'84 flag protests policed in a night'

Published Friday, 27 June 2014
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The outgoing Chief Constable Matt Baggott has said at one stage the flag protests were in danger of spiralling out of control and threatened to bring down Northern Ireland's institutions.

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As he stands down from one of the toughest policing jobs in the UK, Mr Baggott spoke to UTV about his time as Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

When Mr Baggott was unanimously selected by the Policing Board for the top role in August 2009, he arrived from Leicester an ardent advocate of community policing.

But he soon found himself confronted with a series of dissident republicans attacks, which left Constable Peadar Heffron seriously injured in January 2010, killed Constable Ronan Kerr the following year and in 2012 prison officer David Black.

"We had I think, 174 terrorist attacks in the first year, and that was a serious threat to the devolution of policing and justice, but more than that, it was a serious challenge to the stability of Northern Ireland," he explained.

"I think you have to learn quickly, I never felt I was out of my depth because I'm surrounded by a very able team of professionals."

Speaking about Constable Kerr's death, he said: "It's the worst, darkest place you can be in but we knew that we were not going to let these people take us back.

"And I saw politicians coming together in an unprecedented way as well and that's been hugely important."

Matt Baggott's last year in the PSNI was a tough one, comprising of flag protests, court action by the Police Ombudsman, political rows over the on-the-runs letters and the arrest of Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams.

We could contain a situation that was in real danger of spiralling out of control and could have threatened our institutions and that's the story.

Matt Baggott

He saw the loyalist demonstrations - over a decision in December 2012 at City Hall to limit the days the Union flag flies to designated days - as potentially very damaging.

An appeal on behalf of the Chief Constable currently before the courts is attempting to overturn a ruling that police wrongly facilitated illegal flag protest marches.

"I will say this, for the first time in nearly 40 years, faced with widespread protest and riot, the Army were not called onto the streets and that is a significant achievement both for our society but also for policing," he commented.

"One night we had 84 protests running at the same time - that would be a significant challenge even to a police service as it was 10 years ago, let alone the reduced size we have today.

"It was difficult and also it took us away from dealing with the issues of anti-social behaviour, burglary, robbery, the things that people want us to deal with day in day out because colleagues were standing dealing with obstructions and protests.

"We've had colleagues who were relentlessly on the streets night after night, keeping people safe, sometimes facing abuse, sometimes having to report injuries.

"But they did such a fantastic job that we got to the end of that without a single member of the public seriously injured, I challenge you to find anywhere in the world who would have done it with professional thoughtfulness."

He continued: "That's been recognised by the United Nations, by the Human Rights Commissioners and by many others. I understand entirely why it looked messy, and I'm not saying that on certain days we couldn't have done things differently, but the reality of containment and justice was the only one.

"We've had nearly 700 people now brought before the courts, so we haven't denied justice, it's just been a matter of keeping people safe on the day, keeping our resources intact to deal with the riots and then bringing people to justice later. I'm very very proud colleagues because they could have easily used force in the wrong way and made the situation worse."

Mr Baggott added that for a time while the protests were ongoing, he felt there was "not sufficient, full and unequivocal support for the rule of law" from Stormont.

He described dealing with Troubles-related crimes as "debilitating and toxic" and believes the responsibility should be transferred from the PSNI to an independent body.

"At the moment, a huge amount of our energy and time, is dealt with dealing with the controversial issues of 30 or 40 years ago," he said.

"That's not to say that I don't agree or believe in justice and neither do I believe that victims' families shouldn't be given every chance to know what happened, but I think that could be done in a different place under a different authority, so that we could police today and tomorrow."

The Chief Constable could have stayed for another two years but chose to leave ahead of the height of the marching season - he has appealed for upcoming parades to be dignified.

"Everybody must work very hard to make sure that the Twelfth of July does not take us back a step again because we went through all that last year, let's make it dignified, let's respect the rule of law," he said.

The PSNI's Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton takes over the post from Mr Baggott.

© UTV News
Comments Comments
21 Comments
Dorothy in Kansas wrote (147 days ago):
John in Newtownabbey wrote... The way Matt Baggott dealt with the flag protest lowered NI into the abyss. Surely it was the flag protesters who lowered NI into the abyss.
the truth is in belfast wrote (148 days ago):
the reason he is going is he did not get the top job in England, no other reason, its great news that a local man has now got the job after all this time, good luck to him.
John in Newtownabbey wrote (148 days ago):
It wasn't the flag protests hat were the problem, it was how Matt dealt with them that was lowering NI into the abyss. He just didn't get it did he?
S.B. in Belfast wrote (149 days ago):
Matt Baggott will be remembered as a Chief Constable whose naivety and lack of knowledge about the North has set this place back years. He capitulated totally to the UDA and UVF and allowed Loyalist 'fleggers' to dictate street policy and road blockages for 18 months. He let his officers sit back and take everything Loyalism could throw at them on the frontline without a response which was pathetic and very embarrassing to watch at times. Other police forces around the world would never have taken this nonsense. Baggott was totally out of his depth and we are now paying for this.
Celer et Audax in Omagh wrote (149 days ago):
You came, you saw, and you failed. Now go and polish up the Knighthood and your speech for accepting the Chief Constables job in the Met Police.
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