Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Matt Baggott: It's time the PSNI stopped dealing with past

Legacy issues huge strain on resources and need a separate body to handle them, says outgoing top cop

Outgoing PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott jokes around for the camera in his office at PSNI headquarters. After being asked to straighten his cap and look serious for the next photograph, Mr Baggott asked 'How am I supposed to stop smiling?' He then pulled a face and said 'Is this grumpy enough?'
Chief Constable Matt Baggott said the issues of the past are causing a massive strain to police resources
Chief Constable Matt Baggott said the issues of the past are causing a massive strain to police resources

Outgoing Chief Constable Matt Baggott has warned politicians that Northern Ireland's legacy issues have become a "huge dilemma" that must be resolved quickly.

In his last interview before he hands over to George Hamilton Mr Baggott said that the PSNI could no longer deal with the issues of the past, which were causing a massive strain to police resources as well as to public and political confidence.

He also revealed that:

  • He had not expected it to be as challenging when he took on the PSNI's top job.
  • At times politicians could have been more supportive.
  • Northern Ireland was the most difficult place he has ever policed.
  • The PSNI is the best police service he has ever worked with.

Mr Baggott retires today after five years here. His Assistant Chief Constable Mr Hamilton has been appointed to replace him.

Mr Baggott said that when he first came to Northern Ireland in 2009 he had not anticipated "the intensity of how the past would replay itself in the present", and warned politicians to "get a grip" of legacy issues.

"The way in which the past has, not just in terms of public confidence issues or political confidence issues, but also the resourcing we put into that, is a huge dilemma which must be resolved. Something I would really urge is that the present has to be separated from the past. The PSNI should not be dealing any more with these issues.

"It needs a separate judicial authority, still pursuing justice, still looking after the needs of victims, but it shouldn't be the PSNI," he said.

Mr Baggott added that the past was "toxic" to the PSNI and a huge drain on resources and confidence.

"We can't deal with human slavery, people trafficking, cyber crime, emerging threats coming internationally and still keep dealing with the past," he warned.

"So they need to grab that nettle, and grab it quickly."

The outgoing police boss revealed that when he joined the PSNI five years ago he had not expected the quick upsurge in terrorism.

"Trying to blow up the Policing Board, trying to blow up (Palace) Barracks, mortars, close quarter shoots, assassinations, 174 terrorist attacks in 2010... and then there was public order.

"One night last year, 84 separate protests and riots were running at the same time. We had half the number (of officers), for the first time in 40 years we didn't call the Army for assistance and the worst injury in that whole period was a broken hand. Nobody in the public was seriously hurt. The consequence of getting that wrong would have been cataclysmic," he said.

Mr Baggott admitted that even though he had worked in the likes of Peckham and Brixton, and dealt with the miners' strike, Northern Ireland had been the most difficult environment he had worked. "It has been (the most challenging) because of the terrorism and the public order problems and the sectarian issues that still remain... in terms of ordinary crime, it is not the most challenging. In fact, it is probably the safest place I have ever worked.

"Inner city crime in Peckham, where you have street gangs and hundreds of robberies every month, is much more challenging crime-wise," he said.

Mr Baggott was often on the receiving end of ferocious criticism from politicians over policing decisions.

He said he believed that at times they could have shown him more support.

"I think there are times when politicians need to be less risk-averse and actually more equivocal that, irrespective of if we like it or not, the law's the law," he said.

He added he will be sorry to leave, as it "is the best police service I have ever worked with".

He said: "I do know it is the right time to move on, although leaving is difficult... I am leaving with a heavy heart."

Humour still intact after five years in one of world policing's toughest jobs

Matt Baggott pulls his police cap on back to front and in his best Lauren Cooper impersonation says: "Am I bovvered?" This is a relaxed, mischievous side to the PSNI's outgoing Chief Constable that few people would ever have seen.

"If it had been a better day you could have snatched a photograph of me sunning myself on a deckchair outside," he jokes.

This is definitely a man finally able to shrug the weight of Northern Ireland off his shoulders.

As he prepares to hang up his PSNI uniform today after five of the most difficult years of his life at the helm of the organisation, he has visibly begun to relax.

