The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland’s 20th Anniversary
The history of the Office
The Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland has just marked its 20th anniversary. It first opened its doors on 6 November 2000.
In bringing forward the necessary legislation to form the new Office, the Government at the time described it as a ‘radical idea’. The concept that police could no longer investigate public complaints about the conduct of police officers was a new one.
The Office was launched into a society which was struggling to come out of decades of violence. Policing was at the heart of what was still a sharply divided society and perhaps there was an inevitability that the new police complaints system would find itself having to deal with some of the most contested issues in that community.
Within a year the Office had published a report critical of aspects of the police handling of the bombing of Omagh in 1988. This initially triggered a strong rebuttal from police and made international headlines before the Office’s recommendations were eventually accepted.
Past and future challenges
The examination of policing in Northern Ireland’s past has brought particular challenges to the Office over the years. At one stage it led to the resignation of its Chief Executive and an official report which said it had suffered ‘a lowering of its operational independence’. These are concerns that have since been addressed.
The vast majority of the Office’s work involved the handling of allegations about modern policing, with it often receiving upwards of 3,000 such complaints each year.
The Office now has widespread support, with almost 80% of people surveyed believing it would treat them fairly – a figure which could only have been dreamt about by its predecessors.
The post of Police Ombudsman is one of great importance in Northern Ireland, but is also seen as something of a ‘hot seat’. Its three previous occupants – Baroness Nuala O’Loan, Mr Al Hutchinson and Dr Michael Maguire – have each worked under an unremitting public spotlight.
The current occupant of that seat is Mrs Marie Anderson, the former Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman. She is well aware of the responsibilities she now holds, saying:
“This Office at one stage led the way in the powers it had for holding police officers to account, but we are now at risk of falling behind other jurisdictions. Putting that right will be one of my main tasks”.