NI police ombudsman to resist calls for resignation

Tue, Sep 6, 2011, 01:00

THE NORTHERN Ireland Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson has indicated he will resist calls for his immediate resignation following a damning report about a lowering of independence and a “dysfunctional administration” operating at his office.

The report, which was carried out at his request, found that the independence of his office has been compromised and that there has been a breakdown in trust among some senior officials in his office.

The report, conducted by the chief inspector of criminal justice in Northern Ireland Dr Michael Maguire, with “some exceptions” was happy with how the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (OPONI) was handling current cases but was strongly critical of its record in relation to historical cases.

The ombudsman has a watchdog function to scrutinise how the police carry out investigations but this report published yesterday identified “significant concerns” around “how sensitive, complex and high profile historical cases are currently investigated and handled”.

“The inspectorate believes that the ways in which the Police Ombudsman’s office has dealt with these cases has served to undermine rather than enhance its decision-making capacity. As a consequence of these contributory factors, its operational independence has been lowered,” said Dr Maguire.

Dr Maguire said his inquiry had “identified flawed investigative processes”. He also indicated that reports had been “heavily influenced and buffeted by feedback from non-governmental organisations, families, their legal representatives and the PSNI”.

“This has led to a lack of confidence in how the investigative processes are managed within the OPONI and an inconsistent approach to how families are briefed on the investigation findings,” said Dr Maguire.

He said there was evidence of “serious divisions” within senior management which have affected the operation of Mr Hutchinson’s office.

“This split created a dysfunctional environment that has impacted on the OPONI’s day-to-day functions and the morale and attitude of staff. It has also led to a fractured approach to governance and decision-making, particularly around the production of reports,” he added.

Dr Maguire’s report also raised questions about the ratio of former police to civilian staff working at the office, stating that civilian oversight was vital to the work of the ombudsman. One civilian staff member told of his perception that there was an agreement that there would be no references to RUC special branch in reports.

Dr Maguire made six recommendations, centrally urging that Mr Hutchinson should suspend investigation of historical cases until the office’s historical investigations directorate was “adequately resourced and becomes fully operational”.

This is the third recent report that has raised serious questions of how Mr Hutchinson’s office is functioning, and follows from complaints about his findings in high-profile historic cases such as the Claudy and McGurk’s bar bombings and the UVF attack on the Heights bar in Loughinisland, Co Down, in 1994.

It also comes in the wake of the office’s former chief executive Sam Pollock quitting his post in August complaining that the independence of the office had been undermined.

There were renewed calls yesterday for Mr Hutchinson to resign, with Sinn Féin justice spokesman Gerry Kelly stating the report was an indictment of his leadership. “The buck stops with Al Hutchinson and for public confidence in the ombudsman’s office to be repaired, he needs to go and go now.”

The ombudsman, however, indicated he would not stand down now but possibly some time in the coming months. While his contract runs to November 2014 he previously suggested he would resign in December next year when he is 65. It does seem, however, that he will go before December 2012. Mr Hutchinson, a former senior officer in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, said yesterday he welcomed the findings in Dr Maguire’s report and that he has now moved to address the areas of concern.

Mr Hutchinson said he would make clear when he would stand down when he is questioned by the justice committee of the Assembly at Stormont on Thursday.