“Please take a seat. He’ll be right down to you” says the man behind the desk in the Police Service of Northern Ireland uniform.
Before I have much time to read the public notices, a man comes comes through an inner door and approaches me. Average male height, he’s in blue-striped white shirt and dark trousers, dark blue tie askew. “Are you the sociologist?” he asks. His hair is blond-grey and his eyes are very blue.
“Hello, pleased to meet you,” he continues before I can reply that I’m studying sociology, “I’m Detective- Constable Proctor. Can I get you a cup of tea? Let’s go to the interview room.”
Why not? I think, following him – after all, I am interviewing him. Of course it’s usually the police doing the interviewing in that room.
A woman who seems to be a civilian employee brings each of us a cup of tea. Thanking her, I sip mine, looking around the room. I’ve heard about police interviews but I don’t see any bloodstains. They probably clean them up afterwards. Or maybe they do those interviews somewhere else, like in the cells. Then they could leave the bloodstains there to terrify the next occupants … to soften them up before interrogation.
Proctor blows on his tea, sips …. “Well, Mr. …. I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name.”
“Owen O’Donnell? The name seems familiar somehow ….”
“Maybe it’s my cousin – he has the same name. People call him ‘Red’. ‘Red Owen’.”
“Oh? Like an alias?”
“Well, more like a nickname. Because he is, you see.”
“He’s a Red?”
“No, he’s red-haired. He had quite a successful career for awhile in pest control in Ulster …. with his partner Shane O’Neill.”
“Perhaps I have heard of the firm …..” He looks like he’s searching his memory. After a moment, looking at his watch: ”Now, Mr. O’Donnell, if we could ….”
“Yes, of course. It’s very kind of you to give me your time.”
“I believe you’re studying Sociology?” looking at me over the rim of his mug. Aha, so he does know.
I nod vigorously. Sometimes I believe it myself. The University might even believe it when they get to see my assignments. That would be after I get around to completing them and handing them in, of course.
“And you want to ask me about policing?”
“Yes, for my studies. Policing in general, a bit about the history of the force here … and about a specific case.”
“Well of course, if I can help …. we like to help the public. That’s what we’re here for. But I’m afraid I only have a few minutes.”
“Okayyyyy ….” I say, consulting my notebook. “Originally the PSNI was the RIC –- the Royal Irish Constabulary, right?”
“The RIC was the police force over the whole island.”
“The whole of Ireland must have been united then.”
Proctor looks uncomfortable at this. “Aye – under British rule.”
“After the Treaty, in 1921, the RIC disappeared over the rest of Ireland …. but here it became the RUC, the Royal Ulster Constabulary?”
“Aye,” he says, a faraway look in his eyes.
“Have you any theory why it was called that?”
“What?” He looks startled, then puzzled.
“I mean, why ‘Ulster’?”
“Well, this is Ulster, isn’t it?” — looking at me as if I might be a bit simple.
“Well, only six counties of it – there are nine counties in the province of Ulster, aren’t there?”
He jerks a little at the mention of ‘six counties’, frowns. He seems to have heard those words before … perhaps they have unpleasant associations for him.
“Mr. O’Donnell,” he says …. pauses …. “perhaps we could move on to questions about the police force of today?”
“Of course! Of course!” I stammer. “I really am so grateful for your time.” I shuffle my notes. “So the RUC became the PSNI in…” I peer at my notes.
“2000,” says Proctor.
“Yes, that’s it!” I beam at him. “But why?”
“I beg your pardon? Why what?”
“Why the change of name?”
“It was thought more appropriate, I suppose. I really don’t know, Mr.O’Donnell.”
“Well, is the PSNI different from what the RUC was?”
“I suppose …. yes …. we’re more of a community police force now. The wider community.”
“Oh. The RUC didn’t serve the wider community?”
“Of course they did!”
“But how is the PSNI different then?”
“Well, we serve it more than we did before. Even more. Justice for all.”
“I see,” I say, but allowing the puzzled look to remain on my face.
I wonder whether I should ask him why his force has “Northern Ireland” in its name, when every eight-year old who has done basic Irish geography at school would know that Donegal has the northernmost part of Ireland and they don’t have PSNI there …. they have the Gardaí.
I decide not to ask and instead move on to another question. “Do you remember the RUC Reserve, the ‘B-Specials’?”
“Of course,” he replies, a faraway look in his eyes again. “They were …. part of the service.”
“Where did they go?”
“Well, they joined the Ulster Defence ….. I mean, they were disbanded.”
“I think you were going to mention the Ulster Defence Regiment?”
“Well,yes …. it’s just that many of them reputedly joined that Regiment.”
“From police straight into the Army?”
“Aye, it would seem so.”
“Doesn’t that strike you as strange? I mean, police and soldiers …. two very different jobs, wouldn’t you say?”
“Mr.O’Donnell, you are surely aware of the history of this province?”
‘Province’? There are nine counties in the province of Ulster but only six of those in the British colony. But I decide to let that go too as he continues.
“We have had a long battle against terrorist violence here. We … the police force here … had to carry guns. Many gave their lives.”
“Yes,” I say sympathetically. “It must have been so dangerous.”
“Yes, it was. It was a war! So it was a bit like soldiering for us. Then the Army came in when things really started to get out of hand. Mind you, they were doing a lot of police work too. So you might say that there was a fair bit of crossover in our roles.”
Looks at his watch again.
I rustle my notes again. “That’s great. Thanks for that background. Would it be OK to move on to the specific case now?”
“Of course.” He sits back.
“It’s about …..” I consult my notes “…. Stephen Murney.”
“Oh?” — sitting forward again, eyes narrowed.
“Do you know the case?”
“Well… the name does seem familiar ….” He waits for me to go on.
