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The real Bodyguard: Ex-PSNI Superintendent Ken Pennington on protecting the Queen, foiling car-bomb attack on Victoria Square, and why folding up a murdered colleague's uniform was hardest thing he's done

The Belfast-born senior officer spent 30 years in the front line against the paramilitaries. Now travelling the globe advising governments on counter-terrorism, he talks about cheating death twice and how putting the job first cost him his marriage

Ken Pennington, a retired superintendent is now a counter-terrorism expert
Ken Pennington, a retired superintendent is now a counter-terrorism expert
Dissident attack on Victoria Square, Belfast, in 2013
The Queen and Prince Phillip at Stormont
Journalist Claire McNeilly with Ken Pennington
Constable Michael Marshall, an RUC officer killed in an IRA ambush in Belleek in 1989
A scene from The Bodyguard
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

With 30 years' experience in policing in Northern Ireland, retired Superintendent Ken Pennington has recently moved into counter-terrorism.

Q. You're 50 and recently divorced from Diane, to whom you were married for 18 years. You have three children: Nathan (21), a cinematographer, Eden (17), an A-Level art student and Aaron (16), who's doing his GCSEs. You're with a new partner, Emma. What happened with your marriage?

A. I was being offered a lot of international work, which she didn't like. I was left with a choice between the love of my life and the life that I love.

Q. Was it an amicable split?

A. No.

Q. Do you see a lot of the kids?

A. Nathan lives with me; Eden and Aaron live with their mum.

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Q. There are academics in the world of terrorism and there are operators, but there aren't many "academic operators". Describe what you do in a nutshell.

A. I analyse the problem in its context and then develop operational solutions. For example, I was giving a lecture on terrorism in Spain in 2017 not long after the 2016 Nice truck attack in France and I was told about a festival taking place - big bonfires on the beach, fireworks and a promenade full of people. I asked them what they were doing to prevent a vehicle attack; nothing was planned, so I told them what to do.

Q. You worked in close protection in the PSNI. Who have you looked after?

A. I've personally stood beside the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, HRH Edward, HRH Andrew, Bill Clinton (when he was no longer US president), Hillary Clinton (when she was US Secretary of State).

Q. What did you and the Queen talk about?

A. I can't say; you're not allowed to.

Q. Who was your favourite visiting dignitary to look after?

A. Prince Edward; a gentleman.

Q. You're a Royal advisor to Princess Eugenie on the anti-slavery collective. What's she like?

A. Brilliant, very funny and very smart. I'm frequently in touch with her.

Q. When you were looking after these famous people were there any attempts on their lives?

A. I can't say.

Q. The Bodyguard was the most-watched TV series in 2018. Is it realistic?

A. No. If you want to see me shout at the TV, make me watch that. But it's good drama.

Q. Have you ever thwarted a big terrorist attack?

A. Yes. In 2013, there was a car-bomb attack at Victoria Square (in Belfast). I was in charge of planning of the response to that.

Q. Have you ever been shot?

A. No. But I've been shot at.

Q. You knew Stephen Carroll, the first PSNI officer to be killed by paramilitaries?

A. Stevie was in my unit in Portadown. In 1998 we were both with the Quick Reaction Force.

I have a photo of him and me standing in front of a helicopter. That night, in Drumcree, loyalists got on top of the barricade; you had police putting ladders up against it and then running up. There's footage of the guy at the top of the ladder hitting an officer on the head with a heavy stick. That was my head.

When you know someone, it (the murder) has much more impact. It was a very hard time for everybody. The treacherous nature of it; to make a phone call about domestic violence and lure a decent man to his death.

Q. Did you ever come close to death when you were a policeman?

A. Yes, back in 1987. I was in close proximity to a landmine near Camlough and didn't know it. The other time was in 1989, when (Constable) Michael Marshall was murdered in an ambush on his way into Belleek. There was a photograph of the car burnt out. I'd been in that car with a colleague. We handed that car and its contents over to Michael and his colleague; they went straight out to where we'd been. He was killed and the other guy was seriously injured.

Q. Does death frighten you?

A. I'm not a big fan. After that incident in south Armagh, I told people I've never met death, but certainly that morning it looked at me, crossed that field, tipped his hat, winked and walked on. It was really close.

I've nearly died on two occasions away from work: whenever I rafted the Grand Canyon and managed to get trapped under a boat for some considerable time; then in the mountains in Georgia, having broken my ankle, I took painkillers only to find out that I'm allergic to Codeine, so I went into anaphylactic shock. The doctor told me I was nearly dead.

Q. Tell us about the best day of your life.

A. Surviving that white water rafting in the Grand Canyon.

Q. And the most traumatic thing you've been through?

A. Having to pack Michael Marshall's uniform up the morning after his murder.

Q. You were one of the most experienced public order commanders in the PSNI, running policing at G8 in June 2013 and the December 2012 flag protests. Very different challenges.

