Discredited Ombudsman hangs on
Despite a series of damming reports on the operation and integrity of his office the Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson appears determined to stay in post and dictate the terms and timing of his own departure. In his latest statement, which followed an exposé on the BBC Spotlight programme, he has indicated that he would be prepared to step down at the end of January 2012. Earlier this year, in a response to a highly critical report from Criminal Justice Inspectorate (CJI), he indicated he would step down in June of 2012. However, there is nothing certain about Hutchinson’s departure, and he will stay in post until there is agreement with OFMDFM on activating the search for a successor.
The current controversy surrounding the Office of Police Ombudsman was triggered most immediately by the resignation of its long serving chief executive Sam Pollock in April of this year. He claimed that there had been political interference in the work of the office, and a lowering of operational independence between it and the PSNI. In response to this the justice minister initiated a review led by former senior civil servant Tom McCusker. It found that while there had been interference, there was no evidence to suggest it was systematic.
The CJI review of the Office was more comprehensive and critical. It branded the operation of the Office as "dysfunctional", uncovered a major split in its staff, and found that Hutchinson had lost the trust of senior colleagues. Its most significant finding was that the operational independence of the Office had been lowered. Inspectors found that reports on some of the most controversial Troubles cases – such as the McGurk’s bombing and Loughinisland massacre – had been altered before publication to reduce criticism of the police. They also reported claims by some investigators that the office’s Confidential Unit withheld sensitive intelligence material from them. This unit is staffed entirely by serving police officers from England and Wales, with no input from civilian members of the oversight team. In an interview with Spotlight Sam Pollack reiterated his concerns over the “independence of the office in relation to very serious matters”; he also touched on the issue of state agents and collusion saying that “you cannot fudge that and the office should not and never should step back." The clear implication here is that is has. Spotlight also claimed that Ombudsman reports were effectively vetted by the PSNI.
The failure of Hutchinson to uphold the most basic function of his Office to act as an independent scrutiniser of the police should result in his dismissal. The fact that he remains in post while rejecting the criticism against him serves to highlight the severe limitations of the political settlement. The OFMDFM has to power to sack the Ombudsman but it won’t because this requires the agreement of the DUP. Peter Robinson has already dismissed the claims against Hutchinson as “hearsay” and described his critics as people who have an “axe to grind”. We’re supposed to have a devolved justice department that has responsibility for upholding the independence of the Office of Police Ombudsman but whose officials have been found to be interfering in its workings. We’re supposed have a reformed police service but it too exerts a strong influence over the Office and also continues to defend its past conduct. Behind all this we have a British state, which despite devolution, continues to exert control in the north. While this prevails the prospect of any independent scrutiny of state institutions, particularly in relation to the period of the Troubles when Britain claims to have been holding the line in a divided community, is illusory.