He jokes about a photograph of himself in the Belfast Telegraph during last year's flag protests in which the strain of the job is clearly etched across his face.

"I looked about 100 in that photograph," he laughs.

Today the years have fallen off him. He looks healthy, well rested and very, very happy.

But it has been a bumpy ride.

Apparently, he used to keep a small note inside a tin of mints on his desk which said: "Don't be grumpy."

And, rumour has it that he would sometimes throw a rugby ball up and down the corridor with a colleague to work off some of his frustration when times got particularly tough.

Given the plethora of policing, security, political and social problems that landed in his inbox, he could be forgiven for having his fair share of grumpy days. He opens a door in his office and points to the wall behind it. "That's where I would go to bang my head. If you look closely you'll see all the dents from my head in the wall," he jokes again.

Baggott arrived here in September 2009 full of enthusiasm and vision on how to transform the PSNI into a peacetime police force.

It wasn't long, however, before Northern Ireland's toxic past began to replay itself in the present.

"Every month issues of the past would create a political confidence issue," he says.

"The past is toxic to the PSNI and a huge drain on resources... the Past is a huge dilemma that has to be resolved," he adds.

And then there was the sudden resurgence in dissident republican attacks and serious public order situations.

"There was a lot to deal with when I first arrived that I hadn't expected," he says.

Despite these unexpected challenges, Baggott believes he still achieved what he was appointed by the Policing Board to do – roll out personal, community policing, reduce crime and tackle the emergence of international crime.

During his time here he has headed up policing operations for the biggest events Northern Ireland has seen, such as the G8, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee tour and the Giro.

On a cabinet in his office are photographs of Baggott alongside some of the world's most powerful people, from Barrack and Michelle Obama to David Cameron.

But what he is most proud of from his time with the PSNI is the growing success of his community policing strategy.

"The fact the PSNI is now well-established as simply the police in virtually every community and allowed to police day to day is something I am very proud of," he says.

Sergeant Brian Caskey, a member of the neighbourhood policing team in Belfast's Tigers Bay and New Lodge areas, says the strategy is working.

"Matt Baggott has given us the direction and the chance to get into these communities. When I first came here we had a lot more problems. But now we can go out on foot patrol.

"There is a good, positive atmosphere.

"I have seen significant changes for the better in these communities. The boss set up the policing community strategy that is central to everything we do and I honestly believe it is working. I have seen the benefits for myself."

As I get up to say goodbye a very chirpy Baggott raises his hand and laughing says: "Talk to the hand. I'm not bovvered."

He then hastily adds: "I hope that's not going to be your headline."

It's right to go now... but I leave with a heavy heart

Deborah McAleese talks to outgoing chief constable Matt Baggott

Q: You must be relieved to be going?

A: Not really. It's the right time. I think five years in this job is the right time. But I am heavy hearted because I have met such lovely people and friends and to be part of this time and this journey has been very special.

Q: It has been a very tough five years. At any stage did you regret taking the job?

A: No, not at all. There have been days that I wish hadn't happened, when you have had tragedy and colleagues badly hurt. But there hasn't been a day when I regretted being here.

Q: You could have stayed for an extra two years. What made you decide it was time to go?

A: I have very strong faith and I believe my time came to an end. My thinking was, towards the end of last year and the beginning of this year, that five years was probably the right time. I have been able to put in place the very personal policing that we want. We have dealt with a very real resurgent terrorist threat to devolution. In the weeks I took over it was bomb after bomb and we have made huge strides dealing with that. I think we have gone through five public inquiries now. In terms of my own energy, a new pair of eyes coming in and probably with the next two years of elections, it was the right time for someone to come in and take the whole PSNI agenda forward. I'm not sure I could achieve in the next two years what I haven't done already.

Q: Is there anything you would have done differently?

A: I don't think you really understand what you would have done differently until the time has passed. I think you have to remember that politics here can still be fairly strident and quite confrontational. That became clear to me very quickly. So I think what I would have learnt is that often you had to let the confrontation pass over you.

Q: There must have been times you felt like banging your head against a wall?

