A former PSNI deputy chief constable has said the mammoth task of searching through vast quantities of paper and computer records for police ombudsman investigations into the handling of legacy cases is “a nearly impossible job”.
Reacting to criticism of the police for initially failing to disclose “significant information” to ombudsman office staff looking into a notorious loyalist mass shooting, Alan McQuillan said he was in “no doubt” that it was a genuine error.
He said it was understandable that mistakes were made given the amount of information held on various police systems, adding that upgrading the system to make it fit for purpose would take a “huge investment”.
Five people were killed on February 5 1992 when members of the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) opened fire at the Sean Graham bookmaker’s shop on the lower Ormeau Road in Belfast.
The ombudsman’s office said the material in question has opened new lines of inquiry in its investigation into the Ormeau Road shootings and other cases, including the murder of teenager Damien Walsh at a coal depot in west Belfast in 1993.
Reports outlining the findings of the investigations, which had been due to be published in the coming weeks, have been delayed.
PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin apologised on behalf of the police, stressing that they never sought to withhold the information from the ombudsman, and putting the incident down to “human error”.
The PSNI said the volume of legacy material gathered over decades comes to over 44 million pages of paper, microfiche and microfilm records. This does not include computer-based records that exist on multiple computer systems.
DCC Martin has offered to give ombudsman investigators “full and unfettered access” to police legacy systems – a move Mr McQuillan has welcomed, saying it would help to “remove any sense of suspicion”.
“If he (the ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire) can produce the vetted staff who can be trusted to have access to this information – some of which would directly endanger the lives of individuals if it was leaked – then he could have free, complete, unfettered access to everything.
“The suggestion that free access is handed over to the ombudsman is a good one. You can’t get more open than that and I think that is the way to go,” he said.
Mr McQuillan, who was involved in computer development during the early part of his police career, retired from the PSNI in 2003 and now works as an independent security consultant.
He added: “One of the problems with the police systems was that there was virtually no computerisation until the late 1980s, early 1990. The records were originally held on paper. You have those paper records and stuff that was converted off those on to computers. The computers then were archaic compared to those we have today.
“The files weren’t stored in a chronological system, so it must be an absolute nightmare now to try to maintain those records from all sorts of different machines from different eras and try to pull all that together. It is a nearly impossible job.
“With a huge investment of money, time and effort they could take all this stuff and put it all into one giant database, but even then it would be a human process and there would be errors during that conversion.
“The PSNI want this sort of problem like they want a hole in the head. They want this resolved and done properly. I have no doubt about that and have no doubt this was a mistake.
“There are people who will never believe that and I understand why they feel that way, but the reality is this will dog this entire process all the way through. But it is impossible without a really huge investment in terms of money, time and effort to do this.”
Dr Maguire has contacted the Department of Justice to ask that the PSNI faces a review of how it discloses information.