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Police Ombudsman must deal fair hand to all communities: Storey

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The DUP’s Policing Board representatives today met with the Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson to set out a range of concerns in relation to her Office’s handling of historical investigations with police officers and PSNI operations during Covid-19.

Commenting afterwards, DUP North Antrim MLA Mervyn Storey said:

‘‘We welcomed the opportunity to have a frank and constructive discussion with the Ombudsman in relation her Office’s caseload and priorities.

I was keen to highlight that the actions of her predecessor, particularly on issues affecting legacy investigations, has resulted in public confidence in the Office among the unionist community reaching rock bottom. Indeed, criticism of the Office in the courts had been deeply damaging.

I am pleased that Mrs Anderson has accepted these findings but the proof of the pudding will rest in what safeguards her Office puts in place to prevent such unacceptable behaviour from happening again.

It is important that lessons around how the Office addresses former police officers are learned.

The new Ombudsman has said she would like to see PONI receive new powers to compel witnesses to cooperate with investigations. We reiterated our concern that this could unfairly and disproportionately affect those who served our community with distinction during campaigns of terrorism.’’

East Belfast DUP MLA Joanne Bunting also attended the meeting. Commenting afterwards she said:

‘‘I wanted to place on record the deep unease within the people who elected me about the Police Ombudsman’s failure to provide scrutiny of PSNI inaction against large republican funerals which breached lockdown restrictions. This is contrast to the commissioned PONI investigation into police practice which led to the issuing of fixed penalty notices at Black Lives Matter protests during the same period.

Such inconsistency does little to restore confidence in the role or added value of the Police Ombudsman’s Office. I have highlighted the need for PONI to re-examine the public interest test for such investigations moving forward.

Officials claim their hands were tied because no member of the public directly affected lodged a formal complaint about the policing operation at the funeral of Bobby Storey but this is a weak defence for not acting. The PSNI must be held fully accountable not just for proactive steps its officers take but for clear failures to act when public safety is at stake.

In relation to historical investigations, it is wrong that innocent victims appear to only have one formal route to investigations via the Legacy Branch case sequencing model while those alleging criminality by former police officers and members of our security services have access to a range of tools to pursue fresh investigations. The Police Ombudsman is only one such mechanism, with approximately 450 historical cases currently on its books.

I urged the Ombudsman to ensure that in her public statements moving forward she is mindful of widespread public frustration with the current system – in order to avoid causing further pain to innocent victims, their families and former police officers who already hold genuine concerns around the focus of current investigations.’’

Concluding, West Tyrone DUP MLA Thomas Buchanan said:

‘‘The absence of PSNI action against the flagrant abuse of Covid-19 regulations during the Bobby Storey rightly generated concern and outcry from all corners of Northern Ireland.

The fact that this neglectful and passive approach to upholding public safety was not subject to scrutiny by the Ombudsman’s Office again raises questions around whether current investigating procedures are both fair of fit for purpose.

The Ombudsman has indicated a desire to take forward a programme of reform to modernise the powers and tools at her disposals. Only by first addressing core weaknesses in current practice can this be successful.’’

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