With only seven and a half weeks left of his five year term as PSNI Chief Constable, George Hamilton delivered a lecture at Queen’s University this evening to “help signpost the next steps for policing with the community”.
He called out those “across the political spectrum … [who] have too often defaulted to the blame game … finding it easier to blame the police without taking any responsibility for the context in which police are being asked to operate”. Hamilton expressed deep disappointment when politicians express sympathy about the lack of progress on legacy issues in private but undermine confidence in policing in public.
And responding to the first day of cross-party talks, he suggested that “a restored Executive would have the opportunity, and I believe the community support, to take brave steps to reset our transformation agenda” otherwise “it will be the failure of our generation if we do not reinvigorate our efforts and invite the next generation to continue the transformation”.
Hamilton began by looking back at the start of his police career in 1985:
“I became a police officer because I wanted to make a difference; but I very quickly realised that my desire was hampered by many factors including politics, prejudice, perceptions and the ongoing conflict. This was all pervasive – at individual, organisational and societal levels. Over 30 years later, as Chief Constable, I can stand here and say that the situation has been transformed. Both policing and the community have been on a remarkable journey. Has the journey been completed? No, I think it is clear to all of us that it is far from complete.
“My experiences as a police officer on that journey have been both painful and pleasant; at times I have felt part of progress and at other times I have felt we have been stuck, even pulled backwards. Overwhelmingly, however, I feel a sense of great pride in what policing and the communities have achieved together.”
“Having served in both the RUC and the PSNI, I am incredibly proud of the transformation that policing has undergone. As an RUC officer, my desire to keep people safe was no less than it was as a PSNI officer; but I and the vast majority of my colleagues recognised that policing had to change if we were to gain support across the community. The Patten change process was about much more than a change in name or uniform, it was about change in structures and processes as well as in culture and emotion. Cultural transformation does not happen immediately, it takes time, courage and resilience.
“A key success of the transformation process has been the way in which accountability and human rights have been built into the foundations of the PSNI, modifying for the better how policing thinks and acts. In addition to this, the mechanisms provided by the Northern Ireland Policing Board and the Office of the Police Ombudsman have been essential to building trust and public confidence in policing. I was deeply frustrated during the last two years when the Policing Board was not constituted due to the collapse of the Stormont institutions. I advocated strongly for the return of the Board and welcomed its reconstitution at the end of last year.”
Hamilton acknowledged that “the policing journey is not yet complete” but pointed out that “over the last 10 years, we have overseen an almost 10% reduction in crime, that is despite over £150 million in budget cuts during my tenure” with independent surveys indicating confidence in policing has risen to 86%.
He described his “healthy sense of nervousness” when going to Policing Board meetings and said that it seemed “incredible to me that for two of the five years of my tenure as Chief I had no Policing Board because of the collapse of our political institutions”.
“Far from being an impediment, I believe accountability is an enabler of good, effective policing – even though at times it is extremely uncomfortable.”
Support for “the delivery of effective policing comes with a level of responsibility that has at times been sadly lacking” Hamilton said.
“Across the political spectrum, those who should bear responsibility for supporting further progress, have too often defaulted to the blame game. They have retreated to their respective bunkers, finding it easier to blame the police without taking any responsibility for the context in which police are being asked to operate. Legacy is a clear example of this.
“Legacy has been a challenge on which Patten’s New Beginning to Policing has continued to stall. The impact on public confidence is immeasurable. In the first speech I gave as Chief Constable, I warned that policing, and indeed our peace process, risked being dragged backwards unless a societal resolution was found to deal with the past.
“Throughout my tenure I have explained publicly and privately, time and time and time again: the PSNI is neither resourced nor equipped to deal with the past. I welcomed the proposals made in the Stormont House Agreement and offered to give all of the PSNI’s legacy data to the proposed independent Historical Investigations Unit allowing us to concentrate on Keeping People Safe in the present and the future.
“I am now into my final two months in office and there is still little sign of progress.
“I therefore find it deeply disappointing when politicians from all parties give me sympathy on the issue in private; but in public talk of our failures in dealing with legacy and how this has created ‘rock bottom confidence’ in policing. That is not effective accountability – it is shifting the blame.”
Hamilton suggested that policing needs “political honesty and leadership to bring about solutions”.
“Families need that leadership and honesty too. It is a damning indictment, that in the ongoing political vacuum, members of grieving families are passing away without any resolution.”
Moving on from politicians, he turned towards the community representativeness of the police service.
“For a Police Service anywhere to have the confidence of the community, it must be representative of that community. While the Police Service of today is much more representative of the community than the one I joined, like all other Police Services, we still have work to do. We remain under-represented among a number of groups including young people, women, members of the Catholic/nationalist community, members of Loyalist working class areas and people living West of the Bann.
“Worryingly, our current forecasting shows that if recruitment continues as it is, our overall Catholic representation will decrease. I have expressed concern about this publicly and I have asked for a rational, informed public discussion on the issue, ideally via our Policing Board. But our last recruitment campaign was overshadowed by a bitter political debate on 50:50.
“Again, I do not believe such acrimonious debate provides effective accountability that will support progress – it is in my view political point scoring at the expense of policing.
“PSNI will continue to challenge itself as to what more we can do to improve representativeness, including options like direct entry, apprenticeships and secondments. But the fact remains – the Police Service cannot do this in isolation – the bigger and more sustainable requirement is political and societal change.”
