Listening to David Ford's radio interview last Friday on the National Crime Agency (NCA), I wondered why the current debate had become so heated.
He said he had agreed significant concessions from the Home Secretary, including recognition of PSNI primacy, proper accountability and no question of the Director General of the NCA having the power to direct the Chief Constable of the PSNI. So what is the problem you might ask? Having listened to the debate in the assembly on Monday I came to the conclusion that the issue is locked in the definition, or lack of it, on 'proper accountability'.
I am not a politician, have no political allegiance on this matter and only come to the issue on the basis of 30 years of policing experience. I was the Deputy Director General of the National Crime Squad (NCS) dealing with serious and organised crime, Chairman of the Virtual Global Taskforce, coordinating operational assets from a range of federal agencies across the world, the former Regional Head of Special Branch in Belfast and the founding Chief Officer of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Center.
The NCA will replace the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) later this year. SOCA was created by the Labour government in 2006 to replace the National Crime Squad (NCS) and the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS). Whilst we often concentrate on the alphabet soup of new acronyms and the reshuffling of deck chairs, the subtle changes, the ones that don't make the headlines, are often the most important.
The NCS in which I was Deputy Director General was primarily focused on England and Wales and was accountable to a Service Authority reflecting the diverse nature of its national remit. Whilst the 'statutory' board, which oversees SOCA, is less representative and more business orientated, like the NCS it has independent non-executive directors providing oversight across committees that deal with risk, audit, and other matters of public accountability. Unlike the NCS, however SOCA is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) and therefore does not make disclosures when requests are made by journalists, the public, or anyone else for that matter.
The NCA will have no statutory board, the Director General will be directly accountable to the Home Secretary alone and the organisation will retain the exemption from FOI, operating within a framework that shares specific information only. So if you already knew this and think it's OK for policing to be directed and controlled by the central government of the day, you can stop reading now because your not going to like the rest of this.
Public perception and confidence in policing are critically important and in my experience confidence in the competence and integrity of the police is something that is hard to achieve but very easy to undermine. In my opinion there are three key issues – operational oversight, clear lines of accountability and a maximist approach to information sharing.
Operational oversight via mature tasking and coordination is important. That is how you make sure you don't waste resources, investigate or follow the same people, how you de-conflict surveillance, so you don't end up chasing, or worse, shooting at each other and critically how you decide who has the most appropriate assets to do a particular job in a particular place. It's about partnership and agreement but in the end someone has to have operational command and control.
The NCA like its predecessors will be ideally suited to deliver this function for organised crime groups that straddle international boundaries. However, it should recognise that in those areas where policing is devolved it must request and not dictate. Operational oversight must fall to the Chief Constable or a nominated deputy. So this 'concession' from the Home Secretary, simply makes sense. Why would you operate in a devolved policing environment in any other way?
So to accountability; policing in Northern Ireland and partnership working with national and transnational law enforcement agencies is too important for the issues to be lost in threatening rhetoric. Suggesting that engagement with the NCA is all or nothing misses the fundamental issue: without local lines of accountability tied down in legislation the huge progress we have made in the past decade could be put at risk.
Northern Ireland has a history of community division that anyone reading this paper will know and understand. The composition of the police service has changed and cross community support is at a level I never expected to see in my lifetime.
The foundation upon which that confidence is built, is the Policing Board. The cross community representation, accountability mechanisms and reassurance it provides complemented by the role of the Ombudsman's office, has changed the perception that the police operate as a law unto themselves.
Whilst it can be uncomfortable all around, it has provided a system that works and produced benefits we all cherish. Why shouldn't the NCA assets deployed here be accountable to a committee of that Board?
The NCA need to be part of that relationship and demonstrably accountable. I am a former RUC and PSNI officer and have been a member of Special Branch. I make no apology for that, as I am proud of what we achieved, but I recognise that public confidence was always an issue. Special Branch was seen as a force within a force, it's integrity attacked on the basis that people believed it was not accountable and that everything it did was a secret.
I am sure you will have your own opinion and view of history but the lesson is clear: create a policing organisation that operates to a different standard of accountability and no matter what your logic, significant numbers of people will not trust or support it, and that goes for those inside and outside the police.