By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
The question is, why is he still there? After two official reports tore to shreds his management of the Police Ombudsman’s Office and its core functions and exposed the shambles that the office has been for the past two years, Al Hutchinson should have been booted out immediately. Instead it seems he intends to appear tomorrow at Stormont to try to pull the fat from the fire.
If his judgment hasn’t already been sufficiently questioned by the McCusker report in June followed by Criminal Justice Inspection (CJI) on Monday then trying to grab rapidly melting fat as the flames lick round it confirms beyond peradventure his judgment is fatally flawed and he is not equipped to continue.
Going back to the question, why didn’t David Ford call him in and sack him after he received Tony McCusker’s report two and a half months ago?
That report, if you remember, disclosed Hutchinson’s steadily disintegrating management, weak leadership, and “a drift to an ineffective office”.
Few people will have bothered to read the minutes of the meeting of June’s Stormont policing and justice committee where Sinn Fein’s Raymond McCartney demonstrated conclusively that Tony McCusker had actually softened the blow by finding there was “no systemic interference” in the Police Ombudsman’s Office.
That enabled dithering David Ford to waffle in his response. In fact, as McCartney pointed out, McCusker had invented his own terms of reference. He wasn’t asked to find if there was ‘systemic interference’ by the NIO, just interference and that’s exactly what he found. Both these reports have completely vindicated Sam Pollock, the Police Ombudsman’s Office chief executive who had to resign in order to lay bare the shambles created by Hutchinson’s lack of decisive leadership, to use the words of McCusker’s report and his “fractured approach to governance and decision-making” to quote the CJI report. NIO officials had successfully managed to sideline Pollock to such an extent that his resistance to what was going on led to him facing disciplinary action in the spring of this year.
As it is, the two reports show Pollock to be the hero of the whole disastrous saga. Practically every single accusation he made in his resignation letter has been found correct, most damning being the disgraceful and unacceptable reduction in independence of the office since O’Loan. Hutchinson should have been defending Pollock instead of conducting disciplinary proceedings against him.
Such is the price of speaking truth to power.
Another person who doesn’t emerge lily white from the searching examination of the CJI report is the chief constable. Matt Baggott hasn’t had a great summer. It ends with the report saying Baggott believed the PSNI’s relationship with the Police Ombudsman’s Office was entirely professional. Perhaps.
At the same time the report criticises ‘the flawed nature of the investigative process’ of the ombudsman’s office.
Yet the chief constable has nailed his flag to the mast of the flawed McGurk’s Bar investigation process, which leaves him flapping with his flag.
When it comes down to it, the searing critique of Hutchinson’s management record in two official reports, the fractures he has allowed develop in the Police Ombudsman’s Office, the catastrophic collapse in nationalist confidence his weak leadership has caused mean that he is the last person to contemplate carrying out any of the CJI recommendations.
If he tries to hang on after tomorrow, to choose his own time to go, no-one on the nationalist side will cooperate with him. He will be leading a lame duck ombudsman’s office which he must know is ruinous to the institution’s credibility.
A disturbing aspect is that he has had all summer to consider his position but still won’t take the only course open to him.
Does he not see that if he tries to hang on he will turn the police ombudsman into a political football with Sinn Fein demanding he goes and the DUP insisting he be given time to repair the mess he made? It is surely imperative that the Police Ombudsman’s Office is above partisan politicking. Every day Hutchinson stays causes more damage to the office and any attempt tomorrow to explain away the shambles will serve only to deepen political division.
If he has any advisers they must be unanimously telling him - Go now.