Jim Gamble: ‘I was under threat but was more fearful for my family’
Chris Kilpatrick talks to the former head of Special Branch in Belfast who applied to be PSNI chief constable and was chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.
Q. You spent three decades in policing,
HOW THE FUCK CAN YOU BELIEVE THE MCCANNS?
A. My father was in the RAF so I grew up with a service background. The natural progression was into the Army for me, I joined the military police. Ironically it provided me with an insight into divided communities that was very symbolic and visible. I was stationed in west Berlin so you had a physical structure which divided communities and actually two communities who desperately wanted to be together.
Q. You join the RUC, moved on to Special Branch, and then to England.
A. When I came back to Northern Ireland it was initially with the bomb squad in a military police role and then I came out and joined the RUC. I went through the ranks to be head of Special Branch in Belfast. As peace was breaking out I passed the strategic command course and ended up as the assistant chief constable in the National Crime Squad.
I then became deputy director general of the National Crime Squad. I was asked to build a new organisation called the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP). I resisted it at the beginning, I didn’t think it was exactly what I wanted to do, and in the end it was one of the highlights of my career.
Q. Heading up Special Branch in Belfast brings with it all sorts of huge challenges and pressures, what was that time like?
A. I look back on my time with Special Branch as having been a privilege. I know some people will read this and not like that. First of all I understand it depends on the geography of where you were born in Northern Ireland, what your view of a particular issue or particular group of individuals will be. What I will say on my own part is I have been proud of many of the things I have done in my career and that pride is as strong as anywhere as regard that work we did in RUC Special Branch. I worked with people who made extraordinary sacrifices, exposed themselves to horrific levels of danger to keep people safe. You hear all sorts. Every organisation will have bad apples, people who are motivated to do the wrong thing.
But in my experience the vast majority of people I worked with were good, decent people who got up in the morning to go and do a job that was about keeping people safe. It was a different time and a different place. There’s no doubt the lessons learned and skill sets developed in that arena helped me in the latter part of my career.
A. At that time the key was you retained a low profile. You went about your job and did your job in an environment in which police were under constant threat and not by accident but by design as people set out to murder and maim police officers. So that was always in the back of your mind.
Q. How do you deal with that?
A. I think anybody who has worked in a job which is inherently dangerous tends to survive on the basis of ‘it won’t be me’. It will happen to someone else. There were times you would have a close shave and pause and think of the risks. But the camaraderie and spirit in work kept you going. You were much more fearful for your family. What you said, where you lived. On occasions when you had to move, rapidly– overnight on one occasion – from somewhere your children grew up to a completely different area.
Q. Can you tell me more about those close shaves? How close was it?
A. No. But I recognise when saying that other people from other areas with different backgrounds and views would have experienced their own trauma. I don’t see myself as a victim of the Troubles. I don’t see myself as a victim, I don’t see combatants as victims.
I do see those who were going about their business and were gunned down or blown up, I see them as innocent victims. If I carry a bomb into a building and I kill innocent people, those innocent people are victims. If I carried the bomb I am not innocent. Likewise, if I stood on the periphery of a riot and shot an unarmed rioter, who represented no threat to me, I am not a victim either.
Q. You would have lost colleagues, close friends – how did you feel when some of the perpetrators were being set free from prison?
A. It’s never easy to see someone on the street who has inflicted the most horrific injuries, who has brutalised and murdered other human beings, whether they are Catholic or Protestant. It’s never easy to see them enjoy liberty those no longer with us cannot.
I couldn’t have been the person to enthusiastically agree that. What I do see now are the benefits we did accrue from it to allow the peace process to be delivered at the particular time. My children grew up in a period that was really dominated by hope, the fact we were moving in a new direction. I began not having to worry so much about them being in Belfast shopping but worry about the normal things parents do when they have sons or daughters. It’s about how we respect the sacrifice of others in the past by collaborating and building a more positive future together.
Q. You served with the police for around 30 years, you were a highly-commended officer and you applied for the job of Chief Constable. Why did you not get it? Were you perceived as being outspoken or perhaps because of your security and intelligence background?
A. I think I was a round peg in a round hole at CEOP. The only job that could have attracted me away from that was Chief Constable of the PSNI. At the time I could not resist applying for it. Many of my friends said I was wasting my time because of my background with Special Branch, that would perhaps would be an impediment. Being shortlisted was an honour. Why didn’t I get it? Maybe I wasn’t good enough on the day. What I do believe with the gift of hindsight was that I wasn’t the right person for the job given where we are now. Had I been chief constable people would have been more concerned during these fragile moments because of the political issues, the specific issues we see at the minute. My background as a Special Branch officer would have been unhelpful and perhaps unhealthy for the service. I’ve no complaints about that.
Q. Who would your money be on this time round?
A. Leadership in the country is critically important and one of the key leadership roles in Northern Ireland is that of a chief constable. Communities and the context of their role, aspirations and engagement with one another, with the police service – it’s really important this time round we have the opportunity to select someone who understands that. There are some real good applicants in for it.
Q. Who stands out among the candidates?
A. Cressida Dick from the Met comes with a lot of experience in the Met but Northern Ireland is very, very different from that Metropolitan Police environment which is layer upon layer of management regime.
I think it’s time for a local person and my own view is they have a candidate who fits that criteria. It’s about having that leadership that knows who we are, warts and all. The sensitivities and when to be sensitive, but also the time to be right down the line.
If you’re not right down the line with everybody then you have people saying why did you not do with them what you did with us. It’s no surprise that out of the candidates, the best I believe is George Hamilton.
Q. What does he bring to the job?
A. I would hope the board recognise that in him they have an individual with all the right skills, who will make the right decisions and be scrupulously fair. I think George is someone who recognises the need to respect diversity beyond the rhetoric of saying the right thing. Real leadership is about being seen and being seen to do the right thing.
