Police Ombudsman calls for proper debate on objectives in dealing with the past

Police Ombudsman Michael McHugh
Police Ombudsman Michael McHugh

Northern Ireland's Police Ombudsman has warned that more divisions could be created unless a proper debate is held on satisfying the needs of victims of the conflict.

Dr Michael Maguire said competing narratives of the past were more polarised than ever before, while the political impasse at Stormont made it likely the problem would worsen.

The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) is consulting on establishing bodies to address the toxic legacy, including a criminal investigations unit, an oral history archive and an independent commission on information retrieval.

Dr Maguire said: "There is little debate about what we are trying to achieve beyond platitudes to answer the needs of victims and families.

"In my view, the needs of victims and families, and indeed future generations, will not be served if we fail to have some sense of where we want to go in dealing with the problems of the past.

"Will we end up creating more divisions? Our experience is not positive."

Dr Maguire attended an event at the West Belfast Festival on Tuesday.

He has repeatedly warned about the impact of investigating hundreds of past incidents on his independent office's limited resources.

He has completed some investigations but said that, at times, family members of those who died did not believe his conclusions if they did not fit long-held, inter-generational beliefs about what happened.

"I would suggest that the competing narratives of the past in Northern Ireland are more polarised now than ever before.

"Some would argue that controlling the narrative of the past is the new battleground."

He had noticed a "cherry-picking" approach - the banking of conclusions which are liked and a challenge to the conclusions which are disagreed with.

"Again this illustrates the contested space that is our history."

Criminal justice organisations in Northern Ireland have struggled under the weight of a mountain of investigations into the past.

That has also affected the police, inquests and judicial review courts.

Dr Maguire warned against doing nothing, or simply the minimum.

"I can't help but think there is an element of wishful thinking here, as the problem will gradually resolve itself as those involved in the conflict die.

"This seems to me a particularly heartless solution as it leaves the majority of families who have been affected in Northern Ireland without answers and it continues to burden criminal justice organisations with a problem they cannot resolve without further funding."

He said that approach was impractical since issues within families are becoming intergenerational.

"Put simply, the problem will not go away but continue to fester and create difficulties."