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Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland

Volume 458: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2007

I welcome the opportunity to address this issue. On Monday 22 January, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland held a press conference to launch her statement on the investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Raymond McCord Jr. and related matters. Her statement detailed the outcome of a four-year investigation, known as Operation Ballast, into the police’s handling of informants in a north Belfast grouping of the Ulster Volunteer Force, which is a proscribed terrorist organisation.

The ombudsman’s statement had significant flaws. Without offering any substantive evidence or justification, it made a series of assertions that were highly damaging to the reputations of a number of identifiable individuals and to the collective reputation of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, George cross. Let me make it clear from the outset that I deplore the murders of Raymond McCord Jr., Peter McTasney, Sharon McKenna, Sean McParland, Gary Convie, Eamon Fox, Gerald Brady, Thomas Shepherd, William John Harbinson and Thomas English, all of which were touched on by the ombudsman in her report. Those people were all murdered by the UVF in north Belfast, not by the RUC. There is no evidence that any police officer committed any criminal offence in connection with any of those murders.

The ombudsman’s report made allegations of guilt, but her investigation did not produce prima facie evidence that is acceptable to the Public Prosecution Service. The Director of Public Prosecutions had already directed, before the ombudsman’s statement, that there should be no prosecution of any serving or retired police officer. Similarly, no action in respect of any alleged breaches of police discipline is recommended in the ombudsman’s statement. Despite all that, the ombudsman appears to have concluded that special branch and, in certain cases, the criminal investigation department exhibited a mixture of disregard for the criminal justice system and incompetence, and that somehow special branch, rather than the terrorists, were to blame for Northern Ireland’s ills during the period in question.

Officers of the RUC, GC are very proud of the contribution that they have made to policing in our society, and particularly the contribution that special branch made to bringing relative peace to Northern Ireland. They are also proud that the counter-terrorist techniques that they pioneered in Northern Ireland are helping to save the lives of many people in other parts of the world in communities that have growing terrorist problems and significant organised crime. Officers who served in the RUC are saddened by attempts from some quarters to denigrate the immense contribution that has been made by all the police officers who served the people of Northern Ireland so well. They were not and are not prepared to be willing participants in this attempt at an Orwellian rewriting of history.

The serious shortcomings of the ombudsman’s statement may be attributable to her methodology, which appeared to be to decide the outcome of the inquiry at the outset and then to seek evidence to support the findings. That approach is particularly noticeable in the parts of the statement in which conclusions are based on the “absence of any explanation”. Facts that may tend to suggest alternative conclusions are conveniently ignored.

Yesterday, a number of senior retired police officers representing the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association published a comprehensive rebuttal of the ombudsman’s report. They have no personal detailed knowledge of the specific events to which the statement refers. It is their earnest hope that the renewed interest in these matters will increase the prospect of a successful completion of police inquiries into the dreadful crimes that are referred to in the statement. Neither they nor I will do anything that might inhibit those prospects. The purpose of the rebuttal is not to question the detail of police action or to revisit the particulars of the ombudsman’s investigation into that activity, but to criticise the methodology of the ombudsman’s statement—its construction, layout and findings.

The statement has, predictably, been used as a political tool. It has been used most inappropriately, because it is flawed—its findings and conclusions are based on a total absence of contextual understanding and on dubious reasoning. One must recall that at the time of the events in question, there was still a serious situation in Northern Ireland with ongoing terrorist attacks and with the UVF in north Belfast being particularly active. It is easy, after the event, to apply conventional policing methodology to a situation, but policing then had to be unconventional at times, because we were involved in a conflict situation and engaged in countering terrorism. The important points are that it was unconventional within the law and that it was in accordance with the norms of gathering intelligence to counter terrorism. It is worth bearing in mind that many people in Northern Ireland are alive today because of the intelligence that police were able to acquire by infiltrating terrorist organisations—not only the UVF, but the Provisional IRA and other terrorist organisations.

Let me put on the record that the RUC successfully prosecuted more loyalist paramilitaries than republican paramilitaries, and that it had a high degree of success against loyalist paramilitaries. That is sufficient to counter the notion that the RUC was collectively and systemically engaged in collusion with loyalist paramilitarism. There is simply no evidence to support that accusation, yet some in the political realm have sought to use the ombudsman’s report to create the impression that there was systemic collusion by the RUC. Not even the ombudsman suggested that, but her report has been exploited to that end, and she has failed to rebut those allegations. That failing on her part ought to be corrected.

