Judge rules out challenge to Ombudsman over Loughinisland

Judge rules out challenge to Ombudsman over Loughinisland

5 December 2018

THE families of the six men killed by loyalists in the 1994 Loughinisland massacre have welcomed a High Court decision to dismiss a legal challenge against the Police Ombudsman’s finding that the RUC colluded with the killers.

Last Thursday, Mrs Justice Keegan rejected claims the Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, exceeded his legal powers in publishing findings on the shooting which claimed the lives of the innocent Roman Catholic men who died while watching a World Cup football match at The Heights Bar.

“This is a legacy case, involving the death of six people in circumstances where serious questions have been raised about police conduct,” she said. “There is an obligation to investigate such matters and a strong public interest to know the outcome.”

The men who died in the massacre were Adrian Rogan (34), Malcolm Jenkinson (53), Barney Green (87), Daniel McCreanor (59), Patrick O’Hare (35) and 39 year-old Eamon Byrne. Five others were seriously injured.

In June 2016, the Ombudsman said collusion between some officers and the loyalists was a significant feature in the murders. He found no evidence police had prior knowledge, but identified “catastrophic failings” in the investigation.

Former RUC Assistant Chief Constable Raymond White, representing the Northern Ireland Retired Police Officers’ Association and Ronald Hawthorne, a former sub-divisional police commander, were seeking to have Dr Maguire’s report quashed.

They claimed the watchdog lacked the legal power to investigate and publish damning findings without a proper chance to respond. 

A first hearing resulted in a ruling last December that the report was procedurally unfair, while another judge, Mr Justice McCloskey, said it failed to make clear the findings did not apply to Mr Hawthorne.

But lawyers representing the Ombudsman and the victims’ families argued that Mr Justice McCloskey should withdraw due to his role as a barrister in separate litigation 17 years ago.

Despite rejecting claims that he could be seen as unintentionally biased, the judge consented to a limited re-hearing in front of Mrs Justice Keegan.

At that time the watchdog also agreed to remove any references to Mr Hawthorne from its report to ensure he was not connected to any alleged wrongdoing — a move seen as complete vindication for the ex-police commander.

The renewed challenge to the amended report focused only on issues around the extent of the legal powers to publish the findings, with counsel for the retired officers stressing it was not an attack on the institution of the Ombudsman’s office. The lawyer argued, however, that damning determinations had been reached without his clients having the opportunity to respond.

The Ombudsman’s legal team countered that the Police (Northern Ireland) Act gave him the required statutory power to make the determinations contained in his public statement.

Backing that position, Mrs Justice Keegan stressed it must be the Ombudsman’s function to probe complaints.

“He [Dr Maguire] also has power to refer complaints for criminal or disciplinary disposal and he can take other defined actions,” she said. “But it would be perverse to say that he cannot report on his investigation.”

She added: “In the unique situation presented by the Troubles it is appropriate bereaved families should have the benefit of an independent, investigative report such as this, particularly where no prosecutions have been brought.”

South Down MLA Emma Rogan, whose father, Adrian, was one of the six men killed in the Loughinisland massacre, welcomed the outcome.

Speaking outside Belfast High Court, she said the judgment “restores justice for our families”.

She added: “It restores dignity to the memory of our loved ones and that’s the very reason I come here; I am the voice for my dad, he doesn’t have a voice and I am his voice.

“This is massive. It’s majorly important that this judgement has been heard and it has gone the way it has. The Police Ombudsman has such a significant role to play in policing can now go ahead and release reports that families are waiting on.”