'I remember hunting down Francis Hughes in dead of night - he'd left trail of blood and an IRA beret following a gun battle with us'
Former Assistant Chief Constable Alan McQuillan talks to Suzanne Breen about his life in the RUC, eye candy policemen, and the challenges facing the current force.
Q. Some people believe that you're the best Chief Constable that Northern Ireland never had. Do you resent that the top job eluded you?
A. Not getting that job was the best thing that ever happened to me. Of course, when Hugh Orde got the job over me in 2002, I was disappointed. It was a matter of professional pride. I knew the politics at the time - that the outsider would be preferred over the local man - but I decided to have a go anyway. I did a poor interview, I wasn't on form. I wouldn't have appointed me. I told Hugh that I'd the horrible feeling that the best man won. I'd no grievance against him. He was a great Chief Constable and we remain friends. We still call each other for advice. I was talking to him last week.
Q. Do you think Matt Baggott also did a good job as Chief Constable?
A. I felt sorry for Matt. Northern Ireland probably wasn't what he thought it would be like. I don't think he ever really settled here. He was a nice guy, but I don't think Matt would say that his time here was a huge success for him.
Q. George Hamilton recently caused controversy by telling an officer complaining of work pressures to 'dry your eyes'. Was that poor judgment and is he up to the job?
A. George Hamilton is an excellent Chief Constable. He is extremely competent, honest and transparent. George is exactly what it says on the tin. When I was Assistant Chief Constable in Belfast, he was a uniformed officer that we decided to promote into CID. He was made a detective superintendent. Even then, George was a real star. His potential shone out.
Q. But is the Chief Constable tweeting at midnight really advisable, and should he not have shown more sympathy to an officer under pressure?
A The fact that George was up so late engaging with one of his constables shows his commitment and work ethic. Unlike most of us, I suspect George doesn't even drink. I agree wholeheartedly with what he said. The officer was complaining that he shouldn't have to be a social worker, a paramedic and whatever. Look, police are there to help people. When someone dials 999 at 3am, officers may have to deal with a psychotic or a drunk who has beaten his partner and children. They may have to keep a road traffic victim alive until paramedics arrive. There's no point moaning, that's the job.
Q. Why don't you tweet?
A. I'm extremely IT literate, but I'm not on Twitter for a reason. Like George, I'd have a tendency to say things that could get me into trouble!
Q. The PSNI has been accused of sexism after describing a male officer as eye candy on Facebook and suggesting that women should join the force so they can meet him. Was that exploitation of the detective involved?
A. Ah, Bobby Singleton, the hunk, God help him. I know what it's like myself to have been a sex symbol! The people complaining about this need to get a life. Of course, we wouldn't want to get to the point where the officer feels harassed, but it was only a bit of banter.
It wouldn't be the first time that women came into a police station asking for a nice constable. And I recall a very senior English female politician who had a great attraction for a man in uniform. Indeed, my biggest problem in a Belfast hotel on one occasion in the 1990s was trying to keep her away from my constables, who she kept inviting up to her room!
Q. You're from north Belfast. Tell me about your background.
A. I was born in the Oldpark, the son of a shipyard worker. After interment in 1971, an IRA gunman came to our door. "You've two hours to get out," he said. We packed our belongings onto the back of a coal lorry and left. My family moved to the Protestant part of Ardoyne, but we were forced from there after I joined the RUC.
Q. Did you always want to be a policeman?
A. No, I had no interest in the police as a career. I studied physics at Queen's University. The sun and the stars, they were my passions.
But after graduation, a friend mentioned an RUC graduate recruitment scheme in Eastbourne. He said it would be a free week away in England. Off we went.
The other recruits were in bed at 10.30pm but we had a great time. Yet somehow, I was successful.
Q. Where was your first posting?
A. It was to Magherafelt, which I had to look up on the map! There were some very heavy times. I saw a lot of people murdered, including a nine-year-old child. I remember lifting her from the car to a body bag.
