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Northern Ireland police chief in symbolic appearance at west Belfast event

Published 06/08/2015

Chief Constable George Hamilton shakes hands with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness during the Feile 2015 event. Photo: Kevin Scott / Presseye
Chief Constable George Hamilton shakes hands with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness during the Feile 2015 event. Photo: Kevin Scott / Presseye
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton speaks during at a debate at St Mary's College during the West Belfast Festival

Northern Ireland's chief constable has stressed the need for courage to deal with the region's troubled past as he made a symbolic appearance in a republican area of Belfast.

George Hamilton joined Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness at a discussion panel event focusing on the vexed legacy of the Troubles.

PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton speaks during at a debate at St Mary's College during the West Belfast Festival
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton speaks during at a debate at St Mary's College during the West Belfast Festival

The idea of the region's most senior police officer sharing a platform with a former IRA leader in the heart of republican west Belfast would have been unimaginable during the conflict.

A crowd of protesters gathered outside the venue, St Mary's College on the Falls Road, to demonstrate ahead of Mr Hamilton's visit to the high-profile West Belfast Festival (Feile an Phobail) event.

However, inside the packed hall the senior officer was applauded when he addressed the audience - a number of whom lost loved ones during the conflict.

The debate focused on the thousands of killings yet to be solved; allegations of past police wrongdoings; continuing failures to address sectarianism and division; and the current threat posed by dissident republicans.

The officer faced robust questions, some from bereaved relatives, about police collusion with loyalists during the Troubles, failures in conflict-related investigations and delays in disclosing top-secret papers to legacy inquests.

"I know that me being here tonight is difficult for some people and I know there are others that simply don't want me here at all," he said.

"I can appreciate that, I accept it, but you know what - I am here. Why have I come? I have come because I believe the vast majority of people in our society want a better future for the next generation, for my children and yours."

A new framework for dealing with the Troubles - including a new independent investigations unit and a separate truth recovery body - was agreed between Stormont's leaders last year.

But those initiatives are currently under serious threat due to a political row over implementing the Stormont House Agreement.

Mr Hamilton said the current "piecemeal" way of dealing with the past was not working for anyone in Northern Ireland.

He said the Stormont House structures had the potential to make progress but he emphasised the need for wider society to play a role.

"Fear does not make peace - courage, optimism, belief is where peace is made," said the chief constable.

"I think we need to be brave and courageous - easy words to say. I think we need to believe in our ability to continue to build a safe, confident, peaceful society together.

"To do so we have to face our fears, to go beyond our comfort zones, to be selfless, to be generous, to be gracious, to be ready to listen to each other and to have challenging and respectful conversations."

Mr McGuinness praised Mr Hamilton for attending.

"It's no easy journey for someone who effectively comes from an organisation like the police service to come to a place like west Belfast," he said.

"We have all been on a journey and it's been a very difficult journey over the course of the last 20 years."

The Sinn Fein veteran said republicans had to stretch themselves and indicated they needed to contribute to the proposed truth recovery mechanisms for those bereaved in the conflict.

"Tonight is another act of reconciliation," he said.

"I think George Hamilton is as passionate about the peace process as I am.

"I think he also knows, like I do, that there are huge challenges ahead - not just for the police, or state forces, or the British Government, but there are huge challenges for republicans also.

"Because republicans too, if people are to learn the truth about what happened during the conflict, will have their particular unique contribution to make. As a republican, I am prepared to make that contribution."

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