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Judith Gillespie on the day she quit her place at Queen's University and ignored the wishes of her parents to join the RUC

The former Deputy Chief Constable of the PSNI talks about the day that changed her life.

Dream career: former PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie
Dream career: former PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie

By Caitlin McBride

Judith Gillespie is the first of her kind.

She's a trailblazer and policy-maker who made history in 2009 when she was the first woman to be made Assistant Chief Constable and then later promoted to Deputy Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), becoming the highest-ranking female police officer in the force.

Judith's impressive career began in 1982 when she was finally accepted into the Royal Ulster Constabulary (which became the PSNI in 2001) after two previous attempts. For her, it was a dream come true and she credits the day she was accepted as the day that changed her life.

Judith always knew she wanted to be a police officer, inspired by her father's measured approach to conflict working as a Presbyterian minister in Belfast during the Troubles.

"We lived right on a sectarian interface, so trouble was never too far from our door," Judith recalls. "I watched my dad get involved in some pretty tricky situations and always negotiate his way out through his very calm demeanour, being very courteous to people, listening to both sides and finding some way through that involved a level of a compromise.

"For example, he was about to conduct an evening service one Sunday and there was a lot of tension just outside the church and the start of a riot. My dad went out in his ministerial gowns and spoke to some of the guys on the street saying, 'Folks, I'm trying to conduct a service of worship, is there any possibility of you showing some respect?'

"And I think my mother was sitting with her head in her hands. But they said 'Okay', and the guys went off the streets. About an hour and a half later, they were back out, but he'd earned their respect for the way he approached them. He was able to conduct the church service and people got home safely after. I'm not saying it always worked that way, but on that occasion I witnessed how it could be a successful approach."

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Judith is similarly impassioned about the strength and the importance of community, a passion she built on throughout her work as a police officer - and particularly in those tricky situations and neighbourhoods.

"I learned a lot from my dad's real heart for community," she says. "He would have chased young fellas vandalising property or spraying graffiti on the walls - he would jump out of the car and run after them.

"He wasn't Superman, he was only about 5ft 6in, but he had great spirit. And I learned from him if you want to make your community a better place, you've got to get up off your backside and do something about it instead of sniping from the sidelines at the people who do."

Judith Gillespie
Judith Gillespie

When she was 18, Judith was completing the A-level qualifications required for secondary school students to enter third-level education. But her heart wasn't really in it. So, while studying, she also applied to join the police force.

"My older sisters and brother had all gone to university and pursued academic careers," she explains, "but I knew that wasn't for me. I had a very strong sense that I was going to be a police officer, but of course those were very difficult times in Northern Ireland."

It was the height of the Troubles, there were 14 long years ahead until the ceasefire was signed and the idea of Judith being a police officer - already a dangerous career no matter what part of the world you work in - in the midst of constant civil disruption was a cause of concern for her parents, Dermot and Janet.

Both were supportive and appreciative of the police, but they wanted something more stable and safe for their daughter. So, it may have been fate at play that it was when her parents were away that she finally received her letter of acceptance.

"They were away on holiday - in Tenerife, I think - and I got this letter to say, 'Dear Ms McMorran' - as I was back in those days - 'We have a vacancy for you in the RUC and you start in the training centre in Enniskillen in January 1982'.

"My older sister Heather was still at home at the time and she just laughed when she heard the news. I only received six days' notice so I'd gone to the training centre in Enniskillen by the time my parents were back from holiday. They came home and asked where I was. And Heather said, 'She's in Enniskillen'.

"'What's she doing in Enniskillen?'

"'Oh, she's joined the police'.

"I'd love to have been there!" Judith laughs. "They forgave me some years later, and have got over it now."

When Judith received her letter, she had just finished her first semester studying French and German at Queen's University Belfast. She upended her life to make her long-held dream come true.

"My parents were hoping and praying that this silly notion of joining the police would go out of my head, so I hadn't told them that I'd applied for what was actually the third time," she says.

"It didn't go down very well that I'd left Queen's to join the RUC - especially during such dangerous times," she says.

"They were concerned about my safety; it wasn't that they thought policing wasn't an honourable profession or a good career. I think they might have preferred I became a French teacher, but the police was my chosen path.

