By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the last chief constable of the RUC and first chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, officially left his post as Northern Ireland’s chief police officer on the last day of March.
His absence leaves the new 19-member Police Board with the difficult task of finding an agreed successor.
A strong media performer, Flanagan led the transformation of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, despite the resentment of some officers.
He leaves behind a force in transition, suffering from low morale and high sick-out rates (the average officer takes 23 days sick leave each year) but with the potential to build a service acceptable to both communities.
The British Northern secretary, John Reid, paid tribute by saying, “Ronnie Flanagan has worked his way through the ranks in the police during some of the worst of times in Northern Ireland and hopefully has brought us into some of the best of times.
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“His particular gifts of articulacy and common sense has added a huge amount to carrying through what has been a huge managerial and reorganizational transformation of the police in the midst of a dreadful security situation.”
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams was less flattering. “I try not to be begrudging in any of this,” he said. “Ronnie Flanagan, like some of the rest of us, has survived the 30 years. He knows a lot of secrets. He has been a key to the repressive arm of the state for a long time. He is out of it. Good luck.”
Flanagan goes on to become a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, responsible for supervising standards in the east of England, including the Metropolitan Police Force, whose own chief constable, Sir John Stevens, is inquiring into alleged RUC collusion in the murder of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane.
Fred Cobain, an Ulster Unionist Party member of the Police Board, said: “I think Ronnie Flanagan has earned a lot of respect for the way he steered the police through a period of radical change. I have no doubt he will be sorely missed”.
The 53-year-old Flanagan, a native of the predominantly Protestant working-class neighborhood of Oldpark in North Belfast, joined the RUC while still at Queen’s University, where he was studying physics. According to one journalist, Flanagan said that the “police seemed to me a very attractive vehicle to be of some service, to make a contribution to the well-being of the community.”
He was promoted through the ranks and became chief constable of the RUC on Nov. 4, 1996.
Within the RUC itself the appointment came as no surprise and was broadly welcomed. The previous incumbent, Hugh Annesley, was deeply unpopular and was seen as an outsider imposed on the force.