Barry Phillips Meets... Judith Gillespie CBE

Posted in : Podcasts on 2 July 2018 Issues covered:

Judith Gillespie headshot

Before joining the RUC as a police constable Judith Gillespie was rejected twice by the organisation she was to go on and lead with distinction years later. She once stated “When I joined the force in 1982 men were issued with firearms and women handbags things were very different then..." Not only did Judith Gillespie face institutional discrimination but also misogynistic treatment from some male colleagues. How she responded is just one of the many remarkable revelations in this extraordinarily frank and honest interview.

Judith explains how she used her “Five Anchors” to get her back from the really low times when serving in the RUC/PSNI during the height of The Troubles. She talks a lot too about forgiveness and admits that she’s still a bit to go before she has forgiven completely everyone who was out to see her fail but she says “You mustn’t let people live in your head rent free either”.

When asked how she felt when she cleared her desk for the last time and left the force she replied “I left with peace in my heart”.

For those interested in how leaders take the big decisions that really matter, how they motivate themselves and colleagues and push for success whilst remaining true to their own values this episode is simply essential listening.

For this very special episode we’ve produced two versions; a short version which features content mainly about Judith’s career in the PSNI and the full unedited version. Enjoy!

Listen to the short version here:

Or listen to the full version here:


Barry: My guest today is Judith Gillespie. Born in North Belfast, Judith was a pupil at Belfast Royal Academy. Was rejected by RUC twice before finally being accepted in 1982. She saw service through the worst of the Troubles rising from Police Constable to Chief Inspector by 1997 and to Deputy Chief Constable by 2009, a year in which she was also acting Chief Constable.

In 2011, it was widely reported that she was given the opportunity to retire early with a £500,000 severance package but chose to create her career until she left the force three years later. Since then, Judith has chaired very senior appointment panels in Northern Ireland. She's a visiting professor at the University of Ulster.

She's a member of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and currently serves on the probation board and Garda policing authority. She chaired the board of the 2013 Belfast World Police and Fire Games, the third largest sporting event for athletes in the world. She has chaired the Brain Game Fundraising Committee, which this year alone raised over 100,000 pounds for the Marie Curie charity.

Her decorations include Baton of Honour, awarded to the most outstanding trainee at the police training academy each year. CBE for services to policing and the community in Northern Ireland and an honorary doctorate from Queens University. Recently, Judith was voted the best speaker Legal-Island has ever had in its 20-year history beating over 3,000 speakers to the number one spot. Judith, welcome to the podcast.

Judith: My goodness, prepare to be disappointed.

Barry: I saw you blushing a little bit there, and there was quite a lot coming back to you, particularly when I mentioned about the Baton of Honour. It must seem quite a long time ago now.

Judith: Yeah, it always makes me smile. The thought that when I joined the police, the only baton I was ever given was the Baton of Honour because women in those days of course auditioned for the baton. So it was quite ironic that my one and only baton should have a brass plate on it saying, you know, presented to the best all-around recruit.

Barry: And weren't issued with trousers.

Judith: Yeah, we were issued with trousers but we had to apply for permission to wear them.

Barry: Goodness. Gracefully.

Judith: Between the 31st of October and the 1st of April.

Barry: Wow. Judith, you'll notice in the introduction there, I didn't use the R word of retirement because it's clear to me that since you left the PSNI, you haven't retired but you've just gone to achieve . . .

Judith: On my second career.

Barry: In your second career or many careers perhaps a different direction. But there is a beautiful irony, isn't it, that the person that you rejected twice actually went on to lead them. You couldn't really make that up if this was beginning of a book or a film. When you look back on that now, who was right and who is wrong? Did you have to raise your game to get in, or did it have anything to do with lousy recruitment processes?

