Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Red alert as the PSNI's thin blue line takes a battering

PSNI chief Matt Baggott has been comprehensively let down by the political class. But the challenges that face him will still be waiting for his successor, writes Brian Rowan

Feeling the heat: An injured police officer is helped by colleagues during summer rioting in Belfast, when the PSNI came under sustained attack from protesters
Feeling the heat: An injured police officer is helped by colleagues during summer rioting in Belfast, when the PSNI came under sustained attack from protesters

After Sir Ronnie Flanagan and Sir Hugh Orde, Matt Baggott's appointment as Chief Constable was about the next and a new phase of policing; it was about peacetime and changing things.

Flanagan delivered the RUC into the peace process; saw and soothed it through the emotional turmoil of a name and badge change.

And Orde was about the implementation of the sweeping reforms of the Patten Report – bringing the police into new accountability structures with new recruitment procedures.

Then, in 2009, Matt Baggott (right, centre) arrived with his message of "personal policing"; how the people should know the cops and the cops should know the people.

It was about getting out of Land Rovers and riot kit and getting close to the communities; about confirming the peace after the war.

This was the dream, what would make the Baggott era different. And yet, on the Twelfth morning, just a few months ago, I met him at that interface in north Belfast where Woodvale looks at Ardoyne and Ardoyne stares back. The scene was filled with Land Rovers and officers in all the kit they need to protect themselves in riot situation. Officers not just from the PSNI, but from other UK forces.

Hundreds had been drafted in to support their colleagues here; a policing option much more preferable than military support.

And on that contested stretch of road in north Belfast, you could see the distance still to be travelled to achieve the personal policing that was meant to define the Baggott years.

It is not that he has failed, or that the police have failed; and between the diplomatic lines of his interview with this newspaper yesterday, you read a real sense of frustration.

The police have been let down by politicians. Marching is not something Baggott can fix, nor flags, nor the past.

So, what we are seeing on the streets, stretched out over long months, are the consequences of community and political failure. That needs to be acknowledged and accepted on Stormont's hill.

The reality is, things would have been much worse if the police had not held the lines through the winter and then the summer months.

And they have done so at a huge price – both physical and financial. Hundreds of officers have been injured and millions of pounds have been spent on big-number and complex operations.

Do the sums on the policing operation linked to the long-running protest at Twaddell Avenue alone and the figures add up to £1.5m a month? It is only part of the story and the cost.

Commenting on a recent city centre security operation, one of the PSNI's most senior officers described "another shedload of money down the drain".

But that officer said something else; that the PSNI would not be broken – either physically or financially.

I watched the Twelfth operation at Woodvale, then weeks later the city centre riot at the junction of Royal Avenue and North Street, when dozens of officers were hurt.

They were battered for several hours, as loyalists set out to block an internment protest march; pelted with bricks, bottles, scaffolding, beer barrels and anything else the rioters could get their hands on.

So, when Baggott speaks of policing being dented, he is not just talking about being caught in the crossfire of angry political exchanges, but the physical hurt of holding lines.

Holding lines while politicians dither and point-score at the expense of others; at the expense of Baggott's officers and those he has had to draft in from elsewhere.

Look at the three issues US diplomat Richard Haass has been given as part of an ambitious, all-party dialogue; the task of trying to find agreements on the toxic issues of flags, parades and the past. Dr Haass and his vice-chair, Meghan O'Sullivan, have been given the job, because the Executive parties at Stormont have been unable, or unwilling, to find the answers and compromises.

And in that vacuum, the PSNI has suffered, as has the personal policing project.

The Baggott era has not delivered that next phase; the chance of more progress lost in the street fights and political squabbles.

And it is in those places, in the unshared spaces of north Belfast and in the stalemate at Stormont, where the blame rests – not at police headquarters and not when it comes to these specific issues of flags and parades.

There was a question Baggott side-stepped in his interview with the Belfast Telegraph's political editor, Liam Clarke – the question of his future.

His contract as chief constable runs to next August. So will he be seeking an extension? "You are not getting me on that one," he said.

But there is a view that the man who arrived with the "personal policing" message is now on a long home-straight run to the finish. There is already talk about a successor, with Judith Gillespie (left) and George Hamilton (far left) being mentioned – and Hamilton more than Gillespie.

Whatever happens next, whoever succeeds Baggott, the task will be the same; the job of bringing policing closer to all the communities.

For that to happen, politics has to work and has to find the agreements and compromises on flags, parades and the past.

That is the real challenge.

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