Ronnie Flanagan: Amid the policing transition, Austin Hunter played a key role

A young Austin Hunter (front right) working as a journalist  at an RUC press conference
 in 1988, with the then RUC chief constable Sir John Hermon, left
A young Austin Hunter (front right) working as a journalist at an RUC press conference in 1988, with the then RUC chief constable Sir John Hermon, left

Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the chief constable who oversaw the change from Royal Ulster Constabulary to PSNI, remembers admiring Austin Hunter as a journalist, and then later working alongside him in the police:

Like all who knew him, I could not have been more deeply saddened this week by messages I received of the distressing news of the untimely passing of my dear and most esteemed former colleague and friend, Austin Hunter.

Sir Ronnie Flanagan, when he was RUC chief constable. Picture Stephen Davison

Sir Ronnie Flanagan, when he was RUC chief constable. Picture Stephen Davison

Many of the messages of course came from Belfast and different parts of Northern Ireland, but others came from as far afield as Australia, and all from equally distraught members of our former ‘Chief Officers’ Group’, responsible for seeing through the transition in policing at home, from ‘The Royal Ulster Constabulary GC’ to ‘The Police Service of Northern Ireland’.

Austin was an absolutely indispensable member of this team. While I remain very proud to have been the last chief constable of the ‘RUC GC’ and the first chief constable of the ‘PSNI’, I always felt then, and feel just as strongly now, that my real pride was in having the privilege to work closely with such outstanding colleagues – people dedicated to being the best public servants they could be for all the people of Northern Ireland whatever their background; their political beliefs; or their religious persuasion. Austin epitomised these values.

Throughout my career, and perhaps most particularly during ten years as a Chief Police Officer in Northern Ireland between 1992 and 2002 I developed the greatest respect for the invaluable role fulfilled by the media and indeed developed the greatest respect and admiration for those local, national and international journalists I got to know well during this period.

There was simply no-one for whom I had greater respect and admiration, than Austin Hunter. He was the consummate professional – scrupulously fair and balanced – in all he reported and supremely effective in how he reported it, whether in the written media or on radio or television.

At a time therefore, when our transition in policing was perhaps at its most challenging, it was a great and pleasant surprise to me when we advertised for a new Director of Communications (a vacancy sadly caused by the untimely death of another outstanding colleague) to find Austin among the applicants. At interview he was outstanding.

He arrived with a prepared excellent communications strategy, which he presented superbly, emphasising the equal importance of communicating internally with our own members as well as with the public, and importantly, very practically pointing out how both could be achieved.

It quickly became clear that Austin’s real drive in seeking this position was true public-spiritedness. He felt that successful transition in policing at that time was imperative in improving the overall situation, hopefully making life better for everyone in Northern Ireland. This was what he wanted to play a part in.

As he brought his Communications Strategy to life over the period which followed, Austin indeed played a pivotal part in this process. While we are all now undoubtedly the poorer for having lost Austin, we are all truly the richer for having had the privilege of having known him and having had the great benefit of his wisdom and compassion.

At this saddest of times, Austin’s wife and family are foremost in our thoughts.

I only hope that they may draw a little comfort from what I believe to be the truth in the words of Thomas Campbell some two hundred years ago - “To live in the hearts we leave behind is not to die”.

Austin Hunter will live forever in our hearts.

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