Belfast Telegraph

'I'm going nowhere'

Rumours that Matt Baggott is poised to leave the PSNI are being spread by the 'Continuity RUC', says Brian Rowan. But he's determined to see out his contract

The rumours are not true. PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott is not planning to quit. In terms of his commitment to the top policing job here, he told the Belfast Telegraph: "Nothing has changed.

"I've got a five-year contract. My diary is full of commitments beyond next autumn."

So why these rumours suggesting that he wants out?

"I think it's coming from a small hard core," he replies. "Reform always brings with it people who find it difficult to move on."

That is the tactful answer. Another senior PSNI source put it much more bluntly, attributing the rumours to the "Continuity RUC".

Policing reform is a process - something that is taking time and will take more time.

It needed Sir Ronnie Flanagan's leadership to begin with - the start that meant the RUC title, uniform and symbols would go.

Sir Hugh Orde then began the wider implementation of the Patten Report - sweeping changes that came with dozens of recommendations.

And next came Matt Baggott with the promise of 'personal policing'. It is his way - the words he chooses - to describe what others call 'community', or 'neighbourhood' policing.

The aim is simple: it is about the police getting to know the people and the people getting to know the police.

These are changing circumstances and this is about completing the steps away from war and into peace.

When you ask the Chief Constable how he wants to see the PSNI develop, he doesn't have to think long about his answer.

"To continue by our actions to prove that the PSNI is utterly impartial and means business in dealing with the concerns of all our communities - and, I think, that's still the big agenda."

He points to a 7% rise in confidence in the PSNI within the Catholic community. "The support for policing is just growing every day," he said.

Crime is going down, detection rates going up. "People are seeing a much more commonsense way of dealing with anti-social behaviour," the Chief Constable added. "Less paperwork and more action."

But there is still a need for careful, thought-through policing steps. Because, for some, the war is not over.

The dissident republican threat is still assessed as severe and, in a recent interview with this newspaper, the leadership of the armed faction, Oglaigh na hEireann, warned: "Every time we are not involved in an operation, we are recruiting, developing expertise, gathering intelligence and planning the next operation." One of its leaders boasted: "Nothing is beyond our reach."

Matt Baggott knows the dissidents are plotting to try to kill his officers. "We've seen that consistently since I arrived and it continues."

And that means that security and intelligence remain as significant parts of policing; trying to interrupt and stop the dissidents, arresting them and putting them before the courts.

But dealing with the dissidents is not just about security and intelligence. "All conflict is ultimately resolved through persuasion and dialogue - much of it taking place locally, within local communities," Baggott said.

There was something he read in that recent interview with Oglaigh na hEireann that he wanted to respond to.

At the time, I had asked the republican faction about the attempt to kill police constable Peadar Heffron - the Irish-speaking Gaelic football player critically injured in an under car booby-trap bomb explosion.

The question I asked the dissident leadership was: Did you target Peadar Heffron, or did you target a police officer?

"We never target an individual in uniform. We target the uniform and what it stands for," was the response. But Mr Baggott said: "You cannot separate the individual from the uniform."

He described the PSNI as "overwhelmingly a good and honourable organisation seeking to protect and help everybody". I finished by asking him about his hopes for 2011: "That we are allowed to police for everybody and, particularly, the next generation of young people growing up."

And he thinks the effort that was made to bring about the transfer of justice powers from London to Stormont was well worth it.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that we will have a budget that will enable us to plan for the next four to five years, rather than dealing with things in the year.

"We will continue to reform. All the effort that went into making devolution happen will be proven to be the right thing."

When you listen, he doesn't sound like a man in a hurry to leave and he knows there is a big piece of policing work still to be done - the job he has been given in this latest phase of reforms.

It is about making the next changes happen - and making them happen at a number of levels - particularly and specifically at street-level where they will be noticed and appreciated most.

The dissident threat cannot be the only item on the policing agenda. There cannot be a retreat behind blast-walls and away from the people. If that were to happen, then the dissidents would sense some type of victory.

So, the change programme continues with Matt Baggott in charge, working to that five-year contract he signed when he was given the job.

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