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04 November 2013
Liam Gonzalez Bennett
An SDLP councillor has welcomed the launch of a Police Ombudsman probe in to how the PSNI conducted an investigation, after no one was prosecuted for the death of a Co Antrim toddler.
Declan O’Loan – whose wife Nuala formerly occupied the Ombudsman’s post – sent a letter of complaint to Dr Michael Maguire’s office, as he was troubled by details that emerged during the inquest earlier this month into the death of Liam Gonzalez Bennett.
Mr O’Loan said: “Someone needs to break in to this case to see if there can have been justification for no charges having been taken and to establish if there was failure in some part of the legal chain.
“The Police Ombudsman is well placed to begin the necessary inquiries, and I welcome the fact that he has done so.”
The 20-month-old died on February 8, 2009, the day after he was rushed to hospital from his home at Sunningdale Park in Ballymena, having suffered 31 head injuries, leading to blindness and brain death.
His mother Samantha Bennett and stepfather Paul Noel McKeown were arrested and were questioned several times. But no prosecution was ever brought, and police are not seeking anyone else in connection with the little boy’s death.
In court, Dr Alistair Bentley, Deputy State Pathologist for Northern Ireland, concluded the bruises on Liam’s head may have been caused by the “knuckles of a clenched fist”.
At Liam’s inquest, Coroner Suzanne Anderson requested that the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) look at the matter again.
Mr O’Loan said Mr Maguire had written to the coroner, Ms Anderson, seeking the reasons for her referral of the case back to the PPS and asking whether she had concerns about the quality of the police investigation.
He said the Ombudsman has also written to the DPP expressing an interest in the review that will take place and requesting that should the PPS identify any concerns about the adequacy of the police investigation, they refer the matter to him.
17 May 2012
The Police Ombudsman’s Office has admitted it kept body parts of four victims of unexplained deaths without telling relatives.
On Wednesday, the PSNI apologised for retaining 71 items of human tissue, including bones and organs, from 64 people, including 23 related to the Troubles, without letting families know.
The Ombudsman’s office carried out an internal audit after the Association of Chief Police Officers investigation.
“The people in question died in incidents during the period from 2001 to 2006, all of which have been subject to Police Ombudsman investigation,” a spokesperson said.
The Ombudsman’s Office said it regrets not providing victims’ relatives with the information sooner.
April 19 2012
Controversy surrounding the Police Ombudsman’s office has created a “confidence issue” for the justice system, a senior civil servant has said.
Nick Perry is Permanent Secretary of the Department of Justice and former director-general of criminal justice and policing in the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).
His new department, which was formed after the devolution of justice, inherited the law and order powers previously held by the NIO and also took on large numbers of experienced NIO staff.
But both organisations became embroiled in the long-running controversy over the independence of the Police Ombudsman’s Office, which saw a freeze on its handling of historic cases from the Troubles.
Asked if the dispute had eroded public confidence in the justice system, Mr Perry said allegations of major Government interference in the policing watchdog had been proved “fundamentally incorrect”, but he added: “More broadly, there is an issue that 90% of the Department of Justice used to work in the NIO and that’s an issue that we just need to deal with, because, I am absolutely clear that there is no member of my department that is not absolutely committed to making devolution work.
“And an absolute majority of staff in the department worked in other departments. As we get further into devolution, the make-up of the department will change naturally as those things happen. Clearly there is a confidence issue, we have to deal with. I don’t want to get it out of proportion. We work hard to address it.”
Mr Perry was speaking at a conference on the justice system, and shared a platform with a number of experts. These included the inspector of criminal justice, and the person who is to become the next police ombudsman, Michael Maguire.
A number of damning reports, including a review by Mr Maguire’s current organisation, criticised the work of the police ombudsman’s office which until recently was led by former senior Canadian police officer, Al Hutchinson.
There was major controversy around a finding that ombudsman office reports into police misconduct had been redrafted with criticism of officers reduced, without explanation. The ombudsman’s office then agreed to halt the investigation of all historic cases from the Troubles.