It was heartbreaking. I froze and couldn't continue. Francis Hughes (who was later to die on hunger strike) was very active in the area. I arrested him after an IRA gun battle in which a soldier was killed. Hughes had escaped but a large chunk of his thigh bone had been shot away.
We were there in the dark of night, with torches, following a trail of bullets, blood and a beret he'd discarded when crawling away. He hid for hours in thorn bushes until he was in such pain that he shouted to a soldier. He was very dehydrated but as he was being carried away on a stretcher, he raised a clenched fist and yelled 'Up the Ra!' Hughes killed a lot of people. He was a very dedicated and ruthless terrorist.
Q. Was policing at the height of the Troubles relentlessly tough?
A. It was hard, but there were plenty of good times too. I loved small town policing in Magherafelt. I remember a dispute where one woman in a semi-detached house accused her neighbour of training a chicken to peck away at the walls of her home so it would collapse.And then there was Willie, a local man who liked a wee drink. He set his trousers on fire and called 999. I put out the blaze with a fire extinguisher. Willie later lodged a complaint that I had frozen one of his testicles with the extinguisher and reduced his chances of having a family.
Q. What is the most important thing in your life?
A. Without a doubt, my wife Heather. She is a retired teacher and we are very much a partnership. It was love at first sight. Friends set us up together. I was visiting India, and they suggested that a geography teacher would like a few photographs taken there for her class. I'd never met the teacher, but I obliged. She invited me round for dinner one Saturday night to say thank you. We hit it off immediately, we just talked all night. The next morning I turned up at her door with a bunch of red roses. I'd had to go to Dundonald cemetery to buy them because there weren't any flower shops open on a Sunday.
I presented the flowers to Heather and declared, "I intend to marry you!" She thought, "This guy's a nutter!" (laughs), but she still invited me in. We were married a year later. We have two grown-up children. We get along now just as well as that night 33 years ago. Although, she does nag me about my weight and lack of exercise. She has got me out walking recently.
Q. Are you concerned about your weight?
A. It represents my biggest single weakness, but what's important in life is to be happy. I'm a big foodie and I love cooking. Curries, Chinese food, and roasts, I can turn my hand to them all - and Heather is a far better cook than me. We're heading off on a three-week driving holiday to England and Wales. The 'Good Food' and 'Good Pub' guides are in the car.
Q. After you left the PSNI, you became head of the Assets Recovery Agency (ARA) pursuing the assets of paramilitaries and criminals. Why was that organisation abolished in 2008?
A. I believe it became a casualty of the peace process. The government wanted to encourage certain groups in a peaceful direction and, if that involved turning a blind eye towards crime, so be it. When ARA was wound up, we had 250 live cases across the UK with assets to the value of £250m on our books.
Q. How big a problem is organised crime still in Northern Ireland and are the authorities dealing adequately with it?
A. Well, in Afghanistan, organised crime accounts for 50-60% of the GDP. It's nothing like that here, but it is still very disappointing that 20 years into the peace process, paramilitaries continue to bleed their communities dry. Republicans are heavily involved in smuggling, diesel laundering and counterfeit cigarettes. Loyalists are engaged in drug-dealing, extortion, and prostitution.
People want criminals dealt with. They don't want paramilitaries rebranded as community workers. There's a huge amount of paramilitary crime along the border, and Brexit could lead to massive new opportunities for smugglers.
The government has recognised the problem with the Fresh Start panel report on the disbandment of paramilitary groups. But, really, it's about doing it, not talking about it. We have a good police force - which has a superb relationship with the Garda - and the National Crime Agency is now operating here to back them up. All the tools exist to tackle the problem, but is the political will there? That's the question that jumps out at me.
Q. How do you judge the ongoing threat level posed by paramilitaries?
A. It shouldn't be under-estimated. Despite all the hype about Islamic fundamentalists, figures show that 50% of terrorist incidents in the EU occur in Northern Ireland. Loyalists are involved mainly in crime and feuding. The overwhelming threat of wider violence is from republicans, but most incidents nowadays are low-level.
