The news from Belfast last night was less than positive, which led to someone I follow on Twitter to ask the question, “Why would anyone be a police officer in Northern Ireland?”. It is certainly a good question, and no doubt the role has plenty of stress. I was reminded, though, of a conversation that I had with a police officer in Belfast, once upon a time.
It was the summer of 1991, and we were driving to visit some friends in County Down, which meant travelling through Belfast. On the way through the city, my friend’s car – or rather, his father’s car – developed a problem with the steering that meant we had no option but to go forward. James – the driver – did a good job of stopping the prone car between two posts, a few inches from either side of the car, but the suspension on the Citreon had been damaged meaning that we could not reverse. The car was stuck. James and Bert went to the nearby bus depot – this was a time before mobile phones – to call James’ father to come to rescue us, whilst I waited with the car. We were stopped on the Sydenham bypass in East Belfast. As I waited, an RUC armoured landrover pulled in just ahead of me. I got out of the car to go to say hello, and two police officers jumped out, armed, and shouted at me to stay where I was. In hindsight, a big young chap dressed all in black in a brand new car stopped for apparently no reason on a main road in East Belfast on a Saturday evening may have been a little suspicious. The officers carefully moved over to me, and when they were satisfied that I was not part of an elaborate trap, I explained the situation. They were very helpful, and the landrover headed to the bus depot to pick up James and Bert, whilst I remained in the car. One of the officers stayed with me. Over his radio came news that nearby Mountpottinger Police Station was under attack, and receiving incoming gunfire. I expressed my concern to the policeman for his colleagues, and he casually remarked that it was “one of those things”, and that he had been under fire earlier in the week. “It must be very stressful”, I said. He paused for a second and thought about it. He told me that he used to be a sales rep with a large, well known company, and that getting your sales figures balanced by the end of the month was much more stressful than being shot at. Being shot at was over in seconds, or at worst, minutes, in his experienced. You thought about the sales figures for weeks. At least this way, he was doing something good for his community.
James and Bert, by this stage, were walking back across the bus depot on this Saturday evening, with all of the shoppers making their way back to the suburbs, when a police landrover drove in, the back door opened, their names were called and told to get into the back of the vehicle. I can only imagine what those watching must have thought. James’ father soon came and rescued us. Whilst we were waiting, however, a group of youths – I was only 17 at the time, so they were probably a similar age to us – wound down the windows of their car and shouted abuse and laughed at us as they saw us stopped at the side of the road. The lack of attention to the road and the focus on us caused them to go right into the back of the car in front. “I think you are fine now”, said the policeman, “we’ll leave you hear and go to deal with these lads…”, and they went on their way.
It was an odd night, although the conversation about what really is stressful in a job stayed with me.