Judith: Well, it's to do with context really, Barry, because if you remember in the early '80s that was at the height of the Troubles and women in those days didn't carry firearms. It's incredible actually when you look back on it. But when you understand the context, maybe you can be a little bit gentler on the organization. Women weren't armed within the RUC until 1994, and it took a female colleague for whom I have the greatest respect, Margarita Johnson [SP], in the 1980s to take a case against the then Chief Constable, John Hermon. Her case went right to your . . . and she won the case because she was a full-time reserve officer and in those days full time reserves runs three-year contracts.

Her contract wasn't renewed because she couldn't be used for security duties, and she couldn't be used for security duties because she didn't carry a firearm, and she didn't carry a firearm because that was the organization's policy. So she challenged that policy, and those of us who came after her owe a huge debt of gratitude.

Now don't get me wrong, I'd much prefer that women and men weren't armed, that they didn't have to carry a personal protection firearm. But when you understand the context of policing in Northern Ireland, you accept perhaps that's necessary at the moment. But I hope there will come a time in the not too distant future when that's not necessary, and that would be time to celebrate.

Barry: Judith, I want to talk about your journey because things began to happen for you quite quickly. As I mentioned in the intro, you were awarded the Baton of Honour in training. So that must have been an indication very quickly that you were good [00:05:00] at what you were doing and you made the right career decision. And so it's a big green light for you there. 1982, you were a police constable. By 1997, You had moved from sergeant through to inspector to chief inspector. And then in just over 10 years, you went from chief inspector to the superintendent to chief superintendent, assistant chief constable then deputy chief constable when you were also acting chief constable as well.

For anyone who's unfamiliar with ranking of the police force, am I right in assuming that deputy chief constable is kind of like the equivalent in the private sector. You're in charge of the day-to-day operations of the police force.

Judith: Yes, yeah.

Barry: Yeah. Your husband I know was also in the police force. He was in before you.

Judith: Just before me.

Barry: Just before for you.

Judith: Of course, he was accepted the first time.

Barry: Was he? Okay.

Judith: Yeah.

Barry: All right.

Judith: But never remind him of that.

Barry: No. Okay. But I'm sure you felt something you had to prove? Yeah? Maybe he was your motivation for getting on the ladder and . . .

Judith: You know, I am very proud to say here's been my biggest supporter, my professional advisor. I suppose it's really a really trite thing to say. But really, he's been my rock as well. We've worked things through in difficult times, and he was a career constable. Never had any particular ambition to move up the ranks, but was incredibly grounded and a very, very effective career constable, may I say, because he made some very significant arrests and got through some very significant criminal gangs and, you know, just was a sound constable and the sort of person that you would love to have by your side when you go into a difficult situation.

Barry: As you progressed up the ladder, there must have come a time in which you at least reached an understanding with your husband that you wanted different things on the police force. How did that understanding come about? Did you ever actually sit down and sort of said, "Look, we might have to change roles here"?

Judith: Oh no.

Barry: Because you also have two children during the time you serviced.

Judith: Yes. Yeah. No, there was never really a time where we said, "Okay, we're going to have to change roles," or anything like that. The sort of man that I married I knew was going to be a huge support to me. And he also, I guess, knew . . . he calls me his investment. So the sacrifices that he had to make perhaps in his early career, he knows or he knew would probably pay off in later life. And so he was . . . I called him my domestic manager as well because he did a lot of the stuff looking after our girls when they were very young because I was working longer hours and perhaps away from home quite a bit. And we both knew that that's the way it was going to be, and it was accepted. It was never kind of this day things are going to be different. It was always that way.

Barry: Judith, can I take you to the 19th of March 1988? Everybody in the troubles, they have tapes or big moments that stick out for them as the worst of the troubles be the Enniskillen bomb, the bomb and so on, but that one stuck out for me. I remember watching it in England through "BBC News," and it was the date when two British soldiers, they drove into the IRA funeral procession. They were stopped. They were surrounded and they were taken out of the police car. They are out of their car. They were then stripped and executed. Can you remember what you were doing on that day, and how you felt when you heard about it or you perhaps even saw the video?

