Conflict and remembrance
Sir, – In his article “The RIC was never a normal police force” (Opinion & Analysis, January 13th), Brian Hanley complains that the recent debate on the RIC has been “infuriatingly partitionist”. While he has a point, he does his case no favours by identifying the RIC with the Ulster Special Constabulary and eliding the previous history of the RIC in Belfast.
One of the main reasons why Carson and Craig pressed the British government for the recruiting of a special constabulary was a long-standing unionist suspicion of the RIC dating back to its replacement of the Belfast municipal police force, whose Orange sympathies made it unsuitable for dealing with the large outbreaks of sectarian violence which had scarred the life of the city in the second half of the 19th century.
The severe riots of 1886 in which 32 people died were described by the historian Catherine Hirst, as “essentially a battle between Protestant crowds and the constabulary”. There was a general belief amongst the Protestant working class and some middle-class Protestants that the government had sent police reinforcements from the south of Ireland to put down opposition to Home Rule. In 1912, after the expulsion of Catholic workers from the shipyards, the RIC commissioner for Belfast reported that, “In ordinary times they did not do duty in the shipyards and their presence there was regarded as an intrusion and an insult. Even in ordinary times, a policeman in uniform has missiles frequently thrown at him.”
It was this popular Protestant hostility to the RIC which made the fledgling unionist government determined to recruit and control its own police force and special constabulary. Brian Hanley picks out the notorious district inspector Nixon, the alleged leader of a sectarian murder gang, as proof that the RIC was not a normal police force. More typical, I would argue, was detective constable William Barrett who was suspended for refusing to protect a blackleg driver during the Belfast dock strike of 1907. Five hundred of his colleagues threatened to strike in support of him and for better pay and conditions. The Irish News published telegrams of support from RIC stations throughout Ireland.
Charlie Flanagan was right to propose a commemoration of this force’s complex history. – Yours, etc,
of Irish Politics,
Jordanstown, Co Antrim.
Sir, – Several letter writers on this issue have supported the Government’s proposal to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary on the grounds that it was a police force like any other, and as deserving of commemoration as any other aspect of Irish life.
Brian Hanley’s article completely explodes this idea.
Unlike police forces in other parts of the United Kingdom, the RIC was clearly intended not to police Ireland, but to dragoon her. Armed as they were from the start with pistols, carbines and bayonets (in addition to the modest truncheon of the British bobby), the force was clearly designed to repress political dissent in Ireland. The characterisation of dissent as “rebellion” – legally a criminal offence – was sustained up to the Truce, when the British government tried to maintain the pretence that they were suppressing criminality by trying to contain it with an augmented RIC “police force”.
Although during its pre-Rising eight decades, the RIC undoubtedly functioned in the main as a police force, and comprised mostly decent, non-political men, nevertheless its essentially repressive function makes the Government’s commemoration proposal simplistic, unimaginative, and lacking any sense of the complexity of the issue. A commemoration – an hour out of the Minister’s schedule, some flag-waving, pomp and ceremony, and bien-pensant speeches – is a worthless exercise in box-ticking. Even worse, although (I believe) not intended, it appears to amount to endorsement of the entity being commemorated.
A more effective option would be to convene a seminar on policing in pre-independence Ireland. This would allow the inputs of those who find something of value in the RIC’s history, and also those who feel that the basic nature of the force, not to speak of the several paramilitary auxiliaries that were attached to it during the last two years of its existence, make it an organisation rather to be reviled than celebrated. The publication of the papers contributed to such an event would constitute a lasting, perhaps final, say on the matter. And leave it until the anniversary of the winding up of the RIC. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – Trevor Ringland, in his letter of January 10th, states of the War of Independence, that “nothing was achieved through violence that could not otherwise have been achieved through peaceful and democratic means”.
Really? This rosy-hued view is flatly contradicted by a plethora of historical facts too numerous to mention relating to the British Empire and its willingness to use maximum force at any time to suppress subjugated peoples who had the temerity to look for any form of democracy.To cite just one example, in April 1919, when peaceful unarmed demonstrators marched in Amritsar in India for democracy, they were shot down in their hundreds by the brutal enforcers of the British Empire in a massacre that the British government even to this day still feels unable to apologise for.
Mr Ringland links the recent Troubles to his contention that nothing was achieved through violence that could have been achieved by peaceful democratic means.
If that were true, why in over 50 years of unionist one-party rule did the minority not get basic civil rights, despite constant requests? If these rights were so readily available through peaceful means, why did the RUC brutally baton civil rights marchers in Derry in 1968? – Yours, etc,