The NIO was also accused of interfering in Mr Hutchinson’s appointment – though this was denied by the Northern Ireland Office. An independent report by former civil servant Tony McCusker later examined disputes inside the Ombudsman’s office, and while it raised some concerns, it found no systematic interference.
April 04 2012
Dr Michael Maguire will be Northern Ireland’s next police ombudsman
An inspector of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland will become the region’s next police ombudsman, it has been revealed.
Dr Michael Maguire was handed the £128,000-a-year contract to consider complaints against the police by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM).
Former ombudsman Al Hutchinson stepped down from the role in January after criticism of the performance of his office. Dr Maguire conducted an independent inspection of that office following complaints from its former chief executive that his independence had been limited.
His report was one of a number of factors behind the early departure of Mr Hutchinson.
About 30 people had applied for the vacant post, which has covered controversial Troubles killings, historic inquests and investigations as well as more recent police actions which caused death or injury. Dr Maguire, 52, is from the Belfast area. He is the chief inspector of Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland, having joined the organisation in 2008.
In 2011, three independent reports were highly critical of the work being carried out by the ombudsman’s office. The inspectorate’s review, commissioned by former ombudsman Hutchinson, found the independence of his office had been compromised.
In a letter explaining his decision to quit his £90,000-a-year job, former ombudsman chief executive Sam Pollock claimed there had been political interference in the work of the office, and a lowering of operational independence between it and the police.
Rejecting the criticism, Mr Hutchinson asked Dr Maguire to investigate the claims. Following the inspectorate report’s publication, Mr Hutchinson said he would quit his job earlier than planned.
The report described the investigative processes as flawed, finding that a number of ombudsman reports had been altered before publication to reduce criticism of the police, with no explanation.
Prior to taking up his post with CJI, Dr Maguire was a partner in the international consulting firm PA Consulting Group for 10 years. He has worked across a wide range of areas including criminal justice, health, education, equality, economic and social development. His inquiries on criminal justice have also covered the prison service and other agencies.
March 14 2012
Alleged misconduct by ex-police officers rehired by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) as civilian staff could be investigated by the police ombudsman under proposed changes to the watchdog’s powers.
Retired officers involved in historic incidents being probed by the ombudsman could also be compelled to face questions if the Department of Justice’s new proposals are introduced.
The potential reforms outlined by Justice Minister David Ford may also rule out the possibility of a future ombudsman having a past background in policing, with the term of office reduced to five years as well.
Current ombudsman Al Hutchinson is leaving his post at the end of this month. His departure was hastened after questions were raised about working practices within his office.
The PSNI spends around £16 million a year employing agency workers, so-called “associate staff”, many of whom are former officers. At present, there are more than 300 ex-policemen and women working in the PSNI.
The policy has provoked controversy, with critics claiming agency staff were not subject to the same levels of accountability and scrutiny as serving officers, such as ombudsman’s probes.
In another matter of contention, past ombudsman investigations into incidents during the Troubles have been hindered by the inability to compel retired officers to attend an interview. Both issues are among a series Mr Ford hopes to address in the reforms, which were put out to public consultation on Wednesday.
“This consultation outlines the potential for significant changes to the legislative framework and governance arrangements for the ombudsman’s office,” said the minister. “I am keen to ensure that we have the best operating model for the office going forward and I would ask people to consider the proposals and recommendations very carefully.
“The existence of an effective and independent complaints system is something that the public and police have a right to expect. It is a key part of the policing architecture in Northern Ireland intended to secure public confidence in their police service.
“I want to ensure that flowing from this consultation process we have an office that delivers significant benefit to the people of Northern Ireland and contributes to public confidence in the policing arrangements more widely.”
14 Mar 2012
The Justice Minister, David Ford, has begun a public consultation on reforms to the office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.
They cover proposed changes to its structure, role and powers.
Mr Ford said the consultation outlined the potential for “significant changes” to the law and governance of the ombudsman’s office.
Al Hutchison stepped down from the role in January after criticism of the performance of his office.
About 30 people have applied for the vacant post.
