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Speech by Deputy Chief Constable of the PSNI Judith Gillespie

Added 22-Oct-2013

Speech by Deputy Chief Constable of the PSNI Judith Gillespie to the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly on 22 October 2013.

Thank you for this invitation and the opportunity to present a practical policing perspective on the changes in Northern Ireland, 15 years on from the Good Friday Agreement.

You have asked me to address three broad areas:  recent security developments; some broader reflections on the achievements of the past 15 years; and the challenges for the future of policing in Northern Ireland.  I should preface all my remarks by saying that with almost 32 years of policing experience in Northern Ireland, policing in a peace-building or post-conflict environment is highly rewarding, but also incredibly challenging. 

Perhaps I could deal with the broader reflections first.   It is fair to say that some things have changed beyond recognition in many tangible, visible ways.  In other respects some things have hardly changed at all.  Let me explain.  For example, if you told me when I joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1982 that Northern Ireland would host the G8 summit in Fermanagh, that Londonderry/Derry would be the first UK City of Culture, that Belfast would host the MTV Awards and World Police and Fire Games, that Portrush would host the Irish Golf Open and potentially the British Open in future, that the London 2012 Olympic Torch would be carried through the streets of Northern Ireland and over the border into the Irish Republic and back, that Her Majesty the Queen would shake hands with Martin McGuinness, and speak Irish in Dublin, and a DUP First Minister would praise the GAA for its reconciliation efforts, I would have suggested you perhaps need to seek help.... But all these things have happened.   Power sharing between those with diametrically opposed political views on the Union is no longer remarkable.  The vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland support the peace process, evidenced by results in the polls, and politicians assure us that power-sharing is secure - but of course there is still a very long way to go.

Belfast is a vibrant multi-cultural city and was placed 8th in Trip Advisor's top European destinations.  Northern Ireland is a very safe place to live. Reported crime is at its lowest for many years and compared to many if not most other areas of the UK, Northern Ireland has lower crime.  And Northern Ireland people are also amongst the happiest in the UK according to the 2012 Office of National Statistics.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement led not only to a power-sharing coalition Government but also reform of the criminal justice system, and of policing.   Whilst as an RUC officer some of the changes were very painful, in particular the name and symbols for those who had lost loved ones through terrorism, many accepted the need for change.  Indeed many of the changes proposed in the 175 recommendations of the Independent Commission's Report had been identified by the RUC themselves in a Fundamental Review of Policing report.  Policing reform has moved forward at pace and the vast majority of the Patten recommendations have been discharged.  One outstanding recommendation is the building of a new Policing College, and I'm pleased to say that progress is being made as we move forward with our partners in the NI Fire and Rescue Service and the NI Prison Service into what we hope will be a ground-breaking, state of the art, joint Community Safety College near Cookstown in County Tyrone, to be completed in the Summer of 2016.   I think this College will be of huge national and international significance in due course.

Policing - both the RUC formerly and now the PSNI - has worked tirelessly to create a context in which politics could succeed.  Policing was part of the problem, but also part of the solution.  So the organisation to which I belong has also changed beyond recognition, not least in terms of size - from 13,000 to just under 7,500, including police officers part time.  Religious composition now stands at 30.7% Catholic and 27% female.   Human Rights are at the centre of everything we do, and we deliver our service through the ethos of a firmly embedded Policing with the Community strategy which is operationalised throughout the organisation.  PSNI is acknowledged by many as the most accountable police service in the world, held to account by a fully representative Policing Board since Sinn Fein joined it in May 2007, and by an independent Police Ombudsman.  Local police performance is monitored by Police and Community Safety Partnerships throughout Northern Ireland.  We now police the whole of Northern Ireland without military assistance - Operation Banner came to a conclusion in July 2007.  Policing partnership meetings are held in local towns and villages throughout Northern Ireland where issues of concern to the community are discussed, such as anti-social behaviour, drugs and burglary.  Some of these places could only have been patrolled with heavy military support prior to 2007.   We now enjoy broad political and community support.  There has been unequivocal condemnation of the two recent murders of police officers in 2009 and 2011 by Dissident Republicans, which is welcome.  But further support from communities is vital if we are going to succeed in tackling the current threats, in particular since the threat level from Dissidents was elevated to a 'severe' assessment in February 2009 just prior to the murders of Sappers Azimkar and Quinsey, and Constable Carroll in March 2009.  I will return to this later.

Through independent surveys we know that generally, confidence in PSNI is increasing by significant levels, but there is still disparity between perceptions of Protestants and Catholics.  Nor has policing reform been universally popular or accepted.  There is ironically now a huge challenge with the perception of the 'Greening' of the PSNI amongst Loyalists against a perception of the 'dark side' of policing remaining amongst Republicans.  Confidence and trust across the piece is the prize.  Policing with the Community is the means not only to build longer term trust and confidence but also, by doing so, to deal with the terrorist threat.  Every routine encounter with the public is an opportunity to change people's minds about the PSNI, for better or worse, to build trust that takes relationships between police and community to a new level.