Q. Matt Baggott came here as a champion of neighbourhood policing. Was it too soon for that approach or style of policing here?
A. I think everybody wanted to be heading in a direction that was going to be about even greater integration with the community through the police service that we delivered. Matt came with the perfect CV for that.
I think maybe had we a better barometer at the time, had we known there were going to be the problems that there ultimately would be, you could argue that maybe one of the other candidates – certainly not me – would have brought some other skills. But at the end of the day it’s about a blend. Matt has come in, he’s faced a difficult task.
Hugh Orde was an excellent chief constable. Real strength of leadership and, agree or disagree with him, he knew what he wanted to do and he was prepared to stand up and be counted and do that. Matt came in at a time when everybody thought things were now fine and suddenly there were bumps in the road, there were real issues and they weren’t going to be resolved in the short term without default to some of the older skill-sets around public order, community unrest.
Everybody thought we had already arrived at peace when Matt took over. To be fair, the last couple of years have shown we’re quite far from it.
Q. Have the politicians failed him?
A. It’s easy to blame politicians and I do that myself, quite frequently. I blame politicians for things at Westminster and sometimes I look at politicians here and shake my head. I think they can make the chief constable’s life more difficult but they should hold the chief constable to account. The appropriate place to do that of course is through the Policing Board which I think has done a remarkable job and put politics in the right place.
Politicians outside of that governance structure can sometimes create real difficulties by simply saying things that are hugely provocative or that are unnecessary or unhelpful. Policing is so difficult and in Northern Ireland you are policing within that political context where it is not about getting it right for the powers that be, it’s about being seen to get it right.
Q. Has he been too appeasing at times? During the disorder round flags and parades say?
A. It’s unfair of me to cast judgment on Matt because he’s been in the hotseat, he’s had to make the difficult decisions. He’s had to make those decisions about flags and when to intercede. All I can say is that had I been in that seat the flags protest would have been dealt with much more robustly and at an earlier stage.
Q. How would you have done that?
A. That could have been the wrong way to go because that may have inflamed the situation. I think when you have a protest, whether it’s green or orange or somewhere in the middle, you have to take firm and decisive action at the earliest possible opportunity to prevent it escalating. Then again Matt in his role – and I’ve a lot of respect for him – would have access to all of the intelligence. He will know things you and I can’t possibly know. We’ll second guess those decisions. He might know the consequences of doing one thing a day early could have led to a massive escalation. It’s easy to be the chief constable from an armchair. He’s had that job and during what has been a difficult time.
Q. As well as the disorder of the past couple of years, we saw an increase in so-called dissident republican activity. What’s your assessment of the threat they pose?
A. I’ve no insight but I don’t feel we are on the brink of going back to where we were or anywhere near that. It’s always worrying. It’s worrying from a personal security point of view, for retired colleagues and for those colleagues today living in areas I wouldn’t possibly have done in the past. That puts them and the community in a difficult position and that’s where you look to your political leaders.
Q. What did you make of the comments of Martin McGuinness recently when he referred to dark forces and a cabal within police?
A. The Deputy First Minister is entitled to his view. Ironically he’s somebody I’ve watched over the past number of years with interest because I think he is someone who has developed as a political leader. I’ve seen him at times when others have said things I wish they wouldn’t, he has been considered about his language.
I was therefore really disappointed when things escalated in the way they did when the police were simply doing the job they are employed to do.
Q. You now specialise in child safety. How did you go from Special Branch to heading up CEOP?
A. By accident as opposed to design. The move from Northern Ireland with the experience at Special Branch to National Crime Squad was a simple one which made sense.
As assistant chief constable for intelligence and operational support I worked in the fight against organised crime, from drug-dealing to human trafficking and financial crimes.
Almost by a quirk of fate one day I was asked to carry out a review of an operation called Operation Ore. Once I completed that review I recommended that because of the complexity of the technology involved, the weight of data coming in, that there needed to be an approach that was child-centred.
Within a few days I was appointed as the lead for co-ordination of Operation Ore which for some was seen as contentious. I saw it as a huge success in that identified and located over 100 children and over the years it unfolded held more than 2,500 people to account. Having done that I was offered to take on the role setting up what was to become CEOP.
Q. Have you had any doubts about doing this job?
A. I was on a trip to Cambodia and while I was there I saw square mile after square mile of rubbish, steaming rubbish. Dump trucks would come in and drop off more rubbish and children of three, four and five years of age would rummage through it. If they could fill a sack the same height if not higher than themselves they would get 25 cents.
You realise then the environment, that vulnerability. Then when you see Western men were visiting there and were buying those children for between seven and 12 dollars, taking them to their hotel and abusing them, you recognise suffering in a different way.
For me it was almost a road to Damascus-type of conversion. What an honour to have an opportunity to build something where you are part of a team of very special people. To build something which has actually made a difference in a young person’s life.
Q. You invested a lot in CEOP, you built it up but then you walk away in 2010. Do you regret it?
A. I came to the point it was a matter of principle. For me it was the right thing. My fear was that it would be subsumed into a larger organisation. The Home Secretary said it would retain its identity, its profile and they would build on the success it had. Well, arrests have dropped in the last three years, the sign outside CEOP no longer says CEOP. It says National Crime Agency. Its profile has dropped. In NCA the C stands for crime. In CEOP the C always stood for children.
Q. One of the cases you have been involved in was the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. Do you think her parents Kate and Gerry will ever get the answers they crave?
A. I think Gerry and Kate McCann will get closure in my lifetime. My heart goes out to them. I never cease to be appalled by some of the things people say.