On Tuesday, Mr Ford urged people to consider the proposals and recommendations “very carefully”.
“The existence of an effective and independent complaints system is something that the public and police have a right to expect,” he said.
“It is a key part of the policing architecture in Northern Ireland intended to secure public confidence in their police service.
“I want to ensure that flowing from this consultation process we have an office that delivers significant benefit to the people of Northern Ireland and contributes to public confidence in the policing arrangements more widely.”
The proposals include:
–Whether the current model for the Police Ombudsman’s office is the most appropriate
–Whether it is appropriate that the Police Ombudsman can have a policing background
–Extension of the Police Ombudsman’s remit to include civilian policing posts
–Being able to compel officers to attend interviews and provide documentation in the investigation of grave and exceptional matters
–Reducing the term of the office to five years
–Amending the regulations to allow the investigations of cases occurring as a result of police action or indirectly, due to police operations
Mr Hutchinson became the second police ombudsman for Northern Ireland when he succeeded Nuala O’Loan in 2007.
In 2011, three independent reports were highly critical of the work being carried out by the ombudsman’s office.
Monday January 23 2012
The police ombudsman’s decision to hold on to his title – despite surrendering his powers and salary – was unnecessary, Martin McGuinness has said.
Al Hutchinson, who has faced long-standing demands to resign over criticisms of his term in office, will leave his desk in February and return to his native Canada.
He passed his powers to colleagues, but claimed that legal advice said he had to hold on to his title and remain available to the office on an unpaid basis, until a new ombudsman is appointed.
But Mr McGuinness revealed that legal advice provided to the Stormont authorities suggested the move was unnecessary. The deputy First Minister confirmed that interviews for a new ombudsman will be held next month.
“On January 17 the outgoing Police Ombudsman announced his intention to delegate his statutory functions to appropriate levels within his office pending the appointment of a new police ombudsman,” said Mr McGuinness.
“He also announced that he did not intend to resign formally until the new police ombudsman was appointed. This is the third position on the timing of his resignation which Mr Hutchinson has adopted since last September. His latest position was on the basis of legal advice which he has received.
“His legal advice differs from that provided by the Attorney General to the Department of Justice which we have seen and which confirmed to our satisfaction that the office of the Police Ombudsman can continue to function during the vacancy.”
Meanwhile, former senior civil servant Colin Lewis was last week confirmed as interim chief executive until a new leadership team is put in place in the ombudsman’s office. Mr Hutchinson announced his intention to quit following a report which identified significant failings in the work of his office.
Former chief executive Sam Pollock resigned last March and said he was unhappy with the approach taken in controversial cases and also claimed the independence of the office from police and government had been diminished.
A report published in September by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate concluded that there “has been a lowering of the operational independence”” of the office in the way it conducts investigations into historical cases.
17 January 2012
CJI to investigate how PSNI deals with Ombudsman Findings
Fallout from Mc Gurk’s controversary
The Policing Board is to ask the Criminal Justice Inspectorate “to carry out an investigation which will examine the relationship between the PSNI and the Police Ombudsman” following a complaint against the Chief Constable lodged on behalf of two NGOs, British Irish Rights Watch and the Pat Finucane Centre. The two human rights organisations had complained to the Board following the rejection by the Chief Constable of the OPONI report into the loyalist bombing of Mc Gurk’s Bar in 1971.
The Board has confirmed to the NGOs that they have requested that the CJI investigation focus “on how the PSNI internalises and operationalizes findings and recommendations arising from OPONI investigations.”
Welcoming news of the investigation BIRW Director Jane Winter said:
‘The CC has set a potentially dangerous precedent. In rejecting this report, he has undermined a fundamental building block in the infrastructure of policing post Patten. If he takes it upon himself to pick and choose the outcome of PONI reports then he is in effect usurping the independent investigatory function of the office. It is not the role or function of the Chief Constable to interpret this material – it is the role of the Ombudsman.’
