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A force under fire

 

Glynnis Breen
Glynnis Breen
Dessie McCormac
Jeff Smith
Alan Douglas
Murdered: Constable David Montgomery
Murdered: Sergeant Peter Gilgun

By Leona O’Neill

Interpol once described the RUC as the world’s most dangerous police force to serve in. A new BBC Northern Ireland documentary interviews former officers about their experiences. Leona O’Neill hears their stories.

At one stage, the Royal Ulster Constabulary was considered the world's most dangerous police force to be in. A total of 319 officers were killed, with 9,000 injured during the conflict - some died at work, while others were killed while off duty. As well as dealing with everyday crime, the RUC was at the forefront of the state's efforts to tackle terrorism. While investigating burglaries and sex crimes, they dealt with the aftermath of bombings and paramilitary shootings, while being targets themselves

BBC One Northern Ireland's Cops on the Frontline tells the remarkable story of their duty while bearing the brunt of the terrorist campaign.

Alan Douglas was an RUC inspector from 1976 to 2001. He followed in his father's footsteps and joined the part-time Reserve.

"My childhood ended pretty abruptly when I was around 15 when there was a no-warning bomb at our house," he says.

"I don't know if I was blown out of bed or it was just the shock of it, but I remember standing looking out of the window as masonry was still falling.

"It was my father's business. I don't think that there was any great concern as to whether we lived or died. It was just an attack on us. I just felt that I needed to do something to stop it happening.

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"As soon as I could, I joined the part-time Reserve of the RUC. That was my last year at school, so I was a part-time officer when I was still attending high school. I travelled to school on the bus and I did carry a firearm to school.

"People probably ask why, but I needed to. I needed to protect myself and I needed to protect my father when he was leaving me off at the bus stop. I saw a need for it."

He adds: "There were two guys on the bus who went to a different school and they went on to join the Provos. They were both convicted of terrorism offences."

Alan says it was a complex and terrifying environment for his whole family to navigate and there were times he himself was scared.

"It was a difficult environment," he says. "Out of all of us, my mother had the most difficult time. My father went out to work, as did we. He was under threat and so were we.

"The only way she was going to find out if anything happened was to listen to the news. She listened to the bulletins every half-hour all through her life. All through the terrorist campaign and even still does to this day. It is just a force of habit.

"The terrorists I was up against, on both fronts, were heartless people, who were intent on murder. It didn't matter who you were; if you got in the way, they would take your life.

"Interpol said it was the most dangerous police force in the world to be in. We were constantly under attack. We were being targeted because of what we were. But we were human beings."

Dessie McCormac was an RUC inspector between 1971 and 2001. His first posting was to Rosemount Police Station in Londonderry.

"We were out on patrol on the streets at that time and, really, the only thing we had was a radio and a baton," he says.

"In January 1972, my sergeant Peter Gilgun and my colleague and friend Davy Montgomery were heading back to the station in a vehicle with three others. Not one of them had a weapon. They were ambushed by Provisional IRA gunmen. Peter and Davy died.

"Peter was destined to be a senior officer. He was a fluent Irish speaker, a wonderful sergeant, who mentored his probationary constables. Davy was my best mate. And that was my first experience of the sheer brutal murder of police officers."

A year later, Dessie's brother John - a Catholic civil servant - was shot dead by loyalists as he walked to his car after a visit to a house on the Falls Road. Ten years later, another brother, Hugh, was killed outside St Gabriel's Monastery, near Enniskillen. He was a serving RUC man.

"I was going to the funeral of my colleague Ivy Kelly, who had been killed in the Newry mortar attacks, and a police officer arrived at my door.

"He told me that my brother Hugh, who was a sergeant in the training centre in Enniskillen, had been attending Mass that morning with his wife and three children. He said that when he got out of the car, a gunman opened fire with a high-velocity weapon.

"Hugh was hit and then another gunman came up and fired a lot more rounds into his body while he was laying on the ground.

"The impact it had on our family was horrendous. My mother now had two sons murdered for absolutely no reason. Hugh's murder affected me greatly. It nearly broke me."

Glynnis Breen was a detective constable in the RUC from 1980 until 2001. She was shot and injured in a gun attack in Londonderry, in which her colleague died.

"I remember being at school and them showing us a recruitment video for the RUC," she says. "It was all canoeing and abseiling and I thought it looked great. I guess my mum and dad weren't too happy with my decision, but they accepted it.

"I was sent to Strand Road station. I had never been to Londonderry in my life and had no idea how to get there - my dad had to drive in front of me the whole way there to show me the way."

Glynnis says it was a "culture shock". "You were hated," she says. "Absolutely hated. You were spat on, called names, there were lots of colleagues being killed and injured on a daily basis.

"One morning, there were three of us on beat patrol duty in the city centre. One of our colleagues had to go into the department store and take a statement from someone.

"A colleague of mine, Alan Caskey, and I were outside on the street. A van pulled up and I thought they were asking for directions. I walked over to the cab and, when I was near the passenger side, a side door slid open and gunmen were sitting crouched down ready to come out. At that split second I thought I was going to die.

"I turned and ran, shouting to Alan. I heard shots being fired and I felt pressure on my back: I had been shot. I went down on the ground. Then the gunman came over. I felt intense burning on my leg and realised I had been shot there too. He left me for dead.

"Two gunmen came to the hospital, when I was recovering, to finish me off. But they were chased by guards. The nurses wouldn't let me watch TV. They didn't want me to find out Alan was dead.

"He was only 21 years old and a really good guy. He has remained in my thoughts and prayers every day. I sometimes feel guilty that I survived and he didn't."

Jeff Smith was an RUC Constable from 1982 to 1987. He was paralysed in a bomb attack in Fermanagh more than 30 years ago.

“I thought I was going to be a farmer growing up,” he says.

“But there was no money in it. I knew that the police were recruiting and I joined. I was thinking long term about saving money, buying land, leaving the police and continuing farming. But that all got cut short.

“My memory is very vague of that morning. I remember my colleague, Bob Gilliland, saying he would drive for the first part of the day and I would take over. We were heading out a country road and the road just blew up underneath the car.

“Bob died that day and I managed to survive.

“I was in a coma for six weeks, but when I came around I didn’t know who I was.”

He adds: “I didn’t have a family, so it would have been better that Bob had survived and not me.

“But, then, I wouldn’t have wished him a life as a paraplegic, either.”

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