The ombudsman’s statement about collusion suggests no definition whatever for what constitutes collusion. The broadest interpretations of collusion are in the ombudsman’s report: it can mean an act of omission as much as an act of commission. It can mean destroying intelligence documents, which was a routine police action to protect intelligence—indeed, it is still a routine action for intelligence services in the UK.

While I am talking about intelligence, let me voice my deep concern about the way in which the ombudsman’s office is used to publish reports on paper and on the internet that expose vital intelligence-gathering techniques deployed by the police and intelligence services. That leaves this country vulnerable, because it is not only law-abiding people who read those reports. If I were in al-Qaeda or were a terrorist in the UK who sought to understand the methodology of the security services, I would need go no further than the website of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland to find out a lot about the methodology adopted by our security services.

I draw attention to the publication, on 13 December 2006, of the ombudsman’s report into the murder of Stephen Restorick, a soldier who was murdered at Bessbrook in County Armagh. If one reads that report on the website, one will see detailed information about the intelligence-gathering techniques that are used by the security services in Northern Ireland, including techniques that are still used by security services throughout the UK today. In the context of the war on terrorism, that is a dangerous thing—it is a matter of grave concern that the Government need to examine closely. Of course there is a need for openness, but we must protect our country and our security services, which are doing valuable work to save lives. That aim is being compromised by the lack of accountability of the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and by the publication of sensitive information.

The hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) has referred to the police ombudsman’s report on a complaint about the murder of Stephen Restorick. Does he recognise that the report found that the suggestion or allegation that the Royal Ulster Constabulary could have prevented that murder was wrong? A number of the police ombudsman’s reports have discharged the RUC of allegations of either complicity in specific murders or of dereliction as far as investigations are concerned. Some of its reports have discharged the RUC of those suspicions, although others have found a suspicion to be upheld.

I am not suggesting that we should dispense with the services of the police ombudsman. The hon. Gentleman has completely missed my point, which is about not the ombudsman’s findings in her investigations of complaints, but the information that she publishes. My concern is that such publications potentially compromise our security services in their war against terrorism. That ought to be a matter of concern to the Minister and the Government, because it leaves our security services in a very vulnerable position and the techniques that they use might be being compromised unnecessarily. It is not necessary to publish such information in order to give the findings of a report.

I am limited in the time that I have available, so I must move on.

I want to make a number of key points about the ombudsman’s report. There is a lack of objectivity on the part of the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, particularly in relation to the role of special branch. I urge the Minister to read the report that has been prepared by the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association, and I shall ensure that he is provided with a copy. It goes to the heart of the matter and not only touches on the ombudsman’s investigation into the murder of Raymond McCord Jr. and related matters, but opens up wider issues about the conduct of the police ombudsman’s office, its powers and the manner in which its investigations are conducted.

I regret the way in which retired police officers have been dealt with during this investigation. It was wrong for the ombudsman’s statement to identify a number of senior retired police officers, because their security has been compromised and their families have been put under stress when the officers have done nothing wrong. The ombudsman’s statement contains no evidence to suggest that they are guilty of any wrongdoing.

I must tell the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) that statements that he made in the House following the publication of the report also compromised the security of those senior officers unnecessarily. They should not have been singled out, which was regrettable. We must not get into a situation that is about seeking out, and naming and shaming, senior police officers who have made a massive contribution to building peace in Northern Ireland and to securing a future for our people. It is entirely wrong for them to be treated in the way in which I have described. I hope that he will take the opportunity, at some stage, to apologise to those officers for the stress and the wrongdoing—

If the hon. Gentleman is intervening to do that now, I shall give way, but if he is not, I shall need to make progress.

I want to pose the Minister some questions. Will he accept that the rebuttal report that was published yesterday by the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers Association demonstrates that the original report published by the ombudsman on 22 January is crucially flawed? He might not have had the opportunity to read it, but I hope that he will do so.