PFC Project Manager Paul O’Connor added:
‘What was required of the PSNI in the wake of publication of the OPONI report was a response similar to that of the Metropolitan Police following the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry. Acknowledgement and a willingness to learn the hard lessons. Instead there was a collective refusal at Command level to accept the evidence that the RUC was blind to loyalist violence and was institutionally sectarian in how it dealt with one of the worst loyalist atrocities of the conflict.’
Pat Irvine, whose mother was killed in the bombing, also welcomed news of the investigation, “Baggott set himself up as judge, jury, prosecutor and chief constable. How any reasonable, intelligent human being could argue there was no investigative bias is beyond belief. The RUC, with no evidential basis, blamed the IRA.”
Family campaigner Gerard Keenan who lost both his parents described the development as “long overdue – this Chief Constable has caused deep hurt to the families by trying to rewrite history.”
Contact BIRW @ 0208 7729161
Jane Winter, Director
British Irish rights watch.
Pat Finucane Centre.
Paul O’Connor, Director
In February 2011 the Police Ombudsman published his report into the Mc Gurk’s Bombing. The report found that RUC failure to investigate loyalist involvement in the attack in which 15 people died amounted to ‘investigatory bias” by RUC officers during the 1971 investigation. Hours after the report was published the Chief Constable issued two public statements in which he rejected the key findings of the Ombudsman’s report . See www.patfinucanecentre.org individual cases or www.birw.org for full background.
17 Jan 2012
Colin Lewis has been appointed as the interim chief executive for the office of the police ombudsman for NI.
Ombudsman Al Hutchinson will cease to function in the role at the end of the month.
Mr Lewis will take over Mr Hutchinson’s responsibilities at that time on a six-month basis.
He is currently a deputy secretary responsible for management services at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI).
He has agreed to cover an interim period pending the appointments of a new police ombudsman and chief executive.
Mr Hutchinson said: “I am pleased that someone with Colin’s experience in both the private and government sectors has accepted the challenge of serving Northern Ireland in this important office.
“Colin’s knowledge and senior level leadership, supported by a very able police ombudsman team, will add valuable continuity and independence during this challenging period of change.”
Mr Hutchinson announced his intention to quit as police ombudsman following a BBC Spotlight programme which identified significant failings in the work of his office.
He will take his accrued leave during February and then return to his home in Canada at the end of March 2012.
As a result of legal advice, Mr Hutchinson has said that, for operational and legal reasons, he will not formally resign until the newly appointed police ombudsman is in a position to assume full legal responsibility for the office.
“The general responsibility for managing an effective organisation that secures the confidence of the public and the police will rest with the interim chief executive and the leadership team during the period leading to the appointment of the new police ombudsman” he said.
From 1 March 2012 he will remain available to exercise any legal authorities required beyond the delegated authorities, but will do so in an unpaid capacity.
25 Dec 2011
Northern Ireland’s first police ombudsman says independent unit with powers of search and arrest would bring ‘huge efficiencies’
Northern Ireland’s first police ombudsman has called for a single unified body to deal with all the unsolved crimes of the Troubles and arrest suspects even in cases that are decades old.
Nuala O’Loan, who as ombudsman from 1999 to 2007 exposed the state’s use of informers who killed while in the crown’s pay, said such an inquiry unit should also be granted full powers of prosecution.
Most of the 3,269 murders committed during the conflict since it began in 1969 remain unsolved. More than 30,000 people were injured, many seriously.
In an interview with the Guardian, O’Loan said she was convinced that the police had deliberately destroyed evidence in “a lot” of killings involving the security forces. “That will inhibit the possibility of a full investigation.”
As up to a dozen loyalists await the verdict of a trial triggered by her investigation into the actions of state agents in the Ulster Volunteer Force, O’Loan said there could still be a “limited number of prosecutions” over deaths in the Troubles.
But the former ombudsman, now Lady O’Loan, stressed that a “Waking the Dead” style unit investigating Ulster’s recent conflict would not be tantamount to a truth commission like that which dealt with the apartheid era in South Africa.
“There should be one unified operation to deal with the past and it must be independent,” she said.
