Northern Ireland's police ombudsman's office was rocked today by a damning report that questioned the watchdog's independence and which could force the resignation of its figurehead.
The powerful monitoring group is a cornerstone of the region's new policing structures but it is under pressure after findings that it removed criticism of police from probes into murders from the Troubles.
The hard-hitting Criminal Justice Inspection report branded the organisation's management "dysfunctional", uncovered a major split in its staff, and found that Ombudsman Al Hutchinson has lost the trust of senior colleagues.
It cites reports where criticism of police conduct in some of the most controversial murder cases of the Troubles was removed without explanation, sparking angry attacks from the victims of violence.
The report, compiled by Chief Inspector Michael Maguire, said: "Our overall conclusion is that the flawed nature of the investigation process in historic cases, the divisions within senior management, and concerns around the handling of sensitive material have undermined confidence in the work of the OPONI (Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland) among some staff and key stakeholders.
"These issues have led to a lowering of the operational independence of the OPONI.
"It is an urgent requirement that these issues are addressed in response to this report."
The document is the third report to have recently challenged Mr Hutchinson's leadership, which first came under pressure when his chief executive Sam Pollock resigned claiming Government interference in the office.
A report by the Committee on the Administration of Justice human rights group also questioned the Government's role in appointing the former Canadian police commander to the post, with a salary of over £120,000 - though officials denied wrong-doing.
Added benefits were found to have included business class flights for the ombudsman and his wife said to have amounted to more than £150,000 over three years.
But while Sinn Fein and the nationalist SDLP, together with victims groups, have said they believe the ombudsman's position to be untenable, Mr Hutchinson today said he accepted the Criminal Justice Inspection report findings and was ready to repair the damage to his organisation's credibility.
"I have now moved to address those areas of concern identified by the Inspectorate in relation to the 'historical' work undertaken by my Office," he said.
"I also particularly welcome the fact that the report places a spotlight on the larger issue of how society should deal with wider unresolved legacy issues arising from `the Troubles'."
The ombudsman's office was created in 2000 in the wake of radical reforms that replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) with the new-look Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
The ombudsman's office was supposed to end the process of police investigating complaints against police, but the Criminal Justice Inspection report found major tensions between the watchdog's civilian staff and former police officers employed to conduct its investigations.
The report found:
- Reports into atrocities from the Troubles, including the loyalist paramilitary bombing of McGurk's bar in 1971 which killed 15 people, were redrafted with criticisms of the police removed.
- One member of staff said he believed there was an agreement for the office to remove criticism of RUC Special Branch in its reports.
- Concerns that police intelligence was not being properly presented to ombudsman staff
- It found "there have been serious divisions amongst senior management" affecting its work and staff morale
- Assurances given by the ombudsman over the provision and analysis of sensitive material were "not believed" by some senior managers.
- There was a "lowering of independence" in the ombudsman's office
- Senior ombudsman officials asked to be disassociated from investigation reports