Judith: Yeah, oh, yes. I was a sergeant in traffic in Belfast traffic at the time. And I can remember going into work and people just being stunned and being in a state of shock having watched that, and I think seeing it because it was covered by the television, there were photographs of it. The priest, I think it was Father Alec Reid? Am I right?

Barry: I think it was, yeah.

Judith: Who gave the last the last rites and was threatened because he had gave the last rites. All of those little pieces of dignity and indignity, compassion that was shown and the barbarism shown, just the contrast of those little vignettes, the little pieces of that story. Yes, I remember exactly where I was. I remember what I was doing. It was one of those days where I was hanging my head in shame to be from Northern Ireland. It's been a lot of days after it when I've been incredibly proud to be from Northern Ireland. But that day, yes, it was very, very challenging for us all.

Barry: I think, I'm might be saying three days earlier, Michael Stone had killed three people at an IRA funeral. There'd been shots. He'd thrown a grenade.

Judith: And there had been the Gibraltar . . .

Barry: Yeah, killings and then was the funeral.

Judith: . . . killings and all . . . yeah. [00:10:00] There was a chain of events that was just very, very difficult.

Barry: And Gerry Adams, long time afterwards, he said that he really feared that everyone had lost it. And I forget his exact words. But I think he said he feared that we were descending into some sort of madness and something approaching a civil war or something. Did you ever fear this yourself when you were starting as a police officer? Did you ever think things were getting to get so bad that the whole thing may descend into that black pit, a place of no return?

Judith: Yes. Well, I have great faith that there is always a guiding hand behind all of this, even during the really height of the Drumcree situation where . . . and the Anglo-Irish Agreement indeed were in 1985 when police officers were being burned out of their homes. And all of that, it seemed that the province was descending into anarchy, and yet with all, there's always a point where people step back from the brink. And sadly during the Drumcree crisis, it was the death of the little Quinn boys. I don't know if you remember that there was an attack on a home I'd say Ballymoney and . . .

Barry: Yes, I do remember that. Yeah.

Judith: The Catholic boys were killed and that caused people to just step back and say, you know, "Is it really worth this?" I've always thought that people will see reason. But, you know, it's always been very, very close. You know, there are times it's been really on a knife edge and, yes, the killing of those two corporals, we could easily have descendent into that complete anarchy. That would have shamed us all.

Barry: Can I ask you about your darkest days in the force? Is there anything that still stands out for you as a particularly hard thing to deal with, either because of the Troubles or conflict, an attack on a colleague? What is the most strongest for you still in your mind?

Judith: My most difficult day in my police career was the 23rd of November 2008, when four colleagues were killed in horrific route traffic collision. They were on duty in the middle of the night going to assist colleagues down in Warrenpoint. Their patrol vehicle spun out of control and hit a wall and burst into flames, and the four of them were perished in that horrendous incident.

Barry: Does that mean they couldn't get out because of . . .

Judith: Yes, they couldn't get out. It was an armoured Mitsubishi Shogun . . . well, I'll not go into the detail but suffice to say, it was horrific. And the colleagues who on duty that night felt incredibly guilty about not being able to rescue their colleagues because of the intensity of the fire and other circumstances, which I'll not go into.

And it was my role as an assistant chief constable to visit the four families the next day. Very young families. One, their partner was pregnant. They had just had a baby. The baby was only about five months old and the partner was pregnant again. Young families. It was just really emotionally and challenging in so many levels because it was an armoured vehicle because of the threat in the area. You know, all those vehicles on patrol in that area were armoured.

So the following day, of course, the Police Federation, the union that represents the rank and file demanded that these vehicles be withdrawn because they'd lost confidence in them, perhaps understandably because there was no explanation of the vehicle going on fire.