A: I think everybody gets frustrated when you want to see things happen and sometimes, because of legacy or relationships, they happen slowly. Someone said to me, 'some of the things you would like to do you are about 10 years ahead of where we can be' and that can be frustrating. Sometimes, particularly with the flag protests last year, seeing colleagues standing day in day out soaking in a lot of conflict is in itself frustrating because you want police officers to be part of the communities keeping young people safe, dealing with anti-social behaviour, tackling drug dealing. You don't want them standing in a line dealing with public order.

Q: Did our politicians inflame that public order situation?

A: I am measured in what I say because I am the police chief not a politician. I didn't think they were unequivocal in condemning violence and they should have been right behind the Parades Commission irrespective of the determination.

Q: Were you upset you didn't get a mention in the Queens honours?

A: I don't consider those things. I didn't come to Northern Ireland for that. I think if there are any honours going they belong to colleagues because this is a fantastic organisation. It is the best police service I have ever worked with and when I look at the courage of officers being in the heart of communities in spite of the continued threat, when I look at the way they stood night after night taking violence and when I look at the way they embraced reforms that I wanted to introduce, they should get the praise, not me.

Q: Do you feel you could have had more support from our politicians?

A: I think so. I don't want to overplay that because at the end of the day, my time here was for a period of time and I was asked by the Policing Board to work with a reduced budget to tackle the emerging threat of organised crime, to deal with the very real problems of anti-social behaviour and I was given a very specific mission and I delivered that.

I think what was a great success was even getting to the devolution of policing and justice and if you look at the headlines in the Belfast Telegraph this week (A photograph of the Queen walking through St George's Market with the caption "This couldn't have happened five years ago") is for me the bench mark for where we are with political life and policing. I am not shying away from the question because I think there are times when politicians need to be less risk averse and actually more equivocal that, irrespective of if we like it or not the law is the law.

Q: What fallouts have you had with politicians?

A: The only time I have had disputes with politicians were around two things. One is that as a Chief Constable, I work under the law, whether equality law, employment law, justice law - my job is to follow the law. Sometimes that doesn't necessarily work with the political leaders. Or it has been when I thought they haven't grasped the opportunities to make people safer and the fact we don't have an approach to the most disadvantaged areas yet is a sadness.

Q: It was your job to police but you found yourself caught up in a highly politicised environment

A: In the present the PSNI have done brilliant. We are trusted in a way that is unprecedented. I think the PSNI is well established now as the police. In the present, apart from parading, there was little political dispute about policing. There was a lovely article in the Belfast Telegraph recently that Northern Ireland is emerging as one of the safest places in the world. I'll take that thank you. We have 700 more police out on the street and crime levels are the lowest in many many years.

The bit I wasn't quite prepared for, I don't think anybody could have prepared me, was the intensity of how the past would replay itself in the present. If you get one public inquiry as a Chief Constable you probably feel hard done by. I have had five - Nelson, Finucane, Bloody Sunday, Billy Wright and now on the runs. I had the Historical Enquiries Team which became controversial. I had nine hours in front of the Public Accounts Committee over the rehiring of RUC officers, even though its their employment right to do that. And every single arrestable event is by itself a crisis, including just recently of course the arrest of Gerry Adams. So the way in which the past has, not just in terms of public confidence issues or political confidence issues, but also the resourcing we put into that, is a huge dilemma which must be resolved.

Q: The political pressure you got must have annoyed you surely?

A: Yes there have been political controversies sometimes, yes I have been frustrated that things have not moved as fast, but it's a post conflict society and I couldn't have expected anything else. But they do need to grip the past and something I would really urge is that the present has to be separated from the past. The PSNI should not be dealing anymore with these issues. It needs a separate judicial authority, still pursuing justice, still looking after the needs of victims, but it shouldn't be the PSNI. Because the past is toxic to us and a huge drain on resources and confidence and we can't deal with human slavery, people trafficking, cyber crime, emerging threats coming internationally and still keep dealing with the past. So they need to grab that nettle and grab it quickly.

Q: When you first arrived here were you expecting to have to deal with all of this?

A: No. I had no real perception of how quickly the dissidents were on the front foot in terms of that upsurge and how deeply challenging that was to the peace process.

