Heroes often come in unlikely shapes. When you meet Nuala O'Loan, the former ombudsman or watchdog for police affairs in Northern Ireland, she looks and talks like the middle class English lawyer she was raised to be. Over lunch in Manhattan last week it was hard to square this middle class British lawyer with the extraordinary role she has played in ensuring civil rights and a level playing field in Northern Ireland. She has survived death threats, public attacks of the worst kind from Northern Irish politicians, even a threat of suicide by Ronnie Flanagan, a former chief constable of the RUC whose force she criticized, yet she is one of the most extraordinary and durable figures of The Troubles. When we met in New York she had just come from the United Nations where she had been pressing the case of East Timor, where she is now the Irish government's special peace envoy there. It is a role that has grown out of the Irish government's determination to spread the message and the lessons of the Irish peace process to other global trouble spots. They have found a perfect messenger in O'Loan. She has been instrumental in helping reshape and refocus the issue of policing in the eastern half of the island of Timor off Indonesia, which has been such a trouble spot in recent times. She points out that many of the hard won lessons on policing in Northern Ireland are ripe for export elsewhere in the world. She believes that having experienced conflict resolution in her own country, it allows her particular insight into the issue elsewhere in the world. In that sense she believes that the Irish government ability to use its influence in conflict resolution can be a very valuable. She points out that most of the conflicts in the world today are not between countries, but between insurgents and state forces within countries, such as happened in Northern Ireland. In that respect her experience and that of her team is especially important. She certainly brings extraordinary credentials to the table. She was born and raised in Hertfordshire in England in 1951, not far from London, and became a lawyer. Her life took a turn towards the less ordinary however, when she took a job teaching law in Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles. Her husband is Declan O'Loan, a politician with the moderate Nationalist party the SDLP. In 1977 she survived an IRA bombing at the university she taught in. She was pregnant at the time and lost the baby as a result. That incident should have been enough to send her fleeing back to England, but she was gaining a reputation as a fierce upholder of human rights on both sides. She first made her name as an independent custody visitor to police stations, a job she took for seven years which entitled her to speak to people being detained at any time of the day or night. It was the height of The Troubles and hardly a much sought after job. O'Loan, however, gained the trust and confidence of many of the prisoners and gained starting insights into how the law was actually being administered in Northern Ireland. She was appointed police ombudsman, essentially their watchdog, in 1999 by the British government, a thankless task in a society where the police were fiercely defended and hated in equal measure by the different communities. She proved both impartial and fearless, following the facts wherever they led, often to the consternation of authorities that would have much preferred a more pliable advocate. In August 2001 she led the inquiry into the Omagh bombings, one of the worst atrocities of The Troubles. The attack left 29 civilians dead. Her findings were sensational and incredibly brave. Rather than whitewash the police role, she found that the police knew some form of attack was coming but acted far to o slowly to prevent it. Some were outraged. Unionist MP Ken McGinnis said she has walked through "police interests and community interests like a suicide bomber." Former Northern Secretary of State Peter Mandelson said she has displayed a "certain lack of experience and possibly gullibility" in relation to the same affair. The RUC Chief Constable Flanagan threatened to sue and made the extraordinary comment that if the findings of the report were true that, "I would not only resign, I would publicly commit suicide." No surprise perhaps that he did neither, and that O'Loan's report, all these years later, has gained enormous credence as the only factual outline of events around the Real IRA bombing. The new PSNI force that replaced the RUC has also had to deal with O'Loan's oversight, and she has spared neither community nor police when it came to investigating breaches of the law. A measure of how successful and evenhanded she has been is revealed in the fact that both communities were equally supportive of her role with four out of five in both communities agreeing she investigated complaints fairly. In Northern Ireland's divided society that amounts to an unprecedented vote of confidence. O'Loan is one of those remarkable figures that the conflict in Northern Ireland threw up. She says herself she was only doing her job, but in this case that amounted to a profile in courage and commitment far beyond what was expected. She is an unsung hero of the Irish peace process.
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