Page last updated at 14:43 GMT, Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Testing times for chief constable

By Vincent Kearney
BBC NI home affairs correspondent

"Welcome to Northern Ireland chief." That was the observation of one of Matt Baggott's senior colleagues as criticism of his decision to press ahead with plans to phase out the full time reserve grew.

"Incomprehensible" and "disastrous" were among the words used to describe the announcement.

Chief Constable Matt Baggott
Chief Constable Matt Baggott is phasing out full time reserve

Then came the declaration by the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson he believed there would be no devolution of policing and justice if the reserve was scrapped.

The chief constable was both surprised and dismayed by the reaction.

In a series of interviews on Tuesday, he was at pains to point out that the decision to phase out the reserve by March 2011, as recommended in the Patten report on policing, had actually been taken by his predecessor, Sir Hugh Orde, last year, and he was simply continuing a process that had already started.

But the DUP and the Police Federation, which represents rank and file officers, had both clearly believed they could force a re-think.

Why else would Peter Robinson have included retention of the reserve on the list of confidence building measures he said were necessary for the transfer of policing and justice powers to Stormont.

They hoped to secure a reprieve, perhaps an extension of a year or two, with the severance packages and pension settlements "red circled", meaning reservists who agreed to stay on would not suffer any financial penalty for doing so.

When Matt Baggott announced on Friday that there would be no reprieve, the DUP appeared stunned

A few weeks ago, a senior member of the party told me they were "absolutely confident" they would win the argument, even if the chief constable didn't believe there was an operational need to retain the 440 reservists.

"It isn't that simple," he replied. "This isn't about what the chief constable wants, this is about what unionists need."

When Matt Baggott announced on Friday that there would be no reprieve, the DUP appeared stunned.

"You've got it wrong," was the response from one well-placed and usually well-informed source.

"There's an ongoing security review and this is not a final decision."

His mood changed when I read him the contents of the chief constable's statement on the issue.

It made it clear that the security review had been completed and he believed "that the correct response must be to proceed with the phasing out of the full time reserve and to use our regular officer establishment more effectively".

Police patrol
The full time reserve is to be phased out in 2011

There was an unmistakable air of finality when he paid tribute to those who had served as reservists: "The people of Northern Ireland owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the men and women of the full time reserve and indeed their part-time colleagues.

"Some 102 reserve officers gave their lives in service to the community. Many more were injured, some very seriously. We cannot, and will not, forget their commitment and service."

The Police Federation chairman Terry Spence was given the news in person when he met Matt Baggott at police headquarters on Friday afternoon.

Given the repeated warnings from the police about the growing threat from dissident republicans, warnings that were underlined and reinforced by last week's report by the Independent Monitoring Commission, the federation had hoped the still relatively new chief constable would agree to a reprieve.

When he didn't, the federation accused him and his senior command team of being out of touch with reality.

Mr Baggott knew those who had been lobbying for the retention of the reserve wouldn't be happy, but he perhaps underestimated the extent of their anger.

Nevertheless, he made it clear on Wednesday that he has no intention of backing down.

"The decision has been made," he said. "There is no justification for retaining the full time reserve."

What about accommodating members of the reserve who would be willing to stay on for another year or two if their severance packages were "red circled"?

It's certainly been an interesting and challenging few days for the man now leading the PSNI

Could they be subsumed into the ranks of the regular PSNI?

The chief constable appeared to rule that out, saying reservists can apply for jobs within the PSNI like anyone else.

There was no suggestion that they could be given special treatment.

Even if he was minded to grant a special dispensation, that would play havoc with the 50-50 recruitment criteria, as most, if not all, of those who would be transferred to the PSNI would be from the Protestant community, meaning an equal number of Catholics would have to be employed as police officers during the next recruitment process.

It's certainly been an interesting and challenging few days for the man now leading the PSNI, and his honeymoon period is well and truly over.

Mr Baggott may have thought he knew about the political sensitivities surrounding policing when he took the job, but he now has a real understanding of just how controversial the issue can be.

He has made his position very clear and said he will not reverse the decision.

To do so now would undermine his credibility and render him a lame duck after less than two months in the job.

If he doesn't give ground, the DUP will have to, or both will have to find some form of compromise that allows them to save face and avoid defeat.

At this stage that seems unlikely, but that's been said many times before in recent years in seemingly impossible situations where solutions have been found.

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