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Joining the police force in Northern Ireland? Only the toughest need apply

The chief constable was too blunt, but it's true that not everyone is cut out to be a cop, says Fionola Meredith

Published 26/08/2016

A PSNI officer’s job requires exceptional resilience
A PSNI officer’s job requires exceptional resilience

'Dry your eyes, do the job or move on." PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton's tweet sounded bad, didn't it? Put up or shut up, he seemed to be telling beleaguered police officers. No nonsense. Stop whinging. Get over yourself. Man up.

After a loud outcry about his comments, which Mark Lindsay of the Police Federation described as "nothing short of monstrous", Mr Hamilton apologised. He said he was "hugely proud of the officers and staff who go out and serve the public every day".

The Chief Constable was right to say sorry. As he acknowledged himself, such important and sensitive issues are best not dealt with in the 140 characters of a tweet. To do so trivialises and undermines Mr Hamilton's own status as a prime enforcer of the law. It's also dismissive of serious concerns within a vital service where money is short, morale is low and stress is high.

But George Hamilton wasn't entirely wrong. What he said was intemperate, but it certainly wasn't monstrous. It may have come out crudely, but the truth is that the job of a police officer - especially in Northern Ireland - does indeed require exceptional resilience, and not everyone is up to it.

These men and women have to see and do things that would make the rest of us reel with horror. This week on the BBC Nolan Show, some of them spoke powerfully about the suffering they have endured.

Writing on Facebook, an anonymous Lisburn and Castlereagh officer described how difficult it is to deal with the aftermath of car accidents, teenage suicides, rapes, cot deaths. Then, of course, there is the ever-present risk of attack by so-called dissident republicans, or the possibility of getting injured in a riot.

Honestly, I don't know how they do it. I couldn't.

While it's vital that the institution provides the support that frontline staff need, both formally and informally, the bottom line is that they have to be tough enough to do the job. They have to be able to fend off bottle-wielding thugs, or to look a grieving wife in the eye, or pull a dead child out of a wrecked car, and not be physically or emotionally incapacitated, unable to keep going. Somehow, they must assimilate the experience and continue. Otherwise, it's not the job for them.

Demanding as their current role is, today's cops do not have to endure what previous generations went through in the Troubles. Yet at that time, when murders were everyday occurrences, and police officers had to pick up body parts after bomb explosions, the idea of personal stress was rarely mentioned.

A study of serving RUC officers during the 1980s found that "stress is not a feature of their talk about the paramilitary threat", and "the occupational therapy unit is not valued highly among ordinary policemen and women because it is seen to be where the 'weirdos' go".

It's a sign of great progress that officers enduring depression and PTSD are no longer routinely dismissed as 'weirdos'. That intensely macho culture, reinforced by the violent extremes of the time, has been largely transformed, and there should be no shame in seeking treatment for these debilitating conditions.

But what's also developed in the intervening years is a new culture of emotional vulnerability, which, as the sociologist Chris Gilligan has observed, encourages people to give public expression to their emotions. To make sense of their experience primarily through how it makes them feel. "The spread of therapy culture in Northern Ireland is a product of the peace process", he wrote, back in 2005. "As the conflict recedes into the past but debates about its impact on individuals continue, so individuals - even police officers - can claim to be stressed and disorientated".

Today, the emotional temperature is even higher. Feelings of anxiety and uncertainty among the general public are rife. And because police officers are part of wider society, human beings with flaws and frailties like the rest of us, we shouldn't be surprised that they are speaking out about the personal toll that their job takes on them.

The thing is, too much emphasis on psychological frailty doesn't actually help people. It limits them. It tells them that they are weak and powerless, and that they can't manage without constant support.

Nobody wants to go back to the macho days of the stiff upper lip and ruthlessly repressed emotions.

But there's a lot to be said for the old idea of personal fortitude: the inner strength to carry on, no matter what.

Belfast Telegraph

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