Commemorating the RIC and coming to terms with the past

 

Sir, – In the Irishman’s Diary column 11 years ago (Irish Times, January 26th, 2009), a son of one of those who killed two popular and greatly outnumbered Catholic Irish members of the RIC at Soloheadbeg in 1919 wrote that, “It is time we remembered those members of the RIC who were also decent Irishmen but were on the other side.”

Often seen as the opening shot in the War of Independence, that ambush was not authorised by the first Dáil which met that week for the first time. It deeply disturbed many Sinn Féin members of the Dáil.

Among the latter was Arthur Griffith, the most politically experienced member of Sinn Féin and the party’s founder. Griffith was conscious of the need for inclusive strategies in the struggle for all-Ireland independence. But he was no pure pacifist, and disapproved of Irishmen joining the RIC. He opposed outrages on both sides.

On April 10th, 1919, for example, as the Dáil’s minister for home affairs, Griffith noted a number of fatal shootings by the RIC. He also condemned the seizure of a child, aged eight years, who was carried to an outhouse “where they kept him from 12 o’clock to 4.45 pm. There members of the RIC placed their rifles against that child’s breast and threatened to shoot him unless he told them where his father had driven to on a certain evening. One of them also threatened to run his pencil down the child’s throat. The child was later returned to his mother in a state of collapse.”

The present Government has miscalculated both in the manner of its announcing its political decision to commemorate the RIC, and in its timing during the centenary of a War of Independence in which Tans and Auxiliaries besmirched the reputation of that force. It has also linked the RIC and DMP in a way that does not reflect the popular memory of those two bodies.

For the Minister for Justice now to condemn his critics as wishing to “abandon the principles of mutual understanding and reconciliation in an effort to gain headlines” is a cheap shot. His Government should have planned and framed better the laudable impulse to commemorate any “decent” members of the constabulary (such as those at Soloheadbeg) who died in the line of duty down the years.

Coming after Leo Varadkar’s red post-boxes gaffe (“‘Pound is still pound, queen is still queen’, Taoiseach tells unionists”, News, October 18th), this incident suggests that his own Government has some way to go in understanding the complexity of reconciliation. – Yours, etc,

COLUM KENNY,

Bray,

Co Wicklow.

Sir, – Finally the Government has listened to the people in postponing the ridiculous commemoration of the RIC. Can’t they realise that there is a body of people in Ireland who wish to retain our heritage and don’t particularly wish to be politically correct? – Yours, etc,

EAMON O’LEARY,

Clontarf,

Dublin 3.

Sir, – It’s ironic that a former British army captain, estate manager and agent to a peer of the realm, Charles Boycott, some of whose eviction notices were actually served by the RIC itself, should have his name so aptly evoked by absentee invitees. – Yours, etc,

MICHAEL KEEGAN,

Mount Merrion,

Co Dublin.

Sir, – The controversy surrounding the event to mark the service of members of the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police says a lot about many of those in our society who insist on ostentatiously describing themselves as “republicans”.

For the last two decades we have regularly been treated to platitudes about reconciliation, tolerance for all sides of a conflict, and so forth, but this tawdry spat has shown that when you scratch even slightly below the surface, there exists a sheer inability among a great many people to move beyond our troubled past or their own deep and burning resentment towards our former connection with Britain.

Many of the political figures who competed with each other to issue ever more severe denunciations of the commemoration have also been prominent in recent years in calling for a border poll on a united Ireland. Do they believe that in scuppering this commemoration, they have furthered the cause of Irish unity?

Having witnessed this disgusting row, what moderate unionist in their right mind would vote for a united Ireland? They could surely have no serious expectation that a 32-county state would allow commemorations of events dear to the hearts of unionists, such as July 12th, without a repeat of this recent spectacle.

Some 40,000 Irishmen served in either the RIC or the DMP, and the vast majority had no hand, act or part in any outrages against Irish people on behalf of Britain. If their service to their communities is to be airbrushed from our history, then what does that say about us?

At the very least it shows that as a society we are profoundly lacking in the maturity to even present the case for a united Ireland to our northern brethren with a straight face, let alone to engage on the kind of state-building that could make it a reality.

So in view of this, it is profoundly regrettable that the Government has caved in at the 11th hour, as it has done in relation to many other manufactured controversies in recent years. – Yours, etc,

BARRY WALSH,

Clontarf,

Dublin 3.

Sir, – In blundering ahead its now deferred plans to commemorate the RIC, the Government has entirely misjudged the psyche of this nation. Despite the benign nature and Irish nationality of many policemen within the standard ranks of the RIC, no healing can take place by holding a commemoration which by its very nature also includes the brutish Black and Tans.

A better way to acknowledge the RIC men killed during the War of Independence would be the issuing of a long overdue apology by the British government for the appalling behaviour of the crown forces during Ireland’s tragic past. Only then could the process of healing finally be completed. – Yours, etc,

EMER HUGHES,

Moate,

Co Westmeath.

Sir, – It is disappointing to learn that we are not a forgiving society and that any talk of reconciliation between the two cultures in Northern Ireland needs to be taken with a grain of salt. If we cannot look the events of a century ago in the eye, it is unlikely that we can bring healing to the hurts of more recent conflicts.

It is particularly galling to witness the veil of respectability being thrown over the criticism of the proposed commemoration by the statements (very concerned and learned of course!) by academics and journalists. – Yours, etc,

MARGARET LEE,

Newport,

Co Tipperary.

Sir, – RIC members were Irish people who stood and, in some instances, died for their beliefs.

Some committed atrocities to be sure, but most were presumably ordinary people trying to fulfil their sworn duty in extraordinary times. Is there really such harm in bowing our heads for one minute each century to reflect on the role the RIC played in Ireland’s genesis?

Unionists in Northern Ireland commemorate as part of their traditions and culture many events and heroes that make republicans uneasy – the Battle of the Boyne, the Siege of Derry, William of Orange, Edward Carson, etc. Republicans equally commemorate events that may seem disturbing to unionists.

Any future leader of a united Ireland must be able to represent all of Ireland’s citizens and cultures and therefore must be willing to accept and, where appropriate, to attend peaceful and respectful commemorations that belong to both traditions. To do otherwise would be to deny true citizenship to those of the one background or the other.

Those who stand for a united Ireland (as opposed to an Ireland that is systematically cleansed of those with ideological differences) must be ready for what unity really means. – Yours, etc,

JOHN THOMPSON,

Phibsboro,

Dublin 7.

Sir, – The RIC and the DMP have been commemorated in the heart of Dublin since May 2010 when then-taoiseach Brian Cowen opened a memorial at Dublin Castle for gardaí killed on duty at Dublin Castle.

As reported in The Irish Times (News, May 15th, 2010), “a specially commissioned glass sculpture commemorates the sacrifice of the families left behind while a stone piece is a tribute to all deceased members of An Garda Síochána, the Royal Irish Constabulary and Dublin Metropolitan Police”. – Yours, etc,

DECLAN

O’KEEFFE,

Dublin 14.