Hugh Orde took over what was once called the toughest policing job in Europe this week when he became the new chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Whether that description still applies or not might be a matter for debate.
Orde, a 43-year-old Englishman who until now spent his entire career as a cop in the Metropolitan Police in London, is used to dealing with difficult and controversial cases. Among the most famous was the murder of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager stabbed to death by a gang of white youths. The Met (as it is known) came in for heavy criticism for its handling of that case, until Orde stepped in. Perhaps more important, at least for nationalists, Orde enters the scene with considerable knowledge of one of the most controversial murder cases in the history of Northern Ireland — that of human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane. The English officer has been running the day-to-day aspects of the investigation for the last two years, which no doubt has afforded him a glimpse of the murkiest corners of policing Northern Ireland. Ironically, one of his first major tasks will be to deal with the report on the case, which he himself was instrumental in preparing. It is due out within the next two months, and depending on its findings, and how they are handled, might help determine how nationalists view the new chief constable and the force he commands.
To his advantage, Orde does not have to deal with some of the awful problems most of his predecessors faced when the Northern Ireland police force was a target of some of the most violent organizations in Irish history. But he does have to deal with the problems created by that history, and the bitterness, mistrust and hostility that are among its legacies.
PSNI has to overcome the alienation from law and order felt by many nationalists. Its predecessor, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was a force molded to a large extent by the violence, and honed to deal with it. Violence has not gone away — the daily street riots and the occasional sectarian murder are evidence of that. But the focus of the new force must now shift to deal with the problems created by 30 years of the Troubles. Most nationalists believe that it already has made a good start — as evidenced by the number of Catholics applying to join the force. They clearly feel that it embodies the kind of policing arrangements with which they can identify. A service that more accurately reflects the population balance in Northern Ireland is the very foundation for an acceptable policing service.
Orde has remarked that PSNI is among the most heavily scrutinized police forces in Europe, with three different monitoring bodies watching over it. This too is a legacy of the past, when the old RUC was often accused by various human rights groups of bending the rules to get results. Such extensive oversight might be seen by many officers as the interference of bureaucrats who know nothing about the realities of policing a still violent society. This is one of the reasons that morale is said to be so low in PSNI. Orde has admitted as much. His job is to see that accountability and crime fighting work together, to each other’s benefit, not detriment. It will be no easy task.
Nor will the restructuring of the Special Branch, which has been strongly criticized over the years. The rate of crimes solved has dropped over the last few years until it is among the lowest in the UK. Orde has recognized this and in his first interviews declared his intention to do something about it. He knows that good intelligence is essential, especially when combating paramilitary criminals. But he also knows that unless that intelligence is put to effective use, allowing officers to prevent crime and apprehend its perpetrators, it is wasted. Or it becomes part of an elaborate power game between intelligence-gathering services, as it appears to have done over the previous decades, with sometimes tragic results.
Follow us on social media
Keep up to date with the latest news with The Irish Echo
Meanwhile, members of the new force come under nightly bombardment from hostile crowds, and seem to be able to do little except keep the two sides apart. More ominously, Sinn Fein refuses to commit itself to PSNI, and dissident republicans can use this as justification for murderous attacks on Catholic recruits.
That is, much can still go wrong. It is the new chief constable’s difficult job to see that it doesn’t and that the policing service sustains the peace process. But in the meantime, the peace process must be allowed to create the conditions that make a good policing service possible.