The RIC and coming to terms with history
Sir, – Many proponents of the planned State commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary have sought to decouple the “ordinary Irishmen” who served in the force from the notorious Black and Tans and Auxiliaries. But is such decoupling possible?
The words of Sir Hamar Greenwood, formerly Chief Secretary for Ireland, are worth considering. In a written answer to a parliamentary question from Neville Chamberlain in February 1921, he noted: “As I have previously explained, the so-called Black-and-Tans are not a separate force, but are recruits to the permanent establishment of the Royal Irish Constabulary. The Auxiliary Division is also a part of the Royal Irish Constabulary, but consists altogether of ex-officers of the Army, Navy, or Air Force who have been recruited for temporary service only.” (House of Commons, February 25th, 1921).
In a debate of October the previous year, Greenwood responded with scepticism to reports that auxiliary police had committed atrocities in Co Galway, stating: “There is no such force as the auxiliary police in Galway or elsewhere in Ireland. There are members of the auxiliary division of the Royal Irish Constabulary.” (House of Commons, October 21st, 1920).
The writings and remarks of Greenwood, who would have cause to know, make clear that the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries were, for the British state, part-and-parcel of the RIC, every bit as much as the aforementioned “ordinary Irishmen”.
It may not have been intended, as Minister for Justice Charles Flanagan stated, to “celebrate” the RIC.
But we must at least have an honest discussion about who, and what, we are being asked to respectfully commemorate. – Yours, etc,
Dr SHAUN McDAID,
Division of Criminology,
Politics and Sociology,
University of Huddersfield,
Sir, – I suspect that the current debate about commemorating the RIC is not chiefly about the former police force at all. Underneath the stark difference in attitudes lies a question about whether or not violence was really necessary to bring about constitutional change when Ireland sought to leave the United Kingdom 100 years ago.
Looking at the way the debate was evolving at the time, it’s reasonable to assert that nothing was achieved through violence that could not otherwise have been achieved through peaceful and democratic means. Irish independence was going to happen one way or another.
This is a tough proposition for some parts of Irish society to accept because it means that the Easter Rising, the Anglo-Irish War and Ireland’s Civil War were all unnecessary.
The same is true of the more recent violent republican campaign we too simply call the Troubles.
In Easter 1916, a “terrible hatred” was born and it has been a cancer poisoning relationships on this island ever since.
Facing up to that fact is a proper basis to move forward politically and socially.
Before we all dive back into our trenches, we should bear in mind that in 1998 effectively we agreed that we would place building good relations to the forefront of life on this island. That included committing to make Northern Ireland work socially and economically as the only acceptable means of pursuing our different constitutional preferences. It also meant nurturing great, meaningful relationships across the island and between these islands.
That is the best way to heal the hurt and tragedy caused by the use of violence in the past. Friendship works and hatred does not. Around 560 dead RIC officers are testament to that. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – Finally bowing to public opinion, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has cancelled the planned commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) who were killed in action during the period of the Irish War of Independence. It seems, however, that the Minister continues to misunderstand the controversial nature of his original proposals.
The RIC was an illegitimate paramilitary police force, which took up arms against its own democratically elected Irish government. The election in question took place in December 1918 and resulted in Sinn Féin winning over 70 per cent of all seats on the island of Ireland. Subsequently, Dáil Éireann was formally established in January 1919. Britain refused to recognise the mandate of the Irish people and employed the RIC to hunt down the elected representatives and their lightly armed guards. A war of unequal forces was thereby unleashed upon the people and their representatives. (Though unarmed, the DMP worked hand in glove throughout the period in question with the RIC, the Black and Tans and the Auxiliary police).
Even in the middle of this RIC-led war on the rule of law, the Irish people again reiterated their support for democratic government. The urban and rural elections of January and June 1920 resulted in even more emphatic gains for Sinn Féin.
It is surely disingenuous to suggest that the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries sullied the reputation of the RIC. It was the latter, alone, who murdered Tomás Mac Curtain, the democratically elected lord mayor of Cork. Incidentally, the notorious Insp Oswald Swanzy was named as one of the murderers at the subsequent coroner’s inquest in Cork. He fled but was tracked down by the Dáil’s own police force and executed for his part in the appalling crime. It would appear the Irish Government is now about to honour this miscreant.
So far the Minister for Justice has had nothing at all to say about the real police heroes of the conflict, such as the poorly-armed republican police force. Nor has he mentioned the heroic RIC mutineers of Listowel in June 1920 – and the hundreds of other RIC throughout the country who followed their example. These men sacrificed their careers rather than “commit murder” (the words of Constable Jeremiah Mee, police leader at Listowel barracks). Once again, we have heard nothing from the minister of justice about these upholders of democratic law and order.
Honouring those RIC who took up arms against the democratic Dáil’s own army and police was a retrospective attempt to justify imperial might over right, to justify the role of the gun over that of the ballot box. Such a measure would have represented a slap in the face to Irish democracy. Well done to all our public representatives and private individuals who stood up and were counted. – Yours, etc,
A chara, – In view of the controversy sparked by proposals to commemorate the RIC and the DMP, how are we going to manage the centenary of the Civil War? – Is mise,
ART Ó LAOGHAIRE,
Sir, – In the wake of the controversy caused by the ill-conceived decision to commemorate the RIC with a State ceremony, it is to be hoped that a salutary lesson has been learned by whatever politicians may be in government when the centenary of our sad and tragic Civil War confronts us.
It is clear that a State ceremony to commemorate those dark days in our history would only reopen the festering wounds of the past and turn citizen against citizen. Surely the best way to honour all those who fought and died for freedom is to redouble our efforts to make Ireland a place we could all be proud of in matters of housing, health, education, with care and compassion for all children of the nation, young and old.
Let’s have more common sense in Government and less grandstanding. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – That was an interesting political and public debate which led to the cancellation of the commemoration ceremony for the RIC and DMP. I wonder what would happen if, in a united Ireland in 50 or 100 years, the unionists (or former unionists) wanted to commemorate the RUC officers who had been killed by the IRA and INLA during the Northern Ireland “Troubles”. – Yours, etc,
Sir, – I cannot agree with your letter writer who feels that we are not a forgiving society based on the reaction to the proposed commemoration of the RIC (Letters, January 9th).
Without exception, every person to whom I spoke about this very difficult subject was happy, at this remove, to forgive and forget. For a significant number, however, there was a difficulty in forgiving and commemorating. – Yours, etc,