The North's Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, is taking an unprecedented legal case against the PSNI Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, claiming he is obstructing his investigation of more than 60 murders.
Dr Maguire confirmed yesterday that he is to initiate a judicial review seeking to compel the PSNI to provide him with information he requires to allow him to carry out his functions. The ombudsman said that “investigations into the circumstances surrounding more than 60 deaths – both those from the past and more recently – have now been stalled by a PSNI refusal to provide certain material”.
It is understood the investigations which Dr Maguire contends are being frustrated include the UVF murders of six people who were watching the Ireland versus Italy World Cup game at the Heights Bar in Loughinisland in 1994 and the IRA murder of RUC constable Colleen McMurray in Newry, Co Down, in 1992.
Dr Maguire is being represented by the former director of prosecutions for England and Wales, Keir Starmer QC. Two weeks ago the ombudsman issued Mr Baggott with a deadline for receipt of the information, which he says he is entitled to, but that deadline has now passed.
The ombudsman said he was compelled to take legal action because “despite repeated requests over past months the PSNI has on more than 100 occasions either refused to provide information to the office or has said that it must first explain and justify why the material is wanted”.
The information relates to more than 60 murders that happened before and after the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Dr Maguire insists his office has a role in these inquiries.
He is seeking to investigate claims that both RUC and PSNI officers did not conduct proper murder inquiries because they were protecting informers or that there was police collusion in the murders.
“The police have taken the view that they will decide whether or not to provide us with information and in many cases have now decided not to,” said Dr Maguire.
The decision to take legal action was “unusual and unfortunate but necessary”, said the ombudsman. “The many thousands of people who make complaints to us every year do so on the basis that we have access to all the police information we need to independently investigate their complaint. That principle is enshrined in law and accepted across the community. Investigation by negotiation is not acceptable,” added Dr Maguire.
In response, the PSNI said in a statement it understood its statutory responsibilities and was seeking to agree a solution “around these complicated and sometimes, unfortunately, competing legal issues”. It added: “PSNI believes that it has responded appropriately to each request, giving careful consideration on a case by case basis, to ensure that the respective legal requirements are met. PSNI will continue to work with PONI to seek to get an agreement over our respective obligations and ensure we both have shared understanding of the legal framework.”
Sinn Féin Policing Board member Caitríona Ruane said Dr Maguire must be allowed “unimpeded access” to the information he seeks, while SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said it was “a sad day for Northern Ireland” that the ombudsman felt he had no option but to take such action.
The Policing Board will discuss the issue with Mr Baggott tomorrow. “Police co-operation and the provision of information to the institutions with legislative responsibility for delivering independent oversight and accountability of the PSNI is critical,” said a Policing Board spokeswoman.