The Police Ombudsman’s office in Belfast is currently investigating a complaint from myself that in 2011, PSNI detectives under the command of Drew Harris, the then Assistant Chief Constable in charge of crime, ‘bribed’ – or perhaps ‘tricked’ would be a better word – a member of the McConville family into lodging a complaint which would enable the PSNI to gain access to a Troubles-related oral history archive lodged at Boston College.
The allegation is supported by legal documents and contemporary correspondence which show that Jimmy McConville, one of Jean McConville’s sons, had lodged a complaint with the Police Ombudsman’s office in Belfast in October, 2013 alleging that he had been promised access to the Boston archive by PSNI detectives if he made a complaint which would facilitate police access to the Boston files.
His lawyer, in a letter to the PSNI, wrote that the promise that he would gain access to the Boston tapes was a major reason why he gave the PSNI the statement which made their access to the archive possible.
When Jimmy McConville attempted to enforce the promise, the PSNI rebuffed him, saying that the police were unable legally to supply him with copies of tapes from Boston College dealing with his mother’s abduction.
The Ombudsman’s office later rejected a complaint from this writer based on Jimmy McConville’s case, claiming that I was ‘wholly incorrect’ in making the claim and asserting that Jimmy McConville had never lodged a complaint with the agency.
Later the Ombudsman’s office was forced to perform a U-turn, and to make an apology, when shown documentary evidence showing that Jimmy McConville had indeed lodged a complaint with the Ombudsman.
Even so, only a threat by my lawyers to seek a judicial review in the Belfast courts brought a commitment by the Ombudsman to investigate my complaint against the PSNI and, implicitly, Drew Harris.
Drew Harris is currently the Gardai Commissioner. He was appointed to the job, the first outsider and first Northern policeman to hold the post, in September last year amid some controversy over his past links with the British intelligence agency, MI5.
The above is the fuller meaning of a story that appeared in yesterday’s edition of The Sunday Business Post, which I reproduce below:
This story began in the summer of 2015 when I acquired a number of legal documents and letters detailing complaints lodged with the PSNI and the Police Ombudsman’s office in Belfast by Jimmy McConville, one of the ten children of Jean McConville, a widowed housewife from Divis Flats who was secretly killed and buried – ‘disappeared’ – by the IRA in late 1972.
The PSNI had been trying to persuade members of the McConville family to sign a formal complaint, saying that they had reason to believe that tapes stored in an oral history archive at Boston College contained valuable details about their mother’s murder. Without such a complaint the PSNI investigation would be stillborn.
Jimmy McConville, pictured alongside his mother, Jean McConville
Armed with this complaint, the PSNI would then be able to activate the diplomatic machinery associated with the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) that had been signed by the UK and the USA, and via the US State and Justice Departments, thereby gain access to the Boston College tapes.
However all members of the family bar just one had, according to my sources, declined to put their names to an official complaint. The single holdout was Jimmy McConville. If the PSNI failed to persuade him then they would have to abandon their efforts.
Already widely criticised for failing to properly investigate the Jean McConville disappearance over the previous thirty or more years, the PSNI faced the prospect of even more censure if they missed this opportunity to obtain possibly valuable evidence about one of the Troubles’ most notorious killings.
At this time, Jimmy McConville was incarcerated at Magilligan jail in Co. Derry, where he was serving a short sentence. Like his siblings, Jimmy McConville had spent years in care following his mother’s disappearance but he had also drifted into a life of petty crime.
Two PSNI detectives visited Jimmy McConville at Magilligan. They met in a Nissen hut outside the main prison complex at least two times – although Jimmy McConville told his legal advisers there were three encounters – and each time the exchanges were recorded on tape and video.
Jimmy McConville’s story has been consistent. He agreed to put his name to the PSNI complaint but on condition that he and his siblings would gain access to the tapes. His version of events was that the detectives agreed and so he signed the necessary papers; the PSNI then activated the legal machinery that would lead them to the Burns Library at Boston College where the Troubles archive was stored.
Interior shot of Magilligan jail, now scheduled for demolition
But when Jimmy McConville later attempted to gain access to the tapes he hit a brick wall at PSNI headquarters in east Belfast.
In October 2013, a year or so after the MLAT had been activated, Jimmy’s legal advisers wrote to the Detective Inspector heading the Jean McConville probe to complain and to demand that the PSNI keep its promise to make the tapes available to the family.
What follows is that letter, one of several complaints to the authorities made by Jimmy’s legal advisors about the PSNI’s broken promise. (Note: I have removed one sentence of that letter because it contains the surname of one of the detectives who visited Jimmy in jail. Since the policeman cannot defend himself on this blog, I think it only fair that I excise his name. I have instead typed the sentence minus his surname and identify him only by the letter ‘C’.)
instructs us that your Detective C informed him during the course of his interviews at
It is worth noting that Jimmy McConville had told his lawyer that the PSNI promise that he could access the Boston material ‘was a major reason why he furnished police with the statement seeking access to the Boston College Tapes’.
