Flogging A Dead PONI

This week the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ), a leading independent, Human Rights group, published a review of the office of the Police Ombudsman Northern Ireland (PONI).

Once more, we are presented with a searing indictment of Mr. Al Hutchinson’s management of this crucial statutory body.

The CAJ report was initiated in the aftermath of PONI’s deeply flawed and ultimately aborted review in the summer of 2010 of the McGurk’s Bar Massacre. Nevertheless it followed a catalogue of legacy cases which fell foul of lengthy delays, investigative inconsistencies and serious questions regarding PONI’s independence. Our relationship with, and thoughts of, the office under Mr. Hutchinson have been well publicized.

PONI’s botched report reflected negatively on him and our campaign when it was withdrawn. We had predicted immediately that, when tribal faultlines were drawn, the usual detractors would try to argue that the report had been withdrawn because of the undue influence of families. Meanwhile, we believed that this unpublished report was rushed through at the behest of other influencers. Independent investigations, I trust, will prove that this was the case.

Nevertheless, we never called for Mr. Hutchinson’s resignation. We were willing to give the man the opportunity to rectify abject managerial problems and factual errors in our individual case. Not only were the families dignified with this very human response, but we also considered that there would be greater urgency this time in his performance. Perhaps not.

In February 2011, after 5 years of a so-called investigation, and nearly 40 years after the atrocity, we were finally presented with PONI’s report into the death of our loved ones.

Even though it vindicated the victims and our families’ campaign (waged peacefully and constitutionally over four decades), we still had serious questions regarding the office’s definition, or lack thereof, of “collusion”. PONI said that there was “investigative bias” in the RUC’s handling of a mass murder but “insufficient” – that is, “some” but not enough – evidence of collusion. Nevertheless, during the presentation to the families, I queried which terms of reference, or definition of, collusion the office was now using. They had used Judge Cory’s previously and yet they now were using different parameters. Under the former, there was salient evidence of collusion.

No answer was forthcoming. It should be noted that within the McGurk’s report that was finally published, PONI does not record what definition of collusion it is following in this instance and yet it is trying to rule on it.

The CAJ’s review, thankfully, hammers PONI on this too. It also hammers him on other grave areas of concern including efficiency, effectiveness, transparency and independence. It is a buckling criticism of PONI that should be read in its entirety (PDF 511KB) to fully appreciate what families in these historic investigations have had to suffer and are suffering.

Questions regarding the office’s compliance of Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), the right to life, pepper the report. ECHR jurisprudence, as far as the office of the Police Ombudsman is concerned, tests whether investigations into such murders are compliant to Article 2.

A very interesting legal point, as far as I am concerned, was raised by the CAJ in light of this and it noted:

Article 2 requirements expressed by the European Court to the effect that “the
authorities must have taken the reasonable steps available to them to secure the
evidence concerning the incident” and “they cannot leave it to the initiative of the next of kin… to take responsibility for the conduct of any investigative procedures

(page 22, referencing Jordan v UK)

Since I know at first hand that the families (together with the Pat Finucane Centre and British Irish Rights Watch) produced the most crucial pieces of evidence from archive research, I can assume that PONI’s compliance will fail legal tests.

In spite of all of this, the CAJ too makes a point of not calling for Mr. Hutchinson’s resignation.

Nevertheless, there will come a time – and I do not think it too far in the future – that Mr. Al Hutchinson will have to go. Two separate independent investigations into the influence of the old guard civil servants of the Northern Ireland Office and the “reformed” Police Service Northern Ireland will be published soon. In the interim period he will have to answer to the CAJ review and political leaders from each and every political party. Sam Pollock, the highly regarded Chief Executive of the office who has resigned because of him, will have his day yet.

We should remember how important it is to distinguish the man from the office when he does go.

The office  is a far from perfect statutory body whose independence, by terms of its own remit under British paymasters and British legislation, is moot from the outset. Nevertheless, it is an essential safeguard that the whole community has to hold the police, past and present, to book. What it does need – quite simply – is a better manager.

Unfortunately, I have a terrible feeling that the families of those massacred in Loughinisland are all too aware of that at this very moment.


Ciarán MacAirt

Disclaimer for post above: all opinions are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of other family members or NGOs.



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