Delays and legal challenges to Police Ombudsman reports exacerbates trauma of families

On the eve of the anniversary of one of the most notorious atrocities of the conflict in which five males, two of them teenage boys, were murdered and several people seriously injured, relatives and survivors of the February 1992 loyalist UDA gun attack on Sean Graham’s Ormeau Road bookmaker’s say a combination of factors in delaying a key report into the attack are all adding to their “continued grief, anguish and trauma”.


Relatives and survivors say;


“We’ve had enough with delays and barriers that are being deliberately placed in our way so as to obstruct the Police Ombudsman’s report from being published. It’s really about preventing the truth from emerging…” and that this is “…causing more hurt and harm to the families…”

Survivors and bereaved relatives have passed away waiting on truth, accountability and ultimately justice.


Clara Magee, whose 18 year-old son Peter was one of those murdered in the attack and who is now 90, also buried her son Martin in January 2017. Martin was Peter’s twin. Martin died as a direct consequence of losing his brother. Another brother was on life support recently. Families say the atrocity’s impact is precisely as put by Jack Kennedy, the father of the youngest victim 15 year-old James Kennedy, when he said “bullets do not only travel distance but also through time.” That was in response to James’ mother Kathleen passing away prematurely soon afterwards and then James’ father Jack passed away too also at an early age. Several of the survivors have also died prematurely from their injuries. Seven direct family members of one victim of the attack, Christy Docherty, have died in the intervening years.


Maria Sykes, sister of Peter Magee, said;


“We need this report to find out exactly what happened. It’s the not knowing that eats away at you everyday and adding to the overall trauma. We need this report in terms of healing, recovery and moving on as best we can – repairing our lives.”

Helen Duffin, widow of Jack, is in her 90’s and Roseleen McManus, widow of Willie, is 80 and there is a concern that if delays continue then they and Clara Magee might not see the publication of the long-awaited report into the atrocity. Mrs. Duffin also buried her son Martin in 2015.


Billy McManus, son of Willie, said;


“Too many of our loved ones have died not knowing the truth. It isn’t acceptable. What they’re putting us through mentally equates to a form of daily torture. People are dying without any form of truth or redress as delay after delay occurs.”


The families and survivors add that; “Certain actions in the courts, in our view, are also designed to thwart attempts at getting to the truth.”


The families cite a number of impediments as key factors that range from failings by the PSNI in providing key evidential material to the ombudsman; twice in the past year more material has been ‘discovered’. Solicitor Niall Murphy, who represents the families, first revealed the existence of this material last year that was disclosed as part of civil proceedings and which the Police Ombudsman had not had access to. That material related to covert and intelligence based police and military activity at the time of the murders. There are also other legal challenges.


A legal challenge by retired RUC officers, including those who ran the special branch, has effectively hamstrung the ombudsman from publishing the report into the atrocity. That challenge arose in the case of the Loughinisland massacre in which retired RUC officers sought to challenge the then ombudsman, Dr. Michael Maguire’s, finding of collusion in his report into the loyalist attack that claimed six lives and injured many more. A film on the Loughinisland murders, No Stone Unturned, also controversially saw police arrest two investigative journalists involved in making the documentary that exposed collusion and the role of an agent directly involved in the murders. No one to date has been charged with that atrocity.


Niall Murphy said;


“The legal challenge has meant that significant reports by the ombudsman into just fewer than 40 murders have been held up pending the outcome of the challenge. And it is this delay that affects families awaiting the outcome of reports into the murders of their loved ones. I share their frustrations about continuous delay.”

The initial challenge to the Loughinisland findings was embroiled in controversy when Justice Bernard McCloskey voluntarily recused himself after hearing the initial challenge when it was revealed that as a barrister he had represented the same retired officers association when they had sought to challenge the then ombudsman’s report into the August 1998 Omagh bombing regarding Nuala O’Loan’s findings that heavily criticized the RUC. It was also revealed that the RUC had prior intelligence of the attack from the state agent Peter Keeley. This apart from other agents that the intelligence services also ran.


The case was then heard by Justice Siobhan Keegan who ruled that the Ombudsman had not acted outside of their statutory remit when making findings of collusion within their Section 62 public statements into murders.


However, the retired officers, led by former head of RUC special branch Raymond White, appealed that ruling to the court of appeal that heard the case last year and where judgment still awaits. Only then will families know the fate of the reports that sit on a shelf under lock and key awaiting publication.


This is crucial time that families don’t have – aging relatives such as Clara Magee, Mrs. McManus and Mrs. Duffin.


‘Operation Achille’ is the name given to the Police Ombudsman investigation into the Ormeau Road atrocity and it includes six additional murders by the same UDA gang during the 1990’s in south Belfast in which collusion is also a key feature.


Jim Clinton, whose wife Theresa was murdered on April 14th 1994 and which forms part of the Operation Achille, said;


“It’s galling when you think that the very organisation under scrutiny as part of the ombudsman’s investigation into the murders of our loved ones is the very same organisation taking these challenges and causing further harm to families.


“We can’t but help feel this is deliberate and designed as a stalling tactic.


“There’s all this talk from politicians and former police about vexatious prosecutions and the persecution of former police and soldiers and yet no one in this jurisdiction can point a finger to one single case where this is evidenced. To us it feels like the vexatious actions are being taken by former police who want to thwart the ombudsman and limit what little powers they have.”


“When they’re not attacking the ombudsman in this way they’re pulling the purse strings, tying one hand behind their back.”


Tommy Duffin, son of Jack, said;


“What we cannot even understand is why would significant former police officers who spent their careers asking the public to assist with investigations refuse to cooperate with the ombudsman in these cases?


“The only logical conclusion is that they simply don’t want the ombudsman to investigate these cases at all and that begs the question why? This makes it all the more crucial that investigations into these atrocities do take place and reports get published.


“People out there, from across the entire community, who lost loved ones in similar circumstances will understand exactly how we feel and how these delays are adding to our grief.”


Concluding Mark Thompson, CEO of Relatives for Justice who supports the families, said;


“The ombudsman requires more resources, financial support, and stronger legislation and powers in order to do its job more effectively on behalf of all families. It should not be treated in this way: getting dragged before the courts equates to dragging the families through the courts and that’s unacceptable.


“Families just want the court of appeal to make its ruling and hopefully clear that hurdle so as they can get their reports and find out exactly what happened to their loved ones.”