Nuala O'Loan

She was the first Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland between 1999 and 2007


Nuala O'Loan was born and educated in England, the daughter of a Dubliner. She became a law lecturer in Northern Ireland. In 1977 she survived an IRA bombing at Ulster Polytechnic when pregnant although she lost her baby.

She is married to Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) North Antrim MLA Declan O'Loan and has five sons. One of her sons, Damien, was badly beaten up in the Oldpark area of north Belfast. The attack, in June 2006, required him to receive hospital treatment. A motive for the attack is yet to be established.[3]

She is a voluntary marriage counsellor, working particularly to prepare young people from different religions who are getting married.

Previous career

Nuala O'Loan is a qualified solicitor and was a law lecturer at the Ulster Polytechnic and University of Ulster from 1974 to 1992. She was then a Senior Lecturer holding the Jean Monnet Chair in European Law at the University of Ulster from 1992 until her appointment as Ombudsman.

She has also been:

For seven years, Nuala O'Loan was also a Lay visitor to police stations. This meant that she could speak to people held in the cells, at any time of the day or night.

Career as Ombudsman

Nuala O'Loan was appointed by the Government of the United Kingdom to the post of Police Ombudsman designate in 1999. The Ombudsman's Office was created by the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998. This reform came into force some two weeks prior to the Belfast Agreement and the office's existence and practice has been the subject of continued controversy since.

In August 2001, she was charged with looking into police handling of the Omagh bombing in 1998. This terrorist attack left 31 dead including two unborn children. Her report found that the Royal Ulster Constabulary had prior knowledge of some form of attack planned for that area and it questioned the leadership of Northern Ireland's then Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan.

Speaking at a subsequent news conference, Sir Ronnie said he considered the report to represent neither a "fair, thorough or rigorous investigation". He said he was considering legal action on a "personal and organisational basis" [no legal action was taken]. He further added: "I consider it to be a report of an erroneous conclusion reached in advance and then a desperate attempt to find anything that might happen to fit in with that, and a determination to exclude anything which does not fit that erroneous conclusion". Speaking emotionally, Sir Ronnie said that if he believed the allegations in the report had been true "I would not only resign, I would publicly commit suicide."[4]

She has attracted both praise and criticism for her robust activity in investigating alleged abuses by officers in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). She has also served as a trusted intermediary in controversial cases involving alleged criminal activity by Irish Republicans. This role came about because many Republicans did not yet recognize the PSNI as a legitimate and unbiased police service, and so refused to co-operate in its investigations. This role has largely disappeared as Sinn Féin have now called upon republicans to assist the PSNI.

A UK House of Commons Committee reported on the Police Ombudsman in 2005 and praised O'Loan, recommending that she be given wider powers. The same committee acknowledged that the Office was not seen as impartial by the PSNI and its officers and urged that these concerns be addressed.

In December 2006, an independent survey by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency found that Protestants and Catholics are equally supportive of the Police Ombudsman. More than four out of five people questioned from both communities also believed that police officers and complainants would be treated fairly. In addition, a survey of police officers investigated by the Police Ombudsman's Office, suggests 85% believe they have been treated fairly by the office.[5]

On June 26, 2007 former RCMP Assistant Commissioner Al Hutchinson was announced as the successor to O'Loan as Police Ombudsman, and he took up the office on 5 November 2007.


Former Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis said, in relation to her handling of the Omagh Bomb Inquiry, that it was as though she had walked through "police interests and community interests like a suicide bomber".[6] Former Secretary of State Peter Mandelson said she has displayed a "certain lack of experience and possibly gullibility" in relation to the same affair.[7]

During the summer of 2006 her youngest son Kieran, 18, was accused of hurling sectarian abuse at the police and received a caution.[8]

In October 2006 she was involved in a public row with Ian Paisley Jr. Both she and Mr. Paisley later admitted that the row was "unprofessional and undignified". The incident happened in a Belfast coffee shop when Mr Paisley was approached by Mrs O'Loan. She voiced her concerns on alleged comments made by Mr Paisley about her children. Her marriage to a nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) councillor has, in the past, caused Mr. Paisley to question her ability to remain independent.[9] On her retirement, a farewell party was organised, to which all political parties were invited. No representatives from the Ulster Unionist Party, Democratic Unionist Party or Sinn Fein attended.[10]


In 2003, the Annual Conference of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (a US organization) presented O'Loan with an award for her contribution to police accountability.

