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'I left the RUC 20 years ago, but still shed tears over the things I saw'

George Hamilton's 'dry your eyes' remarks were inappropriate, but Troubles veterans witnessed awful sights

By Alan Simpson

Published 25/08/2016

An injured man is led away after the bombing of the Abercorn restaurant in Belfast in 1972, just one of countless atrocities police had to deal with during the Troubles
An injured man is led away after the bombing of the Abercorn restaurant in Belfast in 1972, just one of countless atrocities police had to deal with during the Troubles

As someone who served at the coal-face of anti-terror policing through practically all of the Troubles and who was forced into early retirement as a result of the corrosive effect of long-term exposure to stress, I was disappointed at the remarks this week by the Chief Constable George Hamilton, which basically amounted to saying to his officers: "Well, if you can't take the heat, then get out of the kitchen."

It was a very inappropriate thing to say and, to me, it was like a step back in time to the backward attitude that persisted among senior headquarters officers during the era of the Troubles, and his remarks will no doubt have resonated with many retired officers.

Policing in normal times can, on occasions, be highly stressful - particularly when called to deal with the horrors of road traffic collisions, suicides or cases of child abuse. But these simply cannot compare to what the RUC experienced during the darkest days of the 30 years of the conflict.

I served my statutory two years' uniform probationary period in north Belfast, starting in May 1970. The Troubles were steadily moving from simmering to boiling-point and sectarian murders were rife.

During those two years I was the first police officer at the scenes of 12 murders and many of the victims had been cruelly brutalised before death mercifully released them from their tormentors.

In those early years my only duty was to keep the scene intact pending the arrival of CID.

I was so incensed by the horrors I was witnessing that I felt I wanted to do more, and consequently applied to become a trainee detective.

I was accepted and sent to west Belfast, where murders, too, were an almost daily occurrence.

But my earlier experiences had to a degree hardened me when I had to physically deal with brutalised victims.

However, I was by no means inured to their deaths and I didn't leave my human emotions behind when my turn of duty had finished.

I often lay in bed at night thinking about the savagery that lies just below the surface in mankind.

I also shamelessly confess that I did have to dry my tears in secret on occasions and just move on.

I soon had acquired experiences well beyond my length of service and steadily moved up the ranks of CID until I found myself in charge of divisional detective departments and directing murder investigations.

My role then was to bring together all of the evidential elements of a murder, from witnesses, pathologists and forensic scientists, and formulate a picture of how the crime had happened, thereby keeping my murder squad on track.

Almost all of the murder victims I had dealt with by then had met their deaths by means of savage beatings, stabbings, shootings, or being caught up in no-warning bombings.

Soon we entered a new phase, when the IRA began planting under-car bombs using Semtex supplied by Colonel Gadaffi. I dealt with four such cases, and these were certainly the work of the Devil. The bomb was usually placed to catch the driver out and was triggered by a mercury tilt switch. Once the car had moved a few yards the bomb went off and the tarmac directed most of the blast upwards, punching a hole in the bottom of the car and blowing away most of the lower half of the body of the victim.

Death was - mercifully - instantaneous, but it was horrendously difficult removing their remains from the wrecks of their cars and frequently I passed out limbs to my colleagues, who would lay them in order on a plastic sheet. Then came the time to lift out the upper half of the body, which was difficult to do while trying to afford the victim a degree of dignity.

In addition to dealing with murders, I think most people will not realise that operational detectives have a role to play in the investigations into suicides and sudden and unexplained deaths. Initially, these have to be treated as crimes until proven otherwise.

As a divisional head of CID, it was my duty to visit these scenes and direct the investigation.

These cases were normally resolved at an early stage as being genuine suicides, or death being due to natural causes - thanks to the professional work of the pathologists and forensic scientists. But, nonetheless, they were quite harrowing - particularly when dealing with cot deaths.

My most vivid memory of a suicide is that of a schoolboy dressed in his uniform who had hanged himself. My two sons were of a similar age and the memory of that event haunts me to this day.

Overall, during my almost quarter-of-a-century of investigating crimes, I estimate that I visited the scenes and dealt with the bodies of around 200 victims. At a guess, about 50 of these were suicides and sudden deaths, and the remainder were murders.

However, I served through wholly exceptional times and my experiences certainly took a toll on me in many ways when I began to lose my operational effectiveness through extreme stress and was forced to leave the force.

I have nothing but admiration for the PSNI - especially when I witness the courageous manner in which officers deal with public order situations.

They, too, remain under the threat of the gunman and, as part of their everyday duties, they have to deal with all manner of deaths, but, thankfully, fewer murders.

While I feel the Chief Constable made inappropriate remarks last weekend, we are all capable of saying things we later regret.

I hope he has moved on from the caveman attitude to stress I experienced from headquarters officers during my service.

And I would ask him to bear in mind that it's 20 years since I terminated my police career, but I still shed a tear from time to time when I think back to some of the events I witnessed.

Retired RUC detective superintendent Alan Simpson is the author of Duplicity And Deception (Brandon)

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