The new chairman of the RUC George Cross Foundation on narrowly escaping being shot in Belfast, the day a bomb exploded under his armoured vehicle in Iraq, and why any narrative that tries to equate policing with the deeds of terrorists needs challenged
Former Assistant Chief Constable Stephen White (64) was appointed chairman of the RUC George Cross Foundation on November 27. A former trustee of the organisation, he is the first RUC officer to hold the post. He has been involved in policing for 40 years, latterly in a consultancy role which has seen him operate in such diverse countries as Iraq, Mongolia, Indonesia and the US, and he has written extensively on policing.
Q. Why did you join the RUC?
A. I was born into a police family. My father had fought the Japanese in the Second World War and served in the RUC during the late 1960s.
I was brought up in a housing estate in east Belfast and during my teenage years one of my best friends was a Catholic boy who was going with a Protestant girl. We were both great Glentoran fans.
One night this boy was attacked by members of a Tartan gang who gave him a terrible kicking. That left a picture in my mind that someone had to stand up to the bullies and thugs in society.
When I was at Queen's University I joined the UDR, which I served in for more than four years, becoming a platoon sergeant. Just days after I graduated I joined the RUC, that was in 1978.
Q. Obviously it was a very dangerous career choice at that time. Did that worry you?
A. I was very proud to be following in my father's footsteps and I was lucky that I had parents who were very supportive and very principled and I tried to follow their example.
I condemn violence from all sides and I have been subjected to it from all sides. I served as a sergeant on the Shankill Road in Belfast and as an inspector on the Falls Road and suffered some injuries, none too serious, in the course of my duties. But I have had good friends killed.
Q. You rose through the ranks relatively rapidly. Did that take you away from front line policing?
A. My mantra was always that you should lead from the front. As an inspector on the Falls I went out on foot patrols with my fellow officers, and when I was in charge of policing in the southern area of the province I went out with soldiers on helicopters.
I always believed that as a police officer you need to see things for yourself, and also to be seen. That way you could pick up more intelligence and also reassure those who wanted it that you were trying to keep them safe.
Q. You had some difficult times while stationed in Fermanagh?
A. At one stage I learned that there was a plot to assassinate me and that led to me and my family having to move home. So I know at first-hand the upheaval and stress of being transferred to a safer location as a result of being threatened. That happened to a lot of officers and I could empathise with them.
Q. The violence over the blocked Orange Order march at Drumcree was a very difficult time for you.
A. In 2002 I came up with a plan which I thought might help to defuse the situation at the church. Each year there was a ritual where Orange Order members approached the barricade where they were met by a RUC officer and they handed him a letter of protest and a demand to be allowed to march back along Garvaghy Road. This was always accompanied by a lot of tension, and trouble was never far away.
I decided to order the soldiers to stay in the background and I removed my own body armour and approached the barricade with another senior colleague. I wanted to ease the sense of confrontation.
However, as the letter was being handed over someone threw a rock and then violence erupted. I was spat at but little of it landed on me. However, my colleague was virtually drenched in spittle.
In the violence more than 20 officers were injured and I was determined that I would bring at least the same number of perpetrators, if not more, before the courts. We had photographs of the incident and indeed brought a large number of protesters to court where, for once, some were handed jail sentences.
But it would be wrong to tar all Orange Order members with the same brush. I actually received a letter from one of those jailed apologising for his actions. He sent it out from the prison. One of the lodges present that day refused to join in the return march because of the behaviour of the thugs.
Q. You were also involved in policing the wider Drumcree protests in other parts of the province.
A. Many people forget that during those tense years violence erupted throughout the province. I recall one time I was on duty near the North Queen Street/New Lodge Road interface in Belfast as the opposing communities faced up to each other when suddenly a shot rang out and the officer beside me was hit. I was lucky that day.
Q. Didn't you have an even luckier escape in Iraq, where you were serving on a consultancy basis?
A. I was very nearly killed on one occasion. We were travelling in an armoured vehicle when a bomb exploded under it. My bodyguard lost part of his leg. Fortunately, I was not injured.
Q. When you joined the RUC did you imagine that you would rise to such high rank within it and later become a much sought after international security consultant?
A. I didn't join the RUC with the intention of becoming Assistant Chief Constable. I merely wanted to be a constable doing the sort of work that I felt needed doing.
