Ombudsman: It'll take 25 years to finish Troubles reports

The Police Ombudsman / Film

THE Detail can reveal the Police Ombudsman has secured nearly £5m to deal with Troubles-related murders.

But even though his budget for investigating historic cases has been doubled, Al Hutchinson admits it will still take at least 25 years to complete his reports.

How Northern Ireland deals with Troubles-related murders continues to be one of the last unresolved issues of the peace process.

In 2009 the ill-fated Eames/Bradley report recommended the ombudsman should be relieved of having to investigate such killings with the responsibility transferred to a new Legacy Commission.

However, their proposals foundered over plans to give £12,000 to the families of every person killed during the Troubles.

As a result, responsibility for investigating security force killings remains with the ombudsman to the present day.

Mr Hutchinson has publicly stated that his office is not the proper investigative tool to deal with the past.

He has further warned that having to investigate Troubles killings is an unnecessary drain on resources required to deal with present-day complaints.

However, victims’ families now warn of a major crisis over continued delays in the ombudsman’s investigations into the killing of their loved ones.

A special investigation by The Detail has discovered the ombudsman’s office has completed reports into just six historic cases since Mr Hutchinson replaced Nuala O’Loan in October 2007.

Critics question whether three of these investigations could be regarded as historic cases and whether there is a deliberate policy within the office to stall properly resourced inquiries into controversial killings carried out by the security forces.

We have learned that there are nearly 120 historic complaints currently lodged with the ombudsman.

Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson meets the families of the McGurk's Bar bombing

Police Ombudsman Al Hutchinson meets the families of the McGurk's Bar bombing

But in an interview with The Detail, Mr Hutchinson admits current resourcing constraints mean his office is only able to investigate two historic cases a year.

He confirmed this would mean his office would take 50 years to complete investigations into historic cases.

The Detail can reveal that the ombudsman has now secured £4.8m funding over the next four years to speed up historic investigations.

But in a frank admission Mr Hutchinson admits that even with the new funding his office will still take at least another 25 years to complete its investigations.

He said: “With existing resources we estimate that we can do two serious cases per year so that would be in the neighbourhood of 50 years.

“`But with the additional (£4.8m) resources arguably that could be cut in half or perhaps even better as we get more effective in dealing with these cases. You’re still looking at a lifetime, a generation in many ways and that’s unacceptable.”

Asked how he would personally feel if he was a relative waiting for the killing of a loved one to be investigated, he admitted: “I would be extremely disappointed. The families have made those concerns known to us, regrettably all I can do is work with the resources we have.”

In one case the family of a murdered policeman have been waiting eight years for the ombudsman’s office to complete its investigation.

The families of six men killed in Loughinisland in June 1994 have been waiting more than five years for the ombudsman to finish a report on their murders.

Kevin Winters

Kevin Winters

Solicitor Kevin Winters warns continued delays in completing investigations is now leading to a crisis, with many families considering withdrawing support for the ombudsman.

He said: “We have always advised families that in appropriate cases they should avail of the ombudsman’s services to investigate a case, whether it’s historic or current.

“Sadly, we are at a point where our ability to continue to proactively give that advice is under threat.

“If the office does not have the funding and the resources to do that investigation, well you have to ask the question – what’s the point in proactively guiding a family to engage with the ombudsman’s office?

“That (relationship) is under strain and it’s a matter which we’re currently giving serious review.”

Mr Winters also warned some families now believe there may be other reasons behind the delay in investigating the killing of their loved ones.

He said: “Their view would be that there is a political agenda to the downsizing and downgrading of those investigations.

“That is a sentiment that’s echoed repeatedly whenever we sit down to deal with families and explain to them that their cases can’t be dealt with for a considerable time.’’

However, Mr Hutchinson rejected any suggestion that investigations were being deliberately delayed.

“Let me assure everybody that there is absolutely no political influence on this office and if there was the public would hear about it.”

Responding to the claim that his office was now facing a crisis in confidence with victims’ families, he said:

“It’s always concerning.

“I’ve met with several families and solicitors and explained to the realities where we are and really it’s a matter of (those) representing civil society to push for different means to deal with these issues of the past.

“There are a lot of families searching for simple answers and our office is not set up to give them the answers.”

Critics have also raised concerns over the number of foreign trips Mr Hutchinson has undertaken since taking office in October 2007.

One trip to St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Washington and New York in March 2008 cost taxpayers more than £5,000.

Questioned as to whether he accepted criticism that these trips did not represent value for money at a time when he had publicly highlighted a shortage of funding for investigations, Mr Hutchinson said:

“Well, in today’s light I certainly look at them in a different light.

“Yes I did attend, on invitation, the policing component of that St Patrick’s Day.

“After evaluating it I viewed there was no reason to go back and I never have done since and I won’t be doing so again.

“We all learn from those.

“The other trips, when sponsors pay for us to go and talk at human rights conferences, reform of policing, those are valuable things that put Northern Ireland on the map and I think they’re important to do.

“You are well aware that I’ve certainly minimised those trips and, usually when a sponsor will pay us and it’s of benefit to the office and to Northern Ireland, I will take those trips and I think it’s important to do so.”

As part of an annual salary of more than £160,000, Mr Hutchinson also benefits from international flights valued at £15,000 and a monthly £1,000 living allowance.

In a candid admission he said he understood concerns of families who also questioned whether this was value for money.

“I can absolutely. The position is well paid; it was advertised as that for my predecessor and myself.

“The salary is in line with (other) ombudsman salaries. I’m sure you have researched that and know that.

“Yes I do get benefits because I’m not from Northern Ireland.

“The very reason I took a 10% voluntary cut last year and I’m taking a 5% cut each year along with the reduction of the budget.

“I think I’ve recognised clearly that I’m well paid and the position is well paid and certainly I’ve taken my share of cuts on a voluntary basis.”

Asked if he believed a solution could be found to deal with historic cases before he leaves office in 2014, Mr Hutchinson said: “It depends whether I’m an optimist or not.

“I will keep pushing for another way and I’ll keep doing the legalised mandate of this office.

“On the other hand. having been here in Northern Ireland for 10 years now, it does test the optimism that there will be a way forward.

“I’m hoping, as with devolved justice, that a new Assembly will take on with vigour some of these issues, will try to show leadership and lead society forward to another way of dealing with this.

“I think the families deserve it, I think the police deserve it, because there is always context, be they family, be they police, of the issues of the days 40 years ago.”