By Jack Holland
The post of chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary used to be called the toughest policing job in the world. In 1976, the wife of Sir Kenneth Newman famously remarked, on seeing an ad for the post in the Police Review: “What kind of nut would want that job?” She did not realize that her husband had just applied for it. (He got the job.)
Like Newman, 43-year-old Hugh Orde is an Englishman, the third to head the Northern Ireland police force in the last quarter of a century. More important, he is the first chief constable of the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, which replaced the RUC, as part of the battery of reforms recommended for the Northern Ireland police by the Patten Report.
Orde will soon find out if the old description of the top RUC job can now be applied to his. One thing is certain — tough or not, it is still as controversial a post as that held by his predecessors. Indeed, Orde’s very appointment has provoked controversy.
A Unionist member of the Policing Board, Fred Cobain, claimed that none of the three final applicants who were interviewed for the post had reached the required level to qualify. Cobain said that an inspector general of constabulary who had been at the interviews in an advisory capacity believed that all three lacked the qualifications. Though this was later denied by the officer involved, the allegation signaled Unionist unease at Orde’s appointment.
Unionists believe that political considerations were at work and that Orde’s appointment was a sop to nationalists, who warmly welcomed it.
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“This decision was steamrollered through to the delight of nationalists,” Cobain told reporters, “but without thinking about what was best for the police service.” Cobain said that Unionists would have “to think again” about taking part in any future selection panels. But Orde was upbeat. He told the BBC at his first press conference as designated chief constable that he welcomed what he saw as a “huge opportunity to deliver one of the most effective police services in the world.” He expressed hope that the service could become a model for others around the world. No Unionists were in attendance to hear him speak.
Several factors lie behind Unionist unease. To begin with, the fact that the new chief constable is an Englishman is some cause for concern. Northern Ireland’s Protestants have long felt that the English don’t understand Northern Ireland’s peculiar constellation of problems, and are not sympathetic to Unionist concerns. Perhaps more important, Orde has been associated with one of the most controversial cases in the history of the Northern Ireland police — the murder of human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane. Since 1999, he was been effectively in charge of running the third Stevens inquiry into the murder and the allegations of collusion between the security forces and loyalist death squads that have dogged the case for years. The Stevens team is thought to be getting ready to issue its report into the murder within the next six weeks or so.
The reports compiled during the first two investigations were never made public. Orde has promised that this time it will be made public and in full. This has put him in the unusual position of being in charge of an investigation into what is now his own force. It has caused a certain amount of disquiet within the ranks, especially inside the Special Branch, which has been singled out for criticism in recent years because of its handling not only of the Finucane case but of the investigation into the Omagh bombing.
Orde has spent the bulk of his career as a policeman in the Metropolitan Police in London, where he reached the rank of deputy assistant commissioner. This is another factor which will work against him when it comes to winning acceptance from his new colleagues. The locals regard the Met as know-it-all outsiders. It is well known that Nuala O’Loan, the police ombudsman, was widely resented because she appointed only officers from the Met to her investigating team — the one that was so highly critical of the RUC Special Branch’s handling of the Omagh bombing investigation.
However, Nationalists regard all of these factors as positive.
“The Met is a highly organized, performance-related, accountable police force,” an Irish official said. “Orde will want to duplicate that when he is running PSNI.” Nationalist are also happy with the fact that Orde has played a prominent role in the Finucane investigation. They have long pressed for a thorough inquiry into the murder, with the aim of bringing to light the truth about allegations that members of the British army’s intelligence gathering service, the Force Research Unit, and the RUC Special Branch did nothing to prevent the Finucane assassination though they had ample clues to what was being planned by the Ulster Defense Association, which claimed responsibility for it.
Observers see Orde’s most important tasks when he takes up the job in September as: