By Jamie Bryson
At this initial juncture one brief analytical observation is appropriate. Of all the mainstream media outlets Mr Singleton could have granted his exclusive interview to, he chose the Sunday World. That will be a point that I am sure will not be missed by those loyalists who have long held suspicions that the PCTF were leaking like a sieve to Sunday papers.
And of all that Mr Singleton could have focused upon from his time as head of the PCTF, his exit interview focused on trying to dismiss claims that the unit which he headed unfairly targeted loyalists. This, in of itself, demonstrates that those scrutinising the PCTF and their treatment of loyalists have had a significant impact in terms of shaping the public discussion.
It is no secret that Unionist Voice has been the primary, and for a long time, only, platform challenging the PCTF. I have written extensively criticising the PCTF, and their actions regarding what I, and many others, have felt is inequality in the application of the law. It is therefore not difficult to discern precisely where the Sunday World interview arrows are aimed. I would however point out that within the earliest articles published in Unionist Voice, Mr Singleton was challenged to respond to criticisms levelled at the PCTF by writing his own riposte for publication on this platform. He never took that opportunity.
Mr Singleton chose to position himself as the public face of the PCTF. That is his right, but with a public profile comes scrutiny and I make no apologies for consistently asking hard questions of the PCTF. These questions however focused on the substance of Mr Singleton’s contributions and his policing decisions. I do not believe in personally abusing anyone, so we must- if we are to credibly engage in public discourse- set aside Bobby Singleton the person and focus instead on the public contribution of a senior policeman.
In his Sunday World interview Detective Superintendent Singleton began by lamenting a “social media smear campaign” which he claimed was “politically motivated”. Later in the piece the blame for this campaign is levelled- by the author of the article- at ‘UVF members and sympathisers’ who DS Singleton describes as “nothing more than a drugs gang”.
This is an intellectually contradictory position adopted by DS Singleton. If he dismisses ex-combatants or those with links to the UVF as “nothing more than a drugs gang”, then his sweeping assertion includes those ex-prisoners from that background who have made an important contribution to maintaining peace, those who are committed to positive transformation work and those involved in community and sporting development. I note the contrast in how, following the IRA murder of Kevin McGuigan the PSNI were careful not to tar all those linked to the IRA- which obviously includes Sinn Fein- with the one brush. However, DS Singleton’s sweeping assertion when it comes to loyalists must be read in conjunction with his opening gambit, which asserts that the criticisms of the PCTF are “politically motivated”. I have yet to come across a politically motivated drug gang, hence DS Singleton’s self-induced confusion which prevails within his own exit interview.
Let me at this juncture set out a clear and unambiguous position. If anyone is involved in crime, then such persons should be subjected to rigorous police investigation, if the prima-facie evidence threshold is passed then they should be charged and if convicted beyond reasonable doubt by a jury of their peers, such persons should be sentenced by the court accordingly. That is the fundamental basis of the rule of law.
Such an approach to the rule of law must, however, be applied equally. There can not be a more stringent law applied to loyalists than that which is applied to republicans or crime gangs operating within our communities. There lies my core problem with the PCTF; inequality in the application of the law.
This is often mischaracterised by those who would deliberately seek to present it as ‘pro crime propaganda’. Loyalists are as entitled to demand fair treatment under the law every bit as much as the rest of society. If we as a society are to come to the point whereby we have marginalised sections of our community who are deemed to be fair game for unfair policing, then what next, will we be dispensing with the presumption of innocence and deny legal aid for certain offences? If we deny the protections of the law to one, then where does that leave the rule of law for us all?
My core argument from the very outset was that the PCTF was a political creature, set up by the multi-party Fresh Start agreement (not, as the Sunday World states, by the St Andrews agreement) and that this political vehicle would be primarily driven at the loyalist community, and so- with Bobby at the wheel- it has so transpired.
This characterisation has long been disputed by the PCTF, indeed it is worth again highlighting that DS Singleton’s core theme in his exit interview was that they were not “unfairly targeting loyalists”. This is later contradicted by the important admission that the majority of those targeted by the PCTF are loyalists.
It is worth quoting this segment of the interview which states, inter-alia;
‘The Tackling Paramilitarism Program is aimed specifically at non-national security threats’ before directly quoting DS Singleton who confirms “It’s a reality that the majority of those non-national security groups are loyalists”.
The implication is clear; the majority of the Fresh Start contrived PCTF resources are directed at loyalists, this despite the unit being set up in wake of a PSNI assessment that the PIRA retained structures and weapons following their public execution of Kevin McGuigan in 2015. Despite this, there has not been one single search, arrest or charging of anyone linked to PIRA- one of the largest and most lucrative terrorist organisations in any western democracy.
Why did it take until the exit interview to say publicly what I and others alleged from the outset- namely that the PCTF is a vehicle which will, in the vast majority of cases, be driven full steam into loyalist communities?
The absurdity of the interview- the core theme of which is DS Singleton trying to counter the increasingly accepted narrative that loyalists are being disproportionately targeted- is compounded by the headline, which promises that the new head of the PCTF will “put loyalist gangs out of business”.
Two points on this; firstly, criminal activity within loyalist communities is, within the PSNI lexicon, by default the work of ‘loyalist crime gangs’, whilst crime in republican areas is by default simply crime. Secondly, in the week that republicans have staged another show of strength- which followed automatic weapons being brought onto the streets in recent weeks by both the INLA and PIRA- the priority for the PCTF’s new boss is loyalists. Not a solitary mention of republicans.
However, if we set aside the by now well-made points about disproportionate policing, it is worth briefly turning to the core theme of the Fresh Start agreement: transition. I would say that the activities of the PCTF which have been directed, they say, against East Belfast UVF has, inadvertently, shown real and meaningful transition on the part of those linked to that group by virtue of their response to policing.
When I think of ‘transition’, I do not think of those who avail of funded box-ticking projects which deliver little beyond jobs for professional ‘peace processors’, but rather I look for real substantive change in terms of mindset, direction and strategy. In response to disproportionate policing, loyalists in east Belfast haven’t decided to riot and attack the police, they haven’t vandalised property with graffiti, they haven’t- unlike republicans- brought guns onto the streets and they haven’t amassed on the streets. Instead they have held public evenings encouraging people to make Police Ombudsman complaints, they have argued their case through the media, they have told their story on Unionist Voice and made videos challenging the PSNI, they have lobbied politicians, they have used the legal process to challenge search warrants, stop and search and the exercise of police powers. They have sought education on their rights and how to challenge statutory abuses of power by using the rule of law. In so far as a ‘culture of lawfulness’ goes, loyalists in east Belfast are way ahead when it comes to transition.
And all in all, if today’s ‘exit interview’ is anything to go by, using lawful methods to challenge disproportionate policing has proven far more effective.
DS Singleton’s legacy in terms of the PCTF, written himself in the Sunday World, will always be that- in the end- he had to try and stem the prevailing narrative that his unit unfairly targeted loyalists.
And so, I bring my final riposte to DS Singleton to an end by borrowing the famous words of Ronald Reagan; “if you are explaining, you’re losing”.