Belfast Telegraph

'The tragedy that saw my Catholic best friend killed shortly after we joined the Army, the routine uncommon valour I witnessed in the RUC ... and why I believe we'll find out what happened to Madeleine McCann'

Child protection expert Jim Gamble, who's from Bangor, on his early life, opposition to vigilantism and why there should be another EU referendum

Lindy McDowell

Jim Gamble QPM is one of the UK's most experienced and outspoken experts on the safeguarding of children online. After a long and distinguished career in policing which involved working with anti-crime agencies across the world (he was awarded the Queen's Police Medal in 2008), he famously resigned from his role as chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre in 2010 in protest at then Home Secretary Theresa May's decision to merge CEOP into the National Crime Agency.

He now runs the Belfast-based INEQE Group which continues to spearhead the battle to make the online world safer for children.

A regular media commentator, not afraid to ruffle feathers, (his Twitter feed carries the line "If it matters, I will not stay quiet") here he talks about his pride in his RUC background, his innovative plan for volunteer "digital detectives" to trap paedophiles, his fears over Brexit, his frustration over a new generation trapped in political vacuum - and his belief that we will, one day, find out what really happened to Madeleine McCann.

Q. Where did you grow up?

A. I'm from Bangor originally. My mother Lily and my father James were in the RAF so when I was a child I lived in other parts of the UK and in Singapore. After my dad's time in the RAF finished we settled back into Bangor where I went to Bangor Boys' Secondary School. I've a younger sister Dawn who still lives in Bangor.

Moving about was a fantastic life for a young person. School in Singapore finished at lunchtime when you went down to the pool and stayed there for the rest of the day. I don't think I wore a proper pair of shoes until I was about eight. Everybody just wore flip flops. I think one of the things about growing up in that way was that you were exposed to different cultures and that gives you a breadth that is very much a benefit in later life.

By the time we came back to Northern Ireland I would have been in my early teens. And of course that's a huge transition when you've assimilated into another culture. My best friend in Bangor was a boy - God rest his soul - called Marty. My son is named after him. Marty was a Catholic, I'm Protestant - not practising.

I grew up in a council estate in Bangor, Marty lived in one of the big houses in Windsor Avenue.

But he and I were friends. One day we were travelling up to Belfast and in one of those moments of madness we got off the train to go and look at the Army careers centre in Palace Barracks. That was on a Wednesday. The following Monday night we were on a boat to Sutton Coalfield. Marty ended up going to the Parachute Regiment.

He was injured in training. He came home and tragically was killed in a motorbike accident in Bangor when he was 19. Just a lovely person from a fabulous family. I went into the Military Police. You're talking about someone with no real education because I'd moved around so much. When I joined the Military Police I was tested for the first time. By the end of training I'd won the Gold Whistle which was the first time I'd really achieved anything. I got the prime posting which was to west Berlin. The wall was still up then. I arrived in a city with a British sector, a French sector, an American sector and the East Germans on the other side of the wall.

I always say it was a really good apprenticeship for what was to come with regard to policing in a divided society.

Just as I was getting married to my wife Jean, I went into the RUC training. Jean and I have three children. The eldest is Holly, then there's Peter (30) and Jessica who's 26. They are my pride and joy. There's not a sectarian bone in their bodies, they've got massive hearts. And that's a credit to their mum more than me. They're brilliant.

Q. How do you look back on your time with the RUC?

A. With the RUC I worked in Belfast, Derry, Fermanagh. I was head of Special Branch in Belfast. Did we always get things right? No, of course, we didn't. Do I think people went in with malicious intent to hurt anyone? I actually don't.

I always take the view that if we're going to have peace and reconciliation I'm all for it as long as we begin by saying; "Let's release all the information that we actually have." Because there's some people who wouldn't like to read about themselves.

In the early days of the peace process I had real concerns about prisoners. That was the stumbling block for me. But I also think when you're so close to it you're not the right person to make decisions. At that time I would have held my ground on the prisoners issue. When I look back I think "Thank goodness there were other people." Because we did move to a much better place.

Compromise was made all round. Around this time I'd been promoted to assistant Chief Constable.