“It is not a truth commission because it would require that all the parties to the conflict tell the truth and I see no evidence that the parties are ready for that yet. And I am not sure that they ever will be.”
The victims were owed something, she said, and that should be a single independent historical investigations unit.
“This unit should have full police powers to arrest, to search, to seize property and material, anything relevant to the investigation.
“If you had all those powers and a single unit you would get huge efficiencies because we would not have three organisations doing the same work effectively trawling over the same ground.”
At present, crimes of the Troubles are examined by the historical enquiries team and the legacy branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Families of murder victims unhappy with investigations can ask the police ombudsman office to intervene.
O’Loan said dealing properly with Northern Ireland’s recent violent past would undermine the justification for the armed campaigns by the Real IRA and other dissident terror groups.
Revealing the truth and the reality behind all the armed actions of the Troubles would remove the argument for further violence, she said.
“I think if we are to manage the problem of the Real IRA we have to deal with the historic problem of criminality, murder etc in our time.
“I know that people say this will disturb the peace process by investigating the past but we are moving on and we need to do so on a sound, just basis.”
Referring to the loss of her unborn child in an IRA bombing while she was in a class at the University of Ulster, O’Loan said thousands more had been affected by the violence beyond the families of the 3,200 plus killed. She said that up to 150,000 to 200,000 people in Northern Irish society would have been damaged in the conflict.
“The impact on the whole of the community given that figure is huge. When you have a situation where there are people who can see others still walking down the street whom they know committed murder, that is not the foundation for a just society.”
The human rights campaigner denied she was “kicking at sleeping dogs” in her demand for the single unsolved crimes unit and creating the conditions to destabilise the political settlement in Northern Ireland.
“You would argue that the investigations the police ombudsman’s office have carried out have set people free,” she said. “In the case of the loyalists in North Belfast, as a result of these inquiries in that area ordinary people are freer than ever from the paramilitaries. It has changed the balance of power.”
She accepted that in many cases there would not be prosecutions of killers because evidence might have been destroyed in explosions at police stations or at the forensic headquarters the IRA blew up in 1990.
In addition, anyone convicted of a Troubles-related crime before the Good Friday agreement of 1998 is subject to a de facto amnesty under the peace accord and would not spend long in prison.
Truth and justice regarding the Troubles, however, may be sacrificed for pragmatic political reasons, O’Loan warned.
On her suggestion for a unified investigatory body with powers to arrest and prosecute she added: “I have seen nobody who wants to do that.
“My reading of what the politicians are saying is that they would much rather bury this stuff; that they want to live in the present. But the problem with living in the present is that if you don’t deal with the past then you don’t learn from it and you don’t prevent it from recurring.”
Three different approaches
The police ombudsman’s office
The office was established at the end of the 90s and any member of the Northern Ireland public can demand an inquiry into police malpractices or failings during or after the Troubles. The office has been at the centre of major controversies over crimes including the single biggest atrocity, the Omagh bomb massacre. O’Loan investigated claims that the RUC and Garda Síochána ignored tipoffs about the bomb plot in 1998 because they were more concerned with protecting their agents and sources inside the Real IRA. In Operation Ballast, O’Loan explored the role of police agents in the North Belfast UVF who were involved in crimes including murder, even while on the state’s payroll. Ballast led to the first so-called supergrass trial based on the evidence of a terrorist-turned-crown witness, which has put up to a dozen loyalists in the dock. As a result there will now be a second trial in 2012 using another supergrass, which could involve even more senior UVF figures.
The historical enquiries team
With more than 100 investigators and a budget of about £32m, the HET only reviews cases about the deaths and disappearances of loved ones during the Troubles. It has reopened files on more than 100 cases where British troops were involved in fatal shootings and has also investigated IRA atrocities such as the 1972 bombing of Claudy village in Co Derry, which found that a Catholic priest played a central role in transporting the bomb that killed nine civilians. HET, however, has no powers of prosecution.
The legacy unit
This section of the PSNI can carry out arrests and recommend prosecutions over past crimes carried out since 1969. Its results have been patchy and in some cases the wrong suspects have been arrested.