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Policing Board rejects Ombudsman’s Report
14th February 2002
On Thursday 7th February the Northern Ireland Policing Board met to determine its response to the Ombudsman’s report on the Omagh bomb investigation. Given the highly critical nature of the report and the furious unionist and police reaction to it, the meeting was being billed as a make or break moment for the Policing Board with important implications for the peace process as a whole. As it turned out there was actually a large degree of agreement between unionists and nationalists on how they should deal with the report. After meeting both the Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan, and the Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan, the board members unanimously agreed a package of measures to deal with the Omagh bomb investigation.
However, if there was unanimous agreement on what the measures should be, there was widely varying interpretations of what those measures signified. This was reflected in the different headlines in the two main Belfast newspapers the following day. The front page of the unionist aligned News Letter declared “Policing Board deals O’Loan a double blow”, while the nationalist Irish News carried the headline “Policing board to raise confidence” over a story which claimed that the measures recommended represented a move “closer towards implementing the recommendations of the police ombudsman”. There were also varying interpretations from the different members of the Policing Board. John Taylor of the Ulster Unionist Party claimed that the Board had delivered a “major blow” against the Ombudsman, while Ian Paisley Jnr. of the DUP declared that it had given a “vote of confidence in the police investigation into Omagh.” In contrast, Joe Byrne of the SDLP, claimed that the Policing Board had produced a “breakthrough”, and that “five-and-half of Nuala O’Loan’s six recommendations” had been implemented.
Obviously both unionists and nationalists were trying to play to their respective constituencies. However, when the recommendations of the Policing Board are examined, the claims of the SDLP and Irish News are just not credible. Despite the nationalist spin, it is clear that the findings of the Ombudsman’s report have been rejected. The only finding they accepted, and which was one of the major limitations of the report, was that the Omagh bomb could not have been prevented. This is despite the fact that the Ombudsman’s report identified two prior warnings of an attack on Omagh. There has also been a further media report of a third warning of an attack from an MI5 agent. On the basis of the information that is currently in the public domain it cannot be concluded that the Omagh bomb attack could not have been prevented. With further revelations over warnings likely to emerge this conclusion will become even more untenable.
While the Ombudsman’s report called for the investigation to be taken over by an outside officer, the Policing Board merely appointed an “overseer” to “quality assure” the investigation. This officer will not direct the investigation; his status will be the same as that of the outside officer appointed by the chief constable to act in an “advisory role”. One of the most telling recommendations of the Policing Board was a review of the work of the Ombudsman’s Office. This clearly raises a question mark over the role of the Ombudsman. The underlying assumption of such a review is that it is the Ombudsman’s critical report that is the source of the problem not the police investigation.
The positive reaction of the police to the Policing Board recommendations also indicates that the Ombudsman’s report has been rejected. The Chef Constable was able to claim that the RUC/PSNI remained “unequivocally in charge” and that he had “no difficulty whatsoever” with the appointment of another officer from outside. He also welcomed the review of the Ombudsman’s office as a way of ensuring that “the problems which have arisen in this instance should be avoided in the future.” As the problem for the police was that they had come under a degree of scrutiny, this points to the limited powers of the Ombudsman’s office being further constrained. Boosted by the Policing Board meeting the police launched a further attack on the Police Ombudsman when the Police Association, backed by Chief Constable, announced a legal challenge to her report.
Despite the rejection of her report Nuala O’Loan gave the recommendations of the Policing Board a “broad welcome”. Caught in the logic of defending and seeking to improve the existing police force she has capitulated under political pressure and has backed away from the limited criticism of the police investigation. That the police and unionists aren’t even prepared to accept this degree of scrutiny shows how little has changed in policing. Any notion that the Ombudsman can now play the role of a watchdog over the police is now patently ridiculous.
Nationalist descriptions of the Policing Board’s decision as a triumph and a vote of confidence in the new policing arrangements shows the degree to which rhetoric and reality has diverged. To give the impression that real reform is underway, it becomes impossible for nationalists to press issues which demonstrate that it is not. Before going into the Policing Board meeting SDLP representatives said they would be calling for the Omagh investigation to be taken over by an outside officer, but they retreated even on this demand. Faced with a choice they opted to back the unionist rejection of the Ombudsman rather than pursue something that would destabilise a key structure of the peace process. The underlining assumption of this is that the stability of the peace process must take precedence over pursuit of the facts even when it concerns the Omagh bombing and its investigation.
This is reflected in the growing frustration of the Omagh relatives. Despite all the rhetoric they clearly understood that the Policing Board decision represented another barrier in their search for the truth. This was expressed most forcefully by Kevin Skelton - “You sometimes feel like throwing up your hands and saying, ‘forget about it’. . . . What has happened is an exercise to save the face of the Policing Board. All we were interested in were answers to Nuala O’Loan report. As far as we concerned that has not been answered - it has more or less been rubbished.” He was backed up by Michael Gallagher, who asked the obvious question - “What is the point of having an independent ombudsman if you don't accept her findings?" For the supporters of the peace process the answers to these simple questions are unpalatable, they must therefore continue to go unanswered.