Jimmy Spratt: 'I saw things in the police that nobody should have to see'
Deborah McAleese talks to former DUP MLA Jimmy Spratt about his career in public service, his cancer battle - and the 'nutters' comment that landed him in hot water.
Q. Your party colleague Ruth Patterson said she was "frustrated" and "disappointed" at not being appointed your successor. What do you think of her reaction?
A. I think the party leader and party officers made an excellent decision in appointing Emma Pengelly and I think she will be a worker within South Belfast. With her knowledge of South Belfast and having lived in South Belfast, she will very quickly take over from where I left off and, I'm sure, do an even better job.
Q. Ruth said one of the reasons Emma's appointment came "as a bolt out of the blue" to her was because she had no association with South Belfast.
A. Well I think Ruth should check her facts, because my understanding is that Emma lived in South Belfast for quite a number of years and was educated at Queen's University in south Belfast, where she was a law student. She then became a barrister and was still living in the south Belfast area.
Q. Ruth said she believes that she or Christopher Stalford (DUP Belfast councillor) would have been much better replacements.
A. I don't accept that either of them would have been a better replacement than Emma Pengelly and certainly if any of the two of them had been going to be appointed I would still be the MLA for South Belfast and would have continued up until the end of the mandate.
A. I wanted someone, and I think the party officers and the party leader picked someone, who I consider to be an excellent replacement.
Q. Eileen Paisley recently criticised your party leader, describing him as "pathetic", for never contacting her after Dr Paisley died. Should he have contacted her?
A. I think it is unfortunate she is now making criticism of the current party leader and making suggestions about what Dr Paisley would have done had he still been there.
Q. Are you like your party colleague Edwin Poots, who has to "hold his nose" when working with Sinn Fein?
A. They are certainly not remarks that I would have made. From a previous life (as a police officer with the RUC) I knew what many of the Sinn Fein people had been involved in, but being a democrat and the fact they were elected to the Assembly, there was a job to be done. I certainly hope that if you were talking to any of the Sinn Fein people, I think you would find that they would have something reasonable to say about me. I treated them in the same way that I would have treated anybody with a mandate.
Q. So you had no difficulty working with Sinn Fein?
A. No. Coming from the policing background that I came from, I considered it better for Northern Ireland, for the people of Northern Ireland, that we were up there working together, trying to better the province for the young people of today. That was part of my motivation to be up there. At one stage in my police career I attended nine police funerals in six days. I often asked people when we were criticised for what we were doing up the hill: 'Well, would you like to go back there?' The vast majority of people within the province accepted it was the right thing to do. I still think it is the right thing and I hope the Assembly survives.
Q. Things are looking gloomy at the minute, though. Can it survive?
A. A lot of good things have happened through power sharing. Legislation has gone through. The difficult stuff is difficult, but hopefully we can get our way around it. I'm optimistic these talks will bear fruit and everyone will wise up and work together for the good of everyone in Northern Ireland.
Q. You got yourself into some bother a while ago, when you called opponents to the Maze centre "nutters" during an Assembly debate. What was that all about?
A. It was a comment made to a colleague, Brenda Hale, who was sitting beside me. What annoyed me about the whole Maze thing was that certain parties, the UUP and the TUV, told part of the story, but not the full story in terms of the centre. It wasn't just about the centre. The Maze project was a bigger thing in terms of jobs and the economy of Northern Ireland. Brenda Hale made the point that she had canvassed the area and hadn't got complaints on the doorsteps from anyone, and at some point I said: 'Well, except the nutters'. It was blown totally out of proportion for political gain by other people.
Q. It was taken very seriously. You were then investigated by the Standards Commissioner over the comment
A. It wasn't just one investigation, there were two and they took place at a very vulnerable time in my life. It was around the time I had undergone chemotherapy for bowel cancer. I think there needs to be a very serious look at how this commissioner operates, how he is allowed to operate. The whole system needs to be improved.
Q. You were cleared both times, so why are you still so annoyed with the Standards Commissioner?
A. Yes, he cleared me, but he put me through hell at a time when I least needed to be put through hell. The last thing I needed was the stress and strain.
Q. How did he put you through hell?
A. His interview approach is appalling. His attitude is appalling. I was involved in police investigations for 30 years. You would never survive, to do interviews or try to glean facts the way he does business. It's absolutely crazy I was investigated for saying nutters.
Q. Who exactly were you calling nutters?
A. It was just a term that came off the tip of my tongue that particular day. Probably if I'd had time to think about it, I'd have used some other term.
Q. But who?
A. The people who were spinning the story - the TUV and UUP. They were doing it for political capital. I still think they are nutters.
Q. You left politics for health reasons. You were diagnosed with bowel cancer almost four years ago. That must have been a very difficult time?
A. It was. It was a time when you start to reflect on life and the important things in life. It has been a very humbling experience, because it takes you from one emotion to another. I had three major bouts of surgery and then a new method called radio ablation and one bout of chemo. During that, I was only ever away from my desk a couple of days.