In the context of what has changed, it is also important to reflect whilst paramilitary activity remains a reality in some areas, the combined total for deaths, bombings, shootings and paramilitary style assaults in 2012 could be fitted into one day in 1972 - the peak year of the Troubles when almost 500 people were killed in that year alone.

The final piece in the jigsaw of the architecture was Devolution of Policing and Justice which was effected in April 2010 with a locally elected Minister now responsible for policing, and opportunities for even better relationships with other devolved administrations in the UK and also colleagues in the Republic of Ireland.  The Assembly's Justice Committee holds regular hearings with the Chief Constable, whilst respecting the primary position of the Policing Board in holding the Chief Constable to account.  But national security remains a reserved matter, so for policing the Dissident Republican threat the Chief Constable remains answerable to the Secretary of State.  This results in a complex accountability framework when the policing budget is devolved to NI Assembly.


In the context of peace, families across the continuum, including police families of murdered officers, are now understandably keen to have answers to questions about the death of their loved ones.  There is an increasing focus on the past and the legacy of the Troubles. There remain more than 3000 unsolved murders with no agreed process to resolve these questions.  This has a huge impact on policing today.  Dealing with the past is a critical factor in moving forward from it.  It is perhaps the greatest challenge that Northern Ireland faces in delivering a truly sustainable peace.

Courageous efforts to provide answers to families were made in the establishment of the Historical Enquiries Team in 2005, set up to re-examine all deaths during the Troubles from 1968 to the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998 - some 3260 deaths in total.  HET was never intended to provide all the solutions to the past.  This was always intended to be part of an overall framework solution for dealing with the past, but this framework has not yet materialised.  Even though twice as many investigations involving deaths caused by Republicans than Loyalists have been referred by HET to Crime Operations Department for investigation, there remains a perception amongst some Loyalists that the HET is biased against them.  Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary has also criticised the HET for their investigation of killings by British Army personnel involving a differential approach to military cases, and plans are in place to implement the recommendations of the HMIC report with specific Policing Board oversight.  On the other hand PSNI is being criticised by Unionists who perceive a one-sided process for dealing with the past and draw comparisons between the progress of the Bloody Sunday investigation and the apparent lack of progress in investigating the actions of Republicans.

The legacy of the past generally poses a huge challenge for policing and the wider criminal justice system.    Legacy issues are currently dealt with in a number of ways - through HET reviews, the Coronial Inquest process, the Police Ombudsman or through Public Inquiries.   PSNI is committed to fulfilling its legal and moral responsibilities regarding the legacy of the past as we recognise it is critical to public confidence.  We are also committed to dealing with unsolved historical murders not connected with the troubles - some 400 homicides during the same period.  But we are obliged in law to balance these commitments with threats, harms and risks of today and in the future.  We are also obliged like every other public sector agency to live within our budget.  The total spend on policing the past per annum by PSNI is around 70% more than that spent on policing organised crime, and conservative estimates put the overall costs of legacy to PSNI at around £27m each year.   Working in a human rights framework, we want to provide families with answers to their long unanswered questions.  All material relevant to inquests, whether sensitive or not, is disclosed fully to the Coroner without redaction.  This is a legal obligation. But disclosure into the public domain brings with it challenges concerning the management of sensitive intelligence material which needs to be painstakingly reviewed and redacted where appropriate, where we believe a threat to life is preserved.  This is also our legal duty.  It is a time consuming process and with now more than 40 legacy related inquests re-opened, it is extremely labour intensive.  This inevitably has an impact on our capacity to address current threats.  We welcome the involvement of US envoy Richard Haass in attempting to find a solution to the complex issue of dealing with the past, but a solution must be found before today's threats become tomorrow's legacy challenges.


This group will also be well aware of the significant resources which PSNI has had to utilise in policing the flag protests which started on 3 December 2012 and continue to this day. Confidence is a challenge on both sides of the continuum - there is a sense of betrayal in the peace process on the part of some Loyalists and some Republicans.   As politics have become even more polarised on the difficult issues of flags, parades and the past, what is seen by a gain on one side is seen as a loss on the other - so it is a zero sum game.  Policing actions are open to being interpreted by different community narratives in ways that allow for differing and inaccurate interpretations of police motives.   The flag protests are an example of this.  The decision by Belfast City Council only to fly the union flag from Belfast City Hall on limited days rather than every day caused serious unrest and hundreds of police officers were injured during the public disorder that followed.  On the one hand police were accused of being heavy handed towards Loyalists, and on the other were also heavily criticised for not being more robust in clearing protestors off the streets. 

