PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott has dramatically backed the senior officer bearing the brunt of Sinn Fein resentment for the arrest of Gerry Adams, telling MPs his colleague had saved many lives.
The Belfast Telegraph exclusively revealed yesterday that Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris – who signed off on the Sinn Fein leader's arrest for questioning over the IRA murder of Jean McConville in 1972 – was facing a backlash from Sinn Fein.
Sitting beside Mr Harris as he addressed MPs on the Northern Ireland Select Committee at Westminster, Mr Baggott offered Mr Harris, the PSNI's head of Crime Operations, his full and unequivocal support.
"If I could just say this on the record, I am extremely proud to be associated with my colleague to my left," Mr Baggott said, indicating Mr Harris.
"He is, ultimately, one of the most professional police officers that I have ever worked with."
His remarks were in answer to a question from Lady Hermon, the North Down MP, and will now enter the Parliamentary record.
"Thank you, we agree," said Lady Hermon.
Mr Baggott then told her: "I think he has saved many lives."
Mr Adams' arrest followed the PSNI's recovery of recordings lodged at Boston College of interviews given by IRA veterans in the belief they would never be released in their lifetimes.
After police questioned him, Louth TD Mr Adams said some Boston material implicated him, but denied all wrongdoing and questioned its reliability. Later, a senior Sinn Fein source told this newspaper the party would use its influence within the Policing Board to raise its concerns regarding Mr Harris.
It was also feared the party could attempt to block his potential promotion to the rank of Deputy Chief Constable – a position due to become vacant following the departure of Judith Gillespie.
"We are committed to effective investigations," Mr Baggott continued.
"I think you have seen that in relation to the Boston tapes, for example. We are not afraid to be controversial and go where the evidence takes us and I will make tough decisions as long as I am Chief Constable – so will Mr Harris.
"We will not be influenced by any of that and I think our track record on that stands testament by itself," he said.
Mr Baggott added: "We have a strong track record of integrity in the PSNI, of following evidence. We do not have corruption in any shape or form as far as I can see, we do not have miscarriages of justice, we do not have allegations of brutality – we are the most human rights-compliant organisation probably in the world."
Last night Sinn Fein was urged to step back from its singling out of Mr Harris and "get themselves back on the democratic track" by a DUP Policing Board member.
"Personally, I think it is very dangerous to single out or demonise any individual within an organisation, especially around what was a totally legal and above board investigation and arrest of an individual," said Jonathan Craig MLA.
"That will happen because no favour can be shown to anyone no matter who they are or what position they hold.
"For Sinn Fein to pick out an individual to be targeted in any way, shape or form is not only fundamentally wrong, but may be something which, if followed through, would verge on being illegal.
"We are in a situation in which Sinn Fein have members on interview panels (the Policing Board). If individuals being politically targeted go for interview... Sinn Fein could leave themselves open to a legal challenge."