Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

We don't blame you, Matt Baggott: PSNI Chief Constable quits after three years

Four-year tenure suffered old and new challenges, but he leaves lasting legacy behind

Chief Constable of the PSNI Matt Baggott

Few will blame Matt Baggott for walking away from the job after more than four years of treading the political policing tightrope in Northern Ireland.

It was all so different when he first arrived here in 2009. He was the Chief Constable recruited to transform a PSNI still wedded to the traditions of Troubles style policing into a peace-time community style force.

But his dream of having officers freely walking the streets in neighbourhoods, working hand in glove with residents to tackle crime, would never reach fruition.

Instead, Mr Baggott has endured years of dealing with a highly politicised Policing Board, a growing threat from dissident republicans and the crippling burden of trying to police Northern Ireland's troubled past.

As he prepares to empty his desk at PSNI headquarters on the Knock Road later this year, Mr Baggott would be forgiven for thinking this was not what he signed up for.

He was handpicked for the job by the DUP and Sinn Fein because he was a strong advocate of community-based policing.

He was regarded as a safe pair of hands -- a devout Christian with vast experience in issues such as cross-body partnership, regeneration and inner-city crime. But Mr Baggott would quickly realise that heading up the most scrutinised police force in the world, where officers often feel their hands are tied because of a political imperative to impose a human rights ethos throughout the force, was a very different challenge.

As he prepares to leave Northern Ireland, he has often been on the receiving end of stinging criticism from both sides of the political divide.

Fury over the police's handling of flag protests and parading roused anger, as did countless inquiries and inquests into dealing with the country's troubled past. The growing threat posed by dissident republican terrorists was another recurring hindrance to dealing with everyday policing issues.

When his appointment was announced in August 2009, Mr Baggott said he was delighted to have landed the post.

But his first public interview was a steep learning curve for the father-of-three. Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, he was adamant he would not be tempted to draw on the Army to help combat the dissident threat.

But he did raise the possibility of using the services of Garda officers which, combined with the description of the border as "an artificial thing", provoked a backlash from unionists. Intent on delivering normal, peace-time policing, his walkabout in Crossmaglen in April 2010 -- the first Chief Constable to do so -- was intended to show that no areas in Northern Ireland were regarded as no-go as far as he was concerned.

A devout Christian, Mr Baggott openly spoke of how he drew on his beliefs for strength and guidance -- once making public how he prayed for those committed to murdering his officers. Those dissidents struck a blow which left Mr Baggott visibly distraught in 2011 when they murdered young Catholic officer Ronan Kerr.

Likewise, he was deeply moved by the death of 27-year-old Philippa Reynolds in a car smash in Londonderry last February. As well as the myriad of present day problems faced, Mr Baggott's resources were severely impacted on by investigating atrocities carried out during the Troubles.

Meanwhile, speculation had been mounting on Mr Baggott's future. He refused to be drawn, telling the Belfast Telegraph in September: "I want to get this year done first."

Despite their differences during his tenure, the tributes to Mr Baggott from across the political divide were respectful and warm. He has overseen a drop in general crime levels and an improvement in community engagement.

He was also widely lauded for ensuring the G8 Summit in Fermanagh last June passed off without major incident.

Likewise, the Queen's two-day visit to the province in June 2012 was a resounding security success. He also secured a major £250m 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.

Attention now turns to his replacement. Given the challenges faced by Mr Baggott, the number of those throwing their hats into the ring for the £190k-a-year post this time, may be somewhat down than in 2009.

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