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Profile: Drew Harris of the PSNI

By Brian Rowan

His appointment as PSNI Deputy Chief Constable prompted a clash between policing and politics but Drew Harris, whose father was murdered by the IRA, is more than capable of coping with the legacy of the Troubles.

Just a few days ago, the "quiet man" of Northern Ireland policing emerged as the new PSNI Deputy Chief Constable. And as Drew Harris was confirmed in that post, so we watched again another clash at that policing and politics interface.

Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane withdrew from the Policing Board selection panel before the interviews were completed.

Without elaborating, she suggested that "the process may have been compromised".

This was "firmly rejected" by the board, and Justice Minister David Ford accepted their recommendation for appointment.

Drew Harris is 49, married with four children and is a police officer with 30 years experience spanning the RUC and PSNI.

He has held a number of operational commands and, more than a decade ago, spent a two-year secondment with Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland.

His learning in policing has meant completing the big courses – in Strategic Command, Leadership in International Counter Terrorism and the FBI National Executive Institute programme for senior law enforcement officers.

He has a degree in politics and economics and a masters in criminology.

That quiet man label that was attached to him by one of his senior colleagues describes him well.

Drew Harris is not a chatty cop. For several years now, he has been the Assistant Chief Constable in command of the PSNI Crime Operations Department.

And on visits to him for interviews, you understand that you are being taken inside that most sensitive and covert world of policing.

At police headquarters, you walk the stairs to the first floor.

You are asked to put any mobile phones in a small locker, and then a security code is needed to enter the corridor and the place of the Assistant Chief Constable's office.

The Crime Operations Department includes Intelligence Branch, the Major Investigation Teams and Specialist Operations Branch.

Before Harris, the job was done by Peter Sheridan, now chief executive of Co-operation Ireland.

"Because it deals with the most serious and difficult aspects of policing, such as protecting life, it means having to make decisions on a 24-hour basis, sometimes in fast time," Sheridan said.

"Those aren't easy burdens to carry and can mean sleepless nights."

That world of intelligence-gathering means a working relationship with the security service MI5. And it means trying to stay one step ahead of dissident republican plots and plans.

It also means keeping that threat in context.

Harris knows that the various factions, while "dangerous" and "focused", do not have the wherewithal once available to the IRA.

"They lack public support," he told me in an interview in February 2009.

"They lack finance, they lack personnel and they lack munitions and equipment.

"What they can do is sporadic murder, sporadic bombing attacks and, in their terms, be successful in that," he added.

"But the very threat of them is what distorts our overall policing effort because we have to put so much effort into managing this particular security threat," he said.

This is the stuff of those "sleepless nights" that Sheridan referred to, thinking not just about what is known but also what is not known.

And the reality is you won't always know what republican dissidents, or loyalists, or organised crime gangs are up to.

There will always be missing pieces.

"During my time, he dealt with the difficult and impossible end of policing with great confidence, ability, judgment and professionalism," former PSNI Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde said of Harris.

The now president of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) described the new Deputy Chief Constable as "a very good man ... reliable, a very calm individual".

That role, that senior rank in the Crime Operations Department, is a job of big decisions.

And, some months ago, there was a furious republican reaction to the arrest of the Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams in connection with the abduction and murder of Jean McConville in December 1972. At the time, Martin McGuinness spoke of "an embittered rump of the old RUC".

"These people want to settle old scores whatever the political cost ... they are small in number but very influential," the Deputy First Minister said.

Republicans did not openly name Drew Harris but, privately, they were thinking and talking about him.

And unionists are convinced that this was the political play earlier this week – that the Adams arrest was the real reason why Sinn Fein failed to support this senior police appointment.

This was rejected by Caitriona Ruane. "It is the integrity of the process which is most important in my view," she said in a statement.

"I want to make it clear that none of my concerns reflect in any way on either of the two senior officers involved.

"They are clearly not at fault here."

But, for some time now, the republican narrative has included this description of a policing "dark side".

"It's easy to throw stones," Peter Sheridan told this newspaper.

And, in terms of the conflict period here, he added: "There are many dark sides on all sides."

But what angers senior officers is a view that republicans "conveniently forget what they did".

Turn the pages of Lost Lives to October 8, 1989, and you will find the killing of RUC Superintendent Alwyn Harris.

A Semtex bomb exploded under his car as he was on his way to church with his wife.

Twenty-five years ago, Drew Harris lost his father, but has never thrown those stones.

"He was one of the people I met who impressed me for their ability – despite their own personal experience – to work with whoever they needed to achieve what was best for Northern Ireland," said Sinead McSweeney, a former director of media and PR with the PSNI. "He isn't just a fabulous police officer, but one of the most decent human beings I worked with in Northern Ireland."

And there were times, she said, when she witnessed others who "didn't want to look him in the eye and he was the one who put out his hand to them".

Drew Harris will officially start his new job on October 13 – working with the new Chief Constable George Hamilton.

And this latest appointment has meant another reshuffle at the top of the PSNI.

Hamilton has decided that Will Kerr – the other candidate for the Deputy Chief Constable's job – will move to Crime Operations Department and has told other senior officers their new roles from October 13.

But there is another huge consideration and concern – the impact of budget cuts.

"What is clear is that massive cuts and organisational change will face the new Deputy Chief Constable from day one," a source commented.

"It will be a different sort of heat," the source added – a reference to the hugely difficult job Drew Harris is in and the one he will move to in a few weeks' time.

The concern is whether the budget cuts are "doable" or "achievable in the timescales" and the impact they will have across the policing frame.

Drew Harris has been around policing long enough to know the next task and challenge.

This week, he climbed another rung on the promotion ladder and true to that "quiet man" description he let the politicians argue as he went back to work.

Personal perspective on troubled past

  • Drew Harris' father Alwyn Harris was the third senior officer of the RUC to be killed by the IRA in 1989.
  • The 51-year-old superintendent died after a bomb exploded under his Vauxhall Carlton car close to his Lisburn home, as he and his wife, who escaped with minor injuries, were on their way to church for a Harvest Thanksgiving service.
  • Supt Harris had been subdivisional commander at Newcastle, Co Down, although he was on sick leave at the time of his death with a heart condition.
  • Among those who paid tribute to him following his death were Father Denis Faul, who had passed on complaints to Supt Harris from a Catholic mother which led to six Royal Marines being removed from duty in Kilkeel for harassment. Fr Faul said Supt Harris was exactly the kind of officer on whom a trustworthy police force could be built.
  • At his funeral, former Presbyterian Church moderator Dr Howard Cromie said: "As a community we are tired of the humbug and hypocrisy of those who say after every outrage that terrorism will be defeated and yet who steadfastly refuse to allow the security forces to take the action necessary to bring such terrorism to an end."

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