After a distinguished career in policing, Jim Gamble (61), who was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal in 2008, now runs the Belfast-based INEQE Group, which works to make the online world safer for children. He tells Editor-at-Large Gail Walker why he ended up with a juvenile caution, how he coped with the murder of colleagues in the RUC, about his work in Special Branch and the pain of losing his sister Dawn to cancer last year.
Q. Your father, James, and mother, Lillie, were in the RAF, and as a boy you travelled extensively as they moved to different postings.
A. We lived around the UK and, for three years, lived in Singapore where I’d a dingo, an Australian dog, and a spider monkey called Suki. When I was nine, my dad was sent back to Bishopscourt in Northern Ireland and we lived in Newcastle. From there we moved to Wales.
Q. You’ve never spoken publicly about getting a juvenile caution... what happened?
A. I don’t know whether I should be quoted about this... okay, I got into a bit of trouble with the law in Wales. I was 14 and continually being provoked and bullied by young people on my way home from school about what was happening in Belfast. That led to a confrontation. I was foolish to respond. I received a juvenile caution and part of the condition of that was that I’d leave Wales and stay with my aunt in east Belfast. Later, working in law enforcement, I’d tell the story and joke: “So you take a child with some aggressive tendencies and anger issues and send them back to 1970s Belfast.” Mum, dad and my sister, Dawn, moved back six months later when they got their transfers sorted out. We settled in a council estate in Bangor, where I was very happy. I went to Bangor Boys’ Secondary School. As a young police inspector handing out my first juvenile caution, I told the culprit: “It’s not what you’ve done that matters, it’s what you do next”. Everyone is entitled to make mistakes and everyone is entitled to a second chance.
Q. Despite that brush with the law, you joined the Army.
A. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. I was on a train to Belfast with my best friend, Marty Rodgers, a Catholic. Suddenly, we decided to go to the Army recruiting office at Palace Barracks. That was a Wednesday, and the following Sunday night we were on the boat to England, over to Sutton Coldfield. Marty joined the Parachute Regiment but suffered an injury during training, went home and was tragically killed in a motorbike accident when he was just 19. At Sutton Coldfield, they put you through psychometric tests. My aptitude tilted towards policing, so I joined the Royal Corps of Military Police. After six months’ training in Chichester, I was posted to West Berlin. The wall was still there, so it was an ideal place to do your apprenticeship in policing a divided society.
Q. Two years later, you asked to be transferred to Northern Ireland. Why?
A. I wanted to be nearer family. I was attached to a unit that worked with the bomb squad. I was engaged to Jean, and it seemed a natural progression to join the RUC.
Q. You began your policing career as a uniformed constable in Andersonstown, before moving to Londonderry, first as a sergeant with the Mobile Support Unit and then in the Strand Road barracks. After a stint as an instructor in the training centre, you were an inspector in Fermanagh before becoming head of Special Branch in Belfast, latterly with the PSNI. Did you fear for your life?
A. Everyone thinks it will never be them, but you worry about your family. You’d a mirror to check under your car for booby-trap bombs. It was surreal. As an instructor at the end of new recruits’ first week, you’d show them a video called The Next Target. It included footage of families whose lives had been destroyed after a loved one was killed. In some instances, young children too. One story on The Next Target that resonated with everyone was that of the policeman who got into the car with his young, blond-haired son. As they drove off, the car bomb exploded. The child was killed and thrown hundreds of yards from the vehicle, and in the video you could see where that had happened. Usually, four or five recruits didn’t return the following week. Those who stayed shared a close bond. In an organisation under siege, whose members were being hunted down and killed because of the uniform they wore, there was a great comradeship.
Q. Did you lose close friends?
A. You couldn’t be in the RUC and not do so. On the night of the IRA mortar attack on Newry RUC station (in 1985), when seven men and two women went to work and never went home, I was on patrol in west Belfast. We were called back to the station to be briefed about it by a senior officer. The sense of loss was awful. We were told not to stop anyone or engage with street disorder in case our emotion was such that we over-reacted and let down colleagues. After horrible events, people did awful things. You’d get vicious, cruel, malign phone calls into the station and yet you’d go out in the heart of west Belfast, where people, when they felt no one was looking, would say: “That was terrible. Look after yourself, son”. We live in a country where nothing is black and white.
Q. Working in Special Branch must have brought huge pressures.
A. It was difficult, complex and very, very complicated. You were combating what was one of the most ruthless terrorist organisations in the world, the IRA, and one of the most bloody-minded outfits, loyalist terrorists. You had a number of assets: technical and human surveillance — either police or Army street patrols — and informers. Analysis of the information they provided would indicate what might happen. Ronnie Flanagan said that we were stopping four out of every five terrorist incidents, but when you got it wrong, the results could be devastating. Often those who worked in Special Branch got no credit for saving Catholic and Protestant lives because you wouldn’t want to draw attention as to how that information came into your hands.
Q. Do you think the Troubles will ever give up much of its secrets?
A. We need a process where the truth is told, whereby Catholic or Protestant families, families of security force members or others are able to access as much of the truth as they can about what happened to their loved ones. Should files be released? Yes. You can redact details that would identify a human source, but there’s also lots of intelligence that came from other means, where it’s the horse’s mouth that damns the individual that committed the act. The only people with anything to fear should the Government press play on those transcripts would be some of those who pontificate today about human rights and wrongs but who’d be blushing if the things they said or did were exposed. Let’s have an honest reflection on who did what, where and when, and then draw some kind of line and move on. Until then, we’ll have different factions wanting to rewrite the part that they played because, when they look at themselves in the mirror, they can’t face the horrible reality of who they are and what they did.
