Sir Ronnie Flanagan: The smooth operator

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The Independent Online

Five years ago the serendipity of Sir Ronnie Flanagan's appointment as Chief Constable of the RUC was that a highly intelligent moderniser had arrived to head a force that was faced with making the greatest changes in its history.

The irony now, as he prepares to retire early next year, is that he stands accused of presiding over an Omagh investigation which, if the police ombudsman is to be believed, was an old-fashioned piece of police bungling. He has yet to respond fully and in detail to Nuala O'Loan's criticism that the inquiry into the 29 Omagh deaths was so flawed, disorganised and devoid of leadership that in effect no proper investigation was carried out at all.

The effectiveness of his response will help determine his lasting reputation. In one way he will be regarded as a thoroughly modern policeman who masterfully handled sweeping changes; but that reputation may be sullied if the impression persists that the incompetence of his detectives means the mass-murderers of Omagh have escaped jail.

Since there is hardly a more shocking charge that could be levelled at a Chief Constable, it was perhaps understandable that he should declare that, if Mrs O'Loan was correct in her judgement, "I would not only resign – I would go and publicly commit suicide". It was however a rare and completely unexpected outburst of emotion for a policeman with a world-class gift for communication and a natural flair for smooth public relations, qualities which helped take him to the top of the RUC.

He was its last Chief Constable, guiding it through its transformation to today's Police Service of Northern Ireland. Now aged 52, he began life in a quietly respectable Belfast neighbourhood, a working-class Presbyterian whose father worked in the shipyard. He went to a local primary school and grammar school and then went on to Queen's University, but left to join the RUC. He has since picked up a BA and an MA, as well as completing courses with the FBI and Police Staff College at Bramshill.

He did well at rugby, playing for Ulster several times and displaying what one sports commentator described as "the wisdom, know-how, physical toughness and humour to survive". He is married with three children, one of whom is a policeman.

He joined the RUC in 1970, which meant he has experienced just about the whole of the Troubles in its ranks. During his career he spent time in Belfast, Londonderry and in the Special Branch, the department so heavily criticised by Mrs O'Loan.

The Special Branch has been at the centre of many of Northern Ireland's policing controversies. Its supporters regard it as a crucial bulwark of democracy against the terrorist menace, and a grouping which has saved hundreds of lives.

Its critics on the other hand accuse it of a litany of offences ranging brutality towards suspects, collusion with loyalist death-squads and a series of high-level cover-ups. Opinion is thus divided between those who think its personnel should be given medals, and those who think they should be prosecuted.

Although Sir Ronnie was an important figure within Special Branch, at one stage serving as its chief, he was never personally identified with any of its alleged misdeeds. The paradox is that in contrast to the Branch's legendary secrecy, he gained a reputation as an outgoing, personable and apparently open individual. His social skills are legendary, his wit and deadpan delivery earning him a reputation as a world-class after-dinner speaker.

He is sociable, holds his drink well, is impressive at dinner parties and has a droll sense of humour. He mocks his baldness, once saying with a smile to a newspaper editor who affected long, flowing grey locks: "Jazus, if I had hair I wouldn't have it like that."

He was once a Mason but left before becoming Chief Constable. He reads, and often quotes, W B Yeats, and listens to Van Morrison and Bob Dylan.

He defeated an older, more traditionalist candidate for the job of Chief Constable. His opponent had more support in the ranks but Sir Ronnie displayed a more modern public image. He had also held many of the RUC's most sensitive posts.

Universally regarded as the best communicator the RUC has ever produced, he had already developed into the force's foremost voice on radio and television. One diplomat described him as "the most plausible policeman in the world".

When he took over in 1996 terrorism was on the wane but policing was in crisis in the wake of the worst of the recurring Drumcree marching controversies, with widespread disorder . He said at the time: "Northern Ireland cannot withstand another summer like this. The country crept right to the edge of the abyss."

The RUC was never going to win the warm support of the nationalist community, but Sir Ronnie managed to cope with the near-collapse of Catholic confidence in his force. At the same time, the paramilitary ceasefires of the mid-Nineties and the subsequent political talks posed major challenges to the RUC. By then the force had lost 300 members, killed by the IRA and other groups. In many ways it had been required to function more as an army than a conventional police force, operating from fortresses and patrolling in heavily-armed formations. The decline in violence and the possibility of greater political stability meant it became realistic to think of how to re-integrate it back into society.

Two years ago a commission headed by Chris Patten produced a blueprint for a smaller force with a different name, more Catholics, more women, a greater civilian component, different structures and a new ethos based on human rights and community policing.

