Judith Gillespie: I was turned down twice for police because I was a woman
PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie talks to Deborah McAleese about her battle to join the force, the challenges she faced working as a female officer during the Troubles, her career successes and her forthcoming retirement
QIf you had been a man would you have been Chief Constable?
AWho knows? What I can say is that I think the organisation now, and societal attitudes in general, have definitely changed and it is a less challenging place for a woman to work now than when I joined the RUC.
But it is the Policing Board who makes the decision around who is appointed Chief Constable and the good thing about the Board is that up until now they have always made the right decision.
QWas it part of your career plan to become Chief Constable?
ANo. There is an assumption that was my career plan. My ambition when I joined the RUC in 1982 was to be a station sergeant. In those days women didn't really get to be sergeant or inspector and those who did tended to be single women, with a few exceptions.
I thought, 'well it won't really be possible for me to get much beyond Sergeant', so my ambition was limited to that.
The fact I made it to Deputy Chief Constable (DCC) truly exceeded my wildest dreams. And to be the very first female chief officer in Northern Ireland was a remarkable achievement for somebody that had been turned down twice by the organisation when I applied to join.
QWhy were you turned down?
AIn the early 80s very few women were being recruited. In my squad in the training centre there were 90 people – 86 men and four women. Women didn't carry firearms in those days. We weren't being recruited in big numbers. The recruiting sergeant told me the reason I was being turned down was because I was a woman.
QSo being a police officer was something you were determined to do?
AYes, I would have kept applying until they got so fed up with me that they let me in.
We all suffer unfairness in our lives at some stage, whether we are male or female, or whatever our background. You can let it eat away at you inside, you can become a victim of it, or you can turn it into something positive that makes you driven and maybe that's what happened to me – I became driven to make sure that sort of unfairness wouldn't happen to anybody else.
QDid you have to work much harder than the men to succeed in such a male-dominated career?
AI think you had to always be utterly professional in everything you did and sometimes a few people would have deliberately put obstacles in your way or questioned your professionalism or your confidence, but they were only a handful of people.
It always used to give me great pleasure when you proved them wrong. I remember being given a number of big challenges and some male colleagues saying 'how is a wee girl like you going to cope with that sort of thing?'
It gave me great pleasure at the end of it when the operation was successful and I would say 'yeah, the wee girl coped alright.'
QHave you noticed a change in attitudes towards female officers over the years?
AThere has undoubtedly been a change in attitudes but there is still a bit to go, not just within the police service but in Northern Ireland society and society in general.
I would like to see an increase in female officers. At the end of the day, for me, it has never been about just promoting women for the sake of promoting women. It has been about providing as good a police service as we possibly can.
If we don't understand the needs of the community, whether that be women, minority ethnic groups, whatever minority groups – and, of course, women are actually in the majority of the population – if we don't understand why women are fearful of certain crimes, how they feel when they are the victim of crime, especially very personal crime like domestic abuse or sexual violence, if we don't understand that, how can we provide a proper, fit for purpose, modern, professional, police service?
The organisation has to reflect the community it serves.
QIs the organisation job-friendly for any women considering applying?
AMuch more so now than when I joined.
In 1982 there was no such thing as career breaks, flexible working, job sharing or child care vouchers, so when my children came along it was all or nothing or else you left the organisation – which unfortunately many women did in those days because it was so difficult.
My husband and I used to work opposite shifts so that someone was always there for the kids.
From a family perspective that was not good but from the children's perspective it was really good because either mum or dad was always looking after them.
And now my two girls are up and away from home and I don't think it did them one button of harm.
They are two very opinionated, strong, independent young women – and I have no idea where they got that from!
QIs it possible for a woman to become Chief Constable of the PSNI?
AYes, definitely. In this process that is coming up I am very hopeful there will be some female applicants from England, Wales or Scotland.
Who knows who will be successful in that and it should be the best person for the job regardless of whether they are a male or a female, but I know there is a lot of interest.
Who knows what the future holds but I certainly would not rule out a female in the not too distant future.
Q Once you got to Deputy Chief Constable level, was it in your mind at any stage, 'I could become Chief Constable now'?
AOf course, it would be wrong to say it wasn't in my mind. Having made the milestone of Assistant Chief Constable and being the very first woman to achieve that milestone and then to make Deputy, of course people would assume that the next natural step in my career would be to be Chief.
But I never joined with the ambition of being Chief Constable and I have seen how challenging it is to be Chief Constable – not just for themselves but for their families. It has an impact on the wider family circle. I have two children and I didn't want to put my family through that.
QYou could have left three years ago with a nice £500,000 payout. Do you regret not taking the money and leaving then?
ANo, absolutely not. When the Patten cruise ship was about to depart in March 2011 I wasn't ready for retirement, I hadn't even entertained the thought. I was only just into my contract as DCC because I was only appointed in June 2009, so the idea of leaving a year and a half later just didn't feel good to me. So I decided the time wasn't right. I certainly wasn't mentally ready for retirement and whilst the financial package was obviously very attractive, I felt I would have been leaving with a lot of unfinished business.
QSo what changed?
AWell now I am leaving we have delivered the safest G8, the friendliest Police and Fire Games, the UK City of Culture went very successfully, the All Ireland Fleadh. And whilst 2013 was a very challenging year with flag protests and difficulties around the legacy of our troubled past, as a single year for the history of Northern Ireland it was an amazing year of milestones.
