Belfast Telegraph

PSNI chief George Hamilton: A straight talker who did his best in what is a 'no-win' job

Sir George Hamilton
Sir George Hamilton
Sir George Hamilton
Sir George Hamilton
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

A former colleague of outgoing PSNI Chief Constable Sir George Hamilton swears he could hear the relief in his voice as he conducted a series of farewell interviews on television and radio this week.

"He sounded to me like he was glad to have found an escape from a maze," said the retired officer, who knew Hamilton as he climbed the ladder in the old RUC. "George did his damnedest to get things right when he got to the very top of the PSNI, but it's a no-win job."

Another ex-colleague agreed that Hamilton, who quits as the head of the police force today, faced mission impossible when he took over the role five years ago.

And reading between the lines, it is clear that the career cop, who celebrated his 52nd birthday yesterday, believes he had done as much as he could in the Chief Constable's spacious office at police headquarters in Knock.

The Policing Board had offered him a three-year extension to his five-year contract as the man at the helm, and though he insisted it had been difficult to turn down, people who know him said he realised his time was up. He leaves having talked up falling crime figures and complaints against his force, despite a £150m cut in his resources.

But in the background are huge concerns about months ahead of more Brexit confusion and border policing headaches, what to do about a soaring holiday pay bill, and questions over Catholic recruitment to the force.

But Hamilton's biggest regret as he packs his bags today was always going to be that his legacy would undoubtedly be his failure to address the seemingly insoluble problem of legacy, getting justice and answers for relatives of thousands of people killed during the Troubles.

But it is a task that has taxed many more minds than his.

When he became Chief Constable in 2014 Hamilton sounded guardedly optimistic about the possibility of progress on the past through the Stormont House Agreement. But after five years he has been powerless to deliver anything meaningful amid the Assembly meltdown, saying time and time again that it is not a policing issue.

The Newtownards man, who studied politics and economics at the Open University, joined the RUC in 1985 and was promoted to inspector nine years later.

His elevation to Chief Constable was generally welcomed by officers, who were weary of Englishmen in the post. One former colleague said: "George was a great man to work with and he earned the respect of people like me."

But the ex-policeman said he was disappointed at Hamilton's initial handling of the job.

He added: "George quickly sounded more like a politician than a policeman. But I know that the Chief Constable has to walk a tightrope. I just thought he could have supported his PSNI officers - and former RUC colleagues - better."

Hamilton's tenure wasn't without its challenges beyond those normally associated with the office.

In 2016 he had to say sorry to his furious officers after posting a late-night tweet that was branded "offensive" by the Police Federation. It said Hamilton was out of touch after telling a colleague, who complained on social media of being under pressure, to "dry your eyes, do the job or move on".

In 2017 he and two senior colleagues were investigated by the Police Ombudsman about concerns over how a probe was conducted by into allegations of fraud and bribery three years earlier.

They were all cleared.

On the terrorist front, Hamilton has never played down the threat posed by dissident republicans even though he claimed that Westminster politicians weren't listening to him.

"George may have had to be a diplomat but he had a habit of shooting from the hip when straight-talking was required," said an erstwhile colleague.

"He certainly earned the respect of many officers when he spoke out against the former Ombudsman Baroness O'Loan over her criticism of how police handled the Omagh bombing and (how she) claimed it could have been prevented."

Hamilton also didn't shirk from treading paths that his predecessors would have avoided. He defied dissident street protests to talk on a Feile an Phobail panel in west Belfast, and he attended Martin McGuinness' funeral in the Bogside, even though he admitted that it was a "dilemma" for him.

After another funeral, for murdered journalist Lyra McKee at St Anne's Cathedral, the Chief Constable denounced her New IRA killers.

But what next? When he announced his decision to step down it was said he wanted to spend more time with his family.

One associate, however, said that he definitely wouldn't be spending his time in the garden or on the golf course.

"He says he will take a few months to decide where he goes from here. He has said he doesn't want a high-paced executive-stress job. But you can be sure you haven't heard the last of George Hamilton," he added.

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