Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Until Troubles-era crimes are dealt with in a co-ordinated way there will always be allegations of political policing

McGuinness at a protest on the Falls Road beside a new mural of the Sinn Fein president
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at the Press conference after Adams' release from custody

Last Friday, with Gerry Adams still inside the Antrim Serious Crime Suite, the Policing Board was drawing up a shortlist. In just a few weeks time, on May 29, a board panel will interview three candidates for the Chief Constable's post.

The top job within the PSNI is still considered one of the most prestigious in the UK. But, as we all watched last week, we saw how policing here can still be poisoned by the past.

Watching closest will have been three senior officers from police headquarters in Belfast, London and Dublin. And they will have seen and heard the political tug-of-war that became the headline in the Adams arrest story.

PSNI Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton, Met Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick and Garda Assistant Commissioner Derek Byrne (all below) are shortlisted for interview.

That's when the Policing Board will choose the officer who will follow the retiring Matt Baggott as Chief Constable of the PSNI.

Think also about that May interview date and how close it is to the July heat of the marching season.

And, some might well ask, who would want the job here given all of the distractions and detours that so often take the focus away from the new policing project?

That is what the Patten Report was about some 15 years ago; its proposals for sweeping reforms that marched the RUC off the stage and the PSNI on to it.

But that march has never been on a straight road, and it has never been an uninterrupted journey.

The dissident republican factions are still targeting police, trying to kill them, and that reality slows down the journey.

It means security and intelligence are still part of the picture. And, just within the past week, there was a damning judgment of the PSNI performance during the loyalist flag protests and marches in late 2012 and early 2013.

Then, the story of policing moved dramatically to the news of the Adams arrest. And, as the story moved, so the language changed with the so-called policing "dark side" back within the republican word frame and vocabulary.

Indeed, just 24 hours after the board had completed its shortlist, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness spoke to a republican rally in west Belfast.

There he claimed "an embittered rump of the old RUC" remained within the PSNI. "These people want to settle old scores, whatever the political cost," McGuinness said.

The republican mood was becoming darker. McGuinness spoke with Bobby Storey alongside him. The senior Belfast republican's name was often linked with the IRA.

But Storey, along with others, is also identified as a key figure in the transition towards new politics and policing. And, as unionists and others listened and watched, so the tug-of-war and words intensified.

If it was 'political' to arrest Adams, then it was also 'political' for republicans to try to force his release before the police had completed their interviews.

In recent weeks, from within the PSNI, it was suggested that it was inevitable that at some point the Sinn Fein president would be arrested. The only questions were how and when.

Arrests had been made in the investigation into the 1972 abduction, murder and disappearing of Jean McConville. And, as police read through the transcripts of tapes recorded by former IRA figures for the Boston College oral history project, so they read closer to that moment of Adams' arrest.

One senior police source, speaking to this newspaper, highlighted the absence of an agreed process to address the past. This is the issue that once again became stuck at the turn of this year, this time in the political mud of the Haass/O'Sullivan talks.

"In the absence (of a process) the police will continue to fulfil their duties," the senior officer said. And he pointed to the accountability and investigation mechanisms set out in the Patten Report the year after the Good Friday Agreement.

He was in no way accepting the recent narrative of political policing, but rather pointing to the Policing Board and the Police Ombudsman's Office if there was an issue to be raised or complaint made.

The war-of-words began to calm on Sunday when it became likely that Adams would be released without charge, but with a report going to the Public Prosecution Service.

It will detail evidence gathered by detectives and the decision to be made is whether there is enough to bring charges and, if so, what those charges would be.

For now the political and policing storm has eased.

Adams settled things with his words when he concentrated on building the peace and talked of a future that should be about children and grandchildren. And he also stressed the need to deal with the past. This means a process for all sides, and this was part of the republican mood and anger.

That someone, who they see as critical to delivering the IRA peace, would end up in a police cell 20 years after the ceasefires of 1994, and before a structure to address the conflict years was agreed. In their eyes, they saw Adams being singled out.

The PSNI will reject that, of course. But until the past is answered in some co-ordinated way then there will always be arguments about political policing.

Arguments from one side and then another. It's the nature of this place. And it is the past of this place still in play.