Detective Inspector Montgomery replied on November 27th and rejected the request:
While D.I. Montgomery cited a 2003 UK law preventing the release of material obtained abroad from being used in criminal proceedings, the rules governing the MLAT also prohibit anything but criminal use of material obtained via the treaty. In other words material obtained by the MLAT cannot be used in civil actions.
If the detectives who visited Jimmy McConville in Magilligan jail did give him a promise to make the Boston tapes available to his family, it was a promise they could never keep.
Armed with this and other material in October 2015, I filed a formal complaint to the office of the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland (PONI), which read:
What followed was two and a half years of bureaucratic obstruction by the Ombudsman’s office and an attempt to dismiss my complaint on procedural grounds. Entirely by chance and because I believed there were no reasons to reveal what I knew about Jimmy McConville’s complaint, I did not tell PONI about the documents in my possession.
The back and forth culminated in the following letter from Seamus McIlroy, the Ombudsman’s legal director, i.e. the organisation’s top lawyer. It was written in April 2018, two-and-a-half years after I had lodged my complaint. The full letter, which dismissed my complaint, is reproduced below but the key section is this:
Here is the entire letter:
Seamus McIlroy PONI letter 30418
So, according to PONI’s top lawyer, my complaint was entirely groundless: there was never a complaint from Jimmy McConville, the PSNI had no record of tape recordings made at Magilligan jail and I was not able to produce any supporting material to back up my complaint:
I had not supplied any supporting material because I did not think it necessary. Jimmy McConville had made a complaint and I was following in his footsteps. I did not for a moment imagine that the Ombudsman’s office would deny that Jimmy had lodged a complaint or that the PSNI would lie about their meetings with Jimmy at Magilligan jail; providing supporting material would, I believed, be unnecessary. Nor, incidentally, had anyone in the PONI office asked me for additional information.
Jimmy McConville’s lawyers had lodged an official complaint with PONI on October 16th, 2013 and the letter to the Ombudsman listed some eleven grievances, of which the complaint that the PSNI had reneged on the promise to give him and his family access to the tapes was listed at number 5 (see below).
But the PONI’s outright denial that Jimmy McConville had ever lodged a complaint demanded a dramatic response. So, my lawyer, Philip Breen contacted PONI to ask for a meeting and in August, I flew to Belfast where we met a senior official at the Ombudsman’s central Belfast office.
There we handed over a number of documents showing beyond any doubt that Jimmy McConville had complained that the PSNI had reneged on a promise to make the Boston tapes available to him and his siblings and that recordings had been made of Jimmy’s conversations with PSNI detectives in Magilligan jail.
The following letter from Philip Breen to PONI spelled all this out in detail (names of PSNI detectives and lawyers have been edited out):
All this happened in August 2018 but it was not until the following June, ten months later, that PONI responded with an offer to launch an inquiry into my complaint – and to offer an apology for the Ombudsman’s mistreatment of myself.
It needs to be noted however that PONI’s response came following a threat from Philip Breen, via a procedure known as a pre-action protocol letter, to seek a judicial review of the whole affair in the Belfast courts which would have made the story – and PONI’s embarrassing failures – public.
Here is the PONI email:
PONI Apology 10 June 2019
The Ombudsman’s office did indeed eventually launch an investigation which we believe may be concluded some time in December. PONI agreed to investigate all my complaints but have refused to include the behaviour of their legal chief, Seamus McIlroy in the brief.
The question of McIlroy’s denial, on the PSNI’s behalf as well as PONI, that there had ever been a complaint lodged by Jimmy McConville will not be examined by the Ombudsman’s office. Attempts by myself and Philip Breen to get an explanation from PONI or to persuade the Ombudsman to include this in their investigation, have so far failed.
We do now know that at some point Jimmy McConville abandoned his effort to force the PSNI to make good the promise he says they gave him in Magilligan jail. Why he gave up the fight I do not know but given the powerful forces ranged against him it is not difficult to understand his decision.
Drew Harris in his PSNI days
Drew Harris, now Garda Commissioner
Meanwhile a number of questions remain unanswered, or even unasked:
1. Why and when did Seamus McIlroy leave PONI?
2. Why did Seamus McIlroy, in his letter to me about a) Jimmy McConville’s complaint and b) the PSNI recordings made at Magilligan jail, lie about these crucial details? If, on the other hand, he was lied to, who was the culprit and what was their motive?
3. Did PSNI detectives effectively bribe – or trick – Jimmy McConville into making a complaint against the Boston archive?
4. If that is what happened, what role did Drew Harris play? Did he know and approve of the agreement with Jimmy McConville allegedly made by his detectives?
5. If Jimmy McConville’s story is correct does that not make the subpoenas which were served when the Boston tapes were handed over, the fruit of a poisoned tree?
6. PONI have said that transcripts of the conversations in Magilligan jail have been partially recovered; transcripts can be doctored so where are the actual tapes? And how many tapes were there – two, according to PONI or three, according to Jimmy McConville’s lawyers?