A controversial plan by former minister for justice Charlie Flanagan to commemorate the role of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in Irish society was badly timed and was unlikely to receive much support after decades of "indoctrinating" the public against the force, a historical conference in Cork has heard.
Prof Marie Coleman of the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queens University Belfast said the "biggest mistake" with the proposed commemoration of the RIC and Dublin Metropolitan Police was the government's timing.
"I think the RIC could have been commemorated but timing the commemoration of the RIC for January 2020 was catastrophic because January 1920 was when the first Black and Tans came in."
With the date chosen “it was inevitable it was going to be seen to be commemorating the Black and Tans. Had it been done at a different time, say March 2022, the centenary of the dissolution of the RIC, then maybe it could have been done in that more historical reflective context”.
Speaking during a remotely convened debate at the West Cork History Festival on the Black and Tans and how the role of Crown Forces in Ireland during the War of Independence should be remembered, Prof Coleman also highlighted the commemoration timing in political terms.
Already "disastrous" because it marked the centenary of the arrival of the Black and Tans the January 2020 date was just weeks ahead of a general election, and it was notable the first politician to speak out against the commemoration, Mayor of Clare, Cllr Cathal Crowe was later elected a TD, Prof Coleman said.
The other challenge which the then Fine Gael-led government seemed to overlook was the fact that anyone educated in the Irish school system had grown up with a particular perception of the RIC as a police force that sided with the British establishment in actions against Irish peasants and workers, she remarked.
When most Irish people were asked what image came into their mind when they heard the word “RIC”, they immediately recalled images from their second school history books showing the force attending at some eviction during the Land Wars of the 19th century, Prof Coleman said.
“When I did this experiment what came into my head was an image from a school text book that we used in the 1980s of eviction scenes during the Land War and the battering ram and the poor family being thrown out on the road with their few bits of furniture and the sturdy RIC man standing by.
“So I went back to my old Leaving Cert history book for images of policing and the three images that I found were inevitably ones of the Land War, the recruitment of the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries and the Dublin Metropolitan Police baton charging crowds during the 1913 Dublin Lockout.”
Prof Coleman said that for the government to expect Irish people to suddenly accept the idea of the RIC and DMP as forces involved simply in maintaining law and order in a neutral way rather than being involved in policing events with political ramifications was not realistic.
“How exactly the Irish State could have thought it could go full circle from indoctrinating us with these views of policing for over a century and then suddenly turn around and say ‘Oh, let’s have a commemoration of the RIC’ and that wouldn’t have left people scratching their heads?”
Prof Coleman said that she believed it might still be possible to hold a commemoration to the remember the RIC in 2022 to mark the centenary of its dissolution but historian Dr Edward Madigan of Royal Holloway University of London disagreed and said he believed the opportunity had passed.
Dr Madigan said that any state led commemoration had to have a present day purpose and he found it difficult to see what purpose a bilateral commemoration of the War of Independence, involving a British head of state or senior government representing the British campaign in Ireland could serve.
He said that there was no way he could envisage the current Tory government under prime minister Boris Johnson attending a War of Independence commemoration in Ireland given its antagonism to demands for a more honest history of slavery, colonialism and imperialism in British schools.
Dr Madigan said “that commemoration invariably means endorsement” but the Irish War of Independence differed from the First World War in that it was possible to honour the dead of that latter conflict and empathise with their sacrifice without in any way endorsing the conflict itself.
"A German representative can come together with a French representative and commemorate Verdun as a mutual human catastrophe but you can't really do that with the Irish Revolution... particularly, if say, you read Eunan O'Halpin and Daithí Ó Corráin's 'The Dead of the Irish Revolution'.
“It’s difficult, after going through all the killings they record, to see the British campaign as anything but a campaign of terror against civilians. That’s not to exculpate the IRA but the fact the British campaign was a tactical response to the IRA doesn’t absolve it or make it worth commemorating.”
The West Cork History Festival runs until Sunday and details of the programme can be accessed at https://www.westcorkhistoryfestival.org/