A troubling experience: Colin Breen recounts nightmares writing second book
Writing the second volume of true-life stories of police officers during the conflict gave Colin Breen nightmares, but he stuck at it. 'Someone had to be their voice,' he tells Laurence White
When Colin Breen was writing his second book of recollections of RUC officers of their service during the Troubles, he found it a troubling experience. "I was getting these strange dreams of people trying to kill me, or of horrific terrorist incidents, but rather stupidly it took me a while to realise what was going on," he says. "It dawned on me that I was reliving some of the stories that officers had told me about and which had happened to them. After all, I had been writing these stories for the book day after day.
"To prevent damaging myself, I had to take a break for about a week. I am not the sort of person who gets affected easily - after all, I was an experienced officer and had been around a few corners myself - but these stories were taking their toll on me."
This experience made him realise why so many former members of the RUC wanted to tell him their stories.
"They wanted to get those stories out. There is no doubt that some of them were suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and that this was a way of coping."
He recalls one officer in his 60s, who told him about one notorious IRA bombing.
"I knew he was suffering from PTSD the moment he began talking to me. He just took a huge breath and began blurting out his story in nearly one gulp. It was still raw in his mind - even after all these years.
"When I was interviewing these men and women, I realised that I was taking the lid off their problems, but I had no way of putting it back on again. That is why I have included information about support groups in the book."
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Called A Force Like No Other: The Next Shift, this is a more sombre book than the original one, which Colin admits grew out of a desire of his to include some of the anecdotes and black humour which enabled the men and women to live their lives in the cross-hairs of the terrorists.
Even in the new book, there are some examples, like the women who repeatedly telephoned her local police station to complain about an Army helicopter which was hovering above her home keeping the family awake.
After the third call, an exasperated office informed her that it had broken down and was waiting for another helicopter to tow it back to base. The women thanked him profusely.
And then there was the old farmer, who crashed his car, but claimed he could not remember a thing about it. One canny officer suggested that perhaps he had hit the ditch, overturned the vehicle, but landed on its wheels before careering across the road and repeating the crash.
He then asked if, perhaps, a dram of drink had been involved, to which the farmer replied: "Of course there was. Do you think I'm a f****** stunt driver?"
But there are darker stories also and time has not dulled the horror of them to the officers involved.
Colin says: "I remember one guy I used to play rugby with sitting in my home, telling me stuff, when he suddenly started to cry. I told him I hoped I hadn't opened some can of worms, but he said it was great to be able get these stories recorded and that they would be lost to history if not told now."
He re-uses the format of the original book - the stories are told with timelines, as if they happened during various shifts on a single day.
"That is what life in the police was like in those days. You didn't know when you got a call during your shift whether it would result in you laughing, crying, or dying."
Colin admits that those who contacted him had often not even told their families about horrors they had seen, or endured.
"If I had not been a cop in the past, they would not have spoken to me, but I was able to draw their experiences out of them."
He adds: "I was pleased when one man wrote to me and said, 'Thank you for being our voice'. That was a lot of responsibility for me. These officers had no other outlet for their memories. They feel there is an attempt to airbrush them out of history and that no one cares about their stories, or what happened to them."
He also admits he had to tone down some of the accounts out of respect to the bereaved.
"However, I wanted to tell people what some of the things we, as police officers, had to face and deal with. When people heard of some atrocity on the news, they did not know what the reality of that event was - like the search for body parts after an explosion, or the horror of someone being shot dead at close range, like a man murdered in front of terrified passengers on a train in Belfast."
Colin says that police officers and their families felt isolated because of their jobs. Some said there are three religions in Northern Ireland: Protestant, Catholic and police.
"There was always suspicion and wariness in police families. I know officers whose children didn't know they were policemen until they were teenagers. That was just to protect the family. A careless word could be fatal.
"I knew a policeman who went out drinking with a crowd of civilians somewhere near the border and, at closing time, the group decided to go across to the Republic, where the pubs stayed open later.
"Fortunately, the police officer decided at the last minute to go home, because a barman who had overheard some remark in the group had phoned ahead and an IRA hit team was waiting at the southern pub."
A recurrent theme to emerge from the stories was the lack of counselling available to officers - no matter how horrific the incidents they witnessed or were involved in.
"It often was the case of an officer being given a bottle of whiskey to calm the nerves and then having to make their own way home. Even when counselling was offered, at the beginning it was very amateurish.
"One officer recalls how a senior female officer turned up at one session and ordinary constables refused to disclose their problems in front of her in case it affected their careers.
"One officer summed up the help given in this way: 'Our drink was our medicine and, by God, we took some medicine'."
Colin says the thing that affected him most during his career was the suddenness of death.
"You could be some innocent person sitting down to dinner with your family, talking to them and giving your opinion on any number of topics, when suddenly gunmen burst in and shoot you dead. In an instant, you were lying on the floor, being put into a bag and being driven away in a van."
Although the officers whose stories are included in the book simply relate the facts, unvarnished by opinion, they provide a fascinating insight into some notorious incidents.
One instance is the part-time officer in Londonderry, who was shot in his home in the Cityside and who promised God he would go to church every Sunday if he recovered.
He did recover, rejoined the police and was shot dead by the IRA on the steps of his church.
Another is the case of the corporals murdered when they blundered into the funeral in west Belfast of an IRA man who had been killed earlier by loyalist terrorist Michael Stone.
According to an officer who was there, high-ranking police and Army officers, including the GOC, were repeatedly asked by police on the ground to allow them to rescue the two men before they were shot dead, but permission was refused several times.
It was not clear at the time that the two captured men were soldiers and there was an impression that they were loyalist paramilitaries, intent on repeating Stone's earlier attack.
There was shock and horror among the senior officers when the men's true identity was established.
Will Colin be writing another book on this subject? "It will be a couple of years before I would consider it, providing there is an appetite for it, but that definitely would be the end.
"What I would like to do is gather the stories of the men and women who served part-time in the security forces along the border. These were people who accompanied each other home for safety at night, but there was always one who was left at the end to go home alone.
"Then there were the farmers. They could do all possible to safeguard themselves, but they still had to go into the fields at the same time every night to feed the animals, or to put them into byres.
"What has always struck me is that those people, in the face of IRA attacks, joined the part-time RUC Reserve, or the UDR, whereas in Belfast they tended to join the UVF and shot innocent people walking home.
"There was no element of retaliation along the border from people who felt themselves under attack."