"I did enjoy university to a certain point, but I knew it wasn't for me. I never really settled at Queen's and I was always looking forward to the day I would get that acceptance letter in my hand. I'm not really sure what I would have done if I'd been turned down a third time."

At the time, her then-boyfriend (now her husband) had also applied to the force and was accepted - on his first attempt.

Even before she shattered the glass ceiling and became something of a feminist icon, Judith knew that her fight for equality was an uphill battle. At the time, only around 10% of uniformed officers were female, while it was more like 60% of police staff in specialist functions. So, once she'd risen through the ranks, Judith requested access to her personal file, dating back to the early 1980s. It confirmed her suspicions that the reason she was initially refused (twice) was because of her gender.

"I'd always suspected I was turned down because I was a woman, but it was only later in my career once I'd got to a certain level in the organisation that I could request my personal file," she says. "As I read through the file, I saw right at the very back of it was a comment from the recruiting sergeant to the recruiting superintendent. It said, 'While this woman has all the characteristics that we expect in a competent police officer, due to the levelling of female recruitment, there isn't a vacancy for her'. So, because I was a woman, there wasn't a vacancy for me."

And, of course, if Judith had been a man, it would have been a different story.

Judith audits the good, the bad and the ugly of her time in the force with a steely temperament that clearly shows why she was appointed Deputy Chief Constable. After being accepted into the RUC in 1982, she knew she would have to work twice as hard for half the job. But, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, 'No one can make you feel inferior without your consent'. Inferior she was not and the fire in Judith's belly was stoked before she even began her first day on the job.

"I joined with real vision and with the purpose of proving them wrong for turning me down those first two times. Whatever I was asked to do, I was going to do it to the very best of my ability. I won the Battle of Honour for the best all-round recruit in my squad and training centre; there were 90 recruits made up of 86 men and four women,” she says.

“Sadly, the other three women in my group all left pretty early in their service because they married and had children and found balancing career and family in those days so challenging. I would say the organisation made it hard for women with children — and it wasn’t a passive strategy; women were actively and consciously moved to challenging posts to make it more difficult for them to raise a family.”

On the flip side, Judith sought out those particularly challenging posts, seeing them as opportunities to bolster her experience and gain more qualifications. When she applied for leadership positions, she ensured she could never be accused of benefiting from gender balance ratios in her career advancement.

“I spent a lot of time working in Belfast, in Andersonstown for example, where it was pretty challenging policing terrain and a dangerous area. I patrolled accompanied by the Army. A police patrol consisted of 10 police officers — one female officer — and four soldiers. It always struck me what an intrusion of privacy it must have been for the courageous people who, through their taxes, funded the police to have such a huge patrol rock up to your door. Everyone would know who’d been visited by the police — people are always curious about what a police visit means, curious about other people’s business — and I felt this especially in the case of domestic abuse or sexual offences.

“But that level of patrol was all there for very good reason — it was a challenging and dangerous area to police.”

While Judith was assigned to Andersonstown, the station didn’t employ a cleaner as it was logistically impossible for someone to commute to the station or too difficult for them to live nearby. So, on days off, officers were given fatigues and called in to clean on designated shifts; a practice which educated Judith on the intricacies of running a successful station at all levels.

“When it was my turn to clean the station, I would do it to the best of my ability — as I had decided I would do no matter what. Nobody was going to complain about the station being grubby when I was on fatigues that day. It put me in very good stead to understand what it’s like to work in a large bureaucracy as a cleaner because I’ve done it myself.”

Over time, Judith moved to the traffic unit, which exposed her to the media. As an inspector and young sergeant, she was put forward to speak about road safety awareness and make appeals to the public, which not only gave her a higher profile but also allowed her to explore a new layer to her work.

Her public profile was so well-received that she was asked to co-host Crimecall, a television show which re-enacts unsolved crimes and seeks public assistance in solving particularly difficult cases that are in need of eyewitness accounts and tip-offs.

Judith is acutely aware of the dangerous position she was in as a public police figure regularly appearing on television before the ceasefires had taken place — always “with an implicit threat going on in the background”.

