The RIC's part in Irish history

Sat, Aug 25, 2012, 01:00

A lOW-KEY, unofficial memorial service for the 500 or so members of the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police who were killed during the struggle for Independence between 1916 and 1922 will be held today at Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery. The fact it has failed to receive approval from any official authority is significant.

These men served the British Crown and sought to prevent the emergence of an Independent State. During that struggle, terrible things were done on both sides. But the atrocities committed by some RIC members and particularly by their supporting auxiliaries, the Black and Tans, still resonate.

Just how polarised the situation had become, following six years of guerrilla warfare, was reflected in a decision by the Free State government to disband the RIC and the DMP and to replace them with the Garda Síochána. That decision flowed from the “reinforcement” of the RIC by the Black and Tans and the terrorising of local communities. Some RIC members objected to what was going on. But the fact that only 13 former members were accepted into the new police force indicated a generally poisonous relationship with the new government. They were given no place in the new State.

The new State was also dismissive of tens of thousands of Irish men who did what they regarded as their patriotic duty and fought with the British army in the first world war. Only recently has their contribution been formally commemorated as part of a healing process within and between these islands.

For some people, however, a formal memorial service for policemen whose duty involved preserving the British empire and opposing Irish Independence represents a step too far. For them, it suggests an equivalence between the RIC and IRA volunteers.

Many members of the RIC and the DMP were conscientious, decent family men who joined up to gain permanent employment and pensionable positions. Upwardly mobile within the community, they were – as Catholics – excluded from the top ranks of the RIC. The complexity of the situation and the manner in which they were airbrushed from Irish life has been brilliantly explored by Sebastian Barry in his play The Steward of Christendom. The popular Gilbert and Sullivan song concludes that: “a policeman’s lot is not a happy one”. That certainly was the case for these men who found themselves on the wrong side of history.

The memorial service is being organised by two former Garda Síochána members who believe that, after 90 years, “a few prayers should be said for these men who, for the most part, were honourable and honest police officers”. It is a generous, Christian sentiment. Policemen tend to be alert to the ethical dilemmas that may confront their colleagues at times of strife and civil unrest.

The public and politicians are less understanding and operate to a different compass. Accepting the past, warts and all, is a sign of maturity. Learning from it, however, takes time.