Who guards the guards?

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about an approaching SDLP seminar on the oversight of policing in times of threat.

With the events in London of recent days – rough-house public policing, followed by attempts to obfuscate; blundered security, followed by daylight counter-terrorism raids – it seems clear that it is not just in Northern Ireland where hard questions about policing oversight need to be answered.

I have reproduced the highlights from the Northern Ireland seminar in a series of blogs at Amnesty Blogs: Belfast and Beyond.

Hanging over the whole event was the dark shadow of Omagh. Ten years ago, 29 people and two unborn babies were killed in a Real IRA bomb, the biggest single atrocity of the Troubles. A decade on, those responsible have never been brought to justice. From bereaved father Michael Gallagher, to Panorama journalist John Ware, to former Police Ombdudsman Dame Nuala O'Loan, to security journalist Brian Rowan, we heard of a litany of police and intelligence service failures (or worse), including a lack of intelligence-sharing before and after the bomb itself.

"We have experienced nothing but failure and excuses. Monumental failures," Michael Gallagher declares.

He notes that when a terrorist bomb killed 19 US service personnel in Dhahran in Saudi Arabia in 1996, a prompt high-level inquiry found the senior US commander in charge of security to have been negligent and ordered that he be denied future promotion and not given any further role in personal security. By contrast, Gallagher reminds us, the senior police officer in Northern Ireland at the time of the bombing, Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan, "was promoted to the role of HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, responsible for good, accountable policing in England and Wales."

Maybe this culture of impunity and reluctance to critically examine failure, goes some way to explaining the ever-diminishing levels of public confidence in the police. The latest figures show fewer than half the people surveyed in England and Wales now have confidence in the police. The Independent Police Complaints Commission doesn't seem up to the job of stopping the rot.

Michael Gallagher speaks with softness but steel in his voice. Chastened by bitter experience in Northern Ireland, he believes the "system is incapable of delivering justice". The Omagh families are now "calling for a judicial, cross-border inquiry into the Omagh bomb."

He doesn't want other families to suffer the same way as his own, but he leaves a chilling thought hanging in the air. If the Real IRA bombers who ordered and carried out the 1998 Omagh bomb had been caught, then perhaps Northern Ireland would not be experiencing further killings by the exact same group today. Instead, he believes, the failure to catch the Omagh bombers "sent a message that you can kill thirty-one people and get away with it."

Now that responsibility for national security in Northern Ireland has shifted from the police to MI5, the inadequate oversight of the security services is a problem common to the whole of the UK.  John Ware and Nuala O'Loan are pretty clear that existing oversight mechanisms – the Intelligence Services Commissioner and Westminster's Intelligence and Security Committee  – are simply not up to the job.

The stakes are high. There is no doubt that the UK faces an ongoing threat of terrorism, homegrown and imported. Oversight isn't about binding the hands of those charged with protecting us. It is about ensuring that they make the right decisions to help keep us safe in our beds at night and on our buses, streets and tube trains in the morning.

Forget the conspiracies. Whether in Omagh a decade ago, or London in the last week, we all should have enough c*ck-ups by now to point to the same conclusion: more effective measures for the oversight of policing and intelligence are well overdue.

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