PSNI obstructiveness culture must change

Posted By: December 22, 2015

Fionnuala O Connor. Irish News (Belfast). Tuesdady, Deember 22, 2015

The glossiest possible end-of-year report might chirrup about new leaders. But like tinsel, glossy stuff is only good for Christmas decoration.

Old fears are stirred by the PSNI reaction last week to a finding that officers obstructed investigation into their own behaviour. It adds insult to injury that the case began with the maiming of a Catholic officer by a dissident bomb. If the PSNI cannot attract and retain enough Catholics, it does the dissidents’ malign work for them.

This is a police service said to be the most invigilated in the world. But police everywhere, as the best of them know, need constant watching. Put people in charge of enforcing laws, ask them to do dirty and dangerous jobs that bind them together, and some will ignore rules when it comes to themselves, at worst fake evidence and act as judge and executioner. Keen-eyed supervision has to keep on starting over.

The PSNI presented GAA-playing, Irish-speaking Peadar Heffron as exactly the kind of officer they needed, which made him a prime target for dissidents. He was 35 when a bomb under his car put him in a wheelchair. Rules declared him ineligible for compensation because when injured he was not at work but travelling to it. Then an informant claimed that the bombing could have been prevented.

Trailblazing Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan met outrage when she laid bare the RUC’s habitual obstruction of investigation. But it isn’t the old RUC that present Ombudsman Michael Maguire has been investigating this time. He has been delayed for years on this alleged PSNI failing and issues he then uncovered, by PSNI obstruction. (He has been simultaneously trying to investigate other cases, driven along the way to sue the last chief constable in the struggle to get information.)

We are told that for all police forces ‘man down’ is the call for nothing to be spared in providing aid and support. In this case the ombudsman began by examining the PSNI handling of an attack that in Maguire’s phrase left one of their own “with life-changing injuries”. The Heffron case became sad comment on the morale-boosting sloganeering of ‘man down’.

The ombudsman’s team questioned officers about delay and non-response to detectives of the Counter Terrorism Unit, trying to find who bombed Peadar Heffron but stalled by C3, successor to Special Branch. Maguire’s report focuses on the individual failure of four officers. Individual failings there certainly were. The larger failure is of senior management unable or unwilling to deal with obstructiveness over an absurdly prolonged period. Individual officers behave like this because they know they can.

Intelligence Unit C3 released information after 28 months, only after the Ombudsman’s office became involved. As soon as the report came out Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris – whose own RUC officer father was killed by an IRA under-car bomb – issued a hand-wringing apology to the injured, now ex-police officer Heffron. Harris then responded – no more delays – to Maguire’s conclusions with his own intentions. He effectively downgraded the modest sanctions Maguire recommended. The signal to officers seems to be that the top brass and not the ombudsman are in charge of discipline.

Numerous HET and ombudsman reports chronicle internal obstruction of investigators, then of those who would investigate the investigations. We have seen the same pattern for decades, first inside the RUC, then the PSNI: Special Branch and intelligence units – like feudal baronies – acting as forces within the force, regarding intelligence as their property to be released to detectives or not, often not, when it suited them.

In 2007 Nuala O’Loan published her report on the case of Raymond McCord, killed by the UVF 10 years earlier. She said she had sought the cooperation of a number of retired senior officers: “The majority of them failed even to reply.” Some retired officers, she said, did assist the investigation, were helpful and acted professionally. “Others, including some serving officers, gave evasive, contradictory, and on occasion farcical answers to questions. On occasion those answers indicated either a significant failure to understand the law, or contempt for the law. On other occasions the investigation demonstrated conclusively that what an officer had told the Police Ombudsman’s investigators was completely untrue.” Her report, eight years ago, contained a list of ‘grave concerns’.

If this week’s special Policing Board meeting fails to produce a blazing row and an abject climbdown, we may tear up the present supervision arrangements and start again.