Dirty work: a mock exercise in Rome of responses to a dirty bomb explosion
Britain should negotiate with leaders of al-Qaida as part of a new strategy to end its violent campaign, one of the country's most senior police officers has said.
Speaking to the Guardian, Sir Hugh Orde, head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said the experiences of his force tackling the IRA had convinced him that policing alone - detecting plots and arresting people - would not defeat al-Qaida inspired terrorism.
Orde, the frontrunner to be the next commissioner of the Metropolitan police, said he could not think of a single terrorism campaign in history that ended without negotiation.
Asked whether Britain should attempt to talk to al-Qaida, he said: "If you want my professional assessment of any terrorism campaign, what fixes it is talking and engaging and judging when the conditions are right for that to take place.
"Is that a naive statement? I don't think it is ... It is the reality of what we face.
"If somebody can show me any terrorism campaign where it has been policed out, I'd be happy to read about it, because I can't think of one."
In the interview Orde gave his personal blueprint for policing in which he:
· Branded as "barking mad" the idea that people from the private sector could be parachuted into senior policing roles;
· Called for the number of police forces to be slashed from 43 to nine to better fight terrorism;
· Said police chiefs who took the media "personally" would be finished;
· Warned that the threat from dissident republicans in Ulster was at its greatest in five years.
It is Orde's remarks on talking to al-Qaida that stand out.
In Ulster, more than 30 years of fighting terrorism by the British army and Royal Ulster Constabulary could not bring an end to the violence.
A peace process brought an end to the Troubles, seeing life-long enemies such as Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley talk to each other, and now Catholics and Protestants serve in government together.
Orde said: "If you look at some of the biggest risks my people have taken it is talking to people who historically they would not have dreamed of talking to. Were we going to actually police our way out of the Troubles? No. Are we actually going to police our way out of the current threat? No."
He added: "It means thinking the unthinkable."
Orde became the first head of the police force in Ulster to meet Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA. He cited this as an example of how one-time enemies can become partners in peace.
"Did I think in 1977 when I joined the Met ... I would end up talking to Gerry Adams in 2004 - and bear in mind the campaign was in London? Absolutely unthinkable."
Orde's comments are at odds with the stance of the British government and senior counter terrorism officials who dismiss talk of negotiating with al-Qaida.
Asked if he was saying "we should talk to al-Qaida", Orde replied: "Well that's the logic of ... I don't think that's unthinkable, the question will be one of timing."
He said there was a need to maintain tough law enforcement against the terrorists and that would help bring them to the negotiating table.
He gave this assessment of why the IRA put down its weapons: "It got to a point where those combatants realised ... certainly on the republican side, it wasn't ever going to work. So there's a certain pragmatism in there. The question, does Bin Laden see it that way, probably not. If you don't ask, you don't know."
Orde also warned that dissident republicans opposed to peace were at their most active for five years and posed a threat to his officers, who were now being urged to check under their cars.
He said the peace process was at its "endgame", with control of policing about to be handed to local politicians. Orde said: "A cornered animal lashes out, and these people are cornered. They are not wanted by their community, they've got nowhere to go."
On Tuesday terrorists attempted to fire-bomb a Belfast sports good store, but failed. Orde said Irish terrorists still wanted to bomb the UK mainland, but lacked the capability. They were still attempting to buy weapons but were disorganised, "psychopathic" and probably numbering no more than 200 people.
Orde would not answer whether he wanted the job of Met police commissioner to succeed Sir Ian Blair who is due to stand down by February 2010, but said the role of being a chief constable was demanding. He said: "If you don't like the heat, don't get in the kitchen," before adding: "I quite like cooking."
Orde said the constant criticism of Blair did not leave him ruling out being commissioner: "I think that people that put themselves up, have sufficient confidence in their ability and sufficient confidence in their vision for policing, not to be too intimidated by the more ridiculous assertions of some of the press. If you take the press personally, you're dead."
Orde is also in charge of choosing future police leaders and described as "barking mad" the idea that people from business could be parachuted into the force to be senior officers. "Do the public seriously want amateurs playing in this world?"