The Minister will be fully aware that the Public Prosecution Service had directed no prosecution of any serving or retired police officer before the publication of the ombudsman’s report. Does he therefore accept that the use of the word “collusion” is not anchored in legislation, and that the word has no legal definition and has simply become a political catch phrase for use at the whim of the investigator when nothing else fits? Does he accept that correspondence clearly shows that the three former assistant chief constables, who were named in the House by the hon. Member for Foyle, provided considerable assistance to the ombudsman’s office and made themselves available for further inquiries that were not made to them?

Does the Minister also recognise that those officers’ rights have been infringed, including, potentially, their rights under article 13 of the European convention on human rights? Does he accept that the officers were never formally interviewed or reported by the police ombudsman for any alleged offence? Does he accept that the ombudsman’s report has potentially compromised the security of police officers and agents, and has disclosed secret security force methodology in a reckless manner, thereby damaging national security operations in the UK and abroad?

As the rebuttal report will show, the original ombudsman’s statement is crucially flawed. The RUC collectively and the officers who have been maligned both by the statement and subsequently are entitled to a public apology for the manner in which they have been treated. Instead of simply accepting the ombudsman’s report at face value, as the Government have done hitherto, it is incumbent on the Government to examine all aspects of the report in more detail, to carefully consider the rebuttal document that was published yesterday and to take a more rounded and balanced view of the entire situation.

There must not be a rewriting of the history of the troubles in Northern Ireland, whereby the RUC and the Army are painted as the bad guys and the paramilitaries come up smelling of roses. That is the danger, because the paramilitaries do not keep records and can get away with so much. We know that the police are rightly accountable under the law, but this process must not be a witch hunt. It must not be about the Government releasing prisoners early and trying to draw a veil over the paramilitaries’ past, while police officers who did their best to defend the people of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom from terrorism end up in the dock being accused of things that they have not done by the broad use of terms such as “collusion”, which no one can really define. I hope that the Government will see the need to recognise that if we are to unpick the past like this—in a one-sided and unbalanced way—we would be storing up trouble for the future. None of us wants that; we want to move on.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson) on securing the debate and on raising this issue. Although it is controversial, it is important for his constituents and others, so it is good that he has had the opportunity to raise it. I also congratulate him on the constructive way in which he posed his questions. He raised issues about the role of the ombudsman, and asked specific questions about the recent report into the murder of Raymond McCord Jr.

I shall deal with some of the specific points shortly, but it is important to understand at the outset the important role that the police ombudsman plays in Northern Ireland. The ombudsman adds to a range of scrutiny that is perhaps as great as any that exists in the world, and it is important for community confidence in the PSNI that the ombudsman does the job well and with the full support of the whole community.

The ombudsman is empowered under part VII of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998. Her job is to create an efficient, effective and independent complaints system. We are talking about complaints about the conduct of specific police officers, but she must also deal with issues that may be referred to her by the Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland Policing Board or the Chief Constable. Her officers must, of course, operate within the law. Many of them have the same powers as police officers, and must operate under the relevant police and criminal evidence legislation. She must deliver a fully independent system. While people may have a range of opinions about her report, she must have the independence to carry out her investigations and deliver her conclusions. An important assurance is that she must operate within the strict guidance and rule of law that applies to the police.

Some of the ombudsman’s investigations, including the one that we are discussing, deal with difficult issues from the past, and they arouse controversy and emotion. I understand that. She is the only investigatory authority in Northern Ireland with the power to investigate, for example, events that led to a death involving a police officer, so the territory that she covers is bound to be controversial. In fact, it is worth noting that, since the ombudsman’s office was opened for business a few years ago, it has dealt with 18,000 complaints from a wide variety of sources from all communities, including military personnel and the families of police officers. It is important to understand that many of the reports and investigations have reaffirmed the fact that the police acted entirely appropriately.

I regularly receive reports, for example, about police use of CS spray. The Chief Constable automatically refers any incident in which that happens to the ombudsman. Every report that I have seen exonerates the police and supports their action. Even today, the ombudsman has released information about a report into an incident, and the headline on the press release is “Officers justified in shooting man who left bomb in city centre.” That report was about a specific case in which a firearm was discharged by the police. It was automatically referred by the Chief Constable, and hon. Members can read the press release for themselves, but it absolutely exonerates and supports the police officer’s action. Before dealing with the detail of the report into Raymond McCord Jnr., it is important to get the balance right. The police ombudsman has often reported affirmatively on the police’s conduct.

