Belfast Telegraph

'It is one of my regrets that I left without a female Assistant Chief Constable coming behind'

Judith Gillespie, formerly the PSNI's highest ranking woman, talks to Deborah McAleese about life outside the force, vile online abuse and her love of learning languages.

Q. You were a police officer from the age of 19. How is life as a civilian?

A. At first it was very strange. It felt like you were on a few weeks' holiday and then you began to realise, as the mobile phone became less and less busy, this wasn't just a holiday, this was for real. But very quickly, amazingly quickly, I got involved in voluntary work, speaking engagements. I think as a senior officer you to think when you leave the police that maybe you are going to struggle for something else to do. Well, glory be, that definitely is not the case. I have set up my own company, I am on the Garda Policing Authority, the Equality Commission and the Probation Board. I'm also on the Marie Curie Development Board. I do some consultancy, some voluntary work and try to keep fit. I recently chaired a careers advisory forum. It is a whole gamut of challenges.

I don't use the word retirement, the 'R' word is banned from our vocabulary (laughs). I am not retired. I am in my second career.

Q. So, no any regrets about leaving?

A. No. The best way I have heard it summed up was by a Canadian colleague who was Commissioner of Ontario Provincial Police. He said when he left he missed some of the clowns but he didn't miss the circus. And that's the best way I could sum it up. Yes I miss some of the people and some of my good friends, but I don't miss the circus.

Q. You're still keeping your hand in policing and justice issues. Did you never fancy something completely different? Like running a bar in Barbados or an Italian cafe?

A. That sounds far too much like hard work. My heart is here in Northern Ireland. The PSNI and RUC were incredibly good to me. I know it sounds cheesy, but it is about trying to give a little back to the community that you have worked so hard to make better.

Q. I heard you have been learning Arabic. Have you always been interested in languages?

A. As a child I was always interested in the origin of words, strange and esoteric words. I was always curious to know where they came from. I did French, German and Latin A-levels when I was at school.

When I was turned down by the RUC, famously twice, I went to Queen's to study French and German. But I left to join the RUC.

Q. How did your family react to that decision?

A. A lot of people advised me against it and said I was crazy, including my parents, but I was determined that was what I was going to do. It was lovely when Queen's gave me such an honour of the honorary doctorate in 2012, it was like saying 'OK we forgive you for leaving Queen's to join the RUC, it was the right decision'. Anyway, I still kept my interest in languages. I studied Spanish GCSE at night tech when I was pregnant with my second daughter and I got an A*. I then thought, well I will have a go at the Irish. That was like no other language, because I suppose French and Spanish are quite close. They are the same root, both from a Latin root, but Irish was like nothing else I had ever studied. And Arabic is another world apart. I wouldn't pretend in any way to be fluent in Arabic, but I can introduce myself and say the pleasantries and greetings and talk about the weather and that sort of thing.

Q. Why Arabic?

A. I love a challenge. I think it is very important when you leave full-time work to keep the grey matter ticking over as well. There are parts of the brain that can become quite lazy and I thought, well that will keep that part of my brain ticking over.

Q. Do you see it opening career opportunities for you in the future?

A. (Laughs). No. It's just conversational, to say hello, to show respect to another culture.

Q. Your departure from the PSNI left a large gap in terms of female representation in the top team.

A. It is one of my few regrets really that I wasn't leaving with a female ACC (Assistant Chief Constable) coming straight behind me.

That said, there are some really capable women, and men, coming into the frame for ACC. And of course Michelle Larmour, who left on promotion to go to West Midlands, will be eligible in a years' time to apply for the Chief Constable post should she chose to do so. There's no indication the post is going to be vacant, but when the time comes.

Q. Why are there so few women in top policing posts here?

A. The excuse that it is due to the lack of female recruitment in the 1980s and early '90s is starting to wear thin, because we are now in 2016. It would have held good 10 years ago, but I'm not sure it holds good today. I think there are still cultural challenges for women in particular. The career choices women can make these days are different to ones I had to make.

When I was coming up through the organisation and bringing my children up, it was all or nothing. You didn't have career breaks, job share, part time, flexible working, all those things. You either had to give the job 100% or you stayed at home and became a mum.

Now, when women take those choices they are sometimes seen to be stepping off the career ladder and that is wrong. They are equally committed. Just because they are working reduced hours doesn't mean they are any less professional or ambitious or committed to the job. But that is how the job sometimes sees them and that is wrong.