Operation Ballast investigation into collusion

On January 22, 2007 she published the results[11] of Operation Ballast, an investigation into collusion between the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Volunteer Force in relation to the murder of Raymond McCord Junior in 1997. Several crimes committed by informants working for Special Branch were investigated, including the murders of:

as well as a bomb attack on Sinn Féin offices in Monaghan, an attack on a bar in Portadown, Special Branch halting searches for Loyalist weapons and drug dealing.

Most of the allegations concern an unnamed figure called "Informant 1", who acted as a Special Branch informant.

In the line of fire

Simon Hattenstone
Monday March 11, 2002
The Guardian

In 1977 Nuala O'Loan survived a bomb attack - an experience that would stand her in good stead for her career as Northern Ireland's police ombudsman. As she prepares to report on the murder of civil rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson, she explains why she relishes the least-envied job in Ulster

Nuala O'Loan looks knackered. Her eyes are moist and colourless, swimming in their own fatigue. It's been one hell of a time for the police ombudsman of Northern Ireland. It started last December when she published her report on the Omagh bomb, which killed 29 people in 1998. She concluded that the investigation had been unsatisfactory, that two key warnings had been ignored, and that RUC chief Sir Ronnie Flanagan had shown a "failure of leadership". Flanagan responded furiously in January, claiming that she had drawn unfair conclusions by looking at evidence out of context and saying that he hoped "the ombudsman will accept her office has lessons to learn".

It seemed to be getting very personal - until O'Loan put a stop to it with a single statement. She said that she stood by her report, but that it was time for a truce in the war of words. At least things seem to have calmed down since then, I say. "Calmed down? Are you joking?" she replies.

Take last week: two people admitted to perverting the course of justice in the case of Robert Hamill, who was allegedly beaten to death by a loyalist mob as RUC officers looked on; and in a separate case, a policeman has been charged with assault - the first officer charged since she began her job. At the end of the month, she is expected to publish her report into the murder of Rosemary Nelson, which could be every bit as controversial as her Omagh inquiry.

Not that she would admit as much. "I think we can recognise that it is a very significant report and it will be very carefully scrutinised when we produce it," she says in scrupulously measured terms. Nelson, a civil rights lawyer, was killed three years ago after she had publicly stated that she had received death threats and was in fear of her life. What is the essence of the complaint against the police? "I have a complaint in respect of the way in which the chief constable handled information to the RUC and the threats made against Rosemary prior to her death." Is it going to cause another stink? "No comment." She smiles.

The ombudsman's building is in the heart of prosperous, neutral Belfast city centre. The office logo shines from some distance - turquoise and blue in a smart, curling typeface. The people of Belfast were invited to design the logo. While the RUC, with its embedded prejudice and corruption, had been emblematic of all that was wrong with the old Northern Ireland, it was hoped that the ombudsman would become an emblem of a new police force, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, with a new mandate - to be trusted by all sections of the public. It was an ambitious undertaking. It currently receives almost 400 complaints a month about the police.

The ombudsman's office is large and decorated in soft greens and blues. O'Loan, 50, is part austere lawyer, part rockabilly queen - elegant gold and diamond earrings, sober grey suit topped with Teddy boy velvet collar, and sensible black shoes with more heel than you would expect. She's still clinging on to her red hair with a hint of a quiff. An assistant brings in a tray. "Coffee and choccy biccies. Thank you very much indeed."

O'Loan was born and raised in England. She went to a convent school where the nuns told the girls that they would go to university and do some good with their lives. She became a lawyer, married SDLP councillor Declan O'Loan and has lived in Northern Ireland for 26 years. She talks with a buttery Irish softness, strangely complemented by echoes of establishment England.

O'Loan has spent much of her life championing rights. As a member of Northern Ireland's police authority, she visited those held in custody to ensure that they were being treated fairly. As chair of the Northern Ireland consumer committee, she forced Northern Ireland Electricity to pay £9m to customers after storms in 1998.

From the first day that she was appointed ombudsman by the security minister Adam Ingram, she has been attacked. The most common criticism is that it is impossible for the wife of an SDLP man to be impartial. I tell her that on my way over I asked people if they fancied the job, and nobody did. Most people called it thankless. "Thankless?" she asks, with a sorry nod. "I guess it depends what motivates you." She calls it challenging and rewarding, and tells me the story of Sam Devenny.

