The PSNI has said “human error” was to blame for a failure to disclose “significant information” relating to a notorious loyalist mass shooting to a police watchdog.
Ombudsman Michael Maguire has now contacted the Department of Justice to ask that the PSNI faces a review of how it discloses information.
Dr Maguire’s office had found that “significant, sensitive information” around a mass shooting at a bookmakers in south Belfast was not made available to his investigators.
Some of the information relates to covert policing, the ombudsman’s office added.
Five people were killed on February 5, 1992, when members of the loyalist Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF) opened fire on the Sean Graham bookmakers shop on the lower Ormeau Road.
PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin has apologised on behalf of the police, and said they never sought to withhold the information from the ombudsman investigators, putting the incident down to human error.
He has also offered to give ombudsman investigators “full and unfettered access” to police legacy systems.
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.
The ombudsman’s office said the material in question has opened new lines of inquiry in its investigation into the Ormeau Road shootings as well as activities of loyalist paramilitaries in the north west between 1988 and 1994; and its investigation into the murder of teenager Damien Walsh at a coal depot in west Belfast in 1993.
Reports outlining the findings of these investigations, which had been due to be published in the coming weeks, will now be delayed.
Police Ombudsman Dr Maguire said it appeared that information which police told them did not exist has now been found.
“My staff became aware that police were preparing to disclose a range of material as part of impending civil proceedings,” he said.
“Following a request from this office, police released this material to us which helped identify significant evidence relevant to a number of our investigations.
“Following on from this, police have now also identified a computer system which they say had not been properly searched when responding to previous requests for information.
“In that instance, it would seem information which police told us did not exist has now been found.”
Dr Maguire added: “It is right and proper that we examine the material which has now become available to ensure that our work provides as complete a picture as possible for these families, for the public and for the police.
“The public must have confidence that, when asked, police provide all the relevant information they hold on given matters, whether it be to this office or to other legal authorities.”
Mr Martin said the PSNI “regularly and routinely discloses information” to the ombudsman, and regrets that it was not done so in this case.
“PSNI never sought to deliberately withhold this information from PONI and we deeply regret that the researchers responding to the PONI request were unable to find and disclose it,” he said.
“This error became apparent when, in line with our commitment to maximum transparency, a different researcher working elsewhere in the PSNI found the material while preparing for disclosure in response to civil litigation.
“The fact that one part of the organisation was able to find the information while the other did not is a result of a number of issues including the differing levels of experience and knowledge of our researchers, the sheer volume of the material involved and the limitations of the archaic IT systems.
“We entirely agree with the police ombudsman, that the effective disclosure of information is central to any system for dealing with the past.”
Relatives for Justice, which represents the families of those killed in the atrocity has backed Dr Maguire’s review call, adding it “should begin as a matter of urgency”.
The PSNI said that it faces a wide range of challenges in accessing over 44 million pages of paper, microfiche and microfilm, as well as many archaic computer systems.
It assesses that it has over 44 million pages of paper and microform (microfiche and microfilm) records, but this does not include records on multiple computer networks.
Given the age of some of the computer systems, some legacy material can only be found on “unstable and archaic systems” which lack advanced, modern search facilities.
As a result, there is no central reference or inventory for every piece of information.
The limitations of the IT systems means that the accuracy, experience and knowledge of the researcher using them can have a considerable impact, the PSNI said.
“This has been a factor in PSNI’s disclosure of relevant information to PONI on this occasion,” it added.
“The intricacies of the systems coupled with a lack of detailed knowledge by some members of staff meant that a number of documents were not disclosed to PONI.”
This error became apparent when another researcher was compiling material in response to civil litigation.
They used the breadth of their knowledge and experience to search the computer systems, rather than relying only on what was specifically requested, police said.
As a result they knew that during the Troubles some people referred to a VZ58 weapon as an AK47.
“They used the alternative search term and thereby found additional documents of relevance to the case and these documents were then listed for disclosure to civil proceedings.
“The material was later provided to PONI when the anomaly was identified.”