Saturday profile: Sir Hugh Orde

He may be too plain-speaking ever to lead the Met ... and does he even want the job? By Paul Peachey
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The Independent Online

If there is one thing about Sir Hugh Orde on which both his critics and his cheerleaders agree, it is that his ascent to the top of British policing has been achieved without curbing his reputation for plain speaking. With his slapping down of Government claims that the return of senior cabinet ministers from the beach prompted the change of police tactics to end the worst of this week's unrest, he remained true to form.

The politicians' return was an "irrelevance", he said, and warming to a theme that he has been pushing for months he turned the knife by adding that there had to be "serious conversations" with Government about how to maintain police numbers in the face of proposed budget cuts.

He dismissed the idea that water cannons and plastic bullets would be suitable for the streets of London (despite having used them as a police chief in Northern Ireland).

As a staunch defence of his profession and the country's officers, it was typical. But as a very public application for a job for which his advocates say he is tailor-made – the vacant role as Commissioner of the troubled Metropolitan Police – his outspoken comments were potentially destructive. After all, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, whose comments he directly contradicted, will have a significant role in choosing Scotland Yard's new chief.

But would the 52-year-old want the job as Britain's top policeman anyway? After the resignation of the incumbent in July over the News of the World hacking scandal, would the opportunity to run a force in disarray appeal to him? Sir Hugh said last month he had not decided, pointing out that Mayor Boris Johnson had expressed a preference for a woman. But if he does, his latest comments should be a warning to his political masters. After all, as Brian Paddick, his former colleague and mayoral hopeful, said last year: "I don't think the Home Secretary should make an enemy of Sir Hugh Orde."

Hugh Orde joined the Met in 1977. He replaced Paddick in a posting to south London when he was made a sergeant in his early 20s, a self-confident, "macho" figure who fitted in, Paddick recalled. In the 1990s, he developed the force's race relations training. He was one of the few officers prepared to face the threat of gun crime linked to the drugs trade that had made some parts of London no-go areas. Before the shakeout of the force after the Macpherson Report into the killing of Stephen Lawrence that branded the force institutionally racist, relations with the black community were at an all-time low.

He developed Operation Trident, one of the most enduring police operations to combat gun crime, forged by closer links with the community. In doing so, he had to face an angry public who felt they had been let down, but he won their trust swiftly. "Hugh Orde stands out as one of the most genuine of senior police," Claudia Webbe, the founder of an advisory group working with the police says. "He had a real focus, dedication and level of intelligence that's quite unique."

Sir Hugh was then thrown into the world of Northern Irish political life when he was chosen to run day-to-day inquiries into claims of collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces. Deric Henderson, the respected Ireland Editor for the Press Association, asked him if the politically-sensitive inquiry had given him a taste for applying for the job of Chief Constable in Northern Ireland.

"You must be mad," the policeman replied. An hour later he applied for the job.

He was appointed in 2002, a difficult time for policing in Northern Ireland. The transformation of the RUC to the Police Service of Northern Ireland had led to an exodus of senior officers. Morale was low, but he helped rebuild it. With his gruff copper's voice and his puckish humour, he was labelled a "policeman's policeman".

He also won a grudging respect for his plain speaking from figures on both sides of the political divide, though he was well aware of the political tensions and played them expertly. "If you had Hugh Orde and a group of politicians, he would be the most political person in the room," recalls Peter Weir, a Unionist politician and member of the police board in Northern Ireland.

Violence and sectarian tension fell dramatically during his seven years in charge of the force, as he oversaw policing after the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

He did not carry all with him; Sinn Fein's spokesman on police affairs, Gerry Kelly, claimed that nationalists were left disappointed: "He clung on to plastic bullets, he defended their use; you can imagine the irony and anger when he gives arguments for not using them in England."

He was, by most accounts, sad to leave. His tenure had survived the breakdown of his marriage and left his reputation intact.

He was said to have been bitterly disappointed when he narrowly failed to secure the top job at the Metropolitan Police in 2009; Sir Paul Stephenson was appointed instead. In taking the job of president at the Association of Chief Police Officers, he lost the high profile he enjoyed in Northern Ireland. Friends believe he misses taking centre-stage, though it would give him more time to indulge his passion for fine wine. Despite his stated reluctance to apply, Brian Paddick believes Orde will seek the top job at the Met.

"It's unusual for the president of ACPO to appear in all these interviews in uniform," says Paddick. "He is sending a clear signal: how would I look in the commissioner's uniform?"

Born 27 August 1958, London

Family His father was a hospital archivist and his mother a nurse.

Education Godalming Grammar School and Kent University.

Career He became a commander in south London in 1993. He was appointed Commander (Crime) for South West London in June 1998. Widely praised for the seven years he spent as Chief Constable in Northern Ireland from 2002. In 2009 he returned to the Met and is currently Chief Constable and President of the Association of Chief Police Officers. He was knighted in 2005.

He says "The more robust policing tactics you saw were not a function of political interference; they were a function of the numbers being available to allow the chief constables to change their tactics."

They say: "I regard him as a political opponent. But I like him very much." Former IRA prisoner and writer Anthony McIntyre.