A. The flag protest was very typical of Northern Ireland - people with strong loyalist views and people with strong nationalist views - and with G8 you were dealing with people who had more of an anarchist background; they're more likely to attack commercial targets.

It's all about mapping out the city to deal with that. It takes an awful lot of work to make nothing happen.

Q. What was the worst part of the flag protests?

A. Two nights stick out. There was one when we had 32 separate sites of roadblocks and had to deal with those simultaneously.

The other was in east Belfast, when a loyalist gunman was attempting to shoot police. You have to pursue him and, while that's going on, we're doing a perimeter security for the public order issue. Then we were told a plane that was coming into the airport might crash.

You're deploying in excess of 3,000 officers on a Saturday to deal with that. It was big relief when the flag protests ended because it was coming up to St Patrick's Day, which meant potential tension between flag protesters and revellers.

Not only that, we were about to host the G8 conference that June and I was in charge of planning for Belfast. The venue was Fermanagh, but there was to be a large protest in Belfast, so we had to bring in additional English, Welsh and Scottish officers. I also co-ordinated the Obama visit during G8.

Q. Were the flag protests the biggest challenge?

A. Yes, but Drumcree was the worst experience for me; when you look at the scale of resources used, the deployment of military, having to fly police in Chinook helicopters, having to reinforce fields and the extent of the violence you would get from either side.

Q. What are the security threat implications for Northern Ireland in terms of Brexit? Will we see a return to violence?

A. That potential is there. Dissident republican groups will use the narrative that Brexit is British imposition on the people of Ireland. Terrorist groups need a narrative.

The loyalists have shown they can put a lot of people on the streets, which we saw in the flags protests. Equally, if there's a no-deal Brexit, there could be economic protests - there's a saying that every society is three square meals away from revolution.

Q. Can you fill us in on the new business you've set up?

A. It's called Transformational Policing Associates, based in London, but it's early days.

I'm one of four directors. We're taking emerging technologies and operationalising them, placing them into the context of a particular terrorist campaign and providing operational strategies.

The end-user will be governments, but we'll probably be advising the private sector, too. For instance, we work with a company that has invented a radar that can detect a suicide vest in a crowd.

Q. You travel the world talking about terrorism. What exotic places have you been to?

A. Warsaw, Madrid, Virginia, Wyoming, California, Malaga, Tirana, Georgia, Australia, Bilbao, Istanbul, Iceland, Scotland. And I'm off to Uzbekistan next week.

Q. In 2012, you were injured in a car accident. What happened?

A. I hit a badger on the M1. I was doing 70mph. It was in the rain, around 5am. I was off work for a number of weeks. The only other time I've been off was in 1998 when I got frostbite climbing Mont Blanc. I didn't lose any toes, but all my toenails came off.

Q. What is your greatest achievement to date?

A. I'm very proud of my police career and the work I've done on counter-terrorism and human rights since.

Q. What's the most important piece of advice you've been given?

A. You need to know the people you need to know before you need to know them. That does make sense. It's about building networks. If you find yourself in crisis and around a table with people whose first names you don't know, you've missed a trick.

Q. Your dad, Ken, who was a lorry driver, and your charity worker mum, Andrea, are in their seventies. Your sister, Andrea (49) is a bus driver and brother, James (45), works in furniture removal. You currently live in Dundrum. What about your childhood?

A. I grew up in south Belfast. We lived in Belvoir Park, near the forest. I was very fortunate to have something like that on the doorstep.

Q. Schools? University?

A. I went to Belvoir Park Primary, Newtownbreda High and then I got bored with education. I worked with my grandfather, James, painting and decorating and joined the police when I was 19. I did a distance learning MLitt in Terrorism Studies.

Q. You were in the police for 30 years before leaving in June 2018. Tell us about your career.

A. I started out in Bessbrook, south Armagh, from 1987 until 1990. Then to Dungannon as a constable on ordinary patrol duty; I later moved to mobile support unit. Promoted to sergeant in 1995 and went to Cookstown, then Portadown, where I was staff officer to the Deputy Assistant Chief Constable.

I got promoted to inspector in 1998 and went to the technical support group there. In 2000, I was Inspector (Equal Opportunities), then Inspector (Community Affairs) from 2001-2002.

Back to TSG in 2004 in Cookstown, and I was in Professional Standards for a while. I was an inspector in operational planning. In 2006, I was promoted to chief inspector and set up Armed Response in 2008. I was their first commander.

I moved into close protection in 2009; making sure everyone was covered on a daily basis; judiciary, senior police officers, first ministers, visiting dignitaries.

In September 2012, I went to Belfast as Chief Inspector of Operations; I was the lead planner for the flag protests. I was promoted to superintendent and went to Ballymena in 2014, then it was on to Banbridge in 2015. In 2016, I went to Knocknagoney and, in 2017, I was in Criminal Justice, working with the Public Prosecution Service, until I retired from the force in 2018.

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