I read from my notes: “He was arrested in November 2012 and is currently in Maghaberry Jail. Can you tell me why he is in prison?” I ask, looking up.
“I understand he was refused bail, Mr.O’Donnell.”
“Ah, of course.” I refer to my notes again. “Yes, of course …that’s right. But why?”
“Why? I’m not a judge and jury, Mr. O’Donnell.”
“No of course not, Detective Constable.”
Aware of the no-jury Diplock courts that try charges under ‘anti-terrorist law’, I add: “He won’t be tried by a jury anyway.”
“No, of course you’re right,” he says, a smile on his lips.
“But why do you think he might have been refused bail?”
“I’d suppose because of the seriousness of the charges. And because of the fear he might abscond before his trial.”
“Yes…. the seriousness of the charges. They’re related to terrorism, aren’t they?”
“Yes, that’s right. We still have a bit of a terrorist problem in Northern Ireland …. though we are getting on top of it.”
“I understand the evidence against him is quite overwhelming.”
“It would seem so,” he says nodding but then stops. “Of course, we must assume he’s innocent until proven guilty.”
“Yes, of course,” I reply, giving him a bit of a crestfallen look.
I consult my notes again. “There was a lot of evidence collected at his home. Lots of photographs of PSNI in action …. even of the RUC going back for forty years.”
“Yes,” Proctor replies, looking grim. “Photographs that could be of use to terrorists.”
“In what way?” I ask, with a puzzled expression.
“Well, they could be used in identifying police officers for assassination. And he put them up on Facebook.”
He sips his tea. I consult my notes.
“Hmmm. But apparently he’s been taking these photos for ages, in full view of your colleagues. And using them to accuse the police of harassment. Why didn’t they arrest him earlier? Before he built up such a collection … and going back forty years!”
“Well, Mr. O’Donnell, it’s not my case, but sometimes we let a suspect run loose for a while, see whether he’ll lead us to other terrorists. Also to lull him into a false sense of security.”
“Yes, I see. I see how that might work. Do you think he was? Lulled into a false sense of security?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps he was,” nodding his head judiciously.
“But according to his lawyers …. at the bail hearing … apparently his car was being stopped and he was being questioned, sometimes having his car searched, nearly every day. Sometimes twice a day. I mean, he wouldn’t be getting lulled into any sense of security under those circumstances, would he?”
Proctor gives me a blue-eyed stare, his face a bit flushed. “I really can’t say, Mr. O’Donnell,” he says coldly.
I consult my notes again. “Oh yes, there was more evidence, apparently. He had a military-style uniform. And a BB gun.”
Proctor is nodding vigorously. He seems to be saying: “You see?”
“BB guns are not illegal, are they? They’re not firearms?”
“No, but they can be used to intimidate people … who might think that they are a firearm. They can also do some damage if fired at close quarters into the face.”
“Oh dear, of course! It’s a wonder they don’t ban them, isn’t it?”
He looks at me searchingly. “Yes ….” Looks at his watch.
“I’m nearly finished, Detective-Constable. It’s so good of you to give my your time … your valuable time. About the military-style uniform ….”
“Apparently Murney claims …. that it was part of a band uniform. A marching fife and drum band. Could it be?”
“Well, it could … but it could also be for a paramilitary organisation. They do like to dress up in uniforms.”
“I see. The uniform was found in his wardrobe, I think?”
“I believe so.”
“Not hidden away …. like under floorboards or anything?”
“No… why do you ask?”
“Well, I mean …. it’s puzzling, isn’t it? A terrorist … sorry, of course we have to assume he’s innocent until found guilty … but anyway … a person keeping a uniform for terrorism in his wardrobe? Not hidden away somewhere?”
“I don’t know …. I really can’t read the minds of terrorists, Mr.O’Donnell. Nor of terrorist suspects. Now, I really need to ….”
“Yes, sorry. About the final piece of evidence …”
“Stencils for slogans.”
“Could that be something to do with terrorism?”
“No, that’s related to damage to property … the charge is of malicious damage to property. At a time and place unknown.”
“With paint, Mr. O’Donnell. The stencils are used … sorry, could be used …. to spray slogans. The paint is difficult to clean off and often leaves a permanent stain. Or the cleaning agent does when people try to clean the paint off.”
“Oh, of course. I’m sure you’re quite right, Detective-Constable. But that is a relatively minor charge, surely? Compared to charges relating to terrorism?”
“People have a right to have their property protected. And nobody wants to live in an area covered in slogans, do they?”
“No, of course not. But why charge a terrorist – sorry, a suspected terrorist – who is already facing very serious charges …. why charge him with relatively minor charges? Oh! Wait! Could it be like a fall-back? So if the other charges don’t get proven, you can get him on at least something?”
Proctor is giving me a steely look. “Mr.O’Donnell, as I said, it’s not my case and I really must go now. I have so much paperwork to catch up on.”
Stands up, walks to the door and opens it, the other arm kind of gathering me, herding me towards the door, even though I am still seated. I get up, collect my notes and put them away in my satchel. Then I pick up my coat and start to move towards the door.
“Thank you again, Detective-Constable. You really have been so helpful. Thank you. And ….”
He looks at me, one eyebrow raised.
“You be careful out there,” I say, looking at him sincerely, then walk out the door.
NB: The characters in this piece are fictional, except for the arrested person referred to, Stephen Murney, a Newry Republican political activist (member of éirigí). The charges mentioned and the material produced as evidence for the charges are as detailed. The date of his arrest and incarceration is also as related. He was kept in jail without offer of bail for six months then offered it on condition of not residing in Newry where his family is and other restrictive conditions, including wearing a tag. Eventually, a few weeks ago, with some charges dropped, he was released on bail to his home, without a tag but under curfew. Yesterday, 24th February, he was cleared of all charges. He had been 14 months in prison.