Alan McLaughlin

A former postmaster at the centre of the Post Office Horizon scandal has said it was his belief in knowing he hadn’t committed any wrongdoing which kept him going throughout the ordeal.

Described as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in UK history, it saw over 700 postmasters and postmistresses wrongly accused of stealing money from their branches.

It was later revealed the shortfalls, the term used to describe the missing funds, were the result of an IT glitch.

The scandal is being documented in the ITV drama series Mr Bates vs The Post Office.

Alan McLaughlin (64), who lives in Newtownabbey, was one of the first in Northern Ireland to take legal action after he was previously convicted of false accounting offences while in charge of the Brookfield Post Office branch in Tennent Street — a charge he always denied.

Mr McLaughlin had only worked in the branch for two years, between 1999 and 2001, and was found guilty of 15 fraud-related offences in 2005 after it was alleged he was responsible for a loss totalling nearly £10,000.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph after the ITV series concluded, Mr McLaughlin commended its portrayal of the experiences of those impacted. He explained that Alan Bates’ journey (played by Toby Jones) echoed his own fight for justice.

“I thought it was very well done, I was glad to see they chose to portray four different perspectives,” he said.

“It captured the range of how each case and each person’s reactions were different.

“What I particularly liked was that the series showed how each of these people are just like anyone else, the ordinariness.

“This could happen to anyone who works under a large company. I think that’s why it’s resonating with so many people,”

Mr McLaughlin’s ordeal began in 2004 when he said he first reported issues with the software his Post Office branch was using — the infamous Horizon IT system – after it showed a series of shortfalls.

He pointed out the purported missing £10,000 occurred when a management company was operating the Post Office, not him.

“I was very like Alan Bates in the drama, I argued and disputed with the Post Office management from the very beginning,

“It wasn’t so much a bolt out of the blue for me when this happened, unlike some other people.

“I was convinced from the start their system was wrong and did my best to sound the alarm. Lots of people didn’t because they didn’t want to risk their franchises and investment. The Post Office management and Horizon trainers didn’t know what they were doing from the start.”

Part of Mr McLaughlin’s long battle for justice hinged on one specific detail — the Post Office denied the Horizon system had ever previously portrayed a fault like those that were occurring, despite knowing it did.

It’s this key detail which resulted in the businessman’s conviction being quashed, which declared his previous trial a mistrial in 2022.

“They had people on the helpline with answers ready to go when asked to explain the variation in the shortfalls,” he added.

“If they didn’t know anything was wrong, why would something like that be prepared?”

Mr McLaughlin commissioned his own forensic report into the accounting, which found several errors.

“It was a cover-up, they knew what was going on and they were confronted with evidence.

“They had a strategy in place knowing they would have to deal with these errors. They’re going to be nailed on this, because in 2004 they were confronted with that reality.

“The PPS was also denied the information (about the errors) when they asked for it from Post Office, and told the defence they had no information that impinged on the integrity of Horizon.

“It’s strange to look back at it now. In 2004 no one doubted the computer system, they thought it was infallible. If it happened now it would be the first aspect looked at.”

Unlike many involved, Mr McLaughlin who was educated at Oxford University, said while there was some impact on his wellbeing during the ordeal, he “de-compartmentalised” the matter, assuring himself he would be found to be right.

“I knew from the start that one day I would wipe the smirk off their faces. It kept me focused and I got on with my life, I put all my documents in the attic.

“I didn’t know anyone else was involved in this until 2010 as well, they made it clear to us when it was going on we were apparently the only ones.

“This is why the inquiry will use this material. There will be prosecutions, and if the PPS don’t take it up, then I will be part of the litigators that takes up the case.

“They cannot get away with this, there needs to be justice. The defence the Post Office has used is stupidity – well we knew that anyway, but those are not defences in law.

“It tips the balance into holding them accountable.”

On Saturday, the Metropolitan Police said it was investigating possible fraud offences arising from the prosecutions, with two people interviewed under caution.

Mr McLaughlin said the developments “were especially significant”.

“It would be astonishing if criminal charges of perjury and perverting the course of justice were not brought on PO managers,” he said.

Michael Madden, a solicitor with Madden and Finucane in Belfast, is Mr McLaughlin’s legal representative. He is also representing 13 other postmasters and postmistresses in the scandal, and is due to take part in the inquiry in England in the coming weeks to advise on Northern Ireland cases.

“The people involved in this are hard-working, decent people who wanted to run a post office. The last thing they expected was to find themselves in this situation,” Mr Madden said.

“Most people caught up in this never thought it was the computer system. Most thought they were either losing their minds, they had made a mistake or someone was stealing. The last thing they thought was a glitch, but Mr McLaughlin suspected this was the get-go.”

Mr Madden is calling for others to come forward who have been convicted to come forward. He said several new people have contacted him since the programme aired.

“They told me they just couldn’t bring themselves to speak to anyone about it previously, because of the shame and the trauma of it all.

“We want to get the message out there, if there are people out there, and we know there are, that they should come forward. Their convictions will be overturned if the shortfall is due to the Horizon fault.

“But we know you can never reward people with anything that will get back those years they have lost.”

Belfast Telegraph