Police Ombudsman to resume investigating historical events
The Police Ombudsman is to resume investigations into more than 150 historical events where former RUC officers stand accused of criminal activity and misconduct.
Many of the cases involve allegations of collusion.
The investigations were suspended in September 2011 after a report by Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI) said the office's operational independence had been lowered.
Another CJI report published on Wednesday said substantial progress has been made and recommends the resumption of historical investigations.
The 2011 report was commissioned by the ombudsman at the time, Al Hutchinson.
He did so after the BBC revealed in April that year that his chief executive, Sam Pollock, had resigned and made strong criticisms of the office.
This included an allegation that the relationship between the office and the police had been compromised.
Al Hutchinson denied the claim and asked inspectors to conduct an urgent review. The verdict was not what he had hoped for.
The inspection report said there had been a lowering of operational independence in the way the office of the Police Ombudsman conducted investigations into historical cases.
Inspectors said a number of reports by the office of the ombudsman into historical events had been altered before publication to reduce criticism of the police and called for such investigations to be suspended until its criticisms were addressed.
The findings were hugely damaging because the requirement for independence is a statutory one.
The report also said the ombudsman had lost the confidence of his senior staff and described the way the office functioned as fractured, inconsistent and dysfunctional.
As inspection reports go, it was as bad as they come.
It was the third highly critical report in a matter of months and further serious failings about the investigation of historical cases were exposed in a BBC Spotlight programme in October 2011.
Political and public criticism led to Al Hutchinson retiring early last year.
The person now doing the job is Dr Michael Maguire, who was in charge of Criminal Justice Inspection when it produced its withering assessment of the way the office of the ombudsman functioned in 2011.
Inspectors went back to the office to assess progress in November last year, accompanied by members of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary.
Having highlighted the problems, and recommending how they should be fixed, it would have been hugely embarrassing for Mr Maguire if this report had been negative.
But his successor as the head of Criminal Justice Inspection, Brendan McGuigan, said the office of the ombudsman is ready to re-start historical investigations.
"My recommendation that the Police Ombudsman recommences this important work as soon as is practical to do so, is based on the findings of a rigorous independent, impartial follow-up review," he said.
A follow-up CJI report published on Wednesday said new structures and processes have been put in place, and substantial progress has been made.
Since Al Hutchinson left, the number of investigators working for the office's historical directorate has more than doubled from 19 to 40. The office has also been allocated an additional £12m of funding for a six-year period to complete its work on historical cases.
The inspection report does not say operational independence has been fully restored. Brendan McGuigan said it will only be able to assess this after a number of historical reports are published.
Dr Maguire has welcomed the CJI findings and said he is confident his office can investigate matters from the past in a way that would be "both independent and to the highest standard".
The ombudsman said his office will now resume investigations of historical matters.
There are more than 150 such cases involving allegations of police involvement in criminality during the period 1968-1998.
In a statement, Michael Maguire said members of the public across the community "have made a series of complaints to us of a grave and exceptional nature about incidents during this period".
Michael Maguire said his office expects to complete two "complex" cases, some of which involve more than 20 linked cases, and six "stand alone" cases each year.
The question is, will there be enough time and money to complete all of the cases? Previous experience suggests there may not.
A report entitled Operation Ballast published by the first Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan in January 2007, which exposed collusion between members of Special Branch and the UVF in north Belfast, took more than four years to complete, and cost several million pounds.
Having stated that he is confident his office can now investigate historical events, Michael Maguire may yet find it will not have the necessary finances to complete the task.