Serious issues of independence and effectiveness in the Police Ombudsman’s Office

Sinn Féin’s policing spokesman Gerry Kelly has added his voice to calls for the removal of Al Hutchinson as Police Ombudsman and restoration of independence and effectiveness in the office.

Barry McCaffrey, over at The Detail, has seen the draft version of a Criminal Justice Inspectors report on the Office of the Police Ombudsman (OPONI) and it appears to make for damning reading. This follows swiftly on from the the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) publishing a report on Human Rights and Dealing with Historic Cases – A Review of the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland back in June.

For those interested in the headline conclusions, the CAJ report deals with the interpretative treatments given to the term ‘collusion’ in outputs from the various state organs investigating and reporting on ‘historic’ cases, generally involving fatalities, since the late 1960s. Specifically, the CAJ report highlights the absence of an operational definition of ‘collusion’. In examples cited in their report, a recurrent finding that an evidential test for ‘collusion’ does not appear to be met is mapped against continuous shifts in the contours of what is deemed to characterise ‘collusion’, consistently tilting the weight of the argument away from ‘collusion’ as a conclusion. Conventionally, this has facilitated a publicised finding of no collusion which has inevitably translated into the OPONI’s elevator pitch as to favourable overall outcomes of individual investigations.

Giving a perspective from someone with a close interest in the OPONI outputs, Ciarán MacAirt provided his personal response to the CAJ report at the time of publication. His research, as a family member of a victim of the McGurks Bar bombing, provides a humbling lesson for those who would like to believe that the professionals who recently ‘investigated’ the loyalist bombing produced a competent and considered account.

Beneath the headlines, the CAJ report plots a less sensationalist line. It traces the institutional origins of the Office of the Police Ombudsman (and includes the HET), not to the Peace Process, but to compliance with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights and various judgements of the European Court of Human Rights (specifically Jordan v UK). A core issue in Article 2 is consistent and impartial application of justice. On the basis of the CAJ report, operational consistency appears to be absent from the OPONI, particularly with respect to the loose deployment of terminology such as ‘collusion’ to avoid conclusions which would not be favourable to the police. While, in some respects, the CAJ report may appear innocuous, it may be the opening move in bringing the UK government back to the European Courts of Human Rights for its continued failure to implement Article 2.

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