Q. After being promoted to Assistant Chief Constable, you became deputy director general of the National Crime Squad, where you oversaw Operation Ore, a review into the distribution of online child abuse images, then were appointed first chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) centre.
A. The experience I had in Special Branch locating missing terrorists paid dividends in CEOP. Our precursor, the UK Serious Sexual Offenders Unit, had a 7% success rate locating missing high-risk sex offenders. When I finished in CEOP, we had an 87% success rate.
Q. Seeing how some abused children must have felt like staring into the heart of darkness…
A. It’s… difficult. When you viewed those images, you looked beyond the brutalisation to the furniture in the room to try and get a clue to help you to locate where that child was so that you could rescue them. We used counter-terrorist methodology. I’ve seen man’s inhumanity to man, what organised gangsters will do to others in pursuit of money, what terrorists will do to one another and to innocent civilians, but I’ve never seen anything as brutal, as inhumane, as the images I was exposed to when I was in CEOP.
Q. Of course, the most high-profile missing child case you’ve been involved in is that of Madeleine McCann (3), who went missing in Praia da Luz in Portugal in 2007.
A. During the Operation Ore prosecutions, I’d experienced trolling. Someone asked me what kind of person was I to name my two daughters, Holly and Jessica, after the murder victims of Ian Huntley. My girls had been born long before those children perished. But the trolling with the McCann case is on a different scale. All those people pouring bile onto the internet about Kate and Gerry are creating a digital swamp that Sean and Amelie, Madeleine’s brother and sister, will have to wade through as they become digital citizens.
Q. What do you think of the German suspect, Christian Brueckner?
A. He’s the best suspect in the 13 years that I’ve been involved. The circumstantial evidence gives him opportunities, and his previous history provides evidence that he’d be motivated. Only time will tell, but I believe the case will be solved in my lifetime.
Q. You lost your sister, Dawn Coulter, last August to lung cancer.
A. Dawn was the salt of the earth. She’d have done anything for anyone. She married a guy from Bangor. They got married, had their family and built their lives in the town. My dad died at 64 from stomach cancer and mum died at 62 from a cardiac arrest, so there was just the two of us. We didn’t need to see each other every day, but there was a huge bond. Death during the pandemic was particularly challenging. Dawn’s family and I will be forever grateful for every act of kindness the nursing staff at the Ulster Hospital showed us. She was diagnosed at stage three but moved rapidly to stage four. Fortunately, her husband and I could wear PPE and be with her at the end. We were allowed around 30 at Roselawn, though much of that is a blur.
Q. Are you religious?
A. At different times in my life, I’d have given you different answers. Am I a church-going person? No. Do I believe in God? Yes. Like everybody else, when something goes badly wrong, I want someone to blame. If there’s no one else, God will do. Faith is about hope things can improve for the better. I’ve seen awful things but also amazing things, like people on both sides who suffered in the Troubles but who have forgiven one another and formed friendships. That speaks to the real nature of humanity.
Q. You were one of three candidates short-listed for the job of Chief Constable in 2009, when Matt Baggott was appointed. How’s current incumbent Simon Byrne doing?
A. People say to me “You’d a close call”, but I really wanted it. I worked with very strong Chief Constables, like Jack Hermon and Ronnie Flanagan. Without him, the peace process couldn’t have been delivered in the way it was. Hugh Orde knew what needed to be fixed. George Hamilton understood politics but also the fundamental independence needed to navigate policing in Northern Ireland. Simon has come in at a difficult time and I don’t think he’d in-depth experience of Northern Ireland. He came in to modernise policing, which is always difficult, but I don’t see clarity of leadership or the consistency that’s needed in Northern Ireland. Mind you, who’d want his job in the current environment?
Q. You run the INEQE Safeguarding Group, which works to make the online world safer for children.
A. This business started as two retired people talking about what they might do in someone’s kitchen. We began with two staff and now have 34. We’re the largest independent safeguarding company in the UK and Ireland. We’ve contracts with the biggest education providers in the country, are delivering the Safer Schools app across Northern Ireland and are signing up a major sporting body. We carried out the review of Oxfam Great Britain and have just finished a review of the Prince’s Trust.
Q. Tell us something surprising about yourself?
A. I’ve a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu. I don’t like TV detective shows like Line of Duty — I’m always complaining that would never happen in real life — but I like Jimmy Nesbitt and am recording Bloodlands, so I’ll give it a go. I’m a big Downton Abbey fan and have watched it three times. I also have a Crossmaglen all-Ireland GAA shirt signed by the team on my office wall. I was a guest at the club and was welcomed with open arms. I learnt a lot too. It’s an environment primarily about family and community. More recently, they asked me to support a bid for European funding to transition the old security force base into something new, and I was happy to do that.
Q. Do you feel hopeful for Northern Ireland?
A. We’ve got to get past where we are. Politics has got to move more to the centre ground. I see myself as a small-U unionist, and I cringe at some DUP politicians, I wish they’d park the unhelpful, provocative rhetoric. I also find it very difficult to listen to the rhetoric from some Sinn Fein politicians that rewrites a narrative. You simply cannot justify the unjustifiable, no matter how hard you try. We all need to do what we can to leave the past behind us. We’re facing a more tense period than we have in a long time and I hear lots of people calling for calm heads and for appropriate language, yet in the same sentence they’ll point the finger of blame and provoke. But things have been worse, much worse. We will get through this, too.