Northern Ireland policing and the road yet to be travelled
Peadar Heffron’s story reveals difficulties many Catholics have had joining the PSNI
Former PSNI constable Peadar Heffron, who lost his leg in a terrorist attack, with with former GAA player and columnist Joe Brolly in Belfast during a PSNI v Garda match. Photograph: Presseye/Stephen Hamilton
The PSNI GAA crest.
Members of the Garda and PSNI GAA cluns in Croke Park after a game in 2011.
The 2006 game between the PSNI Gaelic football team, which Peadar Heffron captained, and St Brigid’s in Belfast. Photograph: Arthur Allison
Fifteen years after the creation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland a third of its officers are from a Catholic background, two-thirds from a Protestant background.
Some are religious. Most are probably not, but PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris was keen for more Catholics to apply when he launched a recruitment drive earlier this year. The campaign to hire 300 more officers closed on Friday, though there are signs that the optimistic hopes that existed back in 2002 for a force that represented all parts of life in the North are now struggling.
“The positivity has gone away. In the older days there was a good atmosphere, and that, if possible, needs to be regained – it has to be regained,” says Denis Bradley, a former vice-chairman of the Policing Board.
For many, the fate of Peadar Heffron illustrates much. In August 2006, 3½ years before his car was blown up by dissident republicans, Heffron togged out as captain of the PSNI Gaelic football team against St Brigid’s from south Belfast.
The GAA had shortly before abandoned Rule 21 which prohibited members of the British forces and PSNI from playing Gaelic football or hurling. Sinn Féin, however, had still to sign up to support policing.
Five of the six counties in Northern Ireland had voted against dropping Rule 21, including Heffron’s home county, Antrim. Down, as often the case, was the exception.
So, St Brigid’s, a Co Antrim club, was taking a calculated and courageous gamble in playing the game. There was some tension beforehand, reflected by condemnatory graffiti daubed on local walls.
However, local officials in St Brigid’s, just like Heffron, had wanted to improve community relations and open the way to a new progressive chapter to policing in Northern Ireland. They deflated that tension with banter. St Brigid’s coach Conor McSherry said he looked forward to that game because “it’s not often you get a chance to get a slap at a cop”.
Football analyst, newspaper columnist and former All-Ireland winner Joe Brolly, who played for St Brigid’s that evening, took gyp from puritan republicans, but was not fazed. “You know you’ve finally made it when there’s graffiti put up about you,” he joked as he went on the pitch. St Brigid’s won the match by 4-17 to 1-8.
Brolly revisited the game and Heffron’s subsequent fate in a Sunday Independent interview published two weeks. Heffron responded to the throw-in by “letting me know he was there”, wrote Brolly.
The fallout from the interview still reverberates.
Heffron was invalided out of the PSNI after the car bombing and now lives in North Down with his wife, Fiona, a serving police officer. The area, predominantly Protestant and soft unionist territory, is where police officers, Protestant and Catholic, can feel relatively safe from the dissident threat.
But it’s not home. Heffron’s hope had been to live in his home in Randalstown, to continue playing for his local club Kickhams Creggan and to enjoy pints in his local pub, Joe O’Boyles.
It was in O’Boyles, however, that the trouble started. In 2002, aged 25, he applied to join the PSNI. “Deep down, naively, I thought this was the little bit I could do,” he said.
His parents Frank and Eithne, initially surprised, gave him their blessing. Later, he told his fellow Kickham players. It stunned the group. Two were sharply critical. Afterwards, no one spoke to him. Later, he says he was ostracised. Posters appeared around his parish, one of them placed opposite his family home, warning people not to join the “PSNI/RUC”.
He appealed for support from a club official, only to be told: “I can’t, son, I can’t do that.” Matters came to a head 10 weeks later when four local republicans came into the dressingroom and handed out anti-PSNI recruitment leaflets.
“I got into my car, drove home and never came back. It had gotten too personal. Too serious. It was an awful wrench. I never recovered,” said Heffron, who later founded the PSNI GAA club.
In the January 2010 attack, Heffron suffered horrific injuries. His right leg was amputated. He was in a coma for three weeks. Two Kickhams officials sympathised with the family, but stressed they were not there on behalf of the club.
In his interview, Heffron told Brolly: “I’d be fairly certain guys I played with passed on my details to others. People I knew well were arrested and questioned about the bomb but there were no prosecutions.”
Kickhams feel hard done by, but as former SDLP Assembly member Alban Maginness wrote in the Belfast Telegraph this week, one statement “after a prolonged period of icy silence” is not good enough.
