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Hugh Orde: Man who changed the face of policing

Published 17/04/2009

He said he would come to Northern Ireland for five years, but in the end Sir Hugh Orde stayed as Chief Constable of the PSNI for seven.

And he showed his dedication to the job by declining to take up his new national post until September and the end of the marching season in the province.

In recent years the number of flashpoint incidents between residents and marchers has declined, but this year there is the added concern of increased dissident republican violence. The terrorists may well try to create trouble during the summer and it is important to have an experienced officer in charge of the police operation to counter the threat.

Sir Hugh came to Northern Ireland in 2002, not long after the RUC was renamed as the PSNI. It was a time when confidence in policing was at a low ebb. There was controversy surrounding the Omagh bomb investigation and allegations of collusion between loyalists and the security forces. As well, morale in the police service was low with the implementation of the Patton proposals which changed the nature and structure of the force and set quotas for Roman Catholic recruitment. Many senior police officers, including detectives and former Special Branch officers, had left the force or were about to.

That was a forbidding backdrop to Sir Hugh’s introduction to the job of Chief Constable, although he had previous experience of the province as a member of the Stevens team looking into collusion allegations.

His major priorities were to revitalise the police force , win it greater public acceptability and steer the delicate — and sometimes near invisible — path between politics and policing. He made it clear that he wanted totally independent operational control, although the PSNI would be carefully scrutinised by the Policing Board.

The peace process was bogged down during his early days, although he created some movement through a first meeting between a Chief Constable and Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams. He also met senior loyalist paramilitary figures. These were courageous steps in the context of the times and Sir Hugh proved over his seven years to be quite adept at handling the political side of policing.

With the breakthrough in the political stalemate and acceptance of the police by Sinn Fein, the PSNI’s stock across the community rose quickly. Indeed, in the aftermath of the killing of the first PSNI officer in Craigavon and two soldiers in Antrim by dissident republicans, Sir Hugh was party to one of the most astonishing scenes in recent history.

He stood at Stormont flanked by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. It would have been unthinkable to have had those two politicians in the same photo frame when Sir Hugh first came to the province, never mind have a Sinn Fein minister condemn dissident republicans as “traitors”.

When he leaves in September Sir Hugh’s legacy will be a reformed police service more widely accepted throughout the community than at any time in Northern Ireland’s history.

He was very popular with rank-and-file police officers and generally won over his political critics. The search will now begin for his successor. It should be a wide-ranging one because the job of Chief Constable of the PSNI is a challenging task, requiring wide experience and a sureness of touch.

Belfast Telegraph

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