Frequent Flyers

In October 2019, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute published an assessment of police reforms in Northern Ireland.
The authors Dr Marina Caprini and Junseo Hwang chronicled in their article the experience of policing from the Troubles to the Good Friday Agreement.
They noted the evolution of policing from the Patten Commission through to St Andrews Agreement to the 2010 Hillsborough Castle Agreement and highlighted the challenges faced by the PSNI as well as its achievements.
Both authors observed the police service had taken strides towards greater diversity, with more officers from a Catholic background compared to the RUC.
They noted there was greater community engagement and oversight, thanks to the policing accountability structures.
SIPRI’s commentary, however, observed the ratio of 70:30 Protestant to Catholic police officers had “become fixed” and was “now the status quo” despite a rise in the Catholic population.
The levels of satisfaction with policing in the nationalist and unionist communities, they noted, had “fluctuated” with “less confidence in policing among the former”.
The authors also stressed the need to recruit more officers from a nationalist/republican background as a means of countering paramilitaries taking on that role.
Policing will always be a hot topic in Northern Ireland, with the actions of the PSNI under intense scrutiny.
Anyone outside of Northern Ireland, though, unfamiliar with those challenges will have got a real insight watching the first episode of BBC1’s new Monday night primetime cop drama ‘Blue Lights’.
Built around the experiences of three recruits, Sian Brooke’s fortysomething ex-social worker Grace, Katherine Devlin’s tough talking, yet sensitive Annie and Nathan Braniff’s earnest rookie on a PSNI fast track scheme Tommy, it’s very much a beat officer’s perspective of contemporary policing in Belfast.
Viewers may have been forgiven for initially thinking they were in for the same old, same old Northern Ireland TV drama as the show got underway.
Within seconds of starting, Declan Lawn and Adam Patterson’s show wasted no time in showing a person brandishing a gun in a suburban house.
But just when you thought it was about to be used, you realised it was an unloaded service weapon that single mother Grace’s teenage son, Matt Carver’s Cal had recovered from upstairs.
Not long after that, we saw Grace and her supervising officer, Martin McCann’s PC Stevie Neil in a high speed pursuit of what appeared to be a stolen vehicle in the Belfast hills.
The car careered off the road and crashed through a hedgerow.
As the squad car pulled up, Lawn and Paterson gave their audience their first taste of the reality of Northern Ireland policing, with Stevie’s nervous instruction to his colleague: “Remember your training, Grace. Get the rifle.”
Inside the overturned vehicle was Dane Whyte O’Hara’s troubled youth Gordy Mackle who was a little bruised and shaken and was arrested by Grace when he was pulled free from the car.
It later emerged that the vehicle belonged to John Lynch’s gang leader James McIntyre but it wasn’t stolen.
As Gordy walked free from custody, he became a person of interest to the PSNI because of his connections to the McIntyre gang.
Visiting Gordy’s troubled mum Valene Kane’s Angela in a republican neighbourhood, Grace tried to connect with her by giving her a business card.
Her gesture prompted Stevie to warn her that if she continued to get involved with every hard luck story they come across she wouldn’t last her probation.
While they talked to Angela in her home, there was another glimpse of the challenge that PSNI officers face in some republican neighbourhoods.
As Richard Dormer’s PC Gerry Cliff and Tommy, his rookie partner provided backup, a hostile crowd gathered on the street to harangue the officers.
“You’re a brave wee peeler, aren’t you?” one youth on a bike taunted Tommy before a deluge of bricks and bottles were thrown at the cops as they left.
Later, after spotting Gordy on the Limestone Road in the company of James McIntyre’s son, Michael Shea’s Mo, Annie was sent out by her superior Joanne Crawford’s PS Helen McNally to conduct a search.
However she ended up being assaulted by Mo who subsequently walked free with the help of a smart solicitor.
The officers’ interest in McIntyre and his cronies attracted the interest of undercover intelligence officers, or the “sneaky beakies” as Gerry kept calling them.
Nabil Elouahabi’s senior spook Joseph was dispatched to lean on Jonathan Harden’s Inspector David ‘Jonty’ Johnson to leave the McIntyres alone as they were out of bounds.
But it was soon clear that leaving McIntyre and his cronies alone was going to be impossible.
It has to be said that Lawn and Patterson haven’t set themselves an easy task marketing a drama about the complexities of policing in Northern Ireland.
Dramas or films set in Belfast before or after the 1994 ceasefires have always tended to be a switch off for most audiences in England, Scotland and Wales.
And it remains to be seen if ‘Blue Lights’ will break this curse.
However the cause certainly wasn’t been helped by BBC1’s frankly laughable post conflict thriller ‘Bloodlands‘.
As opening episodes go, though, ‘Blue Lights’ got off to a pretty decent start.
Solidly directed by Giles Bannier, it did a good job establishing its characters.
Lawn and Patterson’s familiarity with the terrain, as former current affairs journalists who worked on BBCNI’s ‘Spotlight,’ really shone through.
Devlin, Brooke and Braniff also made their mark as rookies who were warned by PS McNally that they needed to up their game.
Of the three, Brooke’s character probably holds out the most promise.
McCann, Dormer, Crawford and Harden convinced as the rookies’ senior colleagues.
Dormer and McCann, in particular, again proved their mettle with performances that crackled with wit.
Hannah McClean did enough to suggest her sly PC Jen Robinson may be worth keeping an eye on.
Most eyes, though, will be trained on Lynch as audiences try to understand why British intelligence officers are particularly precious about McIntyre.
The most striking performance of the episode came from Valene Kane who was central to a really tense situation that developed later on in the episode.
The Newry actress brought a real vulnerability to the part of Angela who felt even in her twitchy, early exchanges with Brooke’s Grace like a powder keg in search of a fuse.
Lawn and Patterson gave their audience some trench humour just like the great US police precinct drama ‘Hill Street Blues’.
One gag hung on a poster in the police station labelled ‘Colin’s Code’.
But what was really heartening was that there was plenty to suggest in the opening episode that ‘Blue Lights’ could develop into a convincing police procedural without ever having to resort to overblown ‘Line of Duty‘ theatrics.
Fans of the Liverpudlian BAFTA nominee ‘The Responder,’ which also gave audiences last year a beat cop’s view, should enjoy the show.
But the police drama I really hope ‘Blue Lights’ comes close to emulating is Jimmy Gardner, Robert Jones and Anita J Pandolfo’s shortlived 1990s series ‘The Cops‘ which powerfully chronicled on BBC2 the experiences of officers in a Greater Manchester police station.
Tough, uncompromising and unflinchingly honest, it was a bit like a police procedural directed by Ken Loach.
If ‘Blue Lights’ comes anywhere near its levels of greatness while educating audiences about policing in Northern Ireland, then we’re in for something special.
Here’s hoping for the rest of its run.
(While all episodes of ‘Blue Lights’ are available on the BBC iPlayer, Slugger will be posting on each episode after they are broadcast on BBC1. We would, therefore, be grateful if you could refrain from any spoilers for future episodes in the comments below.)

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