I then moved to England and became deputy director general of the National Crime Squad dealing with serious and organised crime. In that job I worked all over the world, with teams in Moscow, in Cambodia and various other parts of Europe.

What it taught me was that the things the RUC did well, they did very well. Beside other police forces, they stood out. Those things they didn't do as well were reflected in the things that police forces don't do well in lots of places.

We are all made up of the communities we serve - real people - and some people will be flawed. That's not trying to defend the indefensible. But I'm very proud to have been an RUC officer. Very proud to have been a PSNI officer. And very proud to have been a member of Special Branch which is often deliberately misrepresented.

Q. Officers from your generation have had considerable impact on policing throughout these islands and across the globe, Drew Harris, the new Garda Commissioner, being just the latest example. Why do you think that is?

A. So many of our generation have gone on in ways that you would know and ways that you wouldn't know. I was really lucky to work with some outstanding leaders. When they were going to a call they would have kept their crew in the Land Rover while they went up to answer the door first to make sure it was safe.

You're talking about that routine uncommon valour in some people that you just don't see elsewhere.

Superintendent Ken McFarland was my boss in Fermanagh, a guy who, on the outside, was all about discipline - someone you knew you wouldn't want to cross.

I've seen that man waiting for the parents of an injured and dying officer and that's when you see the real humanity of a person. You see someone who you can only aspire to be like - and that's the truth.

Q. What are your views on vigilantes who have provoked recent controversy by posing as children online to snare paedophiles?

A. Vigilantes are a symptom of a broader problem across the UK in particular but the world in general, and that is that there are too few criminal justice resources being invested in threats to children and young people online.

So some decent people become so frustrated that they attempt to become involved in this unregulated activity to deter paedophiles engaging with their children.

There's two types of vigilante. There's that person who is well-intended but ill-equipped and then there's that person who's simply self-serving, who's the bully on the street corner anyway. It's all about themselves and their self-publicity and, in the context of Northern Ireland, the baggage they bring with them. You wouldn't trust them to walk your dog let alone have any kind of sway over the liberty of any individual.

So I'm fundamentally opposed to vigilantism.

But I do think there's a role to be played by volunteers provided they're working within the criminal justice system.

I do think the police should recruit volunteer part-time special constables who are vetted, trained and go into the police station a couple of nights a week, under supervision, to go online pretending to be someone that they're not - but lawfully, so that the information they collect is harvested by the police.

Now, if we were to do that across the UK let alone Northern Ireland we could have an army of 1,500 digital detectives.

That would be the first major step towards turning the tables on online predators.

Q. Were you surprised by comments by Home Secretary Sajid Javid who said recently that he's shocked, having visited the National Crime Agency, to find out that there are 80,000 people online who represent a risk?

A. I'm shocked that he's shocked. We've known of those figures for almost a decade. We need to invest in something that makes a difference.

I think reinforcing police numbers in this era of austerity in a way that is cost effective, that reassures us about the character of the individuals involved and about the process in that they go into a police station and be supervised, that is a win-win scenario.

If you're an individual with a sexual interest in children, are you afraid to go on the internet? The truth is, right now you're not because it's like a road that has no speed cameras. Everybody flies down that road. But if they put a sign on the road 'Speed Cameras Ahead' when everybody gets to the sign they automatically slow down.

It makes them think.

On the internet that doesn't exist because we're not catching enough of them to frighten them. We need to put film in the online camera, so to speak, so that when these people go online they'll think: 'Flip, there were 50 caught last week... the chances are I'm going to get caught too. The chances are I don't know if I'll be talking to a child or to a digital detective working in the local police station.'

Q. You also want to see a change in the law...

A. My view has always been, as a 58-year-old man, why would I want to pretend that I'm a 15-year-old boy online? So I think that it should be a criminal offence to masquerade online as someone below the age of 18 for the purpose of talking to someone you know, or believe to be, under the age of 18.

If that is against the law, anyone caught doing it is in trouble. So you're creating an actual deterrent.

Of course there would be exceptions - those authorised by the police. And yes, it might be that it's a parent. But that's why laws are built - to have clauses in them about lawful authority, beliefs or reasonable excuse.

