A watchdog that investigates allegations of police misconduct in Northern Ireland has shelved probes into a number of notorious Troubles killings due to budget cuts.
Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire has announced that resources and staff deployed on historic cases will be reduced by 25 per cent after Stormont’s Department of Justice sliced £750,000 from its in-year spend.
The move has forced the delay of a series of planned investigations by the ombudsman.
They include probes into alleged police failings in the investigations of the IRA’s Kingsmills massacre of 10 Protestant workmen in 1976 and into the activities of the loyalist Glenanne gang – a sectarian murder squad that allegedly included rogue members of the police and Army.
Dr Maguire said the original timetable for completing around 300 historic investigations had been six years but he feared they could now take more than 12.
“The reduction in budget has undermined our ability to deal with the past,” he said.
The announcement came hours after the PSNI revealed it was axing its own specialist legacy investigations unit – the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) – also as a consequence of Stormont budget cuts.
The power-sharing administration is currently struggling with the requirement to make around £200 million of in-year reductions.
The announcement from Dr Maguire has prompted the lone survivor of the Kingsmills attack to launch legal action against Justice Minister David Ford.
Alan Black, who was shot 18 times, said hopes that the ombudsman’s investigation would be completed before the scheduled start of a new inquest into the killings next June had been dashed.
He said it was a serious blow to the Kingsmills families’ campaign for justice.
“What is the state hiding?” he said.
“Why is there a fear of the truth? The families of the dead demand the truth. I am devastated for everyone. I will be dead by the time the investigation closes. I lay the blame at the hands of the DoJ and British Government. Justice doesn’t have a price tag.”
Mr Black has instructed his lawyer Kevin Winters to lodge judicial review proceedings against the DoJ for alleged breach of the UK Government’s obligations under the European human rights law and to seek damages for stress and trauma.
Mr Winters said: “Many families and survivors will be affected by this depressing announcement. It is a major setback for those seeking justice and truth recovery.”
Dr Maguire said managing the impact of the cuts had involved making some very difficult decisions.
“The number of complaints we have received about ‘historical’ matters has doubled since 2012: we now have almost 300 cases,” he said.
“I had hoped that the additional funding we had requested could have allowed us to complete these cases within six years, but suspect they may now take 12 years or more.”
Dr Maguire said the cuts were also having an impact on the ability of his office to hold modern policing to account.
“Last year we received more than 3,700 complaints about the conduct of police officers, the highest yearly total in the office’s history,” he said. “I cannot continue to do more with less resources and am now in a place where I have to cut front line services.
“This will have a significant impact on the speed with which cases can be progressed and the level of services we can provide.”
The ombudsman said he and his staff were contacting the families of those bereaved in the cases which are likely to be subject to considerable delay.
“I will also have to write to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe to inform them that we will not always be able to meet the commitments given by the UK Government that my office will conduct investigations into ‘historical’ matters in a timely manner as and when required under the Convention,” he said.
Dr Maguire added: “I am determined to protect the police complaints system and I will not skimp on the quality of investigations, but if the cuts continue as anticipated, they will have a significant impact on the way in which we hold police to account in Northern Ireland.”