By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
The past, present and future of policing in the six counties emerged unexpectedly in the north’s media last week.
The past was revisited in the form of a candid admission from the outgoing chief constable of the PSNI, Sir Hugh Orde, in an interview with the journalist Brian Rowan.
Orde, speaking about the ‘dirty war’ - a coded way of describing killings by the state’s forces - told the journalist: “In terms of did some people step over the mark, sure they did.”
Sir Hugh Orde was a member of the Stevens’ inquiry team into collusion between the crown forces and loyalists. He has a clear insight into the involvement by the state’s forces, the British Army and RUC, in killings by loyalists. He knows fully the scale of that collusion.
And he must know also that although he may have gone further than any other member of the PSNI in his description of what took place, his remarks are way short of what is required by way of the truth for those who suffered as a consequence of the state involvement in killings.
The phrase ‘step over the mark’ is hardly a fitting description of state-sanctioned murder.
While most of us can still only hazard a guess as to the scale of collusion and at what level, there is sufficient information in the public domain to incontrovertibly validate the demand for an international public inquiry into collusion between the British crown forces and loyalists.
Some of the challenges facing the PSNI in the here and now surfaced on the back of a stunt carried out by an armed group staging a road block in the village of Meigh in south Armagh.
In the days immediately after the publicity stunt it emerged that a patrol had come across the road-block and correctly, wisely and quietly withdrew from the area thus averting a possible fire-fight which would likely have resulted in the death and injuries on both sides and a likely political row and crisis.
The row that did arise did so, thankfully, without bodies being strewn around the countryside of south Armagh and consequently was a relatively subdued affair.
Current policing arrangements were also reflected in the end-of-term assessment given by Sir Hugh Orde about his period in office - some seven years.
His period as chief constable will be remembered broadly as a ‘safe era’ with a ‘steady as you go’ approach to overseeing the implementation of Chris Patten’s recommendations - recommendations that paved the way for the replacement of the RUC with the PSNI - a development which in time led to Sinn Fein joining the Policing Board and, critically, supporting the PSNI.
An internal report entitled Strategic Review 2009: Making Choices for the Future, commissioned by Orde, found its way into the public domain and provoked a debate about the need for the PSNI to focus more on providing a community-based service; to redeploy its personnel better to ensure they spend less time in police stations and more time on the streets and to spend more time tackling anti-social behaviour and investigating crime.
The focus on the need for community policing is a timely recommendation on two counts. Firstly it comes on the back of the Orange Order’s marching season and significant questions arising about the PSNI’s handling of a few of the contentious parades and the accompanying and unacceptable loyal order coat-trailing and other provocations visited upon nationalist areas.
Secondly, it comes as the PSNI’s new chief constable Matt Baggott takes up office. He is regarded as an expert on community policing. His reputation in this respect will be quickly put to the test. The demand for the PSNI to deliver wholeheartedly on community policing will not go away -- nor can it be brushed under the carpet. It requires an immediate, effective and visible response.
The new chief constable will also face other challenges such as the truth about collusion, the use of plastic bullets which were used last weekend in the Short Strand, the third time this year, and tasers -all issues which will have a bearing on making the PSNI more or less acceptable to those they seek to police.