Belfast Telegraph

George Hamilton the coppers' cop whose frank ways won friends and critics

PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton
George Hamilton
Chief Constable George Hamilton with Martin McGuinness
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

If Chief Constable George Hamilton was hoping for a quiet escape from the hassles of his pressure-cooker job over his cuppa and scone in an east Belfast coffee shop on that Monday morning two years ago - he picked a singularly unfortunate day for his Garbo-esque sojourn.

For at the next table to the all-alone policeman sat two journalists (including this one) and a former unionist politician; just across the way were a DUP special adviser and two investigative reporters probing the RHI scandal while the acting head of the Civil Service wasn't far away.

Yet, even though everyone's eyes were on everyone else, George Hamilton didn't flinch and, apart from passing the time of day with one or two of his fellow coffee-drinkers nearby, he got on with the task at hand, of relaxing.

It was a solo outing from PSNI headquarters not far away at Knock that Mr Hamilton's predecessors couldn't have enjoyed at the height of the troubles when their bodyguards would have been constantly at their sides.

But that's not to say that George Hamilton had an easy five years in charge of the PSNI, leading the police in a less violent climate than the Chief Constables who were at the helm of the RUC through the force's grimmest decades in a time of death and destruction. Anything but.

For Mr Hamilton had to plot a course through what has proved to be a minefield of peace and the legacy of war. Not to mention Brexit and the still uncertain weeks and months ahead for the UK departure from the EU which Mr Hamilton has already claimed will pose difficulties for the PSNI and the community.

He'll still be in charge for the first couple of months after the UK's scheduled exit from the European Union but it's not known if Brexit has played any part in Mr Hamilton's shock decision to retire as Chief Constable at the unusually early age of 51.

But he has gone public repeatedly in the last few months to flag up the challenges posed by Brexit and to especially warn of a renewed threat from terrorists that he said politicians in Westminster didn't appear to understand.

He has called for hundreds more officers to be recruited and for the sale of a number of police stations near the border to be suspended. Last year he also complained that the PSNI was in the dark about any future border arrangements.

But it's understood that Mr Hamilton was frustrated that his concerns weren't being taken or addressed seriously.

Even so insiders at the Northern Ireland Policing Board didn't foresee the resignation letter winging its way to them from Mr Hamilton.

The indications were that the Newtownards-born man would sign a three-year extension to his contract which was put on the table in front of him by the Board last week. The word was that he quit because he wanted to spend more time with his wife and four children. But at 51?

"George Hamilton won't be idle for too long," said one police source.

"He's a highly intelligent and hugely experienced policeman whose services will be in big demand, very quickly."

The responses to the announcement of his retirement yesterday reflected the obstacles he faced in the five years since 2014 that he commanded the police force that he joined in 1985.

The fact that the Police Federation - which hasn't always had the most harmonious of relationships with its bosses in the past - reacted to his resignation by saying it would look on his leadership favourably said a lot about the Chief Constable. Just a few days earlier a former long-serving policeman who had no idea that the Chief Constable was about to quit told me that George Hamilton was "one of the good guys".

"Ronnie Flanagan and George Hamilton had come through the hard times," he said. "You knew where you were with them and they knew what the job was." The inference was that English incumbents of the Chief Constable role weren't quite in the same league of coppers' coppers.

Mr Hamilton did, of course, have his moments in the mire with his PSNI officers. He famously succumbed to the temptations of late night tweeting in August 2016 when he launched what was generally acknowledged as an ill-advised slap down of a police officer who had taken to social media to talk about the problems he faced in his job.

Mr Hamilton tweeted a message telling the officer to "dry his eyes, to stop wallowing in self-pity or seek another job".

The Police Federation said the Chief Constable's tweet was offensive and a "great insult".

In the cold light of day Mr Hamilton apologised for his "misjudged" online comment.

But the Chief Constable has never said sorry for talking frankly about the problems that he and his force have faced, particularly over the vexed and sometimes apparently insoluble issue of dealing with the past.

As long ago as 2015, Mr Hamilton joined a discussion panel alongside Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness at the Feile an Phobail in west Belfast.

Outside St Mary's College 200 dissidents protested, but Mr Hamilton was applauded inside as he addressed question after question from a capacity audience who wanted answers about what the PSNI was doing about unsolved murders, allegations of collusion and about delays in handing over files to legacy inquests.

Three years later, Mr Hamilton, who had been praised by Mr McGuinness for going to the Feile, was back in St Mary's College. And the past still dominated the debate.

This time he said: "I feel like I'm in an impossible position, caught between legal obligations, on one hand, financial constraints on the other and, if I had a third hand, it would be about public expectations."

One of Mr Hamilton's most uncomfortable public grillings didn't come in a west Belfast festival hall, however, but rather on a TV programme hosted by Stephen Nolan on the BBC.

It was generally accepted by commentators that several members of a panel of young people had 'ambushed' Mr Hamilton, giving him little or no time to respond to their brusque questions, but a number of viewers praised the Chief Constable for his calmness and dignity.

However, he created headlines by saying on the programme that aspects of the IRA still existed, "though not for a terrorist purpose".

Mr Hamilton also went on Nolan's Radio Ulster show from time to time. One of the most notable of those occasions came as he made an unscheduled intervention on the 20th anniversary of the Omagh bombing to defend the police over their handling of the 1998 Real IRA bombing massacre of 29 people including unborn twins.

The former Police Ombudsman Baroness O'Loan had said on air that the bombing could have been prevented.

A furious Mr Hamilton, who never downplayed the threat from dissident Republicans during his time in office, said: "Today should be one of sympathy and empathy for the families, not about traumatising them further by telling them this could have been prevented.

"My understanding from all of my involvement in Omagh over the past 20 years is that there is nothing that we could have done to have prevented that horrible atrocity."

In March 2017 the Chief Constable went to the Bogside to attend the funeral of former deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, an ex-IRA leader, and admitted his decision to go had been a "dilemma".

He said: "My values and emotions were being pulled in opposite directions and I just had a fundamental decision to make about whether or not I believed it was the right thing to do to go."

In an interview at the time with the Irish Catholic newspaper, Mr Hamilton, who had rarely given too many insights into his own beliefs, said that his Christianity lay at the heart of how he policed Northern Ireland.

He said that having faith and policing were "not in any way inconsistent".

The Chief Constable said that he was deeply influenced by Old Testament prophet Micah, whose words had inspired him in his own policing and human journey.

He said the PSNI wanted to be inclusive and in November 2017 he told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster he said he hoped Sinn Fein and the GAA would do more to encourage nationalists to join the force after recruitment of young Catholics stalled.


Last year Mr Hamilton and his deputy Drew Harris, who has since become the Garda Commissioner, were cleared by the Police Ombudsman of allegations of criminal activity and misconduct in public office.

The investigation followed complaints over the conduct of a bribery inquiry by the PSNI which the Ombudsman said was justified and necessary.

The PSNI investigation had centred on allegations of bribery and fraud in the awarding of contracts for police vehicles worth around £15 million.

Mr Hamilton said at the time he was "relieved but not surprised" that he and his colleagues had been fully exonerated.

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