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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

The PSNI must deliver transparency

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

"The Police Service of Northern Ireland is committed to being open, accountable and transparent. We are working to develop a culture of greater openness," the website of the police force proclaims.

Gone, we are told with much head shaking, are the bad old days when officers cut corners and then closed ranks in the face of criticism or scandal.

There wasn't much sign of the openness last week after Justice Weir delivered his shattering verdict on the Omagh bomb investigation. He dismissed every single item of evidence placed before him and acquitted Sean Hoey of all 58 charges brought against him.

Afterwards, Hugh Orde, the chief constable, gave a press conference to a carefully vetted corps of journalists in which he defended his team. "I think what Detective Chief Superintendent Norman Baxter (who was in charge of the Omagh inquiry) did with what he had was outstanding."

Orde said: "It was an absolutely genuine attempt to do our very best with what little we had."

This is hardly the end of the matter, or the last of the questions Orde and Baxter must answer. The RUC and British Army, who collected evidence after Omagh and other linked inquiries back in 1998, did not gather or store it properly. Understandly perhaps, there was no thought of extracting the minute quantities of DNA which the Forensic Science Laboratory in Birmingham can now work with. Even by the terms of the forensic methods of the day, though, the RUC storage and collection procedures were slipshod.

Under the command of Ronnie Flanagan, who is now responsible for enforcing policing standards throughout the UK, the RUC made a pig's ear of the initial investigation. But it was the PSNI who attempted to turn the sow's ear into a silk purse and put it before Justice Weir. It was the present-day prosecuting authorities who argued that Hoey should be kept in custody for more than four years while the legal farce played out.

Justice Weir repeatedly told the court that not only was there no proof "beyond reasonable doubt" – the standard demanded for a criminal prosecution- but there was no evidence to meet any "reasonable standard". So this was no near miss. Is it any wonder that Hoey is now talking of suing for compensation for malicious prosecution?

It wasn't only the DNA evidence that collapsed in court. Elaborate theories were put forward to try and establish that a number of bomb detonation devices or Timer and Power Units (TPUs) found in 1997 and 1998 were constructed in a similar way and therefore must have been all made by Hoey. These were shown to be rubbish. There was no evidence that he had made even a single TPU, never mind several. Fibre samples adduced to show he had worn woollen gloves when making bombs turned out to be another expensive and time consuming blind alley.

Worst of all Weir concluded that two police officers appeared to have perjured themselves in order to help secure a prosecution. They had claimed that they had worn protective clothing to guard against contamination, contemporaneous photographs showed them dressed in ordinary clothes. Weir, has passed transcripts of their evidence to the Police Ombudsman and Orde says it may be a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions.

It would it would have been far better if Baxter's Omagh team had uncovered the deficiencies instead of allowing demonstrably false testimony to go before the court.

In his devastating judgment Weir mentions Baxter only once. It is to point out that the detective was aware that some exhibits had been lost, others were difficult to find and that there had been "a need for improvement" in the storage of evidence. Baxter had stated in court that a report from HMI of Constabulary in 2001 or 2002 showed that, as the judge put it, the "problem related not merely to the storage but also the condition of exhibits". Bags that should have been sealed were left lying open while other bags had no labels and there was no system of logging.

Small wonder that Michael Gallagher, who lost his son in the atrocity, said that "a major mistake was made in bringing unprofessional DNA into play in such a massive murder case."

This was the greatest loss of life in the recent troubles. It was also the biggest mass murder in the British and Irish history leaving 29 people dead including a woman pregnant with twins. The investigation cost £16 million making it arguably the most expensive by any British or Irish police force. Failure on this scale means that the police must answer serious and detailed questions, although there seems to be no acceptance of that.

Outside the court a strange tableau played out before the waiting cameras in which journalists brave enough to ask the obvious were pilloried. Ken Devlin, a PSNI press officer, told TV crews standing on the street outside the courtroom that Baxter would make a brief statement but would not answer questions. There were immediate protests from the press. Lawrence Rushe, whose wife Libby died at Omagh joined in the clamour, exclaiming "there is a whole lot of questions to answer". Journalists asked why Baxter would not answer them. "Because he won't" replied Devlin and walked off.

When Baxter had delivered his prepared statement the respected TV journalist Trevor Birney shouted "that was a devastating critique of your investigation in court". Other reporters also asked for comment.

A furious Devlin then shouted "that wasn't the deal" and advised Baxter not to respond. But Baxter then rounded on the reporter saying "I think it is scandalous for Mr Birney to try and add more misery to the victims by making unsubstantiated claims here at this stage". He accused the journalist of having a record of such behaviour.

This, Birney believes, was a reference to an occasion when he was editor of current affairs at UTV and a documentary crew under his management insisted on asking Baxter to expand on a statement he had given explaining another failed prosecution, this time of a sex criminal who was acquitted of murdering a young woman called Arlene Arkinson.

Birney was not amongst the favoured few invited to Orde's press conference in PSNI headquarters where a carefully controlled message was delivered on Friday morning.

The Omagh investigation has been little better in the republic. There are many unanswered questions about the possible involvement of garda agents and there are two cases in which Gardai are said to have arrested suspects who the PSNI had hoped to question in the north. Colm Murphy, Hoey's uncle, had his conviction over turned and may face a re-trial.

It is the police services who stand between us and terrorist conspiracies like the Real IRA, but it is not their function to police the media. Society has a right to expect efficiency, wise use of resources and accountability from police officers as they discharge their duties and it has a right to demand explanations when they fall short. Embarrassment is no reason to avoid the sort of searching questions the press must ask after an investigation is completed and no legal issues remain.

Sir John Stevens call, in today's Sunday Times, for the publication of his important investigation into collusion underlines the need for openness and truth in coming to terms with the past.

If that is the case there can be no excuse for spin and equivocation in the here and now. The PSNI promise transparency, they should deliver it.

December 26, 2007

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on December 23, 2007.