Life

Nuala O'Loan: 'The truth does set people free'

Northern Ireland's first police ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, has gained an international reputation for her work in uncovering the truth behind some of the Troubles' worst atrocities. As she continues to investigate the disturbing underbelly of police corruption, she tells Joanne Sweeney she still believes truth has the power to heal

Joanne Sweeney
14 January, 2017 01:00

WHEN the youngest son of Nuala O'Loan came home battered and bruised just before she published her seismic report into the handling of the police investigation into the Omagh bombing, she did what any other law-abiding and right-thinking mother would do; she called the police for help.

The 13-year-old told her that there was no point, that the police wouldn't get the people responsible. But Northern Ireland's first Police Ombudsman assured her doubting son: "This is what we do."

Later that evening, she offered to leave her role as chief scrutiniser into police and its operations in the north and return to her role as university law lecturer as the family were in no doubt that the boy was targeted due to his mother's work.

Sitting in her Ballymena home, the now Baroness O'Loan says: "He just looked at me and said 'It's too late; they know who I am. But I think you are doing the right thing."

She adds: "We did phone [the police] quite a few times and they always came very quickly and very bravely."

That steadfast determination to "do the right thing" still rings true for the woman who has dedicated her life's work to righting some of the injustices that life deals to people.

O'Loan took on the anger and hopes of the relatives of those who died in the 1998 atrocity and as ombudsman, she and her team delivered the shocking report in 2001 which concluded that they had been let down by the then RUC and its flawed investigations into bringing those responsible to justice.

"It was very difficult," O'Loan tells me in her favourite phrase of understatement as we chat in front of her living room fire, Christmas tree still up, snow-covered crib on the windowsill and two cats on the rug enjoying the heat.

"We found that the investigators trying to investigate the murder only had access to 22 per cent of the intelligence which existed in respect of the activities of those involved in the murder. That's very hard to tell to people who have suffered so much.

"It was appalling and very hard to sit in front of those families and tell them that their faith in policing was shown to be undermined by what we had found.

"The prime minister and secretary of state walked through the territory [at Omagh] and promised 'No stone will be left unturned'. Well, there were thousands of stones left unturned."

Married to SDLP councillor Declan O'Loan for over 40 years, the couple and their five sons have weathered many a storm as a result of their respective roles and stances.

Did the family receive threats, I ask?

"Well we had our..." she replies, pausing before adding, "moments... and I'll not say more than that. I think it was hard for the boys."

For eight challenging years, the English-born lawyer's work began to slowly lift the curtain on the dark recesses of what went on with the main protagonists during the Troubles. Taking on a police force, anywhere in the world, is not for the feint-hearted, as O'Loan can testify to.

Her dogged need to follow the evidence as far as she could has earned her an international reputation of fearless investigation.

"I remember them telling me that you will destroy the peace process if you do this, you will destroy your office, you will put people in danger but to me there's no point in having a process which investigates supposed police wrongdoings unless you do the full job."

And while her time at the Police Ombudsman's Office came to a close seven years ago, she's still very much continuing the scrutiny into police operations, particularly as a result of her uncovering police collusion with the UVF in north Belfast during the height of the Troubles.

Following on from her Operation Ballast investigation into the 1997 murder of Belfast man Raymond McCord jnr, the supposedly retired 65-year-old is a member of an independent monitoring group working on Operation Stafford, looking at police investigations into loyalist informer Gary Haggarty who is facing 220 charges of terrorist activity.

She was also appointed last November to an international steering group, to advise the chief constable of Bedfordshire on the Operation Kenova investigation into the activities of British security forces informer known as Stakeknife.

But it's not only allegations of police wrongdoing in the north that she is still examining today alongside her House of Lords work.

Appointed by Theresa May, she's chair of a major inquiry into the axe murder of private detective Daniel Morgan in a south London car park in 1987 which is examining allegations of police involvement in the killing and police cover up of it, and alleged corruption arising from linkages between private investigators, police officers and journalists at the News of the World and other parts of the media.

She says: "We are in the writing-up phase; there's big bundles of documents to revisit, to rethink, as while there have been four investigations into the murder, there's been no answers."

As always, she believes in evidence, first and foremost.

"We just go where the evidence takes us. If the evidence goes no further, then we can't either," she adds softly but firmly.

Her life today is quite different from that of her childhood and formative years. While she lives a comfortable, middle-class life in an attractive 'des res' bungalow in Co Antrim, she knew real poverty and inequality in her native Hertfordshire after her father Gerard died when she was just 13.

The eldest of eight children, the youngest of whom was aged 18 months, O'Loan shared some of the childcare responsibility with her mother Sara, herself an admirable woman who graduated as a teacher before O'Loan gained her law degree.

"We were very poor and times were hard," says O'Loan without a hint of self-pity.” I became aware very early on of life's injustices and the fact that people who are poor were marginalised and don't always know how to access what they are entitled."

"Law attracted me because there was a sense that law was a way where injustices could be righted, although I remember when I went to King's (College London), one of the first things we were told that law and justice were not necessarily the same thing."

A devout Catholic and a columnist for The Irish Catholic, she is an unequivocal pro-lifer.

O'Loan at 26 lost her first baby after being caught up in a bombing at the former Ulster Polytechnic in 1977 in a truly horrific experience for any woman.

While her faith has sustained her during dark days over her life, she says of the experience: "I think that the sadness and the loss stay with you but I think that healing is a very slow and gradual thing."

Her need to establish the truth is as undiminished as her faith, although she admits to finding her religious ‘journey’ challenged along the way.

But can we handle the truth?

"I think we have handled it so far," she answers. "It does set people free; it does help people. We are building a new Northern Ireland now, you need to have the structures to underpin what you are building and the fundamental thing that you need is the rule of law and the operation of the rule of law.

"We prosecute young fellows for joyriding and the theft of cars, but we don't always follow up the evidence that we have in respect of serious crimes. And to me that is not the operation of the rule of law.

"If you don't, then you have shifting sands, and shifting sands are not going to create or enable a stable society."

14 January, 2017 01:00 Life

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