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Former US commissioner says policing gamble paid off

As the US media shifts focus to all things Irish this week, it’s quite likely American involvement in Northern Ireland’s recent political horse-trading will feature prominently enough that causal observers might presume Washington is a central cockpit of the Irish peace process.

Tom Constantine is under no such illusions. “The first people who really deserve praise are the people from Northern Ireland,” insisted the inaugural Oversight Commissioner of policing reforms stemming from 1999’s Patten Commission recommendations.

“They’re the people who took the gamble,” said Constantine, who held the post from its May 2000 creation until early 2004. “They’re the people who were willing to negotiate with individuals they knew had killed some of their relatives. And they were able to move past that, after all of that pain. Probably, we were essential at certain points in time. But the real heroes of this thing are the people from Northern Ireland.” In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Constantine — now a of public policy professor at an upstate New York college — said he viewed the Assembly’s ratification of policing and justice devolution as a “really an amazing final step” that he wasn’t sure would ever happen.

Constantine said upon assuming the Oversight Commissioner’s post and assessing the laundry-list of reform goals (such as uniforms, badges and emblems and plastic bullets), he looked at policing devolution “and, for the most part, I thought it was unattainable, because of political differences that still existed.

“I’m very impressed that they’ve done it,” he added. “If you asked me in 2000, or 2001, whether it was imminent, I would have said no.” Reared in Buffalo, New York, Constantine spent 30 years in New York's State Police, rising to overall commander. In 1994, Bill Clinton tapped him to pilot the Drug Enforcement Agency, which he did until 1999.

Although his ancestors hailed from Co Clare, he hadn’t visited Ireland until November 1997. “It was a very dark place,” he said. “You could see the impact [of the conflict]. Nobody was on the streets.” Two years later, then Garda commissioner Pat Byrne invited him to speak at a European policing conference in Dublin. Contacts with London and Dublin intensified until British and Irish officials eventually offered the Oversight Commissioner’s post.

The 71-year-old Constantine said his stint as Oversight Commissioner “was perhaps the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been involved in. I saved an extra copy of all my reports that I will give to each of my kids so they can give to their grandchildren.”

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Regarding recent dissident republican violence, Constantine, also a senior advisor to US Director of National Intelligence Denis Blair, believes it’s vital the PSNI and Policing Board be given enough tools to combat the threat.

“And trying to find balance between individual freedom and the suppression of violence or terrorism is a delicate line,” he said.

“You want to treat everybody with respect. At the same time, the reason you have a police force is to protect the innocent and vulnerable from violent predators.”

But Constantine, who follows events in Northern Ireland “almost daily”, is confident the dissidents will not succeed.

“I don’t think it’s possible to get into that tit-for-tat war that they had for 20 or 30 years,” he said. “It’s too late for that approach. Democracy will win out.”

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