You believe your 15-year-old daughter is being groomed so you pretend to be her, to talk to this guy... no one's going to prosecute you for that. But otherwise I can't think of any good reason for an adult to pretend to be a child for the purposes of talking to a child.

Q. Do you believe there should be greater constraints on the tech giants and the technology?

A. I think we've got to get to the point where we see the technology as an opportunity as well as a challenge.

I think it's about getting the right technology into schools. Educating and empowering our children more effectively has got to be key.

My company INEQE currently works with a whole range of schools and we put apps into the classrooms that allow teachers, parents, carers and children themselves to be better informed - so that at the wrong time in the wrong place they get the right information to help them stay safe.

If you look at some of the advances in technology that we have at the minute like being able to identify particular behaviour online which might indicate that a child was at risk of self-harm or suicide, we should be investing in developing those.

The problem is, there is no money. Government doesn't invest real money in the level of social work and social work training that we should, or in the teachers. Or in mental health in general.

Q. So where do you start?

A. Healthy relationship training must begin in primary school and it must be in context. It must include access to the use of technology. In the schools that we work with, it's about beginning to integrate it into every aspect of the education that they get.

It's about relationships, it's about respect - those skills you're going to need as a human being to engage and to grow and to thrive.

My frustration is that in Northern Ireland, if we had a government, we'd have the ability to make quick decisions.

We wouldn't catch up with the rest of the world - we'd have the ability to leapfrog them.

The problem is we're so busy looking backwards we just can't look forwards. Everybody's so busy chasing their own party political agenda we've now got a generation who are trapped in a vacuum - who are not getting the investment and the support and the direction that they should have. I'm hugely frustrated by the petty politics of it all. I've seen political will on all sides when they've been engaged. I don't think that the political will around this is either green or orange.

There is political will. But while people make excuses for not getting back into government a vacuum is created and we are missing opportunities that aren't going to come again for this generation.

In my office behind my desk are two of my prized possessions. One is a signed Northern Ireland football shirt. The other is a Crossmaglen Rangers GAA top signed by the All-Ireland team. It was presented to me when I went to the club to do a presentation to a packed house on safeguarding children.

To some people in that area I'd be, I'm sure, anathema given my background. But I was welcomed, I was embraced and what I saw in there was the importance of family, the importance of community.

I think that's what makes me even more frustrated.

I really do think we were moving forward and now we seem to be moving backwards again.

Q. Do you think that Brexit will hamper cross-European detection and control of paedophiles?

A. Cards on the table, I'm a Remainer. I struggle to understand why anyone would want to leave - both because I felt that being part of the EU placed the Irish question in a context where it was no longer difficult and also because I do have concerns about co-operation.

My concerns are not that co-operation will stop post-Brexit, because when it comes to protecting children and young people, most people will go the extra yard and find a way around the bureaucracy that will result from having different mechanisms in place.

But, as with all these things if you create a pause, it depends on how long it takes you to get back on track, how quickly you can pick up the pace again.

I run a business in Belfast.

Am I happy heading into Brexit? No. Do I support the People's Vote campaign? Absolutely.

I think if we're really serious about the younger generation and giving them their place and their say you've got to look at the demographic with regard to the vote.

I know lots of people who voted to leave who, knowing what they now know, would vote to stay.

Given where we are, given the mismanagement of the Brexit process, given the impact it's had on Northern Ireland, I think it's only sensible to have a second referendum. Does everybody now know the consequences of Brexit? I think they do.

So now is the time to have that vote - when people will be doing it with their eyes wide open.

Q. You've been working on a documentary series that Netflix has just finished on the Madeleine McCann case; that's going out later in the year. Do you think we'll ever know what happened there?

A. I've got to know her parents over the years. And when you see parents having to get up every day, knowing that their child is missing, with the responsibility towards their other two children - the only thing that keeps them going, in my opinion, is hope. So I'm never going to give an opinion that I think Madeleine is dead.

At the end of the day, we don't know. And I've been in this work long enough to know that many years later children are found again.

That hope fuels people's ability to put one foot in front of the other. I believe it's a case where we'll find out what happened to Madeleine in my lifetime.

I genuinely believe that.

I will always harbour the hope that it's good news.

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