Opinion: Sir Kenneth Newman, ‘wee man’ who brought RUC out of dark ages

Sir Kenneth Newman believed that bringing about peace depended on beating the IRA
Sir Kenneth Newman believed that bringing about peace depended on beating the IRA

Former RUC chief constable Sir Kenneth Newman’s tough stance against terror groups helped clear the way for the Good Friday Agreement. Former Special Branch officer Dr William Matchett remembers him, following his death aged 90

Kenneth Newman was, arguably, the top policeman of his day when he took on the world’s most difficult policing post in becoming chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 1976.

He held the position for four years. This was a crucial time in the Troubles when the police regained primacy from the Army.

The ‘wee man’ as the rank and file affectionately knew him, had served in WW2, policed the British mandate in Palestine, and was familiar with modern policing.

After internment, Newman introduced the ‘crime squads’ concept from England; an intensive, more organised and sophisticated kind of questioning by the force’s leading detectives, who had been specially brought in and well-briefed in the intelligence background of the suspects, rather than interviews being done by less experienced or well-prepared officers.

This was often used to try and obtain confessions from organised crime figures in Great Britain.

The initiative brought republican and loyalist terrorist organisations perilously close to defeat, before they secretly collaborated with each other to promote claims that suspects were forced to confess.

Many of these claims focused on interrogations at Castlereagh.

Newman, as with Northern Ireland Secretary of State Roy Mason, knew this.

They viewed the claims as widely embellished and false.

The two men were frustrated by respectable elements who were overly inclined to accept terrorist propaganda.

Newman was particularly annoyed at certain journalists who shaped the headlines.

Such stories, in his view, promoted fanciful ideas of policing based on a poor understanding of the threat.

This, Newman complained, increased the risk to life of his officers and worked against defeating terrorism.

Newman was an intellectual, pragmatist and innovator.

He knew that a strong intelligence department was needed. Because this was unconventional it was controversial, but he had the steely resolve to see it through.

In 1976 he presided over the creation of a revamped Special Branch that would eventually lead the entire security effort and cripple the capacity of terrorist organisations to wage war.

As a retired Special Branch detective put it: “Newman brought us out of the dark ages.”

Bringing about peace depended on defeating the IRA, is how Newman saw it.

The assessment sits uncomfortably with the nationalist community and left-wing liberals.

He was a chief architect of the internal security solution. This is where Ulsterisation came to the forefront in a criminalisation policy designed to normalise the situation by increasing the number of police and reducing the number of soldiers.

It is the fabled rule of law approach subsequent conflicts have been unable to repeat and why nations like Iraq and Afghanistan remain blighted by terrorism.

Even though he went on to head the Metropolitan Police and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary this, more than any of his professional achievements, stands tallest.

At a time few from mainland forces chose to move across the Irish Sea, he did.

The ‘wee man’ was a great man. You have not heard his name connected with the Belfast Agreement, but it was people like him that did most to bring it about.

• Sir Kenneth Newman died on February 4. He was 90.

Dr William Matchett is a senior researcher at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute and author of Secret Victory: The Intelligence War that Beat the IRA.