Sir Hugh Orde: Commissioner in waiting?

His intelligence, dedication and wit command admiration – even from opponents. But is he too plain-speaking for the politicians to make him the country's top copper? And does he want the job?

If there is one thing about Sir Hugh Orde on which 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 the Government about how to maintain police numbers in the face of proposed budget cuts. He dismissed the idea that water cannon 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 phone-hacking scandal, would the opportunity to run a force in disarray and with plummeting morale appeal? Sir Hugh said last month that he had not decided, pointing out that the Mayor of London, 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 presciently last year: "I don't think the Home Secretary should make an enemy of Sir Hugh Orde."

Sir Hugh joined the Metropolitan Police in 1977. Early on, he was marked for an advancement that was at odds with his academic achievements. He failed his 11-plus and had expected to switch his early life on a farm for agricultural college, before he was swayed by a police careers talk. He was put through a public administration degree at Kent University and was promoted swiftly through the ranks.

Even as a sergeant, he had the air of a leader, colleagues recall. He replaced Brian Paddick in a posting to south London when he was made a sergeant in his early twenties, a self-confident, "macho" figure who fitted in, Mr 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 areas of London no-go zones. Before the shake-out 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 that felt it had been let down, but he swiftly won the public's trust. "Hugh Orde stands out as one of the most genuine of senior police," says Claudia Webbe, the founder of an advisory group working with the police. "He had a real focus, dedication and level of intelligence that's unique."

Sir Hugh was 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, after the upheaval of the Patten reforms designed to promote the peace process by building the confidence of the nationalist population in the hitherto Unionist-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary. The transformation of the RUC to the Police Service of Northern Ireland had led to an exodus of senior officers with intelligence-gathering expertise and experience. Morale was low, but he helped to rebuild it. With his gruff copper's voice and his puckish humour (he lists Tom Sharpe and Spike Milligan among his favourite writers), he was labelled a "policeman's policeman" and popular among the rank-and-file officers.

He also won a grudging respect for his plain speaking from figures on both sides of the political divide. An initially sceptical Ian Paisley Jnr admitted that nobody needed a dictionary to understand Hugh Orde – though the officer 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, though critics would say much of that was attributable to the change in the political landscape.

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," said Mr Kelly. "You can imagine the irony and anger when he gives arguments for not using them in England."

There were setbacks; his community policing plan was hit by the threat of dissident republicans. The investigation into the killing of Robert McCartney in 2005 remained unsolved after officers met with a wall of silence. A month earlier, a gang stole more than £26m from the Northern Bank in one of Britain's biggest robberies.

He was, by most accounts, sad to leave. His tenure had survived the breakdown of his marriage and with his reputation intact. (A keen marathon runner, he was photographed running with his lover at races, contributing to his continued presence on the front pages of the Northern Irish newspapers.) He later said the incident made him realise that as chief constable, he was, at all times, in the public eye. 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 trappings, the official car and the high profile he enjoyed in Northern Ireland. As chief constable, he had met several US presidents and frequented the inside of 10 Downing Street with Gerry Adams.

Friends believe he misses taking centre stage – though it would give him more time to indulge his passion for fine wine. Despite Sir Hugh's stated reluctance to apply, Brian Paddick believes he will seek the top job at the Metropolitan Police. "It's unusual for the president of ACPO to appear in all these interviews in uniform," says Mr Paddick. "He is sending a clear signal: how would I look in the commissioner's uniform?" And his favourite song is Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run".

A life in brief

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." Writer and former IRA prisoner Anthony McIntyre

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