The bit that was unexpected was the upsurge in terrorism - trying to blow up the Policing Board, trying to blow up (Palace) Barracks, mortars, close quarter shoots, assassinations, 174 terrorist attacks in 2010. Getting the extra money (from the Treasury), at the same time as devolution, to put that on the back foot, has really worked. To bring that back to a level that is still dangerous but nothing like it was a few years ago has enabled community policing to flourish. And then we had  the public order problems. One night last year, 84 separate protests and riots were running at the same time. We had half the number (of officers), for the first time in 40 years we didn't call the Army for assistance and the worst injury in that whole period was a broken hand. Nobody in the public was seriously hurt. The consequence of getting that wrong would have been cataclysmic.

It was also very difficult to keep the Patten reforms going to lose another 1000 police officers and full time reserve to get the points of devolution which were necessary. And how every month really issues of the past would create a political confidence issue.

Q: How do you think you have made a difference?

A: I think on the trust bit of policing. The fact the PSNI is now well established as simply the police in virtually every community and allowed to police day to day is something I am very proud of. We did put community policing in place.

Confidence levels in policing in Northern Ireland have risen four times faster than anywhere else in the UK. The PSNI has become a very efficient crime fighting outfit and is highly respected internationally. Then there is the big stuff around terrorist problems. To have reversed that to the point that attacks are right down. We have nearly 300 people prosecuted and that has stopped these groupings from starting to reform.

And look at the public order problems. When I took over there wasn't any contingency plans to deal with long, widespread public order. We brought new Land Rovers, doubled the number of officers trained in public order, got mutual aid arrangements in place and then when the wheel came off last year we could contain that. Previously I think that would have been very difficult without using the Army.

Q: Do you think you will be remembered for the flag protests?

A: If Im going to be remembered for the flag protests it should be for the fact the United Nations, the Human Rights Commissioner, the government advisors on human rights and everyone that has knowledge worldwide of what happens in public order were praising the PSNI. We came out of that month on month of very serious violence without a member of the public seriously injured and the worst police injury was a broken hand. Now that doesn't diminish the number of officers that were hit but we could have got that horribly wrong. Sometimes it was messy, sometimes tactically we maybe could have done some things differently, but the overall strategy which was to comply with the law, contain it and bring people to justice was consistent throughout those months.

I would much rather have the United Nations say to me they hadn't seen a better case of policing in the world around dealing with this. I wonder what would have happened in other parts of the world? People would have been shot dead on the streets. People think I come from some quiet shire. Actually, I'm an inner city policeman. My background is Brixton, Peckham, miner strikes. I have done riots.

Q: Is Northern Ireland one of the most challenging places you have worked?

A: Definitely. Because of the terrorism and the public order problems and the sectarian issues that still remain. It is a society coming out of conflict grappling with modern day problems, but also having to deal with legacy problems. In terms of ordinary crime it is not the most challenging. In fact, it is probably the safest place I have ever worked. Inner city crime in Peckham where you have street gangs and hundreds of robberies every month is a much more challenging crime wise.

Q: The Federation has warned there is a resource crisis.

A: There is real resource pressure because we are still dealing quite uniquely with issues of 30/40 years ago and spending tens-of-millions of pounds investigating events that took place a long, long time ago. The resource pressure is caused by the uniqueness of Northern Ireland having to investigate the Troubles. We also have new policing challenges coming in like cybercrime but I think realistically we can't expect far more resources than we have now as we are in an age of austerity.

Q: Do you have a favourite memory?

A: There are so many. I feel very proud of this great organisation. This is the best policing I have ever worked alongside. While I was here we policed the biggest world events that Northern Ireland ever staged. I remember standing at the top of Stormont when the Queen did her tour in the open top car. Tens of thousands of people were there and the Queen decides 'I'm going in my open top car', for the first time in Belfast. I remember standing there thinking, 'What can a chief do when he can't do no more?'.

Q: So what now for Matt Baggott?

A: I'm going to have a break, dig the garden, do some fishing, just be normal for a while. I was very motivated when I went to Rome for a few days around the whole slavery debate and I think there is something perhaps for me to do, maybe from a charitable perspective. But at the moment, to make the right choices, sometimes you just have to come out of it for a while.

I do know it is the right time to move on, although leaving is difficult. There have been setbacks but if you look back five years I think we have made significant progress. It has not been perfect, I have made mistakes. But then again you are not human if you don't.

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