The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Meeting Hugh Orde


Anthony McIntyre • 7 November 2004

When it was announced that the Blanket had conducted an interview with PSNI boss Hugh Orde, many people from a range of backgrounds were interested to know had I not found it a strange piece of business to pursue. Since I travelled to Knock PSNI headquarters a fortnight ago along with Blanket editor, Carrie Twomey, the most frequent question to come my way has been 'what was he like?' They knew already what Hugh Orde had to say, as a transcript of the full interview appeared online.

The Knock interview was the fourth and not the first occasion on which I had met and spoken with the leader of the British state’s police force in the North. It was also the most sustained and intense exchange. The previous encounters were fleeting affairs; once at a conference, another in the rest room of a down town restaurant, and on the third occasion at a commemorative appreciation for the late Jack Holland. It was at the latter that the Blanket editor approached him and asked for an interview. That’s how it works – the eye for opportunity bags the prize.

I knew he hadn’t horns and, consequently, felt little anticipation as we crossed the city. Previous journeys to police stations were much more contentious affairs. On one occasion, my return ticket could not be used before 17 years had expired. This time it was different, mainly for two reasons: I knew I would be out within the hour; and I could do something other than either lie my way through the session or remain silent. Our demeanour was relaxed. Our driver, up until a few months ago a Sinn Fein member, bantered us about history in the making. He brought a camera so that he could snap us on the way out.

The groundwork had been done. We had earlier taken soundings from a variety of people, those who never have the chance to address people in positions of authority. We sought out the most marginalised. Their concerns were reflected in the questions asked. In as far as was possible we strived to make our questions reflect a constituency much wider than our own intellectual curiosity. In a sense we were democratic to a fault - some of those who engaged with the PSNI chief through the medium of the Blanket have themselves scant regard for democratic sentiment. Nevertheless, they represent the gaps, the hidden voices, the silences that never fail to tell us something which the powerful want smoothed over and pressed out of the narrative. While conscious of those who would see in us a means to prise open the clamp that the state imposes on the free flow of information, there was no intention on our part to play to the gallery and behave in a hostile manner to Hugh Orde. But we were determined not to give him the type of interview that in the business is called a robin. Our questions would be probing, direct and engaging.

The interview was straightforward. We had our questions typed out in front of us, copies of which we handed to Hugh Orde and his press secretary on arrival in his office. It would speed up the process by rendering unnecessary any need on our part to repeat sometimes lengthy questions. The PSNI press office had not asked for a copy of them in advance although it had suggested that a general indication of the areas we intended to cover would permit more rounded answers. Reasonable enough. When we arrived, there were only a few minutes waiting around until we were ushered into the office of the chief constable. Coffee was served and the interview was under way.

Over the years I have had call to deal with many of Hugh Orde's subordinates and have been in quite a few rooms with them, usually very Spartan places - three chairs and a table. Myself on one side and two interrogators on the other. Only weeks ago I accompanied a local kid to the station as a 'competent adult'. He was asked to attend to be questioned about some minor fracas. The 'interview suite' may have a nice ring to it but it looked much the same as they always did. They are not exactly constructed with a welcome in mind. Now and then, during my own interrogations, my chair went unused as I was forced to stand. On the very infrequent occasions when they would try to spread-eagle me against the wall I merely sat on the floor ignoring them. The cops, unlike the military, usually provided me with a chair.

This time it was different. For once a friend accompanied me in a police station, and the cop I was facing had a smile rather than a scowl. His companion was not some burly rugby type brought in specifically for the hard cop soft-cop routine. It was a press aide. The seating was brown leather which I sank into upon sitting down. Most striking of all in terms of contrast, however, was that on this occasion I asked the questions. It was the most I had ever talked in a police station and later it brought a wry smile to my face when I read in the Village magazine, that an ‘ex-IRA prisoner interrogates Hugh Orde.'