Failures of politics become problems of public order and then those in turn are seen as failures in policing.  Only a very small number of parades lead to public disorder.  It is well recognised and enshrined in law that people have a right to parade peacefully, and to protest peacefully.  PSNI must constantly be conscious of how policing operations look and feel to both sides and where possible base our operational strategies on the premise of ‘no surprises’.  There is an independent Parades Commission that decides on the conditions of sensitive or contentious parades and it is the role of PSNI to police these determinations.  There are huge challenges in this.  To date over 520 people have been charged or reported for public order offences from the start of the flag protest in December last year and including this summer's Parading season.  The cost of policing the public disorder has been enormous (£18.5m this summer compared to £4.1m last summer) and the human cost in terms of injured officers unsustainable.  Between July 1st 2012 and August 21st 2013 approximately 682 officers have been injured in public order situations.  Of this, 51 officers required hospital treatment and 4 were detained in hospital for over 24 hours.  48 officers availed of sick leave as a result of their injuries.  18 officers remain on sick leave.  This is to say nothing of the opportunity cost as police officers are diverted from other policing areas and other public protection roles, to focus on keeping the peace between communities.  4500 fewer arrests generally have been made by PSNI during the period of the flag protests and public disorder compared to the same period the year before.  This means fewer arrests for drug dealing, burglary, and other community concerns.   This inevitably impacts on public protection and police performance.  As Paul Nolan put it in the 2013 NI Peace Monitoring Report - police have become the Human Shock Absorbers for political failure.  But it's the most vulnerable communities and people who suffer most.


There remains a very significant Dissident Republican terrorist threat aimed particularly at police and prison officers and evidenced by the murders of two of my PSNI colleagues, a prison officer and two soldiers over the last 4 years - to say nothing of murderous attacks on civilian targets as well.  I still have to check under my car in the morning, police officers remain routinely armed in Northern Ireland, and still have to be very cautious in some areas when responding to calls for assistance for fear of a come-on attack (the murder of Constable Carroll happened whilst he was responding to a call from a victim of domestic abuse, when he was shot dead by Dissidents). This creates a potential tension and confidence challenge with communities who understandably want to see a police response to vulnerable victims, but amongst whom there remain small groupings who have not bought into the Peace process.  It also attracts criticism of 'over-policing' apparently low level crime when police officers need to be protected by patrolling in numbers in some areas.   Recently police officers in Greater Belfast put their operational training into practice in response to calls for assistance, and undoubtedly avoided come-on attacks as a result.   Only by this training and its implementation on the ground have the lives of police officers been saved.  But in the context of relative peace we would have hoped that the need for this training would have greatly reduced.

The threat from Dissident Republicans remains severe in Northern Ireland, even though it was reduced to an assessment of moderate in Great Britain in October 2012.  Disparate groups have emerged, in particularly on the Republican side, and these groups have tried to claim some legitimacy through violence against young people believed to be involved in ASB and alleged drug dealers.  In many cases this violence, which often involves shooting the victim in both legs, is conducted by prior appointment.  In some cases the consequences of the violence against alleged drug dealers have been tragic and fatal.  This is not justice, and it strikes fear in the heart of communities.  People are frightened to speak to police, making these crimes extremely difficult to investigate.  Many of the deadly plans of these groups have been thwarted by the actions of PSNI and partner agencies.  The number of terrorist related security incidents to date in 2013/14 is 48 compared to 56 for the same period last year.  This year there were 10 attacks on police to date compared to 12 last year.  However it is important to remember that just one attack could have devastating consequences – at the end of December 2012 one off duty officer had a miraculous escape when he took the trouble to check under his car, parked in his driveway, and discovered an under vehicle improvised explosive device which undoubtedly would have killed or maimed him, his wife and his children who were all about to get into the vehicle.  Attacks have included mortars, pipe bombs, shootings, booby trap IEDs, and whilst some of these devices could be described as crude, they were viable and there is clearly a desire to develop new techniques.  We are also deeply indebted to our colleagues in An Garda Síochána who have thwarted many operations by Dissident terrorists, effecting arrests and undoubtedly saving lives.

Paramilitary shootings and assaults continue, on both the Loyalist and Republican side, with 31 victims of shootings or beatings compared to 28 last year.  Terrorist groupings continue to rely heavily on organised crime to fund their activities.  On the Loyalist side 17 people have been charged with offences from robbery to drugs to munitions offences, with 7 convicted of robbery in last 2 years.  The longer term impact of the lack of proactive reach of the NCA into Northern Ireland is a concern to PSNI, although we will be able to call on their reactive expertise and assistance.

