Belfast Telegraph

Drew Harris: Long career of ‘peeler’s peeler’ who’s not afraid of controversy

Drew Harris unveiling a new PSNI helicopter
Drew Harris unveiling a new PSNI helicopter
Drew Harris with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Government Buildings in Dublin yesterday
Noirin O'Sullivan
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

Drew Harris - the Ulsterman who's been picked to lead An Garda Siochana into what one observer in the Republic called "the new dawn of Irish policing" - isn't one to shy away from controversy or a battle, according to politicians and former colleagues in the PSNI north of the border.

Other people who know him say the surprise choice Garda Commissioner is a chip off the old block of his RUC father, Alwyn Harris, a highly respected and no-nonsense officer who was murdered by the IRA in a booby-trap bomb attack at his Lisburn home in October 1989.

Friends said the murder had a profound impact on Drew Harris, whose mother might also have been killed, but miraculously escaped with minor injuries as she and her husband prepared to go to a church service.

Harris had been in the RUC for five years at the time of his father's murder.

He's the first 'outsider' to get the top Garda post, which comes with an annual salary of €250,000 (£200,300) and he replaces Noirin O'Sullivan who stepped down last September amid mounting pressure on her.

Her three years in the job were mired in scandals, including the treatment of Garda whistleblowers like Sergeant Maurice McCabe who had highlighted the quashing of penalty points by the police.

The Republic's Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan tweeted yesterday that he was looking forward to working with Harris "on our shared objective of ensuring the security of the State and the safety of the public". But observers in Dublin said the root-and-branch reform of the southern police force will be just as big a priority for the new Commissioner.

However, there's been fierce criticism of the appointment in some quarters. One angry message on social media came from Stephen Travers who survived the Miami Showband massacre outside Newry in July 1975 when three of his fellow musicians were murdered by a UVF gang, two of whom were also killed.

Mr Travers said the appointment of Harris was "a dreadful betrayal" of victims who he claimed had been consistently denied access to evidence by the Deputy Chief Constable's department.

One former DUP member of the Policing Board, who vehemently disagreed with him from time to time, said Harris was a man who saw things strictly in black and white.

"There were no grey areas with him," he said. "And sometimes it might have served him better if there had more flexibility with him."

But the politician said that even though he didn't always see eye to eye with Harris, he respected him as an officer of the highest integrity who was an astute handler of difficult scenarios in the troubled hotspots of Belfast during riots and stand-offs.

And a community worker who saw Harris in action at sectarian interfaces said he always appeared to be scrupulous in his determination not to take sides.

"He went to great lengths to calm frayed tensions," he added.

A former colleague in PSNI headquarters said Harris was an "outstanding and gifted" policeman, "a peeler's peeler" - but added that he was a serious-minded individual who did and said what he had to do and say, and rarely went beyond what he believed was necessary to make a point.

As unofficial indications emerged a fortnight ago that Harris was edging it as the front-runner in the race for the Commissioner's job, several Garda insiders expressed their reservations about a senior 'British' police officer becoming the leader of the Irish police.

In some police circles in the Republic, there's still a lingering resentment at the involvement of Drew Harris in the Smithwick inquiry into allegations of Garda collusion in the IRA murders in South Armagh of top RUC detectives Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan in an ambush which happened just months before the killing of Alwyn Harris.

At the tribunal, Harris gave evidence that there was intelligence that a number of Garda officers had colluded with the killers.

But one undoubted positive in Drew Harris getting the Commissioner's job is that it can only enhance co-operation between the two police forces on the island of Ireland.

The PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton was quick to applaud the appointment of his number two in the north to the job of number one in the south. He said he was looking forward to continuing a close working relationship with him in September.

And the Chief Constable will know that there are few areas of policing that are mysteries to Harris after 16 years in senior roles in the PSNI.

He was appointed Deputy Chief Constable in 2014 after eight years as Assistant Chief Constable, a role in which he worked closely with MI5.

It was that relationship with the secret service and Harris' role in covert policing in general which exercised critics' minds in the Republic yesterday. Several republicans pointed out that it was Drew Harris who, as the head of the PSNI's Crime Operations Department, gave the go-ahead for the arrest of Gerry Adams in 2014 for questioning about the 1972 abduction and murder of mother-of-10 Jean McConville.

The detention, during an election campaign, was angrily condemned by Sinn Fein and their then president was released without charge.

Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane withdrew from a Policing Board selection panel to appoint the Deputy Chief Constable later that year but Harris was eventually confirmed in the post.

Sinn Fein talked at the time about the 'dark side' of policing but in an interview Harris said there was no such thing.

He added: "There is covert policing which is proper for the police service to be involved in. Every police force in the world engages in intelligence gathering."

Several critics yesterday queried how a northern police officer who had worked with MI5 could even be considered for the Commissioner's job in the Republic.

One Twitter poster said "the keys of Dublin Castle are back in the hands of the British".

As well as his MI5 and Crime Operations roles, Harris, who was once described as the quiet man of Brooklyn, the police headquarters at Knock, was also centrally involved in intelligence work and major investigations into terrorism, particularly dissident republican activity.

But former colleagues said that despite his experience, his university degree in politics and economics and his Masters in criminology, Harris was never one to tread water, constantly undergoing new development courses in leadership, strategic command, and international counter-terrorism.

He also studied with the FBI before doing a two-year secondment with police in Scotland.

One ex-colleague said: "We always knew Drew was a policeman who was going places but we didn't expect the Garda Siochana to be the place he was going to go."

Belfast Telegraph


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