Police watchdog warns budget cuts will hit investigations

Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire
Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire

Investigations into serious criminality by officers could be delayed by further budget cuts, the police ombudsman in Northern Ireland has warned.

Dr Michael Maguire said his office’s ability to deal with all public complaints could be undermined as he urged a rethink from paymasters at the Justice Department.

Nearly 400 historical cases are under investigation and most involve murders. The watchdog’s budget has been cut by 3%.

Dr Maguire said: “This situation cannot be permitted to continue.”

On top of scrutinising modern policing, the ombudsman has been investigating detectives’ handling of a range of historic killings, including those associated with the Shankill Butchers.

The notoriously sadistic loyalist group from Belfast committed 19 savage murders, torturing and mutilating random innocent Catholics with butcher knives and axes before cutting their throats, during some of the darkest days of the Troubles.

Dr Maguire said: “The impact of reduced resources is significant and in particular it has meant that we have been unable to progress some particularly complex and resource-intensive cases in a timely fashion.

“The office submitted a number of business cases to the department covering both history and current cases and it is imperative that funding is released in order that these cases are progressed.”

The department has financed one of the investigations and said the indicative allocation to the ombudsman was “protected” to a 3% baseline reduction.

Funding has been reduced from £9.5 million in 2012/13 to £8.5 million in 2016/17 – a fall of £967,000, or a tenth.

Dr Maguire added: “A further cycle of funding reductions will lead to a decrease in the service provided by the office. This means an inability to conduct timely investigations, including investigations into serious criminality by police officers.

“There is a potential it will also reshape the functions of the office by the back door by undermining our ability to deal with all public complaints against the police.”

In a recent court case involving the ombudsman, which is subject to appeal, a judge said the source of the problem besetting it was the failure of the Justice Department to provide adequate resources.

A departmental spokesman said: “The Department of Justice recognises and continues to support the important work of the Office of Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (OPONI).

“OPONI is an independent office and how it allocates funding to history investigations and other business areas is a matter for the ombudsman.

“In addition, the indicative allocation funds, in full, the OPONI request for additional funding to take forward a significant piece of work.

“The OPONI budget has consistently been one of the most protected by the department.

“For example, for 2016-17 the starting point for the Department of Justice budget was a reduction of 5.7%, however the department protected OPONI to a reduction of 2%.”