PSNI refused to pay overtime to searchers, and refusal may have hindered police response
An internal PSNI review into the disappearance and death of young Noah Donohoe in 2020 has revealed that police chiefs refused to pay overtime to officers assigned to the search operation.
The 14-year-old’s naked body was found in a Belfast storm drain, six days after being reported missing in June 2020, prompting questions around the initial police operation.
There are already concerns around the PSNI’s decision to seek a rare public interest immunity — which is usually only ever invoked for matters of national security — which could withhold the release of specific files about Noah’s case.
Now an internal review by the PSNI has confirmed the organisation refused to pay overtime to officers, citing “financial constraints” and “missing person fatigue”, leading Noah’s mother Fiona to fear that this refusal may have hindered the police response.
The disappearance of the St Malachy’s College student sparked a huge search operation, involving hundreds of volunteers in north Belfast and beyond.
Noah had cycled from his south Belfast home through the city centre, before entering the storm drain. He had been due to meet friends.
Last week in Belfast, barrister Malachy McGowan, on behalf of Ms Donohoe, referred to the internal PSNI review into its handling of Noah’s case during a preliminary hearing.
He explained how Ms Donohoe and her solicitor Niall Murphy had held a “productive meeting” with the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland (Poni) the previous day in respect of their investigation into her complaint against police, lodged in August this year.
She is alleging failings in how officers investigated her son’s disappearance and death.
“Since the lodgement of that complaint, we have since received further disclosure some of which gives rise to further complaints, which should be investigated by Poni,” said Mr McGowan.
Specifically, he referred to the review conducted last August, “from which we are notified that an issue was raised of financial constraints (not wishing to pay overtime to officers) is identified, as is a concept referred to by Inspector Neil as ‘MisPer Fatigue’.”
It was revealed back in October that the PSNI spent £69,991,000 — or £90k a day — on overtime in two years.
Mr McGowan said the document "should be brought to the attention of Poni and we respectfully request that the coroner discharges the implied undertaking on disclosure to permit our client to supplement her complaint to Poni.”
The senior coroner replied by asking that the request be submitted in writing, for consideration.
Ms Donohoe’s lawyer Mr Murphy said his client is “wounded by this disclosure considering resource clearly was not an issue”.
“It was the prioritisation of those resources which contributed to the search operation for a missing 14-year-old boy.”
He added: “What even is ‘missing person fatigue’? This reference is greatly distressing and does a disservice to the long hours of hard diligent work undertaken in the search for Noah.
"Had appropriate resources been deployed at the relevant times, things may not have resolved as catastrophically as they did.”
Earlier this month, an inquest into Noah’s death was delayed after his mother’s legal representative raised concern about the amount of time left to deal with several outstanding issues.
Brenda Campbell QC, representing Fiona Donohoe, told the coroner the family had concerns over being given time to consider three expert reports which they had received that week and were waiting on the results of an external review into the original PSNI investigation.
She said: “It is no overstatement to say that this is one of the most sensitive, and in some respects the most controversial and mysterious inquests that this jurisdiction has encountered.
“Within the next eight weeks there is a huge amount of work to be undertaken, and it is just not feasible we will have completed.”
Ms Donohoe has criticised the PSNI’s intent to secure Public Interest Immunity (PII) certification over sensitive material that would otherwise be provided to her and other parties involved in the inquest proceedings.
At a pre-inquest review hearing before coroner Joe McCrisken earlier this month, a lawyer representing the police insisted a PII application is not an unusual occurrence and is a common feature of many inquests.
Donal Lunny QC said police would likely be seeking PII on a “limited amount” of material in three police evidence folders.
“It is important to remember that PII applications are a not infrequent occurrence in inquests of all types, and they occur for various reasons, including most commonly to protect police methodology,” he told Mr McCrisken.
The PSNI refused to provide a copy of the review when asked. A spokesman explained that the disappearance and death of Noah Donohoe “is subject to an ongoing coronial investigation”.
“The Police Service of Northern Ireland continues to investigate under their Police (NI) Act 2000 duty, but also provides assistance to the coroner — so it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time,” said the PSNI spokesperson.
Sinn Féin MP for the area John Finucane said the latest revelations were “truly shocking and without any justification”.
“My party colleague and policing spokesperson Gerry Kelly MLA will be raising this as a matter of urgency, both at the Policing Board and with the Chief Constable.
“Fiona Donohoe continues to have our full support, both in her continued search for the truth around her son’s disappearance, and also in holding the Police Service of Northern Ireland to account over their investigation,” he said.