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Terrorist threat must not stifle changes in policing

Will this be the year that really makes a difference in the long transition from policing in war to policing in peace?

And how much will new Chief Constable Matt Baggott be able to deliver to show what he means by 'personal' policing?

It is the big test - his big challenge in developing peace to bring the police closer to the community and to make that relationship much more comfortable.

The people need to know the police, and the police need to know the people, not by looking at them out of the windows of vehicles or barracks, but by walking and talking on the streets and being there when needed.

In this respect it is important that the dissident republican threat is kept in context.

And it is also important Mr Baggott gets perspectives from outside the PSNI - that his thinking and doing is influenced and shaped not just by police voices, but also by other relevant, informed opinions.

Working in partnership with communities means having to think and talk outside the policing bubble. There is a judgment to be made about how quickly to move on personal policing, about how close you can get to the community, a crucial judgment given that threat posed by dissidents.

But that threat needs to be assessed in a much wider frame than the attacks at Massereene Barracks and Craigavon in which two soldiers and a police officer were killed.

Those killings are only part of the picture. Look at the number of devices that have been abandoned. Look at how the planned attack in Garrison was interrupted. Why did the bomb at the Policing Board offices in Belfast not explode?

The dissidents are as worried about the police as the police are about the dissidents. Too much of what the Real and Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann have intended has failed for those who are part of those organisations to feel comfortable.

They are infiltrated and they are being watched and listened to, and that is obvious. And if you look back to early 1998 the dissidents posed a much bigger threat then - a threat seen in the exploding bombs in Moira, Portadown and Banbridge before the horror of Omagh stopped them in their tracks.

So, yes it is right to be worried about the dissident threat now, but not obsessed by it to the point that it slows everything else down.

Personal policing means coming away from those barracks that are still a blot on the landscape - those military-type bases that were needed in war, but which look so out of place and out of context in the developing peace.

This was something a former IRA jail leader Jim McVeigh talked about at a recent policing conference in Belfast organised by the Committee on the Administration of Justice. Its purpose was to look at the extent of change 10 years after the Patten Report recommended sweeping reforms. And here we heard those voices from outside the policing bubble.

McVeigh acknowledged, "considerable change - considerable demilitarisation", but described the police bases in west Belfast at Woodbourne and New Barnsley as "absolute huge fortified barracks", as an "ugly monstrosity".

And that ugly monstrosity stands in the way of achieving the personal policing that Matt Baggott wants to deliver.

The dissident threat cannot and should not be ignored. They have killed and they will try to kill again.

But this is not a threat on the same scale once posed by the mainstream IRA - nothing like it. And it should not be a barrier in the way of yet more changes and more progress.

As Matt Baggott looks into 2010 he should think about the significance of those words spoken by Martin McGuinness after the dissident attacks in March last year, and the words spoken more recently by Jim McVeigh.

Men at different levels of the republican leadership, who for many years looked at the police through enemy eyes, are now interested in achieving the same personal policing that is the Baggott priority.