One of the more remarkable things about Sir Hugh Orde’s tenure as Chief Constable of the PSNI was that he never mired himself in the sectarian squabble that infects just about every aspect of our civil society. I have no idea what Sir Hugh’s religion is or what his beliefs are. Frankly, that’s the way it should be. Sir Hugh instilled confidence in our policing service by being unflappable and even-handed. He never felt the need to tell us about his beliefs.
Now enter Matt Baggott. On the very day his appointment as the new Chief Constable was announced he answered a media question about “who he was as a person” by describing himself as a committed Christian – as though that would instil confidence in us, the citizens of a society tormented by religious rivalry.
And a committed Christian he is. Indeed he is the President of the Christian Police Association.
Now let me be clear here. I have no doubt that Mr Baggott is a highly experienced policeman. He seems to have done some great work. He has good ideas about community policing. However, I really have to question – in the same way that I’d question a politician describing himself or herself as a Christian Politician – whether in a modern pluralist society it is appropriate for a senior police officer to introduce his “faith hobby” as one of his top attributes. Or let me put it another way. How impressed would his selection “star chamber” have been had he described himself as a committed Muslim?
We need a police service in Northern Ireland that focuses on rationality and practicality. We need a police service that serves the whole community. However, if the person who leads that service considers himself in some manner morally superior to people – like me – who have no religious faith, and certainly no Christian faith – he really cannot be setting a good example to his officers.
We have an expectation that our senior public servants exercise their duties impartially. Senior police officers should not “do God” in the same way that Tony Blair didn’t do God until he left senior public office. By “doing God” Mr Baggot might be tempted to summon higher judicial powers than the ones on offer through the Northern Ireland judicial system – in a similar manner to Kenny MacAskill, Scotland’s justice secretary, when he released the Lockerbie bomber.
Sir Hugh Orde showed that progress can be made in this society when we put in place an even-handed and secular police service. Our new Chief Constable is accountable to the citizens of this place and not to his God. Perhaps those appointed to the “star chamber” selection committee were impressed by his piety. I am not.