‘It’s time we sorted things out ourselves’

Sir Desmond Rea, former Policing Board chairman, tells Martin O’Brien it’s time for Northern Ireland to move on

The creation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the functioning of the institutions around policing have been seen as the  outstanding success of the  Good Friday Agreement  which was overwhelmingly ratified throughout Ireland  more than half  a generation ago.

Amid the undignified impasse over a host of issues at Stormont, and not just the well-known ones such as parades, flags and contending with the past,  the policing  achievement rallies optimism when it is in short supply. 

And when the story of the singular achievement which is policing is written Professor Sir Desmond Rea, lay Methodist, economist, academic, businessman and public servant extraordinaire will be credited with having played a crucial role.

He served for eight-and-a-half years as the first chair of the Northern Ireland Policing Board and acceded to a request to serve for a further two years when his final term as chair ended in 2009.

The board was one of the key recommendations of the Patten Commission on policing.

Alongside him as the first vice-chair for the first four-and-a-half years was fellow independent member, former Derry priest Denis Bradley.

 Sir Desmond says: “I have huge admiration for Denis and there was a spirit of trust between us. He made a big contribution and did his own thing in relating to the nationalist Catholic community.”

On Desmond Rea’s watch Sinn Féin finally signed up for policing six years after “the SDLP to their eternal credit broke the logjam by joining the [Policing] Board”.

In a reference to recent developments in Dublin he says he “regretted that there was no policing board in the Republic to which we could relate”.

The board has 19 members, 10 politicians who are members of the Assembly and nine independents.

He commends Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness for their “consummate skill in managing their organisation” pointing out that “you don’t have to agree with them to recognise their achievements” right up to the recent election results throughout Ireland. 

An energetic 77-year-old who swims regularly, Sir Desmond just over a  year ago  took on the role of chair of the governing body of Stranmillis University College, a particularly challenging task at a time when the  higher education minister has commissioned a controversial review of teacher education.


The  results of the Review which includes St Mary’s University College – and is expected to set out options for the future shape of teacher training  –  are due to be published shortly and Sir Desmond,  on behalf of Stranmillis, is deferring  comment until his board has had  time to digest  whatever  transpires.

His long and varied record of public service goes back to membership of the then Fair Employment Agency nearly 35 years ago.

And it has overlapped much of an academic career that began as a lecturer in business administration at Queen’s University and proceeded to the rapidly expanding faculty of business and management at the University of Ulster where he became professor of human resource management.

Ms Aideen McGinley, the BBC’s National Trustee for Northern Ireland, describes Sir Desmond as “a man ahead of his time who has always been a real advocate for women”.

As chairman of the Northern Ireland Local Government Staff Commission Sir Desmond led the panel which appointed Ms McGinley chief executive of Fermanagh Council in 1995 and the first woman chief executive in local government on the island of Ireland.

Sir Desmond is married to Maeve, a consultant physician and they have four daughters and seven grandchildren.

Today he also serves as Northern Ireland representative on the board of the Security Industry Authority which regulates bouncers and other security workers throughout Britain and Northern Ireland.

Desmond Rea recalls an upbringing in a committed Methodist family in a working class Protestant area of Belfast close to the city centre and identifies three future Methodist presidents as important figures in his formation.

Rev. George Good (a cousin of Rev. Harold Good), Rev. Sydney Callaghan and especially “the quite remarkable Rev. Eric Gallagher, a very skilled bureaucrat who influenced me considerably”.

As a pupil at Methodist College – where several decades later he chaired the board of governors –   two good friends  were  Harold Good, a witness to IRA decommissioning, and the future Archbishop Robin Eames.

The young Desmond, for some reason he can’t pinpoint,  “had a passion to go to the States” and a few years  after graduating in economics from Queen’s  he applied to study for a MBA at one of the most prestigious business schools in the world at the University of California, Berkeley.


At the time very few students from Europe studied there and business administration as a subject was in its infancy in Britain and Ireland.

He borrowed the money to study in Berkeley in the mid-sixties, arriving in 1966 shortly after anti-war and other campus  riots there  had  made headlines around the world.

“I worked my tail off, morning, noon and night. The students competed ruthlessly.”

His efforts paid off and he was elected a member of Beta Gama Sigma, on the basis of distinguished academic performance. 

Desmond Rea’s has been a prophetic and outspoken voice on arguably the biggest and most complex issue  confronting  post-conflict Northern Ireland: how to deal with legacy of the past.

As early as  2003, four years before Secretary of State Peter Hain tasked the group led by Robin Eames and Denis Bradly with addressing the issue, he tried over a period  but  failed to persuade the political parties on the Policing Board to reach a consensus on it.

His efforts, which included drafting a paper entitled Seeking to Hold the Past in Healthy Balance with the Future are documented in a short book Dealing with the Past: A Note to Ambassador Haass (2013) which he co-wrote with Robin Masefield, the former director general of the NI Prison Service.

It is not surprising that he supports Attorney General John Larkin’s suggestion that there should be an effective amnesty with no more inquiries or prosecutions arising from the Troubles. His 2003 paper advocated an amnesty “for all”.


Eleven years on his reasoning hasn’t changed.

“It is time to move on. One of the things that I dread is that somebody will go one morning to the door of Martin McGuinness and arrest him.

“As Deputy First Minister, do you think that is in the best interests of this society? Because I don’t.

“Equally, I dread the first police officers who appear in a court on the back of allegations of collusion because I suspect that the whole thing [the devolved institutions] could fall.”

Because he believes the stakes are so high he is extremely frustrated at the failure of the politicians to find a way through on the issue of the past.

“We bring in [Richard] Haass. It is time to forget about Haass. It is time for us to sort things out ourselves.”

He believes that victims and survivors should be “looked after generously, I mean over generously at their point of need but they, the victims cannot be allowed to bring the peace process down”.

He would favour a referendum to copper fasten an agreement and clearly sees Christian values playing an important role.

“In my view there should be an Act of Contrition by society as a whole in terms of the past.

“Faith is an important part of one’s life” says the former Secretary of the Methodist Church’s Council on Social Responsibility.

But Sir Desmond stresses that what is most important is how faith “is lived out, especially in terms of how you treat other people”.

Questioned on recent developments in the Catholic Church Sir Desmond chooses his words carefully but it is clear he fears that the sex abuse scandals have undermined the wider Christian Church and he is heartened by the arrival of Pope Francis.

 “Unchristian behaviour and the breaking of the law in all denominations of the Christian Church diminishes us all and is reflected in declining numbers in the Western churches.

“In that context, the arrival of the new Pope with his strong spiritual witness, his strength of purpose and his humility offers us hope: the rising tide raises all boats.”