OPINION:We cannot continue to exclude the RIC in the process of reconciliation, writes CHRIS RYDER
A GRANDIOSE memorial at the side of the road in Soloheadbeg, three miles from Tipperary, marks the spot where the shooting dead of two Royal Irish Constabulary officers, in January 1919, sparked off the War of Independence.
But the memorial honours only Dan Breen and the group who shot the policemen. In a telling omission, there is no commemorative tablet for the dead officers. It is not the only exclusion of its type for the RIC has consistently been denied any official recognition since its demise in 1922 despite the significant, albeit controversial, role it played in Ireland through the 19th and early-20th centuries.
Although its constables were Irishmen, the RIC was not universally popular. It was widely seen as an instrument of the exploitative absentee landlords and the British administration. Nevertheless, it played an important role in regulating Irish society at the time, and the basic policing model it represented was exported to Britain and further afield. Such was the RIC’s pivotal importance in the country that Michael Collins, the principal military strategist of the independence movement, recognised that if British rule in Ireland was ever to be broken, the RIC’s firm grip had to be ended.
Accordingly, as the War of Independence gathered force, the RIC became a primary target and was driven from its isolated rural outposts and forced to take cover in heavily guarded barracks in the main towns. Over the course of the conflict, 493 of its officers and men were killed. When Collins came to negotiate with the British in 1921, the total disbandment of the RIC was one of his key demands. Accordingly, the force ceased to exist on April 4th when its last members handed over the keys of the Phoenix Park depot to the Free State authorities and it was replaced by the Royal Ulster Constabulary in the north and the Garda Síochána in the south.
But the residual hostility to the surviving policemen and their families was both brutal and shameful. Many were prevented from boarding ferries to England or to the north. Some suffered public humiliation when they returned to their native areas and were either driven away or killed. Those who reached Britain were billeted in disused army camps in very grim living conditions.
Ever since this violent demise, the memory of the RIC has been comprehensively ignored by the Irish and British states.
In the aftermath of Queen Elizabeth’s ground-breaking visit to the Republic and the equal recognition now so properly afforded to Irish citizens who fought and died for Irish freedom and those who chose to fight and die in two world wars in a British uniform, the time must now have come to give long overdue recognition to the forgotten sacrifice of the RIC.
A modest start has been made. The GAA has finally restored to a place of honour in its history Thomas St George McCarthy, an RIC district inspector who was one of those present at the famous meeting at Hayes Hotel, Thurles on November 1st, 1884, when the organisation was founded.
When he died in 1943 he was buried in an unmarked grave in Deansgrange Cemetery, Dublin. On November 18th, 2009, the GAA unveiled a commemorative gravestone to mark his contribution and the Garda Síochána and PSNI Gaelic teams now compete in the Thomas St George McCarthy Cup every year.
But much more remains to be done. We are at one of the great turning points in Irish history. A more secular, tolerant and diverse society is taking shape.
Thanks to the vision of President McAleese and the symbolism of the Queen’s visit, the hurts and rivalries of the past are now increasingly seen as legitimate and worthy of mutual recognition and forgiveness. It would be unforgivable if the memory of the equally honourable RIC continues to be excluded from the process of reconciliation.
Chris Ryder is a journalist and is author of The RUC: a Force Under Fire(Methuen, London 1989)