In 1969, Devenny was sitting in his house in Derry when rioters ran up the street and through his house, chased by police. The police battered the two men they met as they came through the front door, before turning left into the sitting room. "There were five of the Devenny children, the father and two of his friends. And there was... [she struggles for a suitable word]... mayhem in that room. The father was seriously injured, one of his friends was knocked unconscious, the children were batoned. There were two little children sitting in an armchair splattered in blood."

O'Loan, who has five sons, winces. Devenny suffered a heart attack the next day, and another one three months later, which proved fatal. Thirty years on, the family approached her. "They wanted to know if there had been an investigation; why was no one ever prosecuted; whether their father died because of this."

What gives her such clout is a formidable set of powers. She can arrest officers, search them, instigate her own investigations. In the cases of deaths in custody, her team automatically takes over the investigation. O'Loan investigated the Devenny case and uncovered a familiar story. Yes, there had been an inquiry but it had been hushed up.

She says the toughest part of the job can be delivering the findings - to both police and public. "I remember going up to Derry to tell a family who were beaten, brutalised, ignored, who were the subject of adverse comments, who haven't been able to get jobs, all sorts of things, and I've got to tell them, 'Yes, the police did this to you.' And I've got to tell the world, 'Yes, the police did this.'"

But she did get a result. "The chief constable has now written to the family apologising for the conduct of the RUC in 1969. It's good to be able to bring some closure." She pauses. "There are people who would say I am out to get the police. I am not out to get the police. Actually, I find it very difficult when what I'm saying will result in someone suffering pain. But if the investigation produces a result, I must deliver that result."

Not surprisingly, the results have met with fury. Former Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis called her "a suicide bomber". Peter Mandelson said she has displayed a "certain lack of experience and possibly gullibility".

Has the intensity of the attacks surprised her? "Nooooah. Because there's been a huge level of support from right across the community. It's funny - when people stop me in the street, they'll say you're doing a great job. Nobody stops me to tell me I'm not. Some stop me and say, 'I'm a Protestant, but you're doing a great job.'"

Has her religion made her a target? "I think some people have criticised me just because I'm a Catholic. And some people criticise me because I'm a woman." After all, this is the country in which male politicians mooed as women stood up to talk in parliament.

I ask what motivates her. Well, she says, she has never belonged to a political party, never identified with a group, always avoided labels. "I'm just Nuala," she says with a lovely soft smile. "I'm motivated by... I have a spiritual base, and that makes a difference for me. I suppose if I were to talk about it honestly, there's a verse from Micah that says: 'This is what the Lord asks of you; to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God.' I think that's a fair guide to living your life."

She is often described as being tough. I tell her that the taxi driver told me that she was terribly severe and he would hate to be investigated by her. She bursts out laughing. "It's curious, isn't it?" She doesn't see herself as hard, but she wouldn't argue with fearless. She traces it back to a bomb in 1977. She was 26, pregnant with her first child and a lecturer in law at Ulster Polytechnic. The lord chief justice had been invited to talk and she was to sit next to him. She describes in detail the theatre, the chairs, and how for some reason she ended up sitting elsewhere. "The lecture commenced, and I looked at my watch and it was 12.40. The next time I looked at my watch it was nearly 1 o'clock and the place had been blown apart."

She doesn't remember anything in between? "I remember debris flying backwards and forwards across the room. And I remember the ceiling coming down on my head. I remember lifting it off my head. For months, I was waking screaming at night saying, 'The ceiling's coming down.' The chair that I was to sit on wasn't there afterwards. There was nothing left of it. I started to miscarry within hours. My blood pressure was very low. Nasty..." She trails off.

She says an experience like that has to change you. "One of the things that came to me afterwards is that I wasn't afraid of dying any more. And the reason I'm not afraid is that on that occasion I know at that moment somehow everything stopped, but I didn't know any pain or any distress about the stopping."

A couple of years later, this time seven months pregnant, she and Declan set off for the African bush. Was she escaping the bomb? No, she says, they simply wanted an adventure before they got old. "I push myself to do things I'm equivocal about."

