Judith’s precious final days with her beloved father

Pacemaker Press Belfast 25-11-2016:  Woman to Woman interview with former PSNI Chief Judith Gillespie in the piano Bar at the Europe Hotel Belfast.
Picture By: Arthur Allison: Pacemaker.
Pacemaker Press Belfast 25-11-2016: Woman to Woman interview with former PSNI Chief Judith Gillespie in the piano Bar at the Europe Hotel Belfast. Picture By: Arthur Allison: Pacemaker.

In the spring of 2014, after a 32-year career in policing in Northern Ireland, Judith Gillespie, then Deputy Chief Constable of the PSNI, retired.

Making the decision to step down was something of an emotional roller coaster, she tells me, but yet Judith knew quite firmly in her heart that “it was time to move on”, and she felt “very settled” with what she had chosen to do.

However something was to take place in her private life which reinforced this, something which, until now, she has never spoken about.

Just over a year later, her beloved father, Reverend Dermot McMorran, passed away. He had been suffering from dementia.

“I had time with my dad that I would never have had, so that was very special,” Judith confides.

“Leaving (the PSNI) was the right decision, and it was the right time.”

Family is important to the 53-year-old, who became the first female to reach chief officer rank in the PSNI when she was appointed assistant chief constable in 2004.

She revealed in 2011 that she had decided to turn down a £500,000 severance package for taking early retirement, following a frank discussion with one of her daughters, who said that if she enjoyed what she was going, then why not keep doing it?

Raised in the Duncairn area of North Belfast, this daughter of a clergyman - her late father was the minister of Duncairn Presbyterian Church at the time - grew up “in a very troubled part of Belfast”, amidst “a lot of grief and public disorder”.

She says she saw for herself the toll it took on her father and mother, a nurse, her dad in particular, who had to bury members of his own congregation who lost their lives in the Troubles.

“Even though I didn’t understand it, I was aware of what was going on our doorstep,” she says, adding that this “definitely” impacted on her decision to join the police, which she made at 16.

This career choice, she reveals, left her parents “horrified”.

She says: “They were absolutely not political animals and there was no history of police service in my immediate family. This was the early 80s and they actively discouraged me.

“I ended up doing French, German and Latin for A level; I loved languages, and if I hadn’t been a police officer I think I would have ended up working in Europe.

“My parents wanted me to pursue an academic career like my older siblings (she is fourth in a family of five children) - they had all gone to uni and the assumption was that because I got good A level grades, I was going to go to Queen’s.”

And she did so, where she studied French and German, but only because she was turned down by the then RUC.

Judith applied again, and was once more rejected. The reason? Because she was a woman.

And she actually saw this for herself, in black and white, many years later, when she was in a senior rank, and was able to access those files from 1981.

“At the time I felt a great sense of injustice,” she says.

Yet she is fair to her former employers, and, as I nod vigorously in agreement and disbelief, impresses on me that you had to understand the context against which these kinds of decisions were made.

It was within “a culture of paternalism”, a time when, due to the high risk nature of the job, women were given a certain degree of ‘protection’, which often involved roles ‘in the background’ as opposed to the front line, and historically, policewomen in Northern Ireland weren’t even armed until 1994.

“You also had to apply for permission to wear trousers, and were only allowed to do so between October 31 and April 1. And you had to apply to your invariably male supervisor for permission,” she relates.

“Now you wouldn’t bat an eyelid when you see a female officer on patrol or with a gun on her hip, and that’s the way it is. But in those days it wasn’t. This wasn’t unusual in the public service, and I came across lots of female colleagues who worked in different organisations, and they were not allowed to wear trousers. That was the culture I grew up in. I tell my daughters about it and they laugh.”

But the young Judith was not laughing when her gender was seemingly proving a barrier to her achieving her dream.

“I guess there is a part of my character that if, you say I can’t do something for unfair or unjustifiable reasons, it makes me all the more determined to do it,” she says, with a slight smile.

“There was also the part of me that - and I know it sounds really cheesy - wanted to make a difference. My mother was a nurse and my father was a minister, so both of them were very involved in public service and healing in its broadest sense, and I wanted to follow in that vein. I had seen a lot of suffering around me.”

At the age of 19, she enrolled at the RUC training college, then based in Enniskillen.

“I was absolutely delighted - and petrified too. There were 90 of us - 86 men and four women. Sadly the other three women in my squad all left earlier for one reason or another, mainly because of parental responsibility and the difficulty in those days of balancing career and family.”

Judith’s own parents finally came round to their daughter’s choice of career when they saw how determined she was, which she proved to them as she started to move up through the ranks.

She embraced the tough physical demands put on the new aspiring police constables and gave both it and the classroom elements of the training her best efforts, being awarded the Baton of Honour for best new recruit.

Her first post was at York Road police station in her native north Belfast, and even then, she was aware of the heavy weight of responsibility on her shoulders.

“I vividly recall the first time I went out on duty at the age of 19. I stood out and waved my hand to stop a car, and I felt an incredible sense of responsibility. I thought, here I am, I’m 19 years old, I’m in a police uniform and I have the power to stop people in the middle of the road. I’ve always been very conscious of that responsibility.”

Yet this ambitious young woman didn’t deliberately set out to achieve the highest rank in the organisation she was so passionate about; she reveals that her counterparts’ attempts at planning their moves, as well as everyone else’s around them, would astound her. She believed that if you simply did the best you could, promotion would come in its own time.

“I had so many setbacks,” she says of her path to becoming DCC. “And I understand the frustration when you just narrowly miss a promotion, I know what that feels like.”

She names November 23, 2008, as the saddest day of her police career. It was on this date that the force lost four of its officers in a horrific accident near Warrenpoint, when their Mitzibushi Shogun crashed into a wall and burst into flames.

“I visited the four families, one after another. You want to offer some comfort, but there was absolutely none you could have offered in that situation, you just had to be there for them.”

Another tremendously tough part of the job was the security aspect, and in particular, the impact this had on officers’ families.

Like many members of the security forces, Judith had to ‘invent’ an alternative ‘cover’ relating to her day job; her hairdresser was under the impression she was a nurse, hence her being able to get her hair done in the middle of the day. That worked well until the stylist asked her to take a look at a rash she had, and Judith had to swiftly direct her to a more informed medic! And her two daughters always knew they weren’t allowed to reveal their parents’ job at school. But when Judith became a familiar face on the 90s programme Crime Call, she was spotted by one of her daughter’s eagle-eyed friends at school, who promptly asked her about it.

“Everything had to be very carefully managed, and our house always had a lot of security around it, but that was their normal,” she says. “It’s sad that it was that way, but that’s what they were used to.”

To this day, being cautious is “part and parcel” of Judith’s life, and the lives of all those who work in the PSNI. “You still have to be a little bit canny, and I find that sad, because first and foremost, police officers are human beings like everyone else, they have families like everyone else, and a life outside the job like everyone else.

“I would love to get to a point where you can say, with pride, at any event, ‘I am a police officer and this is what I do’. But we will get there.”