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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

The past and the media strain Orde's patience

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

He knows more of the murky secrets of Northern Ireland's troubled years than most, but as time goes on Sir Hugh Orde is growing impatient with others' seemingly endless fascination with its past wrongs.

The chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is frustrated about the time his officers have to spend researching the events of the troubles for public inquiries. He is fed up with the local tabloid newspapers concentration on his private life, and he is determined to see policing and justice powers devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly before he bows out as chief constable.

"The biggest threat to policing the present is the past" Orde says "Unless it is resolved it will always be there and will damage what we do."

Immediately before taking up his post as head of the PSNI in September 2002, the former high flyer with the Metropolitan Police in London, was on secondment to the inquiries by Sir John Stevens into collusion between the security services and paramilitary groups. That role gave him the inside track on many great controversies of the troubles, ranging from the murder of Pat Finucane, the Belfast solicitor, to the activities of the security services and of rogue agents in the paramilitary groups. What Orde did not expect was to be dealing with the same issues more than five years later.

"There is not enough money probably within the GDP of the United Kingdom to give everybody a public inquiry and cherry picking a public inquiry here and there will not bring closure. More of my policing budget is being consumed by legal fees and more and more staff have to search through the archives to satisfy the voracious appetite of public inquiries" he says.

"Money that should be spent on community policing is being spent on what I see as a zero sum game."

His police budget faces cuts of £88 million over the next three years while resources are diverted from front line services to try to bring closure on the troubles.

Orde, much given to what he calls "cop think", tried an elegant solution when he set up the Historical Enquires Team (HET). This unit, largely made up of British detectives, is charged with individually re-examining each of the 3,269 murders and security force killings between 1968 and 1998.

HET has amassed a huge warehouse full of documents and is working through the cases. Its approach of releasing as much information as possible to victims and their families has been widely welcomed. "I wanted an approach that would put the needs of victims first" Orde says. But he expects a handful of prosecutions at most to arise from the most ambitious cold case review exercise in history.

One of the Met officers seconded to the HET is Denise Weston, Orde's girl-friend and the mother of his youngest child, aged two. His marriage to his wife of 24 years, broke up last year after the press revealed the affair and published photographs of the two officers running side by side in the great North Run. The public exposure of the relationship led to security worries because Weston at the time was working undercover to infiltrate terrorist groups in England. Orde and the Met appealed for her image and name to be kept out of the press in order to avoid compromising the operation in which she was involved. The restriction has been relaxed since she secured a secondment to the HET early this year.

Now the couple and Weston's two children live full time in Northern Ireland. "It is a great place for kids. I'm not planning on moving at the moment" says Orde, who has a maximum of two and a half years to go in his post. He includes low crime rates, good schools and access to the countryside and coast as amongst the province's attractions for a young family.

"My wife has got my house in England so I am here full time. Even before that I went there about twice a year. Last year I lost 22 days leave by not taking them" Orde says, refreshing his memory from a leather notebook beside his desk. He has his holiday figures to hand in a diary because of frequent requests under the Freedom of Information Act for details of his travel expenses and the amount of time he spends away from the province.

He is currently suing for libel over mistaken claims that he took his son John, then a student in Dublin, to America on an official trip at public expense. He is also suing over claims that he and other members of the Stevens team failed to act after they were told that Mark Haddock, a police informer now jailed, was involved in several murders in North Belfast. Orde says this claim was passes to the RUC with a request for action and he has documentary evidence to this effect.

Before coming to Northern Ireland, one of Orde's major achievements was Operation Trident, which used a mixture of community relations and deep penetration by police agents to bring down the Yardie gangs operating among West Indians.

"When I was head of crime in South London an informer called Delroy Denton murdered a prostitute. There was a total effort to arrest and convict which we did. The first time we couldn't get enough evidence, the second time we got him" says Orde.

He is adamant that criminals cannot escape prosecution for serious offences in return for supplying information to the police, but sounds a word of warning. "The use of informants is one of the most challenging parts of policing. Nice people make crap informants. You need nasty people but you need nasty people under control. If you don't get your hands dirty, then you are no damn good."

On the Stevens team he had a unique overview of the use of informants and was instrumental in bringing Ken Barrett, a loyalist agent who murdered Pat Finucane, to justice after a sting operation in which two detectives posed as friends. When he took over at the PSNI he ordered an immediate review of every registered informant on the force's books and paid many of them off as too risky or unproductive.

Retired RUC Special Branch officers have suggested that this process went too far, leaving the police blindsided on paramilitary operations like the Northern Bank robbery and the takeover of a Carrickfergus estate by loyalists. "If the previous regime was so good, how come so many people were killed for the HET to investigate?" Orde asks. "Nowadays we can defend any suggestion that we are de facto running terrorist organisations."

But he adds "Can I say an informer won't commit a murder in the future? No I can't." He is also worried that he cannot any longer guarantee the anonymity of informants because of a legal judgement compelling him to reveal their identities to public inquiries. "It makes it more difficult to get people to step forward" he says.

One grey area is the role of MI5, which is outside the scrutiny mechanisms that govern the police. It handles informants who report on "national security" issues and employs specialist phone tapping staff at its new headquarters at Palace Barracks, Holywood. He is satisfied that the agency gives the police any intelligence which is relevant to ordinary crime.

In his eyes, crime includes not only the loyalist paramilitaries, but the five or so republican dissident organisations. He says these "haven't a political thought in their head" and boast a combined membership of 200 people at most across the island of Ireland.

Orde has been a successful Chief Constable. Crime is down in key areas, public support for the police is increasing and Sinn Féin has come onto the Policing Board faster than he expected. "I didn't think they would do it in my time" he says.

He is eager to see the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Assembly but thinks it is some way off. He wants to work for closer co-operation between republicans and the police. Orde is preparing for a showdown with Sinn Féin which, he says, was not pulling its weight on policing despite deciding to support his force.

Later in the month, Orde hopes to meet Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin president, in a determined effort to "shut him up before he does any more damage on policing." It's an echo of Sinn Féin's pledge to "put manners on the police".

After an initial appointment for five years, which ended last September, he has had his term extended for another three. The next logical move would be a job in Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, like Sir Ronnie Flanagan, his predecessor as Chief Constable. But Orde says "I'd rather boil my head in oil".

Another plum job would be head of the Met. The Met's present incumbent, Sir Ian Blair, says he will stay in post until the 2012 London Olympics. By then Orde will only be 54, but he says he "would have to think very carefully about applying for another chief's job".

April 8, 2008
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This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on April 6, 2008.

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