So there was a whole lot of pressure within the organization managing the risk of, "Do we withdraw these vehicles and expose officers to risk because they're in soft skin vehicles and high-risk areas? Do we continue with these vehicles because we're not sure exactly why this accident happened? And what if it happens again? The corporate responsibility if this happens again?" All the legal stuff that were on the background. But for me the most challenging bit was there was four families and dealing with the aftermath and supporting those families through the most horrific time because their loved one had died in such awful circumstances. So it was definitely the darkest day I've experienced.

Barry: I can see you telling this. Tears beginning to well in your eyes. And I can only think if it's made such an impact and you're still feeling that now, what it must have been like for the loved ones of the four involved. Can I ask how you get back from really low moments like that? Is it just a matter of time and just waiting for a natural recovery? Or is there any sort of process that you go through to think, "Okay, I need to be effective. I can't be depressed and at such a low. I've got to raise myself quickly"?

Judith: Yes. And this is probably the most important thing part of this conversation, [00:15:00] Barry, because I think leaders need to look after their anchors. You know you need to have anchors for the storm, and your anchors need to be in good shape before the storm comes. So I have five anchors generally. I would call them five F's: Faith, family, friends, fitness, and fun. Five F's in that order, but you've got to look after that even in your busiest times. So make time to whatever. If you're a faith and it works for you, that's good, but make time for it. If you're family, make time for your family. Make time for your children, your partner.

Friends, friends outside the job, take time to go away for weekends or have a night and have a blast. Go for a walk with a good friend and have a chat.

Fitness, keep yourself fit. Look after your physical fitness. Don't drink too much. Look after your diet. You know, all of that.

And fun, for goodness sake, go and let your hair down. You're allowed to have a laugh, and it's so important to look after that before the crisis comes. Because when the crisis comes and you're wanting to repair your anchors, it's too late. Ten minutes before the ball is not the time to learn to dance.

Barry: When you've taken your big decisions, would you spend much time actually reviewing them and going back to them and looking to sort of work out how good you were at taking that? You know, whether that was a good decision that you've taken?

Judith: Yeah, I'm probably quite sad when it comes to this sort of thing because in my very difficult decisions and in those ones that really challenged me, I would have kept a record of them and put them into a folder and just put down, even some words to describe the emotions I was feeling just to remind me, because it's very easy to get caught up in a process of going around a decision making model and thinking about the technical facts and the options and pars and policy.

But actually to remind yourself how difficult it was. Write down the emotions that you were feeling at the time. And I have them in a folder at home, which reminds me if I ever write a book what I was going through. So yes, I do. I do review not just the process, but also the emotional side.

Barry: There must have been times when you thought, "Okay, I'm taking this decision here and I know that I'm going to get a huge amount of flack, whichever way this goes." How do you actually look at criticism, and how do you filter the criticism that comes your way? Because, you know, quite a lot of leaders will just put on the armour and they'll dismiss all and bounce it all back, push it all back. But those tend to be the leaders that don't last for very long because you do need go at criticism objectively. But it's a very difficult thing to do, particularly when it feels personal. So how did you look at it and actually think, "Okay, I don't think that's valid, but I think I ought to listen to that. That probably is valid and definitely add?"

Judith: Yeah. Well, I think that gives me a very neat segue into maybe the social media criticism, but because, of course, as a senior police officer, you are going to make decisions that will be unpopular. And unfortunately, in Northern Ireland, that very often means that you're unpopular with one side of the community or the other. It tends to be seen as a zero-sum game. In other words, if one side gains, then it's a loss to the other. I know that's really not the way it is, but that's the way it's perceived. And everything is looked at through a political lens.

So when I decided in my wisdom at the time that it might be a good idea to learn some Irish in 2011, '12 time coming up to the World Police and Fire Games, etc., I thought, "Well, I've tried. I've studied French, German, and Latin. I've studied Spanish at my tech. Let's have a go at Irish."

And it actually was prompted by when I was doing a graduation ceremony. Some of the student officers who are graduating chosen to spell their names in Irish and I just couldn't pronounce them. So I thought, well, I felt embarrassed about that. I felt disrespectful to them. So I thought I'm going to learn. That's never going to happen to me again. I'm going to learn some Irish so I know how to pronounce those names.

