Ex-RUC man at helm of Irish force was once just unthinkable
There can hardly be a more significant event in the history of policing in Ireland than the appointment of ex-RUC man and now Deputy Chief Constable of the PSNI, Drew Harris, as the new Garda Commissioner.
It would be an understatement to say that policing in Ireland has always been a contentious issue beginning with the formation of the RIC in the early 19th century.
- Drew Harris: Long career of ‘peeler’s peeler’ reveals an officer who’s not afraid of controversy
- PSNI’s Drew Harris lands top Garda job in landmark appointment
- Harris could be just what Garda needs
Despite 75% of its members being of the Roman Catholic faith they were held in great distrust by the nationalist population as a whole as they were regarded as merely propping up the British landed gentry.
A new era came about with the formation of An Garda Siochana at the time of partition, a force which, to their great credit, was and still is widely accepted by all in the Free State and the subsequent Republic of Ireland.
When the RUC was formed to police the newly-created Northern Ireland, many nationalists merely saw it as the old RIC under a new name and bringing with it the old distrust.
It's a force I joined in 1970. I could hardly have picked a more troubled time but I saw it as an opportunity to become a member of a reformed police service acceptable to all.
In 1972, I moved into the CID and ended my career some 23 years later as a Detective Superintendent and deputy head of the CID for Belfast.
My relatively senior position brought me into regular contact with the Garda Detective Unit in Dublin and I visited them there on numerous occasions. Policing has often been described as a brotherhood and this certainly held true in my dealings with the Dublin detectives. Needless to say their hospitality is legendary.
However, there was always that sub-conscious feeling that we were different, which was true to a degree as we served different political masters.
During my service with the RUC my colleagues and I did our best to shake off the old mistrust of the nationalist population but to no avail. The one constant running through the history of the RIC and RUC was the ruthless murders of police officers on the street or at home.
Indeed, RUC Superintendent Alwyn Harris, the father of Drew Harris and with whom I was acquainted, was callously killed by an IRA under-car bomb. He was a man of great charm with a smile on his face and joke or two on his lips. In 2001, the RUC was disbanded and the PSNI took over. Few would argue that they have come as close as ever to providing a normal policing service to everyone in Northern Ireland.
In the days when I was a serving police officer, the idea of a former RUC man becoming Garda Commissioner was simply unthinkable but what seemed the impossible has now occurred.
Personally, I welcome it with open arms and have no doubt he will bring an era of fresh thinking to An Garda Siochana and the many internal problems it has been facing in recent years.
It's also further evidence that there has been a huge cultural shift in the Republic of Ireland and one which may, in years to come, help bring permanent peace to this troubled land.
Although I have never met the man, Drew Harris has always given me the impression that he is someone of huge integrity and capability.
It speaks highly of him that, having lost his father to an IRA bomb, he is now willing to move to Dublin and take on the huge challenge of a police force in turmoil that awaits him.
I wish him well.
Alan Simpson is a retired detective superintendent and the author of Duplicity and Deception