The Patten report's theme was how to transform a closed force into an open and transparent organisation. Given that police officers naturally tend to be conservative types who are instinctively resistant to change, putting that into practice is a tall order. Many in the ranks felt affronted and insulted, in particular by the prospect of having the force renamed.

The process of pushing through such changes was fraught, since many in the force regarded changes as implicit criticisms of its record. Belfast's main Protestant newspaper splashed five words on its front page: "Betrayed – RUC death warrant signed."

To make matters worse, the question of updating the force inevitably became enmeshed in the wider picture, and the subject of fierce political firestorms.

The RUC was largely Protestant and therefore Unionist, which meant many and probably most officers were against the Good Friday Agreement which gave rise to the changes. Many of them felt pain at the loss of the force's name, disliked the fact that it came about as the result of an accord of which they disapproved, and were deeply cynical and sceptical about the peace process.

They had, after all, spent years locking up IRA and loyalist terrorists, only to watch as they were freed under the Agreement's early release provisions. Some senior officers regularly briefed journalists that the IRA was simply waiting for the RUC's defences to be dismantled, and would then go back to war.

In the last few tricky years Sir Ronnie has not been accused of dropping the RUC's guard. But at the same time his approach has conveyed, discreetly but unmistakably, that he is a supporter of the peace process. He never, for example, joined Unionist politicians in demanding arms decommissioning.

I was once present when a senior loyalist approached a senior policing figure and said: "Tell the police we very much appreciate the third ceasefire, the RUC ceasefire."

Loyalists were grateful, he explained, that in the wake of the IRA and loyalist ceasefires the RUC had not gone on "long arm of the law" trawling expeditions.

Even his enemies acknowledge his skills. A senior republican figure said very privately some years ago: " I have to say he impresses me at various levels. I think the guy can see, he has quite a political grasp of the situation and seems to be fairly flexible. Flanagan has a track record as a member of the Special Branch and some of our people have personal experience of him, but I think that you have to allow for people to change."

The authorities will be forever grateful to Sir Ronnie for pushing through the required changes. Another Chief Constable might have waged a campaign of obstruction to change: he did the opposite, helping put the new regime in place as gracefully as possible.

A senior figure in the policing world said of him yesterday: "I don't think the changes could have been carried out without him. He has shown great leadership and the ability to bring his people with him."

That part of the Flanagan legacy is in fact secure enough since, like it or loathe it, the RUC has been a central prop of society. Any sort of mutiny or disintegration would have brought chronic destabilisation; Sir Ronnie is given widespread credit for ensuring that did not happen.

Such commendations for the RUC will however always be set against the allegations against the force in relation to a series of controversies, such as the Patrick Finucane affair. These are the legacies of three decades of lethal struggle with the IRA and other groups.

But while such allegations and suspicions are familiar enough, the surprise in the Omagh case has been to see Sir Ronnie and his force accused not of conspiracy but of cock-up.

The man who helped bring the new policing dispensation into being has fallen foul of one of its important new elements, the police ombudsman. Instead of a new beginning with the promise of accountability and transparency, the police are once again locked in bitter attacks on an investigating agency.

At this moment the O'Loan charge sheet represents a devastating prima facie case against those who investigated Omagh: Sir Ronnie will need to produce convincing arguments to rebut it. For the sake of his reputation, and that of the police in general, it had better be good.

Biography

Born: Ronald Flanagan, 25 March 1949.

Parents: son of John Patrick Flanagan, a shipyard worker from the Oldpark area of north Belfast, and Henrietta Flanagan.

Family: Married Lorraine Nixon in 1968; they have three sons.

Education: Belfast High School; University of Ulster (BA, MA); graduate from the FBI National Academy in 1987.

Police career: Joined the Royal Ulster Constabulary, 1970; constable 1970; sergeant, Belfast 1973; inspector, Londonderry1976, Belfast 1977; detective inspector 1981; detective chief inspector 1983; detective superintendent, Armagh, 1987; chief superintendent, police staff college, Bramshill, London, 1990; assistant chief constable, Belfast, 1992; head of special branch, 1994; acting deputy chief constable 1995; chief constable, November 1996. Knighted in the new year's honours list of1999. Announced decision to retire, 2001.

Hobbies: Walking, rugby, reading (especially Yeats's poetry), music (particularly Van Morrison).

He says: "If that was a conclusion reached as a result of a rigorous, fair investigation, I would not only resign, I would go on to publicly commit suicide" (reacting to the report on the Omagh bomb by Nuala O'Loan, the police ombudsman, which alleged failures of leadership at the top of the RUC).

They say: "Nuala O'Loan may have found the chief constable edgy and proud, but I can assure her that she, the new police service and all its accountability paraphernalia would not exist but for Ronnie Flanagan" – Peter Mandelson, a former secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

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