In 1978 I was one of only three graduates out of an intake of 87 to have a degree. Now, nearly 40% of PSNI officers are graduates. It is a well qualified and educated workforce and it offers great career prospects. Entrants can aim to become specialists in the force or progress up the ranks. Promotion is on merit. In the old days policing was more of a vocation than a career, but that has changed.
Q. In your role as chairman of the RUC George Cross Foundation, what are your priorities?
A. There are several. The first is to mark the sacrifice of the 302 officers killed during the Troubles and the very many more who were injured, many of them seriously.
I also want to honour the achievements of the RUC. Those men and women did a very dangerous and challenging job in very difficult times. They not only delivered security against the terrorists, but also delivered ordinary policing at the same time.
We should never dilute what the force did as members of "the security forces" but it was primarily a police service dealing with things like child abuse, traffic accidents, domestic violence and such like. It was not all about explosions and gunfire.
I think we need to be open and honest. No organisation stands still and the RUC is the ultimate learning organisation. It is unfair to judge what happened in the Sixties and Seventies by today's standards. We need to acknowledge that we grew and perfected our approach to policing over the decades. To say that we were perfect in the Sixties and Seventies would be inaccurate.
Q. How do you view the problems of dealing with legacy issues?
A. There was great concern over the recent consultation on draft legacy legislation. Any narrative that tries to equate policing with terrorist perpetrators needs to be challenged and I certainly have no difficulty putting myself forward as an advocate of the counter-narrative.
I am proud to say I was in the ranks of the RUC. Like my colleagues, I turned up for work each day knowing there were people plotting and planning to kill us. I performed my duties to the best of my ability and sought to provide a police service to everyone who needed it.
We had the added burden of being responsible for security in the midst of a conflict where some demonised us and used the obscene description "legitimate targets" to justify murder of public servants.
Terrorists and violent extremists need recruits, resources and a reason to do what they do.
Any ideology that portrays all police officers as the enemies of the community, and preaches that murdering them is a good thing, is barbaric, morally redundant, outdated and ultimately counter-productive.
Q. Does the Foundation provide initiatives for serving officers as well as remembering those who have died?
A. We have a bursary scheme which sponsors a number of PSNI officers to travel to other countries and study issues which are pertinent today. All we ask is that they publicise that their scholarships are sponsored by the Foundation.
I also want to engage with the entire police family. My first public engagement was in Cookstown.
I want people and organisations wherever they are in the province to know that I am receptive to ideas on how we can help.
I see things like an annual public lecture, a photographic competition or a schools essay competition or sport as a way of further publicising our work.
Q. What resources do you have in the Foundation?
A. We have a small budget and I as chairman and my five trustees all work part-time and unpaid. There are 30 volunteers who keep the memorial garden in order and who act as guides to visitors and they are the lifeblood of the organisation.
Q. Have you enjoyed your life as a security/policing consultant since retiring from the PSNI?
A. I have tried to make a difference wherever I went. I served in Southern Iraq as Director of Law and Order and as senior police adviser to the US-led coalition Provisional Authority based in Basra. I led a team of experts implementing the required reforms in the area and one of our achievements was the opening of the first regional police academy in Iraq.
I also assisted in the implementation of a community policing programme in Mongolia (for which he received the President's Award from the International Society of Crime Prevention Practitioners) and I have worked in other areas of the Middle East and north and central Africa.
Q. How are former RUC officers recognised globally?
A. There are some 400-500 former RUC officers providing international support all around the world. Yesterday I met one officer who has just come back from Myanmar (formerly Burma). Their experiences are very relevant to other countries who can learn from the mistakes made, and the successful achievements, and other countries can then adapt those to their own situation.
They also learn about our officer well-being courses, peer counselling, occupational health services. These have all come a long way from the days when the station sergeant would give an officer who had been involved in some traumatic situation a bottle of whiskey as an antidote.
Q. Would you do it all again?
A. I probably would and maybe I would try to do it better. I am told that I was a strict disciplinarian but it was not a case of pulling rank; rather my aim was always to get everyone home safe. We were not blind to the dangers but we did a job we loved.
Q. How did you cope with the problems that inevitably arose?
A. Three things got me through - family, faith and fitness. My parents were very supportive and my wife Cherie and my two children have been both a great help and a source of great pride to me.
I also had faith in the Lord, in my colleagues and in that I was doing the right thing. I was also very fit, running marathons and playing football into my late 40s. Perhaps other people found it more difficult and I am conscious that there are many colleagues who still carry the scars, mental and physical, from giving service to this community.