Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Chief Constable Matt Baggott hits out at failure of politicians to back his officers

EXCLUSIVE: 'If public figures are not unequivocal on rule of law then policing gets dented... events are used to score points off each other'

PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott
PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott

Chief Constable Matt Baggott today lays bare for the first time the depth of his frustration over the failure of politicians to support his force.

After a tense summer which saw scores of his officers injured in clashes, the PSNI said the failure of public figures to be unequivocal on the law has dented policing.

"I am frustrated that we are still experiencing a lack of political agreement and that saps confidence in policing and weakens the effectiveness of policing," he said.

"I have been frustrated because I see things that I want to reform like the way that disadvantaged neighbourhoods are being taken forward in social planning."

The Chief Constable spoke exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph to mark 36 years as a police officer. He started off in the Met and has now had four years heading the PSNI.

His contract as Chief Constable runs out next August and, significantly, he refused to say whether he would seek an extension.

Asked about the effect of local political disputes on policing he said politicians "should look at need not just the politics of the situation".

"I am frustrated that we are still experiencing a lack of political agreement and that saps confidence in policing and weakens the effectiveness of policing."

In our LucidTalk Poll earlier this month, Mr Baggott got the lowest approval rating out of a range of public figures. He scored -13.1%, slightly behind the First Minister who got -10.7%. Mr Baggott put part of that down to the failure of politicians to support police over the summer unrest, as governments would do elsewhere.

"If public figures are not absolutely unequivocal on the rule of law then policing gets dented," he said.

"This happens particularly when events are used as ways of scoring political points of each other."

He also believes that the Policing Board, the body which holds him accountable, is a place where politicians "should leave politics at the door" but hadn't.

"It should operate beyond politics, it should be about the fulfilment of my legal obligations and not looking at it from different political aspects.

"A lot of the political parties have protested this year about times when we have enforced the law exactly as we should do but it has been subject to political interpretation.

"That undermines confidence in policing," Mr Baggott said.

The Chief Constable admitted for the first time that the rundown of police numbers, and the abolition of the full time RUC reserve, may have been too quick in security terms.

However he believed it had been politically necessary to achieve the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Assembly and secure additional money from Westminster to fight terrorism.

"We were optimistic too quickly," he said. "Not only did we have an increased threat but the traditional ways of dealing with it were removed so by 2010 we were managing with just under 7,000 police officers and no substantive military backup and we had no plan B."

However he pointed out that since then, partly thanks to £245m extra in funding from Westminster and Garda cooperation, the fight against the dissidents was being won.

"Maghaberry is full and we are averaging one terrorist charge a week," he said.

However he fears that continued political disagreement creates opportunities for violent extremists "who would drag us back to the past".

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