RIC should be afforded an honourable place in this decade of remembrance

Opinion: Huge level of public interest shows folly of decision to downgrade school history

The tone of reconciliation between old enemies is now a feature at the annual Béal na Blá commemoration of the death of Michael Collins, which takes place tomorrow. This year leading Fine Gael supporter Bill O'Herlihy is expected to call for a possible future alliance of his party and Fianna Fáil.

The invitation to the late Brian Lenihan to speak at the event in 2010, and his decision to accept, symbolised the end of civil war politics and, whatever happens in the future, decisions will be based on pragmatic political considerations rather than old hatreds.

So far the decade of commemoration for the great events spanning the 1912 to 1922 period that led to Irish independence has been marked in a similar spirit or reconciliation and compromise.

The tens of thousands of Irish men who fought in the first World War have finally received due recognition and the State has even given formal recognition to the Ulster Volunteers, whose entire purpose was to block independence.


However, there is one hurdle that official Ireland still has to cross. That is some form of acknowledgement for the policemen of the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police who guarded the people of this island for almost a century. About 530 of these men, the vast majority ordinary Catholic and Protestant Irish men, were killed between 1916 and 1922, many of them on the orders of Michael Collins.

Ecumenical service
Last year two retired gardaí, Gerry Lovett and Patrick McCarthy, organised a commemoration at the RIC plot in Glasnevin Cemetery. There was some controversy over the event and this year the group found itself unable to meet the conditions laid down by the authorities at Glasnevin, which included a €6 million insurance bond.

Garda chaplain Fr Joe Kennedy stepped in and arranged for an ecumenical service to take place at Mount Argus Church next Saturday at 2.30pm. Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan will be represented at the event, as will the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The organisers are hoping that the Government will also send a representative.

“We are determined that these much-maligned men will not be forgotten. Over 500 of them were killed between 1916 and 1922, many in appalling circumstances such as on golf courses, lying on a hospital bed or coming from church with their families,” said Lovett, secretary of the organisation committee.

Honouring the men who served in the RIC does not involve an endorsement of everything the force did, any more than the commemoration at Béal na Blá implies a justification for everything Collins did during the War of Independence and subsequent Civil War.

As historian of the Garda Conor Brady has pointed out, RIC men generally conducted themselves with forbearance and dignity in the face of the terror campaign directed against them by Collins. Their unwillingness to respond with the same level of ruthlessness prompted the British government to introduce the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries to wage a counter-terror campaign.

Lovett and his committee hope that the commemorative service on the last weekend of August, the anniversary of the demobilisation of the force in 1922, will become an annual event with official recognition. They are also hoping that a proper memorial will be erected to the memory of the men who died.

“In this decade of commemorations we intend to ensure that these brave men who also died for Ireland, though it was not their choice, will not be forgotten,” he said.

The decision of the Garda Commissioner to send a representative next Saturday is a welcome step and the attendance of a Government Minister would be a further move in the right direction.

So far the decade of commemoration has been handled sensitively by the Irish and British authorities so it would be a pity if those who guarded the peace felt excluded. This has particular resonance given that almost 100 years on policemen in Ireland are still facing the threat of death in the course of duty.

The committee of experts set up to advise the Government on the decade of commemoration has discovered a burgeoning interest in the events of a century ago, particularly at local level.

What the committee members have found is that the Irish public wants to know about the events of the period from every angle. In that context what happened to the RIC should not be ignored or swept under the carpet.

The real interest Irish people have in the past, as evidenced in the commemorative events and the use of tools such as the census returns provided online by the National Archives, points up the absurdity of the Government decision to press ahead with the downgrading of history in the secondary school syllabus.

Dropping history
History teachers and historians recently expressed their concerns to the Oireachtas education committee about the impact of dropping history as a compulsory subject. They were adamant that the decision would lead to the elimination of history as a subject in many schools and would have serious repercussions for young people's understanding of the past and present.

Close to 90 per cent of Junior Cert pupils study history, but teachers are in no doubt that the figure will drop dramatically once the planned changes in the junior cycle are fully implemented.

All of the good work done by the official and voluntary bodies in commemorating the events of 1912 to 1922 in such a comprehensive manner will be set at naught by the downgrading of history in school. It is still not too late to reverse a dreadful decision.