In the statement, the club said it wished to “make clear that we condemn the attempted murder of Peadar Heffron unequivocally and without any ambiguity” and called on anyone with information to come forward.
Rejecting Heffron’s suspicion that some club members had shared information about him with dissidents, Kickhams said they were “dangerous insinuations” and “absolutely false”.
“We are deeply saddened that the reputation of our club and integrity of its membership has been challenged this week and made the subject of undeserved controversy.”
Typically robust, Brolly asked how they could be so certain and why it had not conveyed this to Heffron at some stage over the past seven years. “But the crux of the thing, the boycott, the cruelty over 10 long weeks when Peadar tried to cling on, and the way he was finally intimidated out of the club, is ignored,” he said.
Offering to mediate, former GAA president and Fine Gael MEP Seán Kelly called for “a meeting of minds” to “try to draw a line under it in a way that would be satisfactory to Peadar and to the club”.
Ulster GAA has been in contact separately with both sides, but whether any meeting of minds or any rapprochement is possible would seem problematic at this stage.
Heffron must use a wheelchair and needs colostomy and urostomy bags, but still retains a fighting spirit, playing wheelchair hurling, basketball and tennis and staying interested in the PSNI GAA club and in the GAA generally.
The police club plays approximately 12 games a year, against the likes of the Garda and the Irish Defence Forces, but also against some Ulster GAA clubs, although the PSNI prefers not to disclose their names .
The PSNI club has 60 members, not all of them playing ones. And it has won a number of games, said a PSNI spokeswoman.
Sense of gloom
It’s a terrible story for Heffron and his family. Societally, too, it plays into the general sense of gloom around Northern Ireland, of punctured expectations, of stasis at Stormont and, more generally and worryingly, of a lack of political and, sometimes, community generosity.
The question that is posed – particularly in a week when many young people have finally had to decide if they would apply to join the PSNI – is how can the North have a representative police if Catholics and nationalists feel that they will have to quit their home communities to join? How many nationalists would make that sacrifice?
Denis Bradley, however, warns against the counsel of despair. And he utters an important truism: “It does not matter what happens – we need a police force. We need and deserve a police service.”
Bradley agrees that from the encouraging days when the PSNI was playing St Brigid’s in 2006, when Brolly and Heffron were getting stuck into each other, that things have fallen flat. He points to a number of reasons for the problem and that includes a real concern that the British and Irish governments, the political parties, the Catholic Church, and the GAA has taken their eye off the ball, so to speak. “I think maybe they took things for granted, that they got a bit lazy about policing,” says Bradley.
It needs to be stated that Ulster GAA is supportive of the PSNI club and facilitates tournaments in which it was involved. It has also carried PSNI recruitment ads on match programmes and works jointly with the PSNI in community outreach programmes, road safety campaigns, child safeguarding procedures and health and other initiatives.
Headquarters certainly is engaged but it can be more difficult at club level. The problem, as enunciated by one GAA stalwart, is that generally clubs did not follow the 2006 example of St Brigid’s.
Bradley says that “the standoff between the big beasts of the DUP and Sinn Féin also doesn’t help”.
“And the Policing Board has become far too invisible,” he adds.
He says the PSNI can’t escape some of the bad policing history of the Troubles which is also a turnoff to some Catholics and nationalists joining. There have been attempts to pass on responsibility for the past to a new agency outside the PSNI. It is time it happened and PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton should be more forceful in insisting it does happen, says Bradley.
Bradley praises Sinn Fein’s policing spokesman Gerry Kelly but feels the party could do more. The right words are being spoken, he accepts, but not with the right passion, he fears. “There is still a 5 or 10 per cent lacking. I think the whole party needs to be strong. I think it is very, very important that Sinn Féin speaks and speaks strongly.”
More generally, he says a concerted effort is required from those who can create the conditions where Catholics would feel safer joining the police. And that involves the aforementioned governments, the parties, the GAA, and the Catholic church.
A central message must be delivered, says Bradley. “The Irish Government, in particular, needs to be very determined around this. It must come into the nationalist heartlands of Derry and Belfast and stand with all parties around this issue. It must say very clearly these are Irish police officers and that dissidents are standing against the Irish people when they stand against the PSNI.”
Bradley concludes by bringing it back to Brolly’s interview with Heffron, a man who thought he could help make a change. “I read Joe’s stuff and I think it is a sad day if a young man who joined the police early on and suffered what he suffered feels in any way unappreciated. That is a sad reflection and we have a duty to listen to that. All of us.”