On recent events and “the scourge of paramilitarism and violent dissident republican activity” …
“On the night of Thursday 18th April, bullets meant for police officers claimed the life of Lyra McKee. A young woman who championed inclusivity; murdered by young men who have been lost in the margins of our new beginning. Her killers are not just the young man who fired the gun and his accomplice who recovered the casings, her killers are also those who supplied the gun and orchestrated the journey of those young men to the moment in which Lyra was murdered.
“In January of this year, the same group were responsible for a car bomb which exploded outside the Courthouse in Derry. A group of young people had walked past the car just minutes before. ‘What if’ the bomb had exploded at that moment? Lyra’s murder makes that ‘what if’ question all the more real.
“Those who continue to believe in the use of violence, do so in acceptance of the fact that they are risking the lives of their own communities. Their intended target may be police officers or prison officers, but their very actions place communities at risk. They do not care; in fact they seem to embrace it as an expense of their cause.
“Among the consequences of each and every attack is the reality that a member of the community could be killed or injured. Lyra’s family, partner and friends are now living with that reality.
“Hiding behind masks and clandestine media interviews, those that carry out these attacks show cowardice in the way they fail to make themselves accountable to our community. They have made it abundantly clear that the violence will continue despite, by their own admission, it has no community support.”
Hamilton challenged anyone who would have been “ok” if “instead of Lyra, the bullet had hit a police officer” in attendance that night.
“They, like Lyra, have family, partners and friends that love them dearly. They are also sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and for some of them, mummies and daddies. Some of them grew up in the City.
“Lyra chose the noble profession of journalism and had excelled in her short life, contributing immeasurably to our community with her thought-provoking words and incisive analysis. The police officers in Creggan on the night she was murdered had chosen the profession of policing. Their individual contributions to the community are less well known.
“One of the officers there that night was also the first on the scene of the bomb outside the courthouse in January. Without a thought for his own safety, he began to evacuate people from the area. Windows blew in around him when the bomb exploded. Another of the other officers there that night had saved the life of a man who was involved in a car crash in the City, while two other officers had helped to save a life at the Foyle Bridge.
“Earlier this year a number of the officers prevented serious harm when they searched and recovered guns and blades at a grave yard in Park, just outside of Derry; while others have been involved in taking at least £200 000 of drugs off the streets of the City.
“These are just a tiny snapshot of the many individual, unknown stories of how police officers serve our community every day and night.”
He spoke of the “powerful gestures … made by a community that is tired of violence”.
“Challenges have rightly been laid at the feet of our political leaders, most recently and eloquently by Father Magill speaking at Lyra’s funeral. Those challenges have had resounding support from across the community. And, I believe the challenges have been heard.
“Today was the first day of cross party talks. What action will unfold, we await to see. But there must be no underestimation that action and a resolution to the outstanding issues is badly needed.
“Long before Lyra was murdered there was a sense that the peace process was stalling. In cold police statistical terms, there have been 150 security related deaths in the 21 years since the peace agreement. But behind each statistic is the devastation, grief and pain of family and friends. There have been many more paramilitary style attacks, each one leaving not just the broken bodies of victims, but the shattered minds and hearts of those around them.
“Despite all the progress we have made, paramilitaries still seek to exert coercive control on our communities. Pedalling a fantasy that they exist to protect or defend the community; these groups are mostly driven by their own self-interest.”
Hamilton said “we need a functioning Executive to help support and drive delivery”.
“A restored Executive would have the opportunity, and I believe the community support, to take brave steps to reset our transformation agenda. I believe the learning we have gained over the last twenty years would allow us to be more ambitious about what we can achieve.
“The same communities who suffer from the intimidation, abuse and serious harm caused by paramilitaries and organised crime are also vulnerable to social deprivation, isolation and suffer higher levels of drugs and alcohol misuse as well as educational under attainment. These communities are crying out for good, effective community policing and they should remain a priority for the PSNI in the future despite the ongoing serious cuts to the police budget.
“But it is not just policing that these communities want. They want support from more holistic and joined up public services including the provision of education, job opportunities, health and housing as well as crime and community safety issues.
“Before the political collapse at Stormont, some glimmers of light shone out from the draft Programme for Government, which for the first time in Northern Ireland, brought forward the vision of real and effective partnership working across public services to provide support to the most vulnerable in the community. We need the political leadership that brought that thinking to bear to be re-energised.
“Transformation is a constant aspect of life. Some aspects of transformational change can be visible and powerfully felt; while other aspects can be slow and quiet and, in our busy world, can happen almost unnoticed. Transformation can bring positive progress but equally it can have negative impacts. Indeed, the same transformation can be experienced from one person to the next and from one community to the next in very different ways. All of these aspects of transformation have been part of our journey to date.”
Hamilton concluded by reflecting that having “invested so much” over the last twenty years, “it will be the failure of our generation if we do not reinvigorate our efforts and invite the next generation to continue the transformation”.
“We have overcome far greater challenges in the past. I know we can do so again in the future. Communities and politicians working together with police have shown great leadership and taken great risks to bring peace. Remember the hope when the Peace Agreement was reached in 1998? Remember the optimism, pragmatism and compromise from political leadership that restored power-sharing 12 years ago tomorrow?
“The politicians going into the current talks should reflect carefully on the leadership and work of their political predecessors over the last 21 years.”
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.