Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Ed Curran: Dear Matt, it won’t be all plain sailing at the helm of the PSNI

Ed Curran

Big responsibility — can new Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, win over the public as well?

Your appointment and the presence of the Tall Ships in Belfast last week mark two more milestones on the long road to normality for Northern Ireland.

Was it really a dream that you were interviewed by a panel which included Ian Paisley jnr and Alex Maskey and that all seven of the panel agreed you are the man for the job?

Was it a dream that all those tall-masted ships from around the world were docked near the centre of Belfast and that so many people wanted to see them, the trains and buses couldn’t cope?

No sirree. It was no dream. It was near normal Northern Ireland taking two more big steps |towards a totally normal |society which must be your ultimate challenge as the new Chief Constable.

In comparison to all the other PSNI and RUC chiefs since the 1960s, you’re in a unique |position — the very first to win wholesome and unanimous approval from all the four main political parties here. When I saw the make-up of the interviewing panel, I had to pinch myself that I wasn’t dreaming.

There you were before Ian Paisley jnr, the son of a man who was the bain of many a previous Chief Constable’s life. I can recall as far back as 1969 when another Englishman, Sir Arthur Young was appointed as RUC Chief only to be nicknamed by Paisley snr as “Sir Artful Tongue”.

And who would ever have believed that we would see a day when a Sinn Fein spokesman could bring himself to approve such an appointment? Certainly Alex Maskey did so when he |said you had convinced him you were very sensitive to policing in a divided society.

The real significance of last week may not have been that you got the job but that everyone |on that interviewing panel reached agreement on who should |have it and appear to relish |your appointment.

So, Mr Baggott, you’re off to an incredible start. If you can continue to satisfy such a broad consensus as Messrs Paisley, Maskey and the others with your strategy for “community policing”, then being PSNI Chief should be a doddle for you. Unfortunately, from past experience, that is unlikely to be the case.

What exactly is your meaning of “community policing”? Fewer police officers in cars and more bobbies on the beat?

Zero tolerance of the kind of loutish behaviour which resulted in those Tall Ship crewmen |being beaten with golf clubs in Ballycastle last week? More police activity to thwart so-called neighbourhood crime such as break-ins and cowardly attacks on vulnerable members of our society? Tougher policing on the kind of drunken street behaviour which is common in towns and cities throughout Britain and Northern Ireland? More interaction between the police and |the people?

It seems as if every new Chief Constable these days places “community policing” at the top of his agenda but the issue is whether crime will be reduced. To date the public is unconvinced and feels there is much talk but little evidence of change. The police appear to live in their world (dare I say it, sitting on our highways and by-ways with hair-dryers pointing at the passing cars) and we in ours.

Northern Ireland is a small place. Many of us know one another because there are so few of us in comparison to the teeming towns and cities which you have been used to in England. Yet, curiously enough, we rarely know many police officers unless they happen to be relatives or neighbours? If you can help to break down the “them and us” barrier between the police and the public, so much the better.

You have only to listen to radio phone-ins to get the jist of complaints. Why didn’t the police respond sooner to my 999 call? Why are so few brought to justice for so much petty crime such as home burglaries? Are the police really |interested in going after these |people? Why is my local police |station closing?

Then again, there is the perception that the police force here is so bound by bureaucratic constraint that it hasn’t time to do its public duties. From politicians to the Ombudsman, the PSNI must be subject to more surveillance and scrutiny than any other police force in Europe. How much man-power and resource is wasted in triplicate form-filling and the requirement for political correctness gone crazy?

Can any new Chief Constable change the system so emphatically that we will really recognise it on the ground? I hope so but doubt it very much.

Political consensus in Northern Ireland works in two very conflicting ways. On the one hand, it does mean that you and the PSNI have more support than ever before from the community |in general.

On the other, it also means that the PSNI is constrained from change unless all the main parties here agree to it.

That is the great weakness of local power-sharing government as we have seen in the stalemate at Stormont over so many issues from the 11-plus to the Maze prison site.

One political party wants zero tolerance of offenders. Another wants more sensitive policing. Can you square those two ambitions? You, as new Chief Constable, must stride a difficult path between allowing the local politicians to have their say and being your own man.

If you want to exact real change here, you may from time to time need to have the courage to tell our politicians to keep their distance and bite their lips over what you are trying to achieve.

Yours sincerely, Ed

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