And I felt, having been a chief officer for 10 years, five as deputy, I'm really finished my work here and it is time to move on and do something else.
QA couple of years ago you were awarded a silver fainne. Do you think learning to speak Irish damaged your career?
AI don't think so. A lot of people were very positive about it. I fully accept that for a small group of people they may have taken offence to that and that to some it was an insult to loyalism. I absolutely don't see it that way because I know many loyalists are Irish speakers or are learning Irish. No one can give you offence unless you give them permission to, so I think some people chose to be offended by it. That is their choice and I respect their view. But Irish doesn't belong to any one group or one community.
QHow do you feel about the loyalist/unionist smear campaign against you?
AI'm not sure what you mean.
QWell you are aware of the nasty stories that have been circulated about you and posted on social media sites and it is believed these have been generated by some within loyalist and unionist circles.
AThroughout my police career I have had to deal with rumour and innuendo. The way I have dealt with it up until now has been to say people who know me well and whose opinions I value will know that what is being said is a load of nonsense.
Secondly it says more about the person saying it than it does about me. That has stood me in good stead throughout my police career.
But the difference now is, when people post things on social media it is there for others to see.
Without saying anything specifically about myself, there are consequences for people who post offensive or defamatory material on a social media platform. And some people are feeling those consequences with regard to some stuff that has been posted about me.
QSo some of the social media posts about you are being investigated?
AYes, and that is all I can say about the matter.
QIt must be very difficult for your family.
AThat has been a challenge for me and my family but we are a very strong, close family and they know it is a lot of nonsense. Some of it is just laughable.
QDo you think these people are being nasty because you are a woman?
AYes, probably. I have developed good strategies to cope with all of that nonsense and as I have said, people will have to understand that there will be consequences, some criminal and some of them civil.
But either way, you cannot with impunity post sexually explicit and malicious communications without consequence.
QDo you feel that you were prevented from becoming Chief Constable because of political aggression against you?
AI think you have to be very resilient as a chief officer. I certainly as DCC would not have expected my life to have been a bed of roses. I expect legitimate criticism.
I expect people will disagree with some of my decisions and some of the decisions the PSNI makes. I think when it becomes deeply personal you have to obviously react in a different way and that is how I have reacted to some of the personal material that has been posted on social media.
But I am much bigger than all of that. I didn't get to be DCC without being a pretty resilient person. So it will take a lot more than that to grind me down.
QDo you think the current rules for appointing a Chief Constable are fair? (Candidates must have served two years as an ACC outside Northern Ireland.)
AThat is a decision for the Policing Board. But I have to say I think internal candidates should have the opportunity to apply.
I think the best person should be selected. I think the Board is capable of making up their mind around who the best person is and I think they should want to attract the widest pool of candidates possible.
Obviously, allowing internal candidates to apply who haven't been outside Northern Ireland would permit that. But whoever they select I know they will select the right person as they have done in the past.
QHow difficult was it working with a highly politicised Policing Board.
AI think it is really important that the police are seen to be held to account by politicians right across the political spectrum.
Nobody ever expected that to be a comfortable experience. Certainly in my 10 years as a chief officer – and I think I have attended well over 100 Policing Board meetings – I have seen all sorts of challenges being made to the Chief Constable and his chief officers about a whole range of things.
So this political challenge is not new.
I think it is an important part of public accountability and good policing.
QYou have been policing for 32 years. Did you think you would still be dealing with terrorism?
AWell in 1982, if you wind the clock right back to those dark days at the height of the Troubles, who would have thought we would have relative peace here in my home city of Belfast and Northern Ireland?
Who would have thought we would have hosted the most peaceful G8, that the world leaders would descend on the shores of Co Fermanagh, that Belfast would host the World Police and Fire Games or that the Olympic Torch would be carried throughout NI and over the border into Dublin?
Amazing milestone things have happened. Of course, there is still a severe residual dissident threat that is a concern to us all, both on and off duty, but we have to remind ourselves we have come an extremely long way.
QI'm sure you have experienced many highs and lows throughout your career?
AOne of the very big highlights was when I was a Detective Chief Inspector working in a child abuse and rape inquiry and we achieved Charter Mark which was an old Conservative government initiative to improve quality of service in the public sector. The toughest day of my police career was November 23, 2008 when the four officers were killed in Warrenpoint and I had to visit each of those families and share condolences with them. That was definitely the toughest day.
QWas retirement a difficult decision for you to make?
AYes it was. I had to think about it a long, long time. It certainly wasn't a knee-jerk, shock decision. I know it is the right decision.
It feels good. Obviously I will have a lot of emotion and sadness leaving an organisation that I have been such a part of for 32 years and an organisation that I have loved, but also I know it is the right thing.
And I am really excited about what the future holds and looking forward to new challenges and a bit more relaxation and me time perhaps.
QSo what next for Judith Gillespie?
AI am going to take a break for a few weeks. I have a few irons in the fire of things I am going to apply to do.
And I have been offered some work abroad which I am going to try and firm up.
While that may take me internationally, my heart is in Northern Ireland. I am not going to be a stranger here.
I think there are other things which I can get involved in in Northern Ireland and still add value to community life and still be a role model for younger women coming through.
And maybe the trail that I have blazed will make it easier for a female Chief Constable in the future.