So anyway, to cut a very long story short, I studied in my own time. I had a great teacher from within PSNI, who came in her own time. Gave me homework, etc. and told me then she was going to enter me for a state exam, at which point I nearly fainted because I've never . . . I just wanted to learn how to pronounce these names. I didn't intend entering an exam. Anyway, she had such confidence in me. I entered the exam I got 97%, very proud of myself.

Barry:  I forgot to put that in your 

Judith: But the then decal, minister of decal as well as Carolyn McMullen [SP], the minister and she wanted to present me with my silver Fáinne, which was supposed to be a little [00:20:00] award for the level of Irish that I had got to. Of course, this got a whole load of publicity, which I've never wanted or sought, but of course another side of the community felt that, why is the Deputy Chief Constable learning Irish. This is an all part of the agenda of greening the PSNI and the republican agenda.

So this horrible campaign of abuse on social media started . . . and I think its root was in my learning Irish, but of course, it was around the time of the flag protests, win decisions were made about . . . policing the protest. So again, To cut a long story short, some of the criticism of the abuse was deeply personal. It was about me and my personal life, my personal integrity, making aspersions about my having relationships outside of my marriage, etc. It was really horrible.

And so the initial advice that was given to me was, "Oh, just ignore it, Judith. It'll just go away." "Man up," that was the worst advice because when this type of stuff starts in social media, it gains legs. You need to deal with it straight away. So legal advice was taken. I took action against some of these people who posted defamatory stuff. Some of the stuff was so obscene that across the criminal threshold of obscene publication. So people were arrested and files went to the DPP over the head of it. So, you know, there has to be a calling to account for people who post that sort of obscene and defamatory material on social media. So your question was about criticism.

I expect criticism, and I can deal with it without any difficulty when it comes to my decisions. If people disagree with them, and they say, "Why?" I can accept that. And maybe it causes you to take that kind of view into account the next time you make . . . and you might not make a different decision, but you'll consider the impact that will have on certain groups without criticism. So I can take that on board as free advice.

Criticism is always free advice. But when it comes to the personal nature of the criticism, that is totally without foundation, that is aimed at you personally at your weakest point, then you have to take decisive action or without the efforts. If it's defamatory if it's criminal, you report to the police, and you deal with it through the courts.

Barry: You mentioned a bit earlier, Judith, that you were seen as a bit of a trailblazer for women as you accelerated up the ranks of the PSNI. Currently I think I'm right in saying, but please correct me if I've got this wrong of the six top posts in the PSNI at present, just one of them is a female who is acting up in that particular model.

Judith: Yes.

Barry: So are you surprised, disappointed? How do you feel about that?

Judith: Yeah, I am disappointed. I think I said when I left PSNI that, one of my regrets was that I wasn't leaving with a female ACC in post behind me. And of course, ideally, more than one. I mean, one is not enough. One is never enough. So yes, I am disappointed about that. And that's a function of the political status as well because Barbara, there is no vacancy at that level. And I would hope that Barbara will be appointed permanently, but without a fully constituted placing board, I don't know if that's going to be possible or not.

But it's also important to say there were two other female officers coming behind me, Michelle Larmour, who was promoted to assistant chief constable in West Mids. She left Northern Ireland, became an assistant chief constable in West Midlands, but has just recently left policing. And Karen Baxter, who is just very recently been promoted to the City of London Police as an assistant chief constable and assistant, what do they call them there, commander. And so that's ACC equivalent. Karen is a fantastic hope for the future as well as Barbara, you know, very capable women coming behind me, and that delights me, that enthuses me, that gives me hope and optimism that perhaps that there female Chief Constable at PSNI in the future.

Barry: You'll be delighted to know we're approaching the final section of this podcast. This is the what is commonly referred to as the rapid-fire questions, so some random questions in no particular order. And my first one to you is this, if you could hang a banner with huge letters on it from the [Harland and Wolff] cranes for a whole year, what would it say?

