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'For years we were only thing stopping two communities slaughtering one another'

Published 06/06/2016

Mark Lindsay is the chairman of the PFNI
Mark Lindsay is the chairman of the PFNI
PFNI chairman Mark Lindsay (centre) with Chief Constable George Hamilton (left) and ACC Drew Harris during the PFNI annual conference

Police Federation chairman Mark Lindsay tells Adrian Rutherford why the force deserves greater recognition, both retrospectively for its role during the Troubles and presently with the urgent need for more front line officers.

Q. Tell me about your career in front line policing.

A. I started off in 1987 in Aughnacloy before moving to Ballygawley. I spent a number of years there before moving to Cookstown.

Later I worked in Newtownabbey and Ballymena.

Prior to coming to the Police Federation, I did quite a lot in terms of search-related policing - missing persons, counter-terrorism and so on.

Q. Much has changed since you started.

A. It has, and no organisation has done more to adapt than the police service.

When you look at the late 1980s and early 1990s we had upwards of a dozen police officers killed every year.

We had countless terrorist murders of civilians, which the police service had to investigate.

At the turn of the century we had the implementation of the Patten reforms and the move towards the PSNI as the way forward.

Q. It must have been very difficult for police officers at that time.

A. Yes, it was. As Northern Ireland seemed to be descending into total anarchy, the police were that thin green line that stood between communities slaughtering each other.

I'm not sure there was ever enough recognition given to the role that police officers filled in that time.

I missed large parts of my children growing up simply because I was away, working, through those conflicts.

Q. Do any incidents stick out in your mind from your time on the front line?

A. I remember while working in Cookstown going to scenes of terrorist murders. At one stage I was first on the scene of three murders, each one month apart.

One was a murder of a soldier in Moneymore. Another was a Protestant civilian killed in an under-car booby-trap bomb near Pomeroy. The other was a man working on a new house who was murdered by loyalists near Donaghmore.

Those things resonate with you. You see the victims very much as people, and (you see) their families' suffering.

Deaths involving children, as a parent, were always difficult.

Out of everything I've seen, the suicide of a 16-year-old in Ballymena is probably one of the things that resonates with me to this day.

Q. Northern Ireland must be one of the most difficult areas to police.

A. People have tried in the past to compare or equate policing in Northern Ireland to England, Wales or Scotland.

There are massive differences in how policing is carried out here.

Whilst we are not in the dark days of pre-ceasefire, police officers still operate under a severe terrorist threat.

The difference in Northern Ireland is that the terrorist threat isn't just present when they are in uniform or at work, it takes up every facet of their lives.

Q. You moved from a serving police officer to working for the federation. How did that happen?

A. I worked as a federation representative, locally in Ballymena, from 2002. In 2009 I became the vice-chairman, which I carried out in tandem with my operational role as a police officer. I became the chairman, which is a full-time role, in February 2015.

Q. Tell me about the work of the Police Federation.

A. The Police Federation is the representative body of all police officers from the rank of constable to chief inspector. That is all police officers who are out there doing the daily interaction with the public right up to high-end, middle to senior management.

We represent them in terms of their pay and conditions, but more importantly their welfare. We also have a remit within the PSNI for efficiency.

Q. Do we have enough police officers?

A. We've seen a drastic reduction in the number of police officers.

We currently have around 6,800 officers, compared to pre-ceasefire when we had around 13,500 officers.

And while I wouldn't suggest that we would still need 13,500, I'm very strongly of the belief that 6,800 is not adequate to police Northern Ireland.

Policing in Northern Ireland requires a level of resource that can't be compared to anywhere else in the UK.

If 6,800 was the appropriate number, police officers would not be having their days off cancelled, they would not be working continuous long shifts, in some cases 14 or 16 hours, for three, four or five days a week.

The demand on policing hasn't reduced, it has increased, with increased accountability and oversight.

The Patten recommendations stated that in an entirely peaceful Northern Ireland, which isn't the case, there should be 7,500 officers.

We are currently running 700 below that.

Q. So how many officers do we need?

A. I think the 7,500 which Patten recommended would be a good start, and would solve a lot of the problems.

The Patten recommendations have been implemented to the nth degree across the spectrum, apart from the one thing that actually matters to officers, and that is numbers on the ground.

Q. Last year a survey by the Police Federation found 96% of officers complained of low morale. How big an issue is that?

A. The survey was a shocking indictment of where officers felt they were in society.

The same survey showed the level of commitment to policing to be very high.

