Garda Ombudsman powers should be strengthened urgently, says O’Loan

Office should be able to investigate force’s most senior officers

Former  Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland  Nuala O’Loan. File Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

Former Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland Nuala O’Loan. File Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

Mon, Feb 17, 2014, 00:16

“The fact that the Garda Ombudsman does not have complete powers in a serious problem,” Northern Ireland’s first Police Ombudsman has said.

Nuala O’Loan said it was “a matter of urgency” that the legislation underpinning the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission ought to be reviewed to grant powers of investigation to senior officers including the Commissioner.

The State whould not have to confront this type of situation again, she said.

She further recommended that the position liaison officer, presently taken from the Garda, to act as a go-between between the Ombudsman and the Garda should be held by someone from outside the force.

Referring to her experiences as the first Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland, Dame Nuala said tensions between the force and the oversight body were inevitable.

“We know that from the beginning, from the establishment of the Garda Ombudsman there have been tensions between the Garda and the Garda Ombudsman,” she told RTÉ Radio today.

“That’s not surprising. There were tensions between my office and the police in Northern Ireland and there are tensions across the world where you have independent investigators. There are certainly tensions in England and Wales where the independent police complaints commission operates.”

She further said that routine security sweeping of offices and communication systems was necessary and results ought to be kept secret. Such practices were “good housekeeping”, she said.

“The reality is that anybody who is doing investigations in the way that the Garda Ombudsman is, and indeed as I did, needs to bear in mind that there are people who might want to infiltrate you. It is just good housekeeping to carry out security sweeps. We did it. We never told anyone we were doing it. We never told anyone the results but we did it. You have to do it.

“You have to identify your possible attackers,” she said. “There are organised criminals who might have corrupt police officers working with them. Or you have to bear in mind that, yes, the police may wish to listen to what you are doing. It is common sense.

“You have to keep an open mind. And you can’t be put off by expressions of outrage by the Garda. I’m not going to talk about how often we would have done it (security sweeps), but we would have done it at intervals. We would have done it as good housekeeping simply and we would always have been risk-assessing the possibility that someone might have had an even greater interest in what we were doing at a particular time in a particular investigation and we would therefore have been keeping an eye on any necessary counter-intrusion techniques that we needed to sue. I’m not going to be more specific than that, but it is good housekeeping.”

She added: “I would not have told anyone the results because by so doing you are telling them how your systems operate. If you tell somebody that then that means that somebody who wants to compromise your systems has further useful information.”

Dame Nuala, now a member of the House of Lords at Westminster, said she could not comment on the decision by GSOC chairman Simon O’Brien to apologise for not informing the Minister for Justice of his concerns that Gsoc security had been breached.

“That was a decision that GSOC made and Simon O’Brien has not apologised for not informing the Minister. I presume he is now saying he might have made a different decision. I am not privy to his decision-making process or to the full information that informed his decision. I know it’s a very difficult decision.”

She said her office was investigating the RUC when she began to suspect that RUC Special Branch and the Chief Constable had “an information system that the police had which they weren’t telling us about”.

“Sure enough we found out that there was,” she said. “I didn’t report that immediately. I did it at the end [of the investigation] because I felt it was right that the public should know that this had happened. Simon O’Brien is now saying that, as I understand it, perhaps he should have told the Minister and that is something he had to deal with. It’s always difficult to decide when and how to make the announcement you have to make.”

Asked if there should be an inquiry and if she is available to head it, she said: “I think that is a matter for the Irish State, it’s not for me to comment on. What I’m interested here is the fact that it is profoundly important that the focus remain on the difficulties the Garda Ombudsman have in relation to the work that they do and that their powers really need to be advance. The country does not want to find itself dealing with this situation again.”

She agreed the legislation underpinning the office needs to be overhauled.

“In running an office like this you have to work with the Government but I do know that the last time I was there, there were serving Garda officers in the office of the Garda Ombudsman whose function was a liaison function between the Garda Ombudsman and the police.

“That is a process I would not have and I certainly wouldn’t be an Ombudsman if I had no power to investigate chief officers because you really are working in a way that is impossible. Any officers could say to you ‘the chief told me’ to do this and if there is something wrong you can’t investigate the chief. I would regard this as a matter of urgency.”