Haven't the police and security services done a fantastic job? They've worked away quietly, unobtrusively behind-the-scenes - and been incredibly successful.
Q. The security forces' current success against republican paramilitaries has been achieved without shoot-to-kill, plastic bullets, and the like. Isn't that an indictment of the measures the RUC used in the past?
A. The response is much more sophisticated and controlled, but it's an entirely different scenario now. The volume of attacks doesn't compare to what we faced in the '70s, '80s, and '90s.
The police today aren't working under the same pressure that we had to. They have the ability to do it better and right. They also benefit from huge advances in intelligence-gathering and forensic science techniques. Look what's happened regarding Kingsmill. A palm-print from 40 years ago has allegedly just been matched. The PSNI is also blessed with far more support from the nationalist community than the RUC was.
Q. It was revealed last week that the PSNI is having huge difficulty recruiting Catholics, who make up only 30% of applicants. Why do you think that is so?
A. The statistics for both Catholic and female recruits are very disappointing and concerning. It is a problem for the community and politicians to tackle. The dissident campaign has had some effect, but I believe there is just far too much negativity in the media about the police from nationalist politicians. Sinn Fein and the SDLP need to be actively saying to Catholics, "There are jobs in the PSNI, go and apply for them."
Q. As a former senior police officer, do you think your life is still at risk from republican paramilitaries?
A. I know it is. I'm 13 years out of the police, and eight years out of ARA, but I'm still a target for some people. A dissident republican was convicted four years ago for collecting information on me. I was meeting people in a café in central Belfast from time to time, and had established a pattern. This man had been following me. He had my car registration and other details. He was convicted and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail for possessing my personal details and those of others. I wasn't given his name. There was very little publicity about the case. It was hushed up.
Q. Do you support inquiries into past wrongdoing, including murders and collusion, by the security forces?
A. I believe absolutely in the rule of law. Whether it's Kincora or Stakeknife, all the material should be examined to see if it has substance. When that doesn't happen, the whole thing just becomes a media feeding frenzy. If even half the allegations regarding Freddie Scappaticci are true, it's a very interesting case. But I also believe that the primary focus should be on the future, and not using scarce resources to constantly rake over the past.
Q. What is your view of the Police Ombudsman?
A. If I was contacted about any case I was involved in, I would co-operate fully. But I also know that the current approach of the Police Ombudsman's office is causing officers much grief.
If wrong things were done in the past, that needs to be exposed. If police officers have been guilty of criminal activity, that must be dealt with. But I detect a complete lack of perspective in some cases.
Take the Loughinisland report. One criticism is that investigating officers didn't adequately follow up with house-to-house inquires. In those days, you generally didn't get anything out of house-to-house inquiries, because people were afraid to talk.
With limited resources, why would the police spend time on a likely futile activity?
I've other concerns too. Last month, it was alleged that an investigator with the Ombudsman's office had kept a gun - that had been under examination - in his filing cabinet for nine years. If that is true, what kind of an organisation is this? What sort of controls are there? Had it been a police officer, that officer would be investigated and potentially charged. But it just seems to be glossed over because it's the Ombudsman's office.
Q. You've just finished a five-year stint on the Independent Financial Review panel into MLAs' salaries, expenses, and pensions. What do you plan to do next?
A. I don't know but, because of the level of cronyism here, I don't intend to seek any further public appointments in Northern Ireland. We don't have anything like the level of transparency that there is in Britain.
Q. That is a startling claim. What do you mean?
A. My impression is that a culture of cronyism exists in Northern Ireland in which corruption can thrive. The key for me is the lack of transparency regarding political donations. We are the only part of the UK where donations to the parties are kept secret. That must change, otherwise allegations will persist that people are getting favours.
Northern Ireland is a very small place. Too many jobs are filled by people who simply have the right political connections.
I have major concerns about how public appointments work here. When an inquiry is set up, the classic response is to appoint 'one of ours and one of yours'. Not the best people for the job, the most acceptable people. We need to break away from that, because it damages the reputation of politics entirely.