Sectarian attacks remain a daily occurrence in Northern Ireland.  Police deal with the symptoms of this deep-rooted community problem and can play our part in its solution, but the answer is much bigger than policing alone.  There remains no agreed Shared Future strategy from the Executive although various drafts have been attempted.  It is hoped that the Haass process presents an opportunity for this work to develop.  Peace Walls have not changed.  Indeed, there were 37 in 2006 and now there are 48, the majority of which are in Belfast.


Peace has not in itself been sufficient to raise Northern Ireland prosperity to the UK average.  Northern Ireland still has a weak economy and the unemployment rate takes its heaviest toll on our young people.  There is a real need for joined-up cohesive strategies to deal with poverty and disengagement which are known to be fertile grounds for paramilitary recruitment and many, including police, feel frustrated at the lack of progress on collaborative working in disadvantaged areas.

As for the main challenges ahead

Peace remains a delicate flower and no-one in Northern Ireland should take it for granted.  Politics remain at an early stage of development and whilst there have been tremendous successes, issues such as flags, parades and protests, and the past expose how polarised our society continues to be.  Policing remains one of the most visible institutions whose actions are interpreted through opposing narratives and lenses. 

Remaining entirely impartial, maintaining the Chief Constable's operational independence, and delivering Policing with the Community against a severe threat and continuing Public Disorder are our main challenges. Asking police officers to patrol and engage with communities to build trust and confidence in the knowledge of a continuing severe threat is very challenging.  It requires immense courage, restraint and professionalism.  But every single encounter is an opportunity to change minds about policing.  And I wish to pay tribute to my colleagues who are out there every day delivering a normal policing service in the most challenging and sensitive of contexts with courage, compassion, creativity and commitment.

And I appeal to those of influence within communities, and members of the public generally, to come forward with information to help us deal with those issues that blight our communities.  If there’s a concern about direct reporting, the Crimestoppers number can be used, 0800 555 111, in strictest confidence.  There remain very significant financial challenges, with no supporting partnership legislation to share the burden of crime and disorder.  Additional funding has been provided by HM Treasury to deal with the terrorist threat.  This is very welcome and has enhanced our capacity to deal pro-actively with the severe threat.  But there is a shortfall in this funding for 2015/16 and as yet that shortfall has not been addressed.  

Like every other public sector agency we must live within our budget.  We have £135 million of efficiency savings to make in this spending review period, and we are committed to delivering these through our ServiceFirst programme.  We are required to make £48m savings off our baseline costs by March 2015.  This will be very challenging and will inevitably change the way we deliver policing, both locally on the ground and in support functions.  More than 80% of our budget cost is our people and our police and staff numbers have reduced as recruitment has been frozen for the last two years.  But it is clear that there is a ‘bottom line’ of police resilience required to meet the challenges and threats we face.   Following a comprehensive resilience review, commissioned by the Chief Constable, which assessed the current and immediate future threats and risks for PSNI, it is clear that police numbers must be maintained at a minimum of 7000 police officers.  This will require political will to secure additional funding but the consequences for Northern Ireland and Great Britain in the absence of adequate police resilience are potentially severe.  The margins between success and failure are very narrow.  We have just embarked on a new recruitment campaign - the first since the 50:50 arrangements lapsed.  Within a space of just a few weeks, the competition has closed with over 7,500 applications to join having been received. 

We welcome the Richard Haass initiative, and talks have already started to attempt to navigate some course through or around the challenges of parades, flags and legacy.  Without solutions to these complex issues, police will remain the human shock absorbers and communities will be much more vulnerable to serious harm as a result.  Families who want answers to questions regarding deaths of their loved ones up to 40 years ago cannot all be dealt with adequately through the formal criminal justice process.  It is creaking under the strain which is now affecting the delivery of policing and justice today.  Some believe the PSNI is not sufficiently independent to deal with the past anyway.

Policing in a politically polarised context is hugely challenging and there's a constant need for consistent engagement at community and strategic level to clearly communicate positioning on the big issues.  Public trust and confidence remains a challenge. Notwithstanding high confidence figures there remains a significant minority who have no confidence in PSNI.

Despite all of this, I remain relentlessly optimistic - and with a focus on the possible.  Northern Ireland generally is a very different place now to where it was 15 years ago, and whilst there are still huge challenges, we have come a very long way.  I return to my opening comments.  If those symbolic things such as G8, the Olympic Torch and Royal Visits can happen without major incident, then there is no reason why Northern Ireland cannot build on them and move forward even further from our dark past.  President Obama said, "You set the example for those who are seeking peace.  You are the blueprint to follow.  You are the proof of what is possible".  And in the context of what has already been achieved, anything is possible.

Thank you for your attention and I now invite your questions.

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