“But, as I say, I always step up to challenges and try to see them as positive rather than as threats. Yes, of course, I was possibly exposing myself to risk with Crimecall, but what an opportunity I would have missed if I hadn’t done it.”

Judith communicates via a language most high achievers seem to be fluent in: interpreting everything as an opportunity and not dwelling too long on perceived obstacles. She even sees her first two rejections from the RUC as the gateway towards her eventual unprecedented success as a woman in the organisation.

During her career, she was part of a team constructing a gender action plan reflective of a modern PSNI. She says: “Being turned down and turning it into a positive drove me to do my best to make sure that experience of unfair rejection wasn’t had by others. It was deliciously ironic to finally get to the stage of being Assistant Chief Constable and being asked to lead on the organisation’s gender action plan.

“Here I was, a woman who the organisation had turned down not once but twice. I’d experienced all sorts of direct and indirect discrimination and I was being asked to make a plan. I remember thinking back to my first sergeant’s interview. I had reached this fabulous level in the organisation through, it has to be said, the encouragement and support of many men who could see potential in women, who could see potential in me. But I was still asked, ‘How’s a wee girl like you going to control a section of men?’.

“So, I was in the right position to be in charge of the gender action plan looking at recruitment, retention, deployment — all elements of the force that I personally had experienced in a very negative way.”

While Judith’s experiences were in keeping with those of a lot of women in male-dominated industries, she is quick not to denounce the organisation as a whole, which she clearly values and respects above all else. She is also thankful to the men who supported her along the way and to the other female officers who paved the way for her. “Sometimes it was unconscious and sometimes it was definitely conscious,” she admits. For example, in the 1980s, female officers weren’t armed and it’s down to the bravery of Marguerite Johnston, who took a case against the RUC for this fact, which she won at the European Court, that this practice was changed. However, although the case was won in 1986, it wasn’t until 1994 that women were finally armed.

Ending this inequality ended another hugely discriminatory aspect of the police force. In order to be eligible for promotion, officers had to take an exam which was comprised of three papers on traffic, crime and general police procedure.

“The first question on the general police procedure paper was, ‘Describe the safety procedures for the Walther pistol’. The Walther pistol was a general police personal protection weapon issued to the men. Women didn’t get trained in it, so I couldn’t answer the first question in the promotion paper because I hadn’t been trained in the Walther pistol. It was discriminatory from the outset.”

After that, the fight for equality was full steam ahead to the point at which men in power understood the benefits of inclusivity. Now, test scores are not only fair from the get-go but every effort is made to encourage women to not only join, but stay, with the PSNI.

“For me, changing the procedure around arming female police officers was the last barrier of inequality to be broken. Female officers in Northern Ireland today carry the same equipment as their male counterparts. They wear trousers (back in the day, when I was a young constable, women had to wear skirts) and they have their own uniforms that are actually designed for women and not mini-men.

“We’re not issued with what I call a ‘man blouse’ anymore. They’re proper, fitted short blouses that don’t go down to your knee. There’s now maternity leave and there’s two-piece public order suits. It’s much more women-friendly.”

Judith is both self-deprecating and self-aware enough not to take credit for any strides made during her tenure. She is the first to praise the force’s growth, however. Particularly in Europe, the PSNI is regarded as one of the most effective, forward-thinking police services.

For more than 32 years, Judith’s work included stints as head of the drugs unit and coordinator of the child abuse and rape enquiry Units, but she served across a number of different roles “where I worked with my many inspirational people, both as my leaders and as people I led”.

“I tried to be professional, positive and prepared. I took the opportunities that came my way and my advice to people starting out on their career would be to never get too comfortable and to never let opportunities pass you by.”

Now retired, she is a member of the Policing Authority in the Republic. She is also responsible for improved working conditions for women in the force, as well as ensuring effective methods are in place for dealing with sensitive cases like domestic and child abuse. None of this would have been possible without Judith’s dogged determination to follow a course she knew she was meant to.

“Would I always have kept going after the second rejection?” she wonders. “Yes, I probably would have, but it’s just as good I got that letter on the third application.”

Adapted from The Day That Changed My Life, by Caitlin McBride, Black & White Publishing, £16.99

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