Q. Did nobody advise you to slow down?
A. I have a funny story about that. I think it was the second time I'd had major liver surgery. The surgeon said, 'I don't think you should do anything for the next three months. You shouldn't go into work.'
A. few weeks later I got into the car one morning and went to Stormont. My wife, unknown to me, had made a telephone call to someone at Stormont, who then contacted the First Minister. Unknown to me, he was prowling the corridors looking for me. He eventually found me and ordered me home. I had to go home that day, but I think I sneaked in the next day.
Q. Why were you so keen to get back to work?
A. I think it was probably part of the therapy that has kept me going. I have a very positive attitude to everything. I won't lie down to anything. From the very start, I went public about my illness because I wanted to raise awareness, particularly with men, that if there are any symptoms to go and see about it at an early stage. I made this journey, this part of my life, public, because I felt if I could help one other person, then it was worth doing. Going back to work was, I suppose, just second nature.
Q. I'm sure it has been a very emotional journey?
A. It has been. You reflect and think: 'Am I going to see this Christmas? Am I going to see my grandchildren born? Will I see them start to grow up?' God has been good to me. I will spend a lot of time now with family. I can now give something back to them that I should have given years ago. One of my biggest regrets is that with my first two boys I didn't really see them growing up, because I was never at home. With the second two boys I was more at home but still, in terms of policing, the hours were long and I certainly hope I can repay something to the family now.
Q. You seem to have a very positive outlook?
A. There are so many other things they (the medical profession) can still do for me. I want to journey on to take any treatment that I have to take. I don't think you can ever be given the all clear with what I have, but they can do so many amazing things for you now.
But I have an attitude, none of us are promised tomorrow, no matter how young or old we are. So, I suppose I face life like that. I have a very strong Christian faith and that certainly has been a tower of strength for me during the illness.
Q. Have you received much support from your political colleagues at Stormont?
A. When I was first diagnosed, Pat Doherty (Sinn Fein), who was deputy chair of the Regional Development Committee while I was the chair, called me and said, 'I'm going to chapel in Donegal town, can I pray for you?' I said: 'By all means, because I need prayers from everybody.'
That's the sort of relationship I have had with folks right throughout. I have had hundreds of people praying for me.
I have had two Masses said for me in Dublin through a very dear friend. So I have been prayed for in Free Presbyterian churches, in chapels, at masses in Dublin. They all gave me a tremendous strength throughout my fight and I appreciate everyone of them for doing that.
Q. You served in the RUC for 30 years. Why did you leave?
A. I saw things throughout my policing career that no human being should ever see, and so did many hundreds of my colleagues. I always thought I'd leave at around 30 years of service. Patten came on the table around my 30 years, so it was a no-brainer.
Q. Officers today serve in a different environment than you did in the Troubles. Do you think it is easier being a police officer today?
A. The threat against officers is still serious. Officers are still having to leave their homes because of the threat against them. Look at criminality today. Criminals are becoming more violent, using firearms and that sort of thing, so police officers still have a dangerous job 24/7 every time they go out on duty. We owe our officers a tremendous debt of gratitude. I often think now we are highly critical of the police service. But at the end of the day the police service throughout the whole of the UK still does an extremely dangerous job. Policing has changed. They have less resources and they are being run from pillar to post, from one call to the next.
Q. As a citizen, are you happy with the police service we have today?
A. No. It is under-resourced. But that is indicative of the entire British police service. You can't do policing on the cheap. Public expectations will have to be less now, because senior management teams are expected to do more with less and less. It doesn't work, it won't work and it will all turn full circle.
Q. What will it take for that to be realised?
A. Burn out. As the economy picks up, you will see some of the bright individuals, who come into policing with their university degrees, leave to go out into the private sector. I think if we knew the true story, it is already happening, and I think it is sad but it is because of the way pensions and even salaries have been attacked. They will suddenly realise they can't do policing on the cheap.
Q. In the meantime, what can we expect of policing?
A. Fewer officers out on the ground. A fire service reaction to calls.
Q. Say someone burgles your house next week, how confident would you be that the perpetrators would be caught?
A. Well, I had an incident last week when I required police. It wasn't as serious as a burglary, but a car ended up in my garden and the police were very quickly there.
Q. But maybe that was because of who you are?
A. I would hope not. I would hope that would be the response to everybody.
But it was probably at an off-peak time of the day.
Recently, I had a complaint on the Cregagh Road when guys were up on a roof stealing lead and the next door business had reported it three times through 999.
Police officers didn't turn up for an hour and 40 minutes and they got away.
But that's because there are not enough police officers on duty.
Q. So the service you can expect is hit or miss?
A. Very much so. It's a shame.
Q. What's next for Jimmy Spratt?
A. After almost 45 years in public service, which has been a long haul, but an enjoyable haul, I'm going to take time out to reflect and enjoy life. I will also continue to do what I can for the party in the future.