Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Quiet moments shout that change has come at last

The deputy Chief Constable greets a leading republican in Irish at a policing conference. These are changed times indeed, says Brian Rowan

The story from the recent policing conference at the University of Ulster was not so much what was said, but who was there.

The event, Change And Challenge - A New Conversation For Policing In Northern Ireland, may have been over two days, but the most important conversations probably took place in the corridors and on its fringes.

Sometimes, we have a tendency to miss the real significance of events because we don't look closely enough to see who is there and what their presence tells us.

On the first morning, I was standing chatting with Dawn Purvis when we were joined by the vice-chairman of the Policing Board, Gearoid O hEara, and then by the deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie.

O hEara's background is in the republican movement and Gillespie spent a chunk of her policing career in the RUC. So both will remember the enemy relationship that existed between the IRA and the police. But things are changing.

On this occasion, they greeted each other in Irish and, in those few seconds, in those few words, I saw and heard some of the changes. This is not to suggest that we are living in a perfect policing world: O hEara spoke of the challenge of completing the "psychological transformation", or shift; Gillespie talked about a sense within the PSNI "that we are constantly on probation".

She compared it to a shrub that, rather than being nurtured, is constantly pulled out by the roots to be examined and scrutinised.

This conference was not about cosy conversations. At one point, there was a discussion on what was termed "the residual dark side" of policing - the continuing intelligence work in the shadows.

That conversation was between the republican Declan Kearney and Chief Constable Matt Baggott, with the former Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan joining the debate.

The tone was polite, but to the point. And this was an issue on which Sinn Fein chairman Kearney and Baggott were not going to agree, but there was space in the conversation for each to have their say.

Earlier, the UDA leader Jackie McDonald, ex-UVF prisoner Tom Roberts, and former RUC/PSNI officer Roger McCallum had shared a panel discussion with Sean Murray - one of the most senior figures in the IRA leadership.

As the conference developed, there was discussion on the disconnect that exists between young Protestants/loyalists in working-class communities and the police.

Just a few days later, McDonald, in an article for The Loyalist magazine - wrote of he scale of that problem: "I want better education for our children, jobs for them when they leave school and ambition to be the best they can be.

"Unfortunately, I know too many young loyalists who don't care about themselves, or the future, as long as they can get drunk at the weekend and/or lose themselves in drugs. It's a form of escapism and we need to change their lifestyle and how they look at life."

That gap between young Protestants/loyalists and the police is one that has to be bridged and that was part of the conference conversation involving Policing Board member Debbie Watters, Dawn Purvis and senior police officers Dave Jones and Judith Gillespie.

In the thinking-out on this issue, the idea of a cadet programme was floated as one possible way of engaging these young people in communities that feel, but who also allowed themselves to become abandoned.

So there were important discussions at this conference, but what was more important was who was there.

The picture that was the audience spoke loudly to tell the story of a policing world that is changing, of minds that are changing and of one-time enemy relationships that are ending.

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