Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

PSNI boss's plea on Troubles legacy

PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott
PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott
Northern Ireland Chief Constable Matt Baggot is to bring his departure date forward to June 29

Northern Ireland's retiring Chief Constable has urged politicians to adopt a different way of dealing with the toxic legacy of the Troubles.

Matt Baggott announced today that he is stepping down at the end of June - two months earlier than he had previously indicated.

In a final address to members of his oversight body, the NI Policing Board, he said the time had come for the 3,000-plus historic investigations related to the conflict to be taken over by a separate, independent body.

He said that would "liberate" the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to police the present and future, while also giving greater confidence to victims' families.

"I believe in both justice and truth, but dealing with the past is both debilitating and toxic to confidence," he said.

Stalled political proposals on the past outlined by former US diplomat Dr Richard Haass envisage a new investigatory body for Troubles killings running alongside another mechanism aimed at truth recovery about crimes where prosecutions are unlikely.

Mr Baggott said he supported the concept of taking historic investigations away from the PSNI to enable it to focus more fully on policing the here and now.

"It is time to deal with the past in a different way, which does not ignore it but moves it to one side and puts leadership, investigation and resolution in different, independent hands," he said.

"It may be a false comparison, and I by no means want to diminish the tragedy and hurt of the past, but a comparison I might use is the banking system, which dealt with toxic debts by not ignoring them but it moved them to a different place, so it could be freed up to deal with today's confidences issues."

Confirming he would leave on June 29, Mr Baggott paid tribute to his colleagues, insisting the PSNI was one of the "finest police services in the world".

"I have been hugely privileged to be Chief Constable," he said.

He also expressed his deep regret at the deaths of two officers during his time in charge. Constable Ronan Kerr died in a dissident republican car bomb in Omagh and Philippa Reynolds was killed on duty when her patrol car was struck by a stolen vehicle in Londonderry.

Mr Baggott is being succeeded by current PSNI Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton.

Mr Hamilton, who will be the first home-grown Chief Constable for 12 years, saw off competition from Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick and Garda Assistant Commissioner Derek Byrne during an intensive round of interviews and testing at the Policing Board.

Mr Baggott is retiring after five years in the high-profile role.

During his tenure he has found himself at the centre of a number of controversies - the most recent developing earlier this week when the region's Police Ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, threatened him with legal action over a failure to disclose sensitive files relating to allegations of police misconduct.

He has also clashed with both nationalist and unionist politicians on multiple occasions - a fact his supporters may point to as indicating a measure of success in navigating an impartial route across Northern Ireland's political minefield.

The loyalist rioting that broke out in late 2012 over a dispute about the flying of the Union flag on Belfast City Hall was a case in point.

Mr Baggott was initially criticised by nationalists for not taking tough enough action against the rioters, whose violence was often targeted at police, but when arrests did start to flow in the weeks and months that followed he found himself accused by unionists of heavy-handedly victimising members of their community.

In his plus column, the outgoing commander can point to the trouble-free staging of the G8 summit in Co Fermanagh last summer - an event hailed by Prime Minister David Cameron as one of the most peaceful in recent memory - and a general fall in non-terrorist crime rates.

He also managed to secure a major £250 million-plus funding package from the Treasury to support the fight against the dissidents.

In his bid to get more policemen and women out into the community, he re-deployed more than 700 officers from desk jobs to the street beat.

But his detractors would highlight a perceived failure to sometimes publicly accept criticism of past and current colleagues - he faced such claims over his reaction to a Police Ombudsman investigation which alleged that the Royal Ulster Constabulary's investigation into the 1971 bombing of McGurk's bar in Belfast by loyalists was tainted by "bias".

As with many appointees from beyond local shores, the Londoner also found himself accused of failing to understand the nuances of Northern Ireland's complex political realities - justified or not, it was a perception that circulated.

A devout Christian who once revealed he prayed for the dissident republicans who targeted his officers, he applied for Northern Ireland's top policing job in 2009 on the back of what he described as a calling from God.

Appointed as an advocate of community policing, the efforts of the former Leicestershire chief constable to strengthen the link between his officers and the public in Northern Ireland were undermined by a deterioration in the security situation.

He wanted to focus on a modernising agenda, but was ultimately prevented from fully doing so by a resurgence in dissident terrorism and all too regular bouts of serious disorder.

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