Some people are of the view that it is a sign of how things have changed that someone from my stable was actually able to gain access to the chief constable. To an extent there is truth in this but the nature of that change is instructive. Few now believe that Hugh Orde heads a police force which sees its primary objective as the repression of nationalists. But the force is what the RUC always was - despite republican assertions that the RUC was primarily the armed wing of unionism - the police force of the British state and no other. I knew I was going in to meet a new police chief but not, crucially, the chief of a new police force. When the Patten report was published Danny Morrison writing in the Sunday Tribune commented that it did not constitute the long sought republican objective of RUC disbandment. Maurice Hayes later waxed ironical on the notion of republicans elevating Patten into some form of Holy Grail when in fact it was proof of the failure of republicanism to secure anything remotely like the disbandment of the RUC. The real change, which formed the backdrop to my Knock exchange with the police leader, was that on all my earlier involuntary visits to police stations I was a member of an army that was fighting a war. I was there because those holding me sought to inflict a defeat on the army of which I was a part. This time my visit was voluntary. I was going in as a former member of a defeated army to meet the head of a victorious British police force who would answer what concerns I might have about British policing. The very fact of its Britishness requires little else to be said.

Hugh Orde was sharp, relaxed, genial, witty, robust. He was not afraid to engage. In fact by agreeing to the interview he was making it clear that he was prepared to face questions from an element generally regarded to be more hostile to the force he commands than most other sections of society. If he could field the questions from that quarter, then he would close down the space for those who continue to argue against the new policing arrangements. Intuitively, we were aware of this but felt it would be cowardly not to press him for fear that his answers would trump our questions. Should we only play games we know we are going to win?

Did we win? I don't think so. On the day, Hugh Orde acquitted himself very well. While there was nothing to suggest personal dishonesty on his part many of his answers were political. But then he is a political cop – as the head of any British police force in Ireland must always be. We left Knock feeling we asked the questions that were relevant. If the answers were not what we would have wanted, the importance of raising the questions as a matter of public record should not be understated. Our task was to demonstrate that there are still serious questions to be asked of the police.

The morning after the interview was published in full a friend sent an e mail praising the Blanket for having the courage to take it on, but suggesting we stand by for flak from the Left, Sinn Fein and traditionalist republicans. We were unconcerned. As they say, those who matter won’t mind and those who mind won’t matter. In the event we met no hostility. Most people seemed interested in the dialogue that had taken place. One said he had never seen a senior cop asked such a wide range of questions. Other Blanket readers were interested in the questions posed about racism, investigative journalism and street traders. An American friend felt Orde was a good cop but the British state’s cop nonetheless. Many, whom I anticipated being more blinkered and antagonistic, surprised me firstly by saying that the Blanket was right to do the interview but secondly by conceding that Hugh Orde put in a solid performance. One word featured in all the commentary on the PSNI boss – ‘astute’.

As a result, speaking after the interview, strangely enough to a former prisoner who is still wedded to the perspective of physical force republicanism, I expressed the reservation that because Hugh Orde had responded so firmly to our probing that in a sense we, as republicans opposed to the police, may have helped his case look more plausible. His response - 'you are only responsible for your questions, not his answers.'

We can live with that.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

7 November 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

How We Progressives Helped Elect G.W. Bush
Fred A. Wilcox

No Escape from the Anthill
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Talking With... Áine Gribbon

Meeting Hugh Orde
Anthony McIntyre

A Woman's Right to Choose
Mick Hall

A Single Palestine
Peter Urban

Turkey Day
Brian Mór

4 November 2004

The Torture of John Devine
Anthony McIntyre

Defending the Faith
Dr John Coulter

Simulating the Simulators
Eoghan O’Suillabhain

Learning from Hurley
Gréagoir O’Gaothin

Politics and Reason
Mark Burke

If Looks Could Kill
Sean Smyth

Fraternal Parting
Davy Carlin

Bluebeard's Castle
Toni Solo



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