THE resignation of Sam Pollock as Chief Executive of the Police Ombudsman’s office is an indicator of unrest inside the organisation and considerable anger outside about what is perceived as a malaise that is destroying public confidence in the work of the police ombudsman.
The words of severe criticism used by Mr Pollock in his letter of resignation have ensured his departure from the office he has held for over a decade has distracted the political establishment from their endeavours on the hustings.
The kind of political unity witnessed at the funeral of murdered PSNI Constable Ronan Kerr has also been immediately evident in the responses to Mr Pollock’s accusory words against the interference of senior civil servants at the Department of Justice.
Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey demanded a “rigorous investigation to get to the bottom of this”. David McNarry of the Ulster Unionist Party was equally concerned, describing this latest development as “an extraordinary and shocking state of affairs.”
Mr McNarry went further when he said: “This has left a large question mark over the ombudsman’s office and a number of senior officials at the Department of Justice.”
A political inquiry at Stormont may yet be the option of choice when the election concludes and new political faces take their seats at the Executive table.
News of Mr Pollock’s resignation came 10 days after The Detail had investigated the Ombudsman’s handling of the investigation into the Loyalist murder of six men in a bar in Loughinisland in 1994. Relatives of the dead and a survivor of the attack told of their frustration with the way in which the Ombudsman had handled its inquiry. Last week, The Detailed published comments by a leading defence solicitor in Belfast who said he was concerned at the effectiveness of the Ombudsman. The stories raised questions of whether the office was now fit for purpose. Three days later, Sam Pollock’s resignation letter was made public.
The Detail has been told that Justice Minister David Ford has begun the search for someone appropriate to head up an inquiry.
Sam Pollock, who will leave his post officially in August, has, in his own words of resignation, been unwillingly forced to examine his position within the ombudsman’s office.
While he has not spoken publicly about his decision to leave, The Detail has learned more about the pressures in the ombudsman’s office that may have contributed to Mr Pollock’s discomfort and departure.
• The appointment of former policeman Al Hutchinson to replace Nuala O’Loan as ombudsman means that two of the top three posts in the ombudsman’s office are currently occupied by former police officers – Mr Hutchinson and his chief investigating officer.
• The past that threatens the future. There are ongoing concerns over the cost and time being taken to investigate the backlog of historic cases from the conflict and criticisms of how these historic cases have been handled given the outcry over reports such as the Loyalist attacks on McGurk’s bar in Belfast and The Heights Bar in Loughinisland.
• Questions being asked about the wisdom of how and why a policeman was appointed to take over from Nuala O’Loan.
• As a consequence of that appointment, there are now concerns over what’s perceived as the ‘cosiness’ between the ombudsman’s office and the PSNI and the Police Federation.
• And public statements regarding investigations by the ombudsman’s office that have too often proved contentious and upsetting for both the families of victims seeking truth and for the officers accused of investigative failure.
Sam Pollock, the man at the centre of the latest controversy, spent more than four decades working within criminal justice. A source close to policing told The Detail that Mr Pollock was at one time a hard working probatation officer at Long Kesh. Being appointed as chief executive officer of the Ombudsman’s office was something of which he was extremely proud.
He quickly established a good working relationship with Nuala O’Loan and her chief investigator Dave Wood. Mr Pollock regarded himself as the public’s representative and first check and balance in how the then ombudsman performed her duties.
In the three-and-a-half-years since Mrs O’Loan left office, Sam Pollock began to feel more and more marginalised – no longer feeling part of a team with a role to play in delivering an independent service to the public.
And as The Detail reported last week, the man who helped create the blueprint for a policing ombudsman, retired civil servant Dr Maurice Hayes, said it was vital the ombudsman’s office could be seen as standing alone free from interference.
What was needed, he told The Detail, was: “Independence, independence and independence. Because what was wrong with the old system was that it didn’t have independence in different ways.”
But in his resignation letter Sam Pollock cited the undermining of that independence as a reason for his decision to leave his post. He referred to the meddling of senior civil servants in the Department of Justice as having had a role to play in the process of undermining.
The department and Ombudsman Al Hutchinson have publicly spoken out to refute Mr Pollock’s claims.
But there are others who today question the true independence. One of them is a former senior and decorated RUC detective John Lyttle, who also happened to work as a consultant for Mrs O’Loan when she was the Ombudsman.
He’s been watching developments from abroad but spoke to The Detail of his own experience which suggested that instead of independence there was now an unhealthily cosy relationship between the ombudsman’s office and policing.
In April 2008 the ombudsman’s office issued a statement about its investigations into the RUC’s murder inquiry into the death of Constable John Larmour – gunned down while serving in his brother’s ice cream parlour on the Lisburn Road in Belfast.
John Lyttle had become the senior investigating officer for a very brief time.
“I covered for a short time because the senior officer in charge was ill,” he told The Detail.
The 2008 ombudsman’s statement, based on its as yet unpublished report, criticised the RUC handling of the murder investigation. A number of failings had been identified which led to the conclusion that the original murder inquiry was “not as thorough as one would have expected of a murder investigation.”
John Lyttle, who had and still has the utmost repect for Nuala O’Loan as ombudsman, was angry at this first report from her replacement Al Hutchinson: “It was just the usual swipe at the RUC and yet Al Hutchinson had to acknowledge the failure by Special Branch to properly inform those investigating John Larmour’s murder.”
In his public statement, Al Hutchinson criticised the investigators for failing to complete follow-up inquiries concerning “witnesses, suspects, telephone calls and vehicles thought to have been used in the attack.”
But the ombudsman’s investigators also revealed that the police did receive information about Constable Larmour’s murder the week following the killing but admit that not all of this was passed to the detectives investigating his death.
Whilst the public statement was made, the full report has not been published on the Ombudsman’s website.
John Lyttle, who suspects the involvement of informants in the Larmour murder, was so angered by Ombudsman Al Hutchinson that he says he approached the Police Federation to seek their help in publicly challenging Mr Hutchinson and the conclusions of his investigators – but he was in for a surprise.
“Mr Hutchinson’s investigators told me I was not under investigation,” said John Lyttle, "and in fact I have that in writing. But they made general sweeping criticisms of the senior investigating officers and that did impact on me. But when I asked, the ombudsman refused to give me a copy of the report.
“So I asked the Federation to help me tackle the Ombudsman’s office over yet another swipe at what they saw as the bad RUC. But I was shocked when the Federation officer I spoke to told me there would be no challenge from the Federation.
“I was told there would be no rocking the boat now that Nuala O’Loan had just gone. They won’t hurt us and we won’t hurt them. That’s what I was told. And that’s not independence, but a cosy arrangement that goes against the very reason for the ombudsman’s office.”
In 2007, the Police Federation made little attempt to hide their glee at the departure of Nuala O’Loan and their pleasure at the appointment of a former police officer to head up the office – someone who would better understand the role of police officers and the challenges they face day and daily.
But when I asked a spokesperson for the Police Federation to comment on John Lyttle’s assertions, I was told that while understanding the issues involved the Federation would not be drawn on the case.
And so the police ombudsman’s office finds itself involved in a very public exorcism of its internal squabbles and it may get worse before it’s better.
If the Department of Justice goes ahead with an inquriy there’s the risk that more cracks may be exposed to public scrutiny.
And as a new political era dawns at Stormont some wise old sages are viewing Sam Pollock’s discomfort with ‘meddling’ Department of Justice civil servants and wondering now at the wisdom of the ruling parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, of allowing the Northern Ireland Office to move into the Department of Justice in such large numbers. Something the inquiry might want to examine.