Ex-RUC man Colin Breen: I planned to write about funnier times in police, but as I spoke to officers, I realised their stories were no laughing matter
Colin Breen, from Co Down, was shot at five times in a 14-year police career, but feels the force is now being written out of history... his new book is intended to redress the balance
Former RUC man Colin Breen has the dubious distinction of having turned up at the scene of what was meant to be his own murder by the IRA.
He'd been on surveillance duty at the time and was alerted to the unconnected killing of a man in a nearby car.
Colin went to investigate, but as he didn't recognise the man he went back to his undercover business, though a phone call from a colleague shortly afterwards chilled him to the bone.
He explains: "I hadn't noticed that the victim's car was the same model as my own. And the registration plate was only one digit out from mine.
"So, the penny dropped that my colleagues were working on the theory that the terrorists thought they'd got me.
"But, instead, they murdered the wrong man, who had absolutely no connection to the security forces."
It was one of five times that terrorists opened fire on him - loyalists as well as republicans.
Colin, who served for 14 years with the RUC, mainly in the greater Belfast area, recounts the story of his narrowest escape in a new book that he's written not only about his experiences, but also about those of other former officers in Northern Ireland, which Interpol described in 1983 as being the most dangerous place to be in a police force.
A Force Like No Other is an often chilling series of recollections, which Colin has gleaned from meetings with his erstwhile colleagues in Special Branch and CID, many of whom had never spoken before about the Troubles.
The publishers say: "The stories reveal the mayhem and madness that officers dealt with every day; the psychological and personal toll of the job and the camaraderie and the whiskey that helped them to cope."
Yet Colin initially planned to write a book about the funnier times in the saddest of times inside the RUC and, even though there is still dark humour in it, the book has evolved into a very different read altogether.
He says: "Obviously, I knew that there was a lot of black humour on the job. It was a coping mechanism. But as I spoke to more and more former officers, I realised that the stories which were coming out were no laughing matter and that many people were still living with the horrendous aftermath of the Troubles."
From his own perspective, Colin hadn't needed to say a word to me about the legacy that the conflict has left with him.
When I arrived in a coffee shop in Co Down, he was sitting in a seat opposite the door, just in case there was an unwelcome arrival.
"Force of habit," he says. "It's called 'room domination'. I always like to keep an eye on the entrance. I'm just back from visiting a friend in America and I was doing the same thing there, too."
Colin's caution isn't unique among his former RUC associates. "Sometimes, when we're all out together, there's a bit of a race to get the seats facing the door. And if they're taken, you'll find boys trying to watch what is going on if there's a mirror on the wall."
Colin has garnered together dozens of stories from an unspecified number of ex-colleagues and he has woven their memories together in a way that reads like a giant day in the life of one RUC officer.
Colin, who promised his interviewees anonymity, says: "I wanted to give the reader a feeling of what it was like to be in the police at a time when you didn't know what was going to happen every time the radio crackled into life, or the phone rang."
Despite the attempts on his life, he was never injured, but he lost a number of good friends in terrorist attacks, people he still misses many years after they were killed.
Colin says he was fastidious about his personal security, but he knows that his attention to detail mightn't always have saved him if the terrorists' tactics had been different.
He always checked under his car for booby-traps and drove everywhere with his personal protection weapon close at hand. On one occasion he came dangerously close to using it.
"I was stopped in traffic when I saw a well-known IRA man in front of me. It transpired that he was just crossing the road, but if he had come over to the car and asked me the time, there's a fair chance I would have shot him."
During his research Colin, who has dedicated the book to his late brother Rodney, who served with the police in Toronto, stumbled on one unexpected mental issue linked to the Troubles - or, rather, the peace.
He says: "I met one officer who couldn't adapt to the new climate. He found policing the peace harder than the Troubles, because he said he knew where he was when the threat was high, but it was tougher for him to deal with a partial threat.
"The same man told me he once jumped out of the bath after he heard what he believed were footsteps in the house. He grabbed his gun and, because he was dripping wet, he slipped and injured himself on his tiled floor before discovering that the noise was the sound of toilet rolls falling out of a cupboard."
Colin says a common thread among many officers was how they struggled to cope with the pressures of the Troubles and turned to drink.
"One man said whiskey was his medicine, adding: 'By f***, we took some medicine.'"
Others talked of their guilt at the way their jobs impacted on their families - especially their children, whose education was disrupted by constantly having to go to new schools after their fathers were forced to move home under a severe terrorist threat.
Yet the irony in the book is how many police officers say the Troubles were the best days of their lives. One or two even call their service "fun".
That maybe wasn't the case for several Catholic friends of Colin, one of whom had to visit his elderly mother in the hours just before dawn because she lived on the border.
Colin explains: "He could only stay for 10 or 15 minutes, because someone might have spotted him - even at that time of the morning. He