The man who will have control of security for next month’s G8 summit – which will bring Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin to the beautiful but occasionally-dangerous Fermanagh – looked worried, pale and drawn at Christmas, after the rioting in Belfast.
Matt Baggott, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, was this week in confident mood, and seemed to have recovered following the ordeal of the Belfast loyalist flag protests which lasted for months. The long-running disruption injured almost 150 of his officers. Now he seems up to the fresh challenge of protecting some of the world’s most powerful figures.
While one of his officers describes some dissidents as “dedicated, professional, ruthless terrorists”, it is thought unlikely that even the wildest of them would attack an event attended by figures such as the US president.
Nonetheless, security sources say they would not be surprised if dissidents were to stage an incident somewhere in Northern Ireland, even if only in the form of a hoax device, in order to get on international television.
Although Northern Ireland has seen many major security operations, this will be one of the biggest - “logistically huge,” in his words, deploying many of his service’s 7,000 personnel, plus 3,600 police drafted in from England, Scotland and Wales, as well as hundreds of civilian security staff. The army is providing helicopters to whisk VIPs around, while there has been close cooperation from forces in Britain, the US, Canada and elsewhere.
“Northern Ireland is actually a very safe place,” he insists, in an interview with The Independent. “Our crime figures are the lowest for 15 years. Many of my colleagues in America and across Europe would gladly swap their command for the low level of crime here.”
But there is of course the continuing menace of dissident republicans who are still attempting to carry on the war which the old mainstream IRA has long abandoned.
So the officers from British forces are being trained up in techniques such as the use of armoured Land Rovers, and will be issued with body armour.
He has blunt advice for local politicians.
“Take some risks,” he urges them. “Step outside of seeing things through a political lens and one of political advantage, and start shaping policy on the calls of need as opposed to politics.
“Sometimes loud political voices don’t actually help. Where I think politicians have a greater role to play is in addressing deep-seated social need as opposed to just dealing with the rhetoric of shared future.
“We need a lot more focused work in those difficult disadvantaged neighbourhoods where paramilitarism has its roots, to try and improve the life particularly of young people, and deal with the angst felt by working class Protestants and republicans. That has yet to happen.”
He adds: “Sadly, terrorism in Northern Ireland is the backdrop against which the PSNI has to operate and it is a severe threat to colleagues, something we’ve been living with for years. We’ve invested over £200 million in counter-terrorism – money which should have been spent on issues such as social improvement.
“But that has been successful: 166 people have been charged in the last few years with terrorism, and sadly the prison is full. They are being broken up, disrupted, But the problem is persistent, even if it is on a relatively small scale compared to the past.
“They cannot and will not sustain a significant campaign, but they have the ability to cause us problems in day-to-day policing.”
At next month’s G8, thousands of demonstrators are expected from all over the world. Large tracts of Fermanagh will be under virtual lock-down, with many vehicle checkpoints in place. In the event of trouble, hundreds of holding cells have been made ready.
Then after the summit will come the next policing challenge in the form of the traditional Orange marching season. This involves thousands of parades, most of them entirely peaceful, but every year brings disorder at flashpoints.
The flag protests cost more than £20 million in policing alone. Some, mostly nationalists, thought the PSNI should have been more robust in keeping the streets clear while others, chiefly unionists, accused him of being heavy-handed.
“My frustration is that our strategy followed the human rights act to the letter,” he complained. “But we ended up being condemned from both sides - one for being too soft, the other for being too hard.”
Comparatively few arrests were made during the disturbances, but since then 186 charges have been brought, with many more on the way. “Sometimes police can’t deal with the problem at a moment in time because of public safety requirements,” he argued.
He has said that moving people off the roads “in a very, very robust way” could have brought 20,000 or more on to the streets. “But we do not forget about it,” he added. “We go looking for justice afterwards.”
But has this recent wave of arrests produced a backlash in the loyalist backstreets? “No, in fact we’ve had significant support from people identifying the photos we’ve put out,” was his reply. “The vast majority of people are sick to the back teeth with it, fed up with it.”
Although the flag protests eventually petered out, loyalists have since festooned Belfast with large numbers of flags. The question of their legality is a grey area which he would like to see clarified, perhaps with local council taking a role.
He has strong views on the issue. “The flying of flags in areas where they’re not wanted, where there is not an allegiance to that political persuasion, may not be criminal but it can be very provocative,” he declared.
“So is the painting of kerbstones outside schools. It is wrong. It’s something that creates tension and fear, and we should be in a society now where fear and anxiety are put back into the past.”
In the hope of a relatively calm marching season, he is organising private discussions with community figures and activists, to be held in Cardiff. According to Mr Baggott: “If we can, by tweaking, reach a place where people have greater consensus and we end up without problems in July, that would be fabulous. That is what we are working towards.”
He admits concern about what may lie ahead, but adds: “My hope is that the sheer number of arrests that we’ve made, and the fact that a lot of tension has been released, means we can enter into the parading season with a far greater degree of measured talking and quiet conversations.
“Many people that would be willing to riot are now facing significant custodial sentences - that in itself must have an effect on future potential disorder.”
In the longer term the Chief Constable will be lobbying for more manpower and more money, pointing out to the Treasury the persistence of terrorism and of public disorder. “We had probably run down parts of the PSNI’s capability with too great a degree of optimism - unfortunately the terrorism problem came back,” he said. Now resources “are very tight.”
So with such social problems, recurring street disturbances and sporadic terrorist attacks, what is the state of affairs in Belfast? “There has been massive progress,” he responded. “I genuinely see hugely growing relationships of trust with local police. We do benefit from hugely improved community confidence.
“The very fact that the G8 summit is coming here is in itself an international accolade. I think we need to sometimes remember how far we’ve come on the journey.”