Q. Is there a desire to address the problem?

A. I think it is interesting to see how they have approached this in the republic of Ireland. I'm on the Garda Policing Authority and it was in the legislation that the authority should be four men, four women and a chair, either male or female. That makes for a very interesting dynamic. It is quite different to the dynamics of meetings I have been used to in my full-time policing career and I think it is a really healthy dynamic. The meetings have a different atmosphere, a different style, I just think it is a much healthier balance and I think it is something that should be seriously considered for board positions going forward in the north. In the past I wouldn't have been one to support quotas. I always thought promotional appointment should be strictly on merit, but I do think targets have a place. I think it's disappointing about female representation on the new Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition. Only one woman. Is that the best we can do? I think the voice of women tends to be in the background quietly finding the solution to problems and not shouting as loud as we should be. I find that frustrating.

Q. One of the reasons given for the low number of female recruits making it into the PSNI was the fitness test. Do you agree with the test being modified for women candidates?

A. I think a test that fails a large number of women is fundamentally flawed and needs to be reviewed. I know many very fit women and many very unfit men, so I think it would be quite wrong to generalise, but the fitness test has to be relevant to the job and fair in terms of what the job requires of people. I also believe that if you join the police, after a certain amount of time you should be tested again. You need to keep your fitness up to date. I think that is a public confidence issue. When you have very unfit, very overweight police officers, it doesn't inspire the public with confidence.

Q. Last time we spoke you were a victim of abusive cyber-bullying and harassment. Why is cyber-shaming of women still seen as acceptable?

A. From a media perspective, comments are made about women that are deemed acceptable that would never be made about a man. That percolates down to different levels of almost misogyny. I'm not saying the media are completely misogynist, but I think there are things that the media would say about women that would never be said about a man.

That almost creates a climate where it is acceptable to make comments about women's appearance, then it goes on about their personal life, as in my case, then goes on to threats and intimidation, threats of rape, threats of rape on your family, it is horrific. And because you can register with a Twitter account under a pseudonym, people feel that gives them anonymity and complete lack of accountability around what they say and do on social media.

I think it is just giving people a vehicle to express extreme views they would never express to a person's face. That needs to be taken seriously by the law enforcement authorities. I'm not just talking about the PSNI, I'm talking about across Europe and further afield.

Q. This sort of thing can ruin lives. How did it affect you?

A. At first I found it really difficult and it really did annoy me. People told me to ignore it and that was the worst advice and generally it was men who were saying 'just ignore it, it will go away, sure it's nothing.' And it wasn't nothing. It was my personal integrity. And as a woman in a position of high visibility, your personal integrity is incredibly important.

Some of these were downright misogynists who were tweeting horrible stuff. So the best piece of advice I was given was to seek good legal advice. I started to take legal action against some of the people saying defamatory stuff about me. They had to post apologies and pay donations to charity. That gave a great sense of satisfaction. That sends out the message it's not acceptable, there are consequences when you do this sort of thing. Unfortunately, misogyny is alive and well.

Q.What advice do you give women who themselves become victims of cyber abuse?

A. I think Naomi Long (Alliance MLA) has dealt with it incredibly well. She has had so much horrible stuff said about her and she just gives it right back with dignity, professionalism and humour. I get asked to speak at a lot of women's leadership events and I would always talk about this. I would say you have to put it in perspective. There are millions and millions of tweets every day, millions of people who use Facebook every day and it is only a small number of people doing this. Don't ignore it. Ignoring it is the worst thing you can do. But don't reply on the medium, it just feeds their tiny little egos. Seek legal advice if it's defamatory. Seek legal advice if it's criminal. Some of the stuff tweeted about me was so sexually explicit it crossed the line in terms of grossly offensive to the criminal threshold. It says more about the person tweeting it than it does about you. Keep it in perspective and hold your head high.

Q. Are you concerned about the impact Brexit may have on the security situation here?

A. It is really difficult to assess objectively what it is all going to mean. Personally, I would have been a remain supporter. I know it is not a perfect institution and it needs reformed, that is absolutely clear, but that doesn't mean fundamentally you should cut yourself off from it. In terms of security implications, Hugh Orde and others whose views I would very much respect did express concern about what it would mean for the likes of European arrest warrants and exchange of intelligence and information across European borders. Yes, I would share that concern, but, all of that said, the relationships established between the north and south are unique and there is a unique sense of respect and understanding between law enforcement agencies north and south. There is a cross-border policing strategy and that will remain.

Q. Do you not think that cross-border policing strategy will be damaged in any way?

A. We may have to think about bespoke protocols and information sharing protocols between the north and south, but there is some time to think those through. Remember, it's not just about security and domestic terrorism and international terrorism, it is also about sex offenders, domestic violence offenders, travelling criminals who target older people, who to-and-fro across the border.

Those are the real bread and butter issues and there is a need for proper information sharing protocols to be established and maintained, whether we are part of the European Union or not. I would truthfully be more concerned about those issues.

Belfast Telegraph


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