Ombudsman’s report findings ‘not backed up by robust evidence’

The police ombudsman (PONI) has defended her report into a series of loyalist murders in the early 1990s, despite the claims of a policing board member that its conclusion is “not backed up by robust evidence”.

Friday, 14th January 2022, 6:33 pm
Updated Saturday, 15th January 2022, 12:44 am
Police Ombudsman Maria Anderson on 14/1/22 with her latest report. Photo: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

The report raised “significant concerns” about the conduct of the RUC in relation to 19 murders and multiple attempted murders carried out by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) between 1989 and 1993.

Those concerns centred on claims that people were not being warned about threats to their lives, and that loyalists suspected of involvement in murders continued to be employed as police agents.

The 11 attacks examined by ombudsman Marie Anderson included the massacre at the Rising Sun Bar in Greysteel, Co Londonderry in October 1993 – an attack that claimed eight lives.

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In her 336-page report, Mrs Anderson said she was of the view that concerns raised by bereaved families about collusive behaviours were legitimate and justified.

However, DUP policing board member Joanne Bunting said: “This matter been the subject of an extremely protracted investigation and our thoughts first and foremost are with the families who were the target of these barbaric and unjustifiable terrorist acts.

“Nobody should be above the law. Every allegation of wrongdoing must be robustly investigated. Equally, every individual deserves the protection of due process.

“It is deeply concerning that the Ombudsman’s finding of ‘collusive behaviours’ is not based on any agreed or independent definition in law indeed this is not the first time such a conclusion has been drawn by that Office but not backed up with robust evidence.”

Ms Bunting added: “This lack of an evidence-based test for alleged collusion has far-reaching implications. Not just for defending the reputation of the RUC and the memory of the vast majority of officers who served with professionalism within the law during this period, but for future confidence in the Ombudsman’s ability to approach these issues in a fair and even-handed way.”

In direct response to those comments, a PONI spokesman said: “The Ombudsman has set out in considerable detail across the 336 pages of her public statement, the evidence and rationale for the views that she has expressed.”

Speaking to the News Letter on Friday, Ms Anderson explained the origins of the term ‘collusive behaviours.’

She said it stems from the court judgement in the legal challenge – brought by the NI Retired Police Officers’ Association – following the previous PONI report on the 1994 Loughinsland murders.

That ruling defined the role of PONI, she said, as an investigatory body, that “can not make determinations of collusion, or indeed can’t determine whether any individual police officer has been guilty of crime or misconduct”.

However, Ms Anderson adds: “The Court of Appeal did say, where families bring complaints about collusion, the police ombudsman can comment as to whether his or her investigation evidenced collusive behaviour, so I am using a judicial phrase.”

Commenting on the overall quality of the RUC investigations, she said: “In general the investigations were good, they were diligent, they were promptly undertaken and the investigations were thorough.

“If people take the time to go through the individual chapters, all aspects of those RUC investigations into those murders and attempted murders are addressed and examined, and in general terms I found those investigations to be thorough.

“I have identified some areas of significant concerns and those largely relate to not handling properly, or consistently, threats to life and also informant handling by Special Branch.

“For the most part these officers were doing their job. I think it is evidence of trust in the police ombudsman’s office, that we will be balanced and impartial.”

Author and former Special Branch officer Dr William Matchett described Northern Ireland during the Troubles as a “basically a 30-year crime scene” of mass murder.

“It was just very difficult to prevent every atrocity,” he told BBC Evening Extra on Friday.

“What I would argue, is that the type of justice with the police ombudsman strays more into storytelling than what I would recognise as a detective trying to investigate crime and to put people before the courts.

“If that was me back in the day and you were investigating a murder, or a conspiracy to murder, you are doing that against the ingredients of a criminal offence. So there is evidence that you have to find to prove what you are going to allege.

“If you are into the realms of blaming – which they are – but blaming an organisation or a department of it, you have to come up with the evidence to present to an independent prosecuting authority”.

Dr Matchett said he accepts that the RUC, like every police force, had “corrupt officers,” but added: “The word that is being used to describe them (collusive) is too vague. Why can’t we use the criminal definitions that have been set in stone and we can all relate to. We are now into a non-criminal definition but in a criminal justice context.”

Responding to the latest police ombudsman report, PSNI deputy chief constable Mark Hamilton issued an apology “for the findings”.

He said: “These were appalling crimes carried out by those with evil intent.

“We are very aware of the hurt and anger felt by the families of those killed and those injured and we apologise to the families for the findings in this report.”

DCC Hamilton said the PSNI has “greatly improved policies and procedures” since that time and added: “The Police Service of Northern Ireland remains firmly committed to bringing those responsible for these murders to justice.

“We appeal to the community for information that will assist our Legacy Investigation Branch detectives in their investigations.”

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