The outcome of the Loughinisland court case was extraordinary and, potentially, established a precedent on ‘legacy’ investigations that should worry everyone who wants a fair and impartial legal system in Northern Ireland.
Given that nationalist parties seem to have made up their minds that allegations of ‘collusion’ must always be upheld, politically, that largely means unionists.
In the News Letter (see links below) and through press statements, commentators and politicians have done a thorough job of analysing the judgement and its implications, from a variety of political and legal perspectives.
The Ulster Unionist MLA, Doug Beattie, said that Mr Justice McCloskey’s decision to withdraw from the case, even though he was not required to do so legally, raised “serious questions for the administration of justice in Northern Ireland”.
His party colleague, Councillor Jeff Dudgeon, pointed out inaccuracies and omissions in the BBC’s reporting of the court proceedings, suggesting that there was ‘unconscious bias’ in the broadcaster’s coverage.
The TUV leader, Jim Allister, armed with his detailed knowledge of the legal system, described the judge’s decision as ‘troubling’ and called for Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, to consider his position.
In his column, Ben Lowry questioned why Justice McCloskey had decided to step aside, despite dismissing the Ombudsman’s suggestion that he may have a “subconscious bias”, and subjecting it to scathing criticism.
The moderate unionist campaigner, Trevor Ringland, predicted that “any judge who is now appointed to hear the case and evaluate the same points of law is almost certain to reach the same findings”.
The barrister, Austen Morgan, claimed that “the administration of justice, is at serious risk of becoming politicised”.
Amidst all this reaction, from across the community, to a vitally important case, what did Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party have to say about last Friday’s judgement?
The answer: almost nothing at all.
To date, the DUP has published no response to the Loughinisland ruling on its website and has been practically invisible across all the media coverage over the past week.
The party might point out that it is currently engaged in sensitive negotiations, aimed at restoring Stormont, which could be affected by commenting on such a controversial case. Nonetheless, it found time to address a myriad of other issues, including the Gary Haggarty, UVF ‘supergrass’ trial.
The Loughinisland ruling concerns a particularly vicious, sectarian Troubles crime, but the problems it exposes are intimately linked with the way legacy investigations are being used politically to alienate people from the state and encourage a distorted view of the past.
Initially, Mr Justice McCloskey found that an Ombudsman’s report, which alleged collusion took place between loyalists and police officers, was “unsustainable in law”.
He rejected comprehensively the subsequent legal challenge that questioned his perceived impartiality, criticising the argument for recusal as “flimsy, artificial and entirely unpersuasive”. Yet he still stepped aside, citing a “veritable maelstrom” of publicity that had engulfed the victims’ families.
The case raises grave questions, not least around public confidence in Dr Michael Maguire and his future as Police Ombudsman.
If there are doubts around the public standing of Dr Maguire and the conduct of his office, as there certainly are about the way Troubles incidents are investigated, then unionist politicians should be leading on these issues.
The fact that Sinn Fein wants its demands over legacy satisfied, as part of the negotiations to restore power-sharing, makes strong leadership on these matters more, rather than less, important.
• LINKS TO REACTION ON CASE