A Police Ombudsman file about the murder of an RUC officer lies at the heart of a probe into the alleged theft of sensitive documents, the News Letter has been told.
Chairman of the Police Federation Mark Lindsay yesterday said he believes the material which has sparked the investigation concerns a republican killing committed during the 1990s by republicans.
Meanwhile, an ex-police reservist has declared that if sensitive information has indeed been stolen, and if wrongdoing is traced back to the Police Ombudsman’s office, the current post-holder – Michael Maguire – should resign.
The story began to break on Wednesday night, when it was revealed that a 69-year-old man (understood to have formerly worked for the Police Ombudsman) had been arrested in England in a joint operation by Kent police and the PSNI, who were probing the alleged theft of sensitive information from the ombudsman’s office.
The man has since been released on bail.
However, further details about the nature of the criminal investigation were scarce.
The ombudsman’s office itself has not revealed much, and nor have the PSNI or the Information Commissioners’ Office – both of which are making enquiries into the case.
Now Mr Lindsay (whose federation represents almost all of the roughly 6,800 police officers in the Province) has said he believes the information in question surrounds the killing of an officer by the IRA about 25 years ago. He would not name the victim.
A complaint was made to the Police Ombudsman about the murder investigation roughly 13 years ago, he said.
He has been led to believe the suspected stolen file contains “information relating to police officers who were involved in the investigation,” he said.
He understands that this includes the names of serving and former officers.
It may also contain names of alleged perpetrators, informers, and possibly members of the public in general.
Mr Lindsay does not know if it also contains addresses.
Whilst he is convinced the file has been “leaked”, he is not certain to whom it was leaked – though it might have been passed to a firm of solicitors.
“This potentially could be a matter of life and death for some of the people [whose] details are contained in those files,” he said.
“I think from that point of view we can’t underestimate the seriousness of what this breach is; this isn’t in relation to some inconsequential piece of paper.”
Former police reservist and ex-UUP MLA Ross Hussey said “if there’s any evidence of any information being leaked in relation to a police officer in Northern Ireland, I’d expect to see the person that did it in front of a judge, and they’d expect to see a very severe sentence, because police officers here are working under extreme difficulty as it is.”
Mr Hussey – UUP MLA for West Tyrone from 2011 to 2017 – was a police reserve constable from 1977 to 2003, and sat on the Policing Board for six years up until he left the Assembly at the start of this year.
If information on officers is proven to have been leaked, “I think that Michael Maguire must seriously consider his position – and if he doesn’t go voluntarily, then he’d have to be given an extra shove”.
In the event of “serious wrongdoing,” the head of an organisation “must fall”.
“And clearly Michael Maguire is the head, “ he said.
“So therefore, if a head must roll, it must be his. But that said, [it] all depends on the results of the inquiry.”
Nelson McCausland, who was until recently DUP MLA for North Belfast, and is also an ex-Policing Board member, called the suspect theft “an extremely serious development” which may “put the lives of police officers or former police officers at great risk”.
He said: “Dissident republicans are still intent on murdering police officers, and if sensitive information were to fall into their hands it could facilitate those intent on murder.”
EX-OFFICER SPEAKS OF FEARS:
Speaking to the News Letter on condition of anonymity on Friday, a retired officer suggested that a data breach of this kind may even mean that people could be forced to move house.
The man, who joined the force in 1970 and left in the early 2000s, said: “Anybody who has served their time in the police service and retired and settled down into the community, the last thing they want to have to do is move with their families.”
Asked if he feels it really could come to that, he said: “It could, just depending on the threat to retired members or serving members. There’s quite a few in recent years with dissident activity have had to move home.
“It wouldn’t be inconceivable that people who now come under any sort of threat as a result of this are likely to have to move home.”
The Police Ombudsman’s Office had been asked 10 questions about the case.
It declined to answer all of them, on the grounds that the PSNI is investigating and it wants to “avoid any potential of undermining the investigation”. They were:
∙ What was the nature of the information was in the suspected stolen documents?
∙ Have warnings been issued to any of the people who might be affected? (Though the ombudsman did not answer, Mark Lindsay believes warning have been issued).
∙ When did the Ombudsman first become aware of this issue? (It only said it contacted police “within hours” of becoming aware. The PSNI said they were notified on April 4.)
∙ How did the circulation of these documents come to light?
∙ Were they were hard-copy documents, electronically-held ones, or both? (Though the ombudsman did not answer, the Police Federation believes they are in hard-copy form).
∙ Do they relate to just one case, or more than one?
∙ Does this relate to a ‘live’ case (or cases) which are still under investigation?
∙ Does the case (or cases) relate to paramilitary activity?
∙ Has any current employee at the Police Ombudsman’s Office been suspended, dismissed, or placed under investigation?
∙ How senior was the arrested former employee, and when did they leave?
As to whether Dr Maguire should resign if wrongdoing is uncovered linked to his office, it said: “The criminal investigation has to take its course before people will know the facts of the matter and can begin to take an informed view.”