What it showed us was that there are issues which need to be urgently addressed by the Chief Constable.

There has been some progress, but we don't feel there is enough of a grasp of the issues or the urgency of the situation.

Q. Concerns have been raised in the Republic of Ireland about the number of Gardai suicides. Is this an issue we have seen in the PSNI?

A. Yes, unfortunately we've seen a number of officers take their own lives tragically over the last year.

Those cases are very personal to each family.

You see pressures - social pressures, environmental pressures ... they are certainly not helped by a lot of the pressure that comes with being a police officer.

Those pressures do manifest themselves sometimes in people taking their own lives.

Q. Clearly the pressure of the job is having a very significant impact.

A. The commitment is there, people want to do their best.

People come in to work for long shifts, they give up their weekends, and this is all down to resources.

If people were able to have those days off to recoup and recharge, it helps.

When you put the pressures of policing and all the different issues together, it is having a detrimental effect.

We are seeing that through rising sickness figures - there has been around a 40% rise over the last three years in stress-related illnesses.

Q. How big an issue is policing the past?

A. It's a drain on resources and I think it's a problem that society in general has struggled to deal with.

There are victims across the entire spectrum. On my wall I have photographs of over 300 officers who have lost their lives, many of their families have not received closure. That goes across society.

It is incumbent on the politicians and on the government to fund initiatives which actually allow closure.

We need to be imaginative as to what form that closure takes, and how we draw a line under the past while acknowledging the pain that remains.

Q. Likewise, what impact has the parading impasse at Twaddell created?

A. It is another drain on resources. Every evening there is a protest, and without going into the politics of that particular issue, it still needs to be policed.

You have two diverse communities, with police officers caught in the middle.

The officers who are policing that situation are officers who would otherwise be employed out in communities. There has to be some sort of solution. As to what it is, that is down to the two communities, but there has to be some maturity shown.

Q. Do politicians help the situation?

A. Recently we saw comments made surrounding the incident on the Ormeau Road (where officers deployed CS spray into the parade).

Everyone is entitled to a view, but around that time there were comments which were unhelpful towards policing.

While I appreciate it was coming up to an election, I think politicians need to be aware that there are statutory routes - through the Ombudsman or the Policing Board - where issues around policing can be raised and properly addressed.

It does no one any good to pick, if you like, public and political battles with police officers who are simply trying to do their jobs. That can be seen to undermine policing.

Similarly with the Police Ombudsman, who is quite at liberty to investigate and publish reports.

The tone of the reports can also be damaging to confidence in policing without any real foundation or without the degree of evidence we would require to put a case before court.

Q. We are soon to have a new Justice Minister. What should be the priorities?

A. They need to realise that there are human beings behind the uniforms of police officers.

There also has to be adequate funding to allow the police to actually do what society expects them to do.

The new Justice Minister has to either allocate more funds to policing, or seek more funds from the Treasury under the security budget.

Q. How severe is the threat from the dissidents?

A. A severe threat means an attack is highly likely. Every day officers are thwarting those attacks.

A lot of work goes on in the background to stop police officers and wider society being attacked and murdered.

The threat is very, very real.

In recent months we have seen police vehicles being shot up in west Belfast, we've seen the murder of a prison officer.

Those attacks are constantly ongoing. Some make the headlines when they are thwarted, but the majority do not.

Q. Is the police service representative enough?

A. We would always like to see the police service as a mirror of society, and the challenge is always to recruit more people from under-represented communities.

We need equality across the whole spectrum, including sufficient female officers and people from minority backgrounds.

Policing does not move away in any society, and particularly in Northern Ireland, from being representative of the community.

Q. Do we need a return to 50-50 recruitment?

A. No, I think the police service should recruit the best people for the job, and there is adequate people in all sections of society to go through the selection procedures.

Q. You recently launched a campaign called We Are You. Tell me about that.

A. It is making the public aware of how issues affect officers.

For example, a father going to work, kissing his daughter goodbye, and the first thing he deals with is a dead child, or you've a grandchild and you are dealing with a burglary involving an elderly person.

We produced three movies - We Are Fathers, We Are Mothers and We Are Granddaughters.

Brian Falconer, the Bafta-winning producer, produced them.

We had cast from major productions in Northern Ireland, they were done to the highest quality, and were filmed last December.

They went into cinemas and on social media in March, and we got 300,000 views in the first three weeks.

We are now between 750,000 to a million views. It focuses on what officers see, what goes through their minds and how difficult it can be to be a police officer.

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