Judith Gillespie appointed to south's new Policing Authority

Former PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie brings 32 years' worth of front-line experience to her latest role as a member of the Republic's new Policing Authority. She told David Roy about the job, learning Irish and Arabic, and whether she would encourage her daughters to be cops

Former PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie Picture by Mal McCann
Former PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie Picture by Mal McCann

WHILE Judith Gillespie may have retired as PSNI Deputy Chief Constable in 2014, Northern Ireland's former top ranking female police officer hasn't exactly been taking it easy during the past two years.

Since leaving the force after 32 years service (she was ineligible for promotion to chief constable under current regulations, which require two years policing outside the north), Mrs Gillespie (53) has been busy serving as a member of the north's Equality Commission and Probation Board, alongside charity work for Marie Curie and a role as a visiting professor at The University of Ulster.

However, this year the north Belfast-born woman has returned to the realm of justice and law enforcement as a board member on the Republic's newly established Policing Authority. This independent watchdog, only up and running since January, oversees An Garda Siochana, whose lack of transparency and accountability have been matters of serious controversy.

Gillespie brings her many years of front-line RUC/PSNI policing experience, including stints as head of the PSNI Drugs Squad, co-ordinator of the Child Abuse and Rape Enquiry Units and, as the first ever female PSNI assistant chief constable, heading up the establishment of the force's Criminal Justice Branch, to the table.

"It's really energising to be back in the world of policing again," she enthuses. "Sitting at the other side of the accountability table is an unusual experience, but the guards and the PSNI have so much in common – and so much to learn from each other.

"We're part of a new and important accountability structure, so it's really important that we offer a balance of constructive criticism and praise when praise is due.

"We're learning as we go, but we do have a very clear vision of what success looks like in terms of improved trust and confidence in the Garda."

In the immediate future, the board's busy 'to-do' list includes taking charge of appointing all gardai above the rank of superintendent and handling a public consultation on their first ever code of ethics.

"We're really serious about engaging with new and different voices," she tells me.

Still based in the north, Gillespie has two daughters with her husband, a fellow retired PSNI officer who's been her partner since before she joined the RUC in 1982 at age 19.

"The big irritation for me was that I was turned down twice and he got in first time," she chuckles of the RUC's then gender-biased recruitment policy.

"Obviously, I never remind him of that."

Mr Gillespie served as his partner's 'domestic manager' for a period during their parallel police careers. Eventually, he was forced to retire through injury in 2003.

"I suppose the silver lining of that cloud was that he was able to look after our two young children while I was busy doing other things professionally," Gillespie explains.

While their daughters are currently "loving student life" and have thus far shown no interest in policing, the former PSNI deputy chief constable is well rehearsed on how she might react if that were to change.

"It's what I would say to anybody," she reveals. "If you are absolutely committed, then go for it. But never, ever apply to the police with half a heart – because it's an all-consuming lifestyle."

Which brings us to another key question: what makes a good police officer?

"I would say compassion, courage – because you do have to do brave things and put yourself in the way of danger when many others would be running away – the capacity to listen and to be able to see things through others' eyes.

"It's a 'people' organisation. You're often engaging with people at critical moments in their lives, when they are at a real low, during crises and when their emotions are all over the place. Being able to deal with those emotional traumas is the most important part of being a police officer."

Interestingly, while there was no 'policing tradition' within her family, Gillespie's parents – her mother a nurse, her father the minister at Duncairn Presbyterian Church – may have inadvertently prepared their daughter for her calling.

Gillespie says: "I grew up in a Presbyterian manse and you would be surprised at the education in social skills that I gained through watching my parents work with some pretty challenging people: people with mental-health problems, with drink problems, people who came to our front door begging for money.

"My dad in particular was a bit like a station sergeant; he was there 24/7 – and if he wasn't there, my mother was.

"Through observing how they dealt with some pretty tricky situations, I learned a bit about conflict resolution and de-escalating tensions that, nine times out of 10, has served me well."

In her new Policing Authority role, Gillespie is now working alongside its chairwoman Josephine Feehily, the Garda's first female commissioner, Noirin O'Sullivan, and the Republic's minister for justice, Frances Fitzgerald.

It looks like the north may be lagging behind the south in terms of female representation in top justice and law-enforcement roles – especially now that there are no female chief PSNI officers.

"There are two up-and-coming women who are worth keeping an eye on," reveals Gillespie of her former employer. "Michelle Larmour will be eligible to apply for chief constable here in a year's time and Barbara Gray is will be eligible to apply for the next assistant chief constable process.

"Of course, there are other male officers who are also very competent and capable, but it's encouraging that we've got both Michelle and Barbara waiting in the wings as it were."

Effective communication skills are key to good policing. Languages have always been a strong suite for Gillespie, who studied French and German at QUB before joining the RUC.

However, her decision to learn Irish while serving as DCC proved controversial.

"People in loyalist quarters wondered if this was all part of the agenda of the 'greening' of the PSNI," she tells me. "But nothing could be further from the truth. It was simply about showing respect for a culture that I had not grown up with."

In fact, Gillespie showed such aptitude for the language that, in 2012, her Irish teacher (a fellow PSNI officer) entered her for the Líofa programme's exams: she passed with top marks and was presented with a silver fáinne by the then culture minister, Carál Ní Chuilín.

"I don't pretend to be fluent, but I can pass myself in conversation," she says, modestly.

"I can do that in Arabic now too, and it's amazing how it opens doors: I think showing a little respect for other languages and cultures can take you a long, long way."

Such wise words dovetail with her views on how Northern Ireland's reliably explosive marching season might be defused.

"[Northern Ireland conflict researcher and Policing Board member] Paul Nolan described the police here as 'human shock absorbers' for a lack of political progress," she tells me. "Maybe a little bit of give and grace on all sides, along with taking a few risks, is required.

"There needs to be some recognition that preserving what you've always had is not necessarily a good position."

Clearly, the PSNI's loss of Judith Gillespie has been very much the Policing Authority of Ireland's gain.