The appointment of Nuala O’Loan as the first independent Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland in 1999 was scathingly criticised by nationalists in the North, according to declassified State papers which have been released for public viewing.
In confidential documents, the head of the Anglo-Irish division of the Department of Foreign Affairs said the appointment had “privately drawn a highly critical reaction from the nationalist side”.
Seán Ó hUiginn wrote that in public the SDLP’s response was to wish her well and look forward to the additional powers to be given to the post. However, “in private the reaction has been quite scathing. There is severe disappointment at the O’Loan designation, which is viewed as being unimpressive and as catering to a minimalist functioning of the new post. Far from being a confidence-building measure, the appointment is being seen as amounting to an effective ‘shackling’ of the post of Police Ombudsman.”
Ó hUiginn wrote that he had lunch with Maurice Hayes — the retired northern senior civil servant and former senator — who had been responsible for writing the terms of reference for the position of ombudsman.
“He was also very critical of the appointment,” wrote Ó hUiginn. “He does not feel that O’Loan has the background or the ability to prove a truly independent and effective Police Ombudsman (‘a complete wet’).
“He had had in mind someone like a Reggie Weir or a Desmond Boal — a lawyer of stature and experience. Apart from such factors, however, Hayes felt that her presence on the Police Authority should have sufficed to have ruled her out of contention.”
The fears of nationalist politicians turned out to be unfounded. O’Loan was ombudsman for seven years until 2005 and was regularly condemned by unionist politicians for her reports on Police Service of Northern Ireland investigations, not least her highly critical report on the police response to the Omagh bombing in 1998. She was elected to the House of Lords shortly after her retirement from the position.
Other files disclose candid views on public figures of the day, with Patrick Mayhew a source of particularly colourful opinions. In a meeting with minister for foreign affairs David Andrew in 1992, the Northern Ireland secretary described SDLP leader John Hume as being possessed of “satanic cunning” and said DUP leader Ian Paisley was “this extraordinarily dated creature [who] should not be allowed to dictate a downward course in the talks”.
Mayhew also said the UUP were “thick” but reserved his most pungent criticism for Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis who had made an unhelpful speech in the preceding weeks. Andrews said Maginnis “might be advised to speak from prepared notes in future”.
To which Mayhew replied: “He is a great monstrous butcher who extrudes a speech from his mincer.”