O'Loan is much more of a free spirit than she looks. I tell her that, metaphorically, she seems ripe to burst out of her business suit. She giggles. "Well, don't say that. That's very rude, yes. It really was that we looked at our lives and thought we were comfortable. We could do more, we could contribute more, we could learn more, so let's try and find somewhere we could do all those things." Does she use "comfortable" pejoratively? "I think there's a risk when you're too comfortable that you become [she whispers the word] smug."

I ask who her heroes are. She draws a blank. "I admire people who are prepared to say what they believe no matter how stupid it may make them look... provided there's substance in what they're saying."

I half expected to find O'Loan demoralised, ready to quit. But the longer she talks, the more buoyant she seems. Isn't she tempted, having taken such a battering from Flanagan, who retires at the end of the month, to fight back? "Yes, I'm human, I get angry." At what? "I suppose I get angry when people say things that I know are wrong but I cannot reply to because I have made a decision not to engage in a public thing."

She is still searching for her heroes. She mentions Mandela and JFK and Luther King, but none of them is quite right. Suddenly, her face lights up. "Most of my inspiration is religious. You know, if you have somebody who is prepared to sacrifice everything for other people, somebody who is prepared to turn the cheek regardless, well that's inspiring, isn't it?

BBC News Friday, 7 December, 2001, 22:48 GMT

NI police ombudsman's role

Omagh report is Nuala O'Loan's most controversial yet.  The investigation into police handling of alleged warnings prior to the Omagh bombing is the most high profile undertaken by the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman.

Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan's draft report alleges the RUC received information about a planned attack, 11 days before the 1998 atrocity which left 29 dead, but this was not passed to police officers on the ground.

The report, leaked on Thursday, says that had the information been passed on and security checkpoints been put in place, the bombers may have been deterred.

In the year since she began her work as ombudsman, Mrs O'Loan - who earns £75,000 - has received more than 4,000 complaints against the police.

Many of these during a long summer of street violence in Belfast related to alleged assaults and allegations about the misuse of plastic bullets.

But Mrs O'Loan is also able to instigate investigations without formal complaints from the public if she believes it to be in the public interest.

This she decided to do with Omagh.

The police ombudsman can also make recommendations to the director of public prosecutions for any criminal action.


Mrs O'Loan, 49, opened the office of the Police Ombudsman on November 6 last year. She now has has a total of 100 staff. When it was set up, the ombudsman's role had broad support and the chief constable's backing.

Sir Ronnie Flanagan said: "I think it can only enhance public confidence in the system of the investigation of complaints against police officers."

Mrs O'Loan's chief investigator, Commander David Woods, who is on secondment from the Metropolitan Police, has a team of over 40 investigators under his control.

Many of them, drawn from South Africa, Hong Kong, New South Wales and other United Kingdom forces, were put on the Omagh investigation in August.

The ombudsman's projected expenditure this year runs to just over £6m.

The post was established following the Good Friday Agreement as part of the Police Act to provide an impartial and independent system for investigating complaints against the police.


Mrs O'Loan, a solicitor by profession, has said her vision was of an office that had the confidence of the police and public.

"It has to be effective and efficient, it has to be impartial and it is totally independent," she has said.

When she announced her Omagh investigation, the former Ulster Unionist MP, Lord Maginnis of Drumglass (Ken Maginnis) called for her resignation.

He said: "What she is doing, by having this inquiry, is detracting from the enormity of the crime of the Real IRA and calling into question the integrity of the RUC as they try to do their job."

Mrs O'Loan was born and educated in England.

She was a law lecturer at the Ulster Polytechnic and University of Ulster from 1974 to 1992. She held the Jean Monnet Chair in European Law at the university from 1992 until her appointment as ombudsman.

Mrs O'Loan has a long history of involvement in policing matters.

She was a lay visitor to RUC stations from 1991-97 when she joined the recently replaced Police Authority for Northern Ireland - again a position she relinquished on appointment as ombudsman.

She has held a series of positions on the Consumer Council, was one the European Commission Consumers Consultative Council as an expert member, and on the Ministerial Working Group on the Green Economy from 1992-95.

The mother of five sons is the author of over 45 publications on consumer law, policing and other issues.

Nuala O'Loan is not even half way through that term but it is difficult to imagine there being a more controversial report from the office, than the draft report on Omagh

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