Is the Minister aware that the figures show that 85 per cent. of police officers investigated by the ombudsman believe that they were treated fairly during the investigations, and that 91 per cent. believe that her investigations are impartial? That confidence is reflected in the figures for public confidence, both Catholic and Protestant, thereby rebutting the picture painted by the hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Donaldson).

I have seen the evidence from the polls, and the figures given by my hon. Friend are accurate, but we must face the fact that, because the report that we are discussing is controversial and takes people back into difficult territory, some of them may have less confidence than the majority. We must deal with the report, and I want to speak about the detail now. I shall not comment specifically on every question that the hon. Member for Lagan Valley asked, but I shall examine his questions carefully and write to him with a considered response, so that I give him the best information.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right in saying that there should not be a witch hunt against former RUC officers or serving members of the PSNI. We must put the report into perspective. It details the unacceptable conduct of a small number of officers, which means that thousands of officers who served with the RUC or are serving the PSNI do so with honour, distinction and great dedication. Many of them undertake dangerous duties and save lives, day in, day out. It is important to paint a balanced picture.

However, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, when there is wrongdoing it should be investigated and dealt with. If police officers have committed criminal acts, and there is evidence of it, of course they should be brought to justice, which is why the Chief Constable has accepted recommendations for further investigations to be carried out. If there is evidence of wrongdoing, it should be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Will the Minister put on record today the debt of gratitude that the people of the United Kingdom, and especially of Northern Ireland, owe the RUC, GC and the RUC Reserve, which protected people against one of the most bloodthirsty groups of people that terrorised any part of the United Kingdom?

I happily pay tribute to the many thousands of officers—former RUC officers and current PSNI officers—who served their communities with great dedication and skill. The fact that a small number may have been found wanting should not detract from that. It is important that I put that on record this afternoon, and I am happy to do so. Indeed, it is also important to acknowledge that the gathering of human intelligence is a vital part of the policing process. It is essential. I have met some of the officers who do that work, which is dangerous, but the end product is that they save lives. I am happy to acknowledge their contribution. At the same time, I make the point that if people have done wrong, they should be investigated, and if there is evidence of that, they should be brought to justice. That is entirely right.

It is also important to acknowledge that what the ombudsman found could not happen now, because of the advances in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, for example, and the accompanying guidelines on how informants and human intelligence are handled now, which is very different from some time ago. That gives us a better, more accountable system in which people can have confidence.

The hon. Member for Lagan Valley asked me to comment on the use of the word “collusion”, which has been the source of enormous debate and difference of opinion. The Northern Ireland Office does not have its own definition, but the ombudsman has her definition and we are familiar with it. I understand that that has become a debating point, but the ombudsman selected a particular use of the word and deploys that in her report.

My remarks in response to the intervention of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) a couple of minutes ago were not my words. They were very much those of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who spoke recently at the international policing conference in Belfast and said what I said, particularly about those who gather human intelligence: they do an important job.

The debate takes us into the past and it is worth saying in passing that we need to find a way in Northern Ireland of dealing with past issues, without relying simply on individual litigation, court cases and public inquiries. They have their place, and it is important that that work continues, but somehow we must find a way of promoting dialogue and conversations across communities that can help to draw a line under the past and help us move forward. That work will need to be carefully thought through, and discussed with all political parties and all the communities involved. It is important that that takes place.

In conclusion, I welcome the report that has been published by the retired police officers. I will consider it carefully, and ensure that there is an appropriate way—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) wants to intervene in the short time that I have left. I will happily ensure that arrangements are made to listen to the concerns of retired police officers and to respond to them.

My hon. Friend mentioned the ombudsman’s report. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has accepted all its recommendations, as has the Chief Constable. Further investigations will be carried out and, where justice needs to be done, it will be done. It is important to put on the record that there is full support for the ombudsman’s recommendations, but we will also consider carefully the report that the retired police officers drew to our attention. I shall ensure that there is a proper way for Ministers to engage with and feed back into that.

The ombudsman must deal with high-profile, sensitive issues, and she has a record of doing so in an exemplary and fine way. She must deal with difficult territory, but she acts with integrity, investigates thoroughly, and makes her reports accordingly.