Judith: It would say, "Be kind." Just be kind because people are fighting all sorts of battles that we don't know about. I've learned that through my police career. What appears to be truculent [00:25:00] behaviour on someone's behalf might be because there's something else going on in their backgrounds. Just be kind and you will open doors through kindness.

Barry: And that's the kind of kindness, non-judgmental. Is that what you're saying?

Judith: Yeah, absolutely.

Barry: Don't judge because you don't know what's going on in people's life.

Judith: You don't know what's going on behind.

Barry: Okay, thank you.

Barry: Can I ask you this? Do you have a really unusual practice, habit or custom that you feel that you can own up to? So what is it?

Judith: Oh, yeah. So I find as I get older, that my . . . I'm not so good at remembering list of things

Barry: You and me both.

Judith: So I will set my list to music and I will sing it and it gets it into my head. So music has been a big part of my family's life. My parents were both very musical. My siblings are very musical. And I play the piano by ear so I can, you know, play party tunes and well, if you want to sing along. But I find music is a great way of remembering things.

Barry: Okay. Do you have a preferred piece of music or genres or classical? Or is it?

Judith: Oh, sometimes I compose my own, but I like all sorts of music and folk, pop, classical, not so much into jazz, but yeah, all sorts of genres.

Barry: Did you learn your Irish recently to music?

Judith: I find if I had to remember poetry, not necessarily Irish, but I can still remember poems that I learned for French and German, A level because I sang them. So I can still remember them to this day.

Barry: Yeah, it's a great technique. Isn't it? It really is, yeah.

Judith: Yeah.

Barry: So is there one belief, habit, or practice that has propelled you forward more than anything else? And if so, what is it?

Judith: I think it's that, simply being true to yourself. That was the best piece of career advice I was ever given. Just be yourself. It's a difficult enough job to be in leadership without having to act all the time as well, so.

Barry: And can you remember who gave you that advice?

Judith: It was a senior male colleague from the RUC. He wrote me a lovely letter when I was promoted to the rank of superintendent, and when he wrote the letter he finished it with, to thine own self, "Always remember, Judith, to thine own self be true.

Barry: So let me start . . .

Judith: Sorry, Barry. It was a handwritten letter as well, you know?

Judith: Not the email or . . . it was a handwritten letter and . . .

Barry: There's something about hand written letters. There's a kind of a romance about them that brings you back to the old days how you used to be.

Judith: Yeah. Well, someone took the time to put pen to paper. And I've always remembered that and when people were promoted around me, I always tried to write them a handwritten letter.

Barry: Next question, is there anything you've purchased in say, the last 12 months for say, £50 or so that has actually proved of huge value to you? And if so, what?

Judith: Well, for the wristband is a big plus. I have to say it's really handy and sits on my bedside table. So on Friday night, Saturday mornings, I'm ready to go. But a Bluetooth speaker, I can recommend Bluetooth speaker, great thing to have wherever you go. You always have your music with you.

Barry: Okay. And you just set it up and connect it and away you go.

Judith: Yeah.

Barry: And finally, what one piece of advice would you give to your 16-year-old self?

Judith: Yes, this is the one where the two ears, one mouth thing, you know, listen more than you speak. And even though you might definitely be in the right and you might know the right thing to say, there's a saying that knowledge is knowing what to say and wisdom is knowing when to say it. So even though you're in the right and you can be sure that your point is the right point to make, sometimes just delaying saying it or saying it at a different time will be more wisdom.

Barry: I really have enjoyed speaking to you. Thank you so much for your time and thank you in particular for being so frank and so honest. I've learned a huge amount in the last two hours, and I'm sure a lot of other people have to, so thank you so much.

Judith: Yeah, thank you. It's my pleasure, Barry. Thank you.

Barry: Cheers.

This article is correct at 02/07/2018

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