Hutchinson debate flags up other questions of the past

Wherever you stand on the "should Al Hutchinson stay or go?" debate, the latest suggestion that the Police Ombudsman should suspend the investigation of historic cases once again emphasises the drawbacks of the piecemeal way Northern Ireland is addressing its past.

Victims Commissioner Patricia MacBride has expressed her concern that the suspension "will have a detrimental and damaging effect on victims and survivors".

Ms MacBride is worried that "cases where investigations have already taken place and where reports have not yet been published, will sit in limbo until a review is conducted of the most effective way of managing those investigation reports".

The victims commissioner fears that families who have waited years will be told they must wait again. She describes that as "an untenable situation".

Currently the Police Historical Enquiries Team examines unresolved murders committed during the troubles.

When cases involve allegations of police malpractice or collusion, then they get referred to the ombudsman's office.

The courts are also getting drawn into the examination of the past, with the attorney general ordering that a series of new inquests be held into controversial deaths.

All this is in addition, of course, to high profile probes like the Bloody Sunday, Billy Wright, Rosemary Nelson or Robert Hamill inquiries.

The Eames Bradley Group On The Past recommended replacing this piecemeal approach with a single "Legacy Commission".

However, this suggestion got lost in the furore over the proposed £12,000 recognition payments to the families of all those who died during the conflict, irrespective of whether they were paramilitaries, security force personnel or civilians.

Boston College

Sinn Fein - which doesn't cooperate with the police HET team - has suggested an independent international truth recovery process, with UN backing. But unionists are distinctly cool about the idea.

At one stage the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, appeared keen on replacing expensive lawyers with a panel of historians, tasked with establishing an authoritative view of the past.

Anyone who has witnessed historians argue over different interpretations of episodes in modern history may reserve judgment over how feasible such a project might prove.

Moreover, the events surrounding the oral history project at Boston College show that opting for a "story telling" approach isn't without its complications.

Having offered former paramilitaries a guarantee that their testimony would not be used until after their deaths, the college is now fighting attempts to subpoena its tapes, apparently as part of a PSNI investigation into the "disappeared".

With agreement on creating any new structures to deal with the past apparently impossible, both the Stormont politicians and the Northern Ireland Office may be tempted to shrug their shoulders and conclude that the current piecemeal system is the only option.

However, the controversy over Al Hutchinson's handling of historic cases vividly illustrates how this approach can damage those agencies which bear the burden of trying to discharge multiple duties.

The Criminal Justice Chief Inspector Michael Maguire reports that "with some exceptions" there were "no major concerns around the (Police Ombudsman's) investigation of current cases".

Yet Sinn Fein is calling for Al Hutchinson to resign now, whilst the DUP is accusing the ombudsman's critics of launching a "vendetta" against him.

The majority of the ombudsman's work is meant to involve complaints against serving police officers - but that work has been completely overshadowed by the complaints about Mr Hutchinson's handling of past atrocities like the Loughinisland shootings and the bombing of McGurk's bar.