracies, contradictions and vindictive assertions but most serious of all and for reasons known only to the Ombudsman at this stage, is the deliberate failure to complete enquiries to the breadth, scope and minute detail that an investigation of this magnitude and seriousness demands.

As a consequence of this failure to apply even the minimum standard of professional competence, rigour and investigative discipline to the enquiry the Ombudsman has produced a seriously flawed report.

The false assertions in the report start with the Ombudsman’s claim that she encountered difficulty with the refusal of a number of retired RUCGC/PSNI officers to cooperate with the enquiry. This is a gross distortion of fact. Some officers, but not all, were invited to have an “informal talk” at the early stages of the enquiry, as the report states “simply being asked to provide an explanation of Special Branch and CID internal practices during this period”.

As this was an investigation into serious crime, and in the knowledge that no professional investigative body would ever invite those included within the scope of such a serious enquiry for an “informal talk”, and in the additional knowledge that without having heard what any officer would have to say, it was grossly irresponsible of the Ombudsman to be inducing cooperation by offering witness status to anyone or to imply that that would remain the status of such persons throughout the enquiry.

The caution which was exercised in respect of this unusual request has been justified by the treatment meted out to other officers who initially accepted this assurance and then found themselves interviewed under caution and reported to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) for prosecution.

However, despite this well warranted caution, we made a comprehensive written response to the Ombudsman so that there would be a record of our contact. We, from our collective recall, gave her considerable information as to where the policy and operational directives she sought could be located. These set out in detail the internal practices applicable to the period under investigation. We felt that this was a much better and speedier approach than individual officers trawling their memories to provide such background information, given that they had no longer any access to official records and were not offered so.

Any subsequent professional judgement of the rights and wrongs of individual police officers’ actions or the corporate failure of the RUCGC/PSNI would have to be based on such material not personal recall which might, given the passage of time have been incomplete and misleading.

Thereafter, we held ourselves available for further interview. We expected that, as this was to be a professionally conducted enquiry, the next point of contact would be in relation to incident specific matters where detailed explanation would be sought from each officer as to the manner in which his duties were discharged and practices and policy applied. We were always conscious of the gravity of the matters under investigation and anticipated the very fine detail that investigators would have to apply, in order to take each and every line of enquiry to its ultimate conclusion. We expected that every rational explanation would be fully explored and evaluated so that in the final analysis the balanced conclusions reached would be supported by a substantive body of evidence that was unchallenged and acceptable to all concerned.

Regretfully, since the first contact by letter none of the senior officers was in further contact with the Ombudsman. No assistance was sought nor was anyone contacted relative to any of the long catalogue of serious occurrences set out in the report. We find it amazing and beyond belief that any investigation of this magnitude, that was being pursued with any degree of professionalism and competence, could have singularly avoided contact when quite clearly within the body of the report there are a vast number of issues that needed clarification and explanation if a balanced and thorough examination of such complex matters was to result.

Consequently we consider it to be an appalling failure and dereliction of investigative responsibility by the Ombudsman to have failed to interview each and every senior officer on matters specific to his role and responsibilities. It is inconceivable that the Ombudsman, given the fact she arrived at such damning conclusions of criminality on our part in her report, did not apparently at any stage of her three year investigation form even the most basic “reasonable suspicion” of guilt on our part sufficient to warrant calling us for interview as voluntary attendees or if refused then by arrest.

Was this a deliberate ploy on her part to avoid having any credible explanation of action, procedure or policy destroy what was a carefully crafted and limited investigation directed solely at eliciting only that information which supported conclusions arrived at in advance?

That will be for others to judge but it is hard to avoid considering this possibility given the absolutely feeble defence in her report that because we did not make ourselves available at the initial stages for an informal chat, that constituted an insurmountable barrier to an investigation of such magnitude and seriousness. It is derisory in the extreme given the powers of investigation vested in the post of Ombudsman to suggest that this was the case given the ease with which she was able to publicly pronounce our collective guilt.

We see ourselves not as victims but as ex public servants who have been let down by an investigative process that was incompetently directed, unprofessionally conducted and seriously incomplete in terms of its scope and attention to detail along obvious lines of enquiry. We have every respect and sympathy for the members of murder victims’ families and for those police officers doing their duty and any prolongation of the enquiry was not due in any respect to any action or inaction on our part.

As a consequence we totally reject the allegations contained in the report as being incapable of substantiation on the grounds cited in the report and as a result ask that the report be reviewed by an independent and competent authority whose conclusions will be wholly evidence based and devoid of emotive language or melodramatic import.

We again strenuously reject any knowledge of wrongdoing and would remind the public that the PPS has already directed ‘No Prosecution’ against any serving or former police officer, a key point seemingly being overlooked in the commentaries offered to date.

Representations have been made without adequate response to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Lord Chancellor, the Criminal Justice Inspectorate and the Cabinet Office.

A more robust scrutiny of her report would have done much to temper the outrageous comments of certain other public organisations with police and human rights related responsibilities, political parties with an anti-RUC agenda and other commentators. It is regrettable that previous complaints about the conduct of her office and how it discharges its responsibilities have been ignored.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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