Co-operation Ireland's Peter Sheridan: I pride myself in being able to see things from 'the other side'
Former senior police officer Peter Sheridan leads peace-building cross border charity Co-operation Ireland. He tells Joanne Sweeney that maintaining his "Irish, Catholic, nationalist identity" was one of his biggest achievements of in his 32 years of policing in the north
DEPSITE having fought terrorism, organised crime, investigated brutal murders and rapes and attended the FBI Academy at Quantico, Peter Sheridan could easily pass for the head of an IT firm.
Dressed smart-casually in the small but busy office of Co-operation Ireland off Sandy Row in Belfast, Sheridan's relaxed appearance belies the influence that the Enniskillen man wields in the corridors of power in Dublin, Belfast and London as chief executive of the all-island peace-building charity.
Having taken on his Co-operation Ireland role in 2008, Sheridan (58) has witnessed some of the most pivotal and once unthinkable moments in our recent history: he was on hand when EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier visited the Irish border on a fact-finding mission and was present when the Queen – who awarded Sheridan an OBE for services to the community in 2008 – first shook hands with former IRA chief of staff Martin McGuinness, then the north's Deputy First Minister.
Sheridan also helped broker that meeting, which took place at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast during a Co-operation Ireland event in 2012. The pair greeted each other again at an event in December 2016 at the London home of Co-Operation Ireland's chairman Dr Christopher Morran, the latter encounter taking place just ahead of McGuinness's terminal illness becoming publicly known.
While he must have felt 'the hand of history' when witnessing these handshakes, did Sheridan feel emotional about it?
"I don't really tend to do emotion, as my wife and daughter always tell me," says the Co-operation Ireland man.
"Did I recognise it was hugely significant? Of course I did and I took in every minute of it."
Co-operation Ireland was founded as Co-operation North in 1979, one of the bloodiest years of The Troubles. The charity aims to build peace, dialogue and collaboration north and south of the border – yet Sheridan is aware that many people know little about their work, aside perhaps for the charity's once very popular cross-border charity cycle.
"I doubt very much whether the public would have much sense of the breadth of the work that we do," he admits.
"Just look at our board: to have people who are reflective of the Sinn Fein position, the DUP and the Ulster Unionists, right up to [former US Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs] Paula Dobriansky – who, if the papers are to be believed, is in line to be the next US Secretary of State," says Sheridan.
"We work from the level of 'on the ground' community work with young people from the Shankill or up the Falls Road, but then also on engagement right up to Prime Minister and Taoiseach and Tánaiste and Foreign Commonwealth level."
With the Queen and President of Ireland Michael D Higgins as patrons, and former First Minister Peter Robinson, former SDLP leader Mark Durcan and chair of the Ulster Unionist Party David Campbell as board members, Sheridan’s role is definitely political with a small 'p'.
He’s well used to delicately treading a line: Hailing from a Catholic, nationalist background in Co Fermanagh, Sheridan spent 26 years in the RUC serving in Derry, a Troubles hotbed.
It was Father Peader Livingstone, his Careers and Irish teacher at St Michael’s College in Enniskillen, who first suggested policing to the teenage Sheridan, who duly applied to join the Metropolitan Police, An Garda Síochána and the RUC.
He started as a RUC police cadet at Garnerville in Belfast in 1976, earning a princely £13 a month, eventually rising through the ranks to become PSNI assistant chief constable in charge of all major crime investigations before retiring in 2008.
For a young Catholic to join the RUC in the 1970s seems to have been a brave choice, but Sheridan never worried unduly about the safety aspect. As his granny used to say: "If you get shot dead, you’ll never drown".
However, while on occasions he did find it a strain to join an organisation where 95 per cent of his fellow officers came from a Protestant/unionist background, this never stopped Sheridan from being himself in the police service he loved – although he admits that home searches based on intelligence that would not stack up by today's standards still weigh heavily on his mind.
"Going through people's personal processions was never a comfortable thing to do," he tells me.
Having investigated over 50 murders in the last two years before he left, while Sheridan misses his former colleagues, he doesn’t miss the job.
"I worked with the most decent, honourable people you could ever hope to meet, even though they came from a different cultural background to me," he says.
"By and large, the vast majority of people that I worked with wanted the same things as me. I’ve always tried to explain to people that when you are in it and know the people, you know it from the inside, while others only know it from the outside.
"That’s not to say that there wasn’t some rogues and scoundrels – of course there were. But given the 30-year conflict and given the numbers that the police had to recruit, it would have been surprising if there weren’t some who got through the net.
"That’s not the real day-to-day experience of the police, but I understand that some people don’t see that if they have never been part of it."
While not downplaying the seriousness of Sheridan’s role in policing and his work, he says that his biggest challenge and achievement while being in the police was maintaining his own culture and religion.
As an RUC commanding officer in Derry, attending his own local church would have been too risky. Thus, Sheridan regularly went to Mass at the army barracks at Ebrington.
"The biggest challenge was continually to be who I was and retain that, right throughout the service," he explains.
"It didn’t matter whether I was a cadet, officer or constable, I didn’t lose my Catholic, Irish, nationalist background and identity. And I could see that my retaining who I was also made me an asset to the service.
"I’ve always prided myself in being someone who always looked at things ‘from the other side’. I didn’t see myself sitting in a silo just because I was from one organisation. There’s always the danger of becoming the culture of that organisation.
"Whilst I enjoyed my time in policing, I didn’t become the culture of it. I still had an ability to see things through another’s lens.”