It is difficult to recall any investigation conducted by the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (OPONI) that has actually resulted in any former member of the police service being charged and convicted of a criminal offence.
Yet that is, according to the 1998 Act setting up the office its central role, the investigation of allegations of criminal conduct by police officers serving or retired.
The ombudsman is required in law to form a ‘belief’ in respect of each investigation she launches that a criminal offence may have been committed by a police officer and that it is either grave or exceptional or alternatively that having formed the ‘belief’ it is in the public interest that an investigation should occur.
As OPONI is a creature of law and is powerless outwith the authority given by the legislation, the question has to be asked: what have the recent OPONI investigations and reports been about?
Why is it that after seven years of investigation and the expenditure of many thousands of pounds of public money, all were are treated to is a series of views and opinions delivered without any of the detailed evidence one would expect to see if the ombudsman took the legal pathway set out in law for her to follow, that of due process where the probity of what is alleged to be evidence can be tested in open court and those accused of transgressions give a voice to challenge their accusers.
Instead the more one looks at what we have been and are being asked to accept yet again without question, begins to ring hollow as serious assertions are made on the one hand about police behaviour and gross inadequacies, yet none of it appears to have yielded any evidence whatsoever to sustain a charge under any one of a myriad of substantive criminal offences that pepper the statute books.
In the current report it is clear that the ombudsman is claiming that she has evidence pointing to misfeasance in public office, conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, impeding the apprehension or prosecution of arrestable offenders, the deliberate destruction of evidence and conspiracy to commit murder and the concealment of serious crime, yet the professional competence of her investigators appears to be so inadequate that not one relevant charge emerges to sustain what is so vehemently alleged.
Consequently it is very legitimate to ask why are there no prosecution files in respect of the alleged police offenders that have been so clearly identified, is the entire office of OPONI wholly and consistently incapable of reaching the required evidential threshold in respect of at least one of the multitude of infractions it claims to have discovered or is it the case that no hard evidence exists at all?
The 2020 judicial review disclosed how the ombudsman’s office reacted when its investigation into the Ulster Resistance Arms importation (Op Boston) and its investigation into the Loughinisland atrocity (Op Sutton) resulted in not a shred of hard evidence emerging to underpin the ‘belief’ by the ombudsman that police had facilitated the loyalist arms importation, or that any former police officer had conspired in anyway with the UVF killers at Loughinisland.
The Public Prosecution Service (PPS) concurred with the ombudsman that nothing existed by way of evidence, yet that crucial finding was deliberately omitted from the subsequent Public Statement, one can only conclude in the total absence of any reason being given, to prevent the dilution or the wholesale undermining of the ‘collusion’ determination that was to make the headlines in the subsequent Public Statement.
Are the families of the deceased whose tragic loss the investigation has circumscribed not entitled to an effective service from the ombudsman and indeed are not those retired police officers whose service record has been traduced in the various reports, not entitled to their day in court to have their voice heard and to defend their article 6 and 8 rights under the European Convention on Human Rights? (right to a fair trial)
Enough is enough of this seventeen century approach to justice is a view frequently being expressed whereby the work of OPONI is more and more being likened to that of the Witchfinder General and his seekers who roamed through England searching out alleged practitioners of witchcraft, only now allegations of witchcraft have been replaced by allegations of collusion and the devil’s mark being the absence of records that cannot be found, and with verdicts of ‘guilty’ being delivered not by means of the ducking stool but by tweets on Twitter.
It is long past the time whereby the justice minister or the attorney general needs to step in and reminded the ombudsman that her task is one of investigation and the production of hard factual evidence within the parameters laid down in law. Trial by media based on a self defined sham offence called ‘collusive behaviour’ for which there is no discernable evidential threshold save that which apparently satisfies the ombudsman is not the way the law was intended to be administered when the office was established.
The current practice of reports being delivered as a media spectacle debases the whole concept of due process and negates entirely the central principle of UK law, which is that a person is innocent until proven guilty, two concepts which are apparently consistently and deliberately circumvented.
If the ombudsman’s desire is to be a media commentator then the right thing to do is to vacate the office and leave the way clear for someone who isn’t interested in serving up a hotchpotch of allegations, adverse inferences and toxic innuendo,but who will earn the confidence of retired police officers by an adherence to the law and the central tenets for which the office was established.
We truly deserve much better and if due process continues to be denied to those accused by the ombudsman, then a public inquiry into the operation of the Office and its investigations to date might be a prudent and essential way forward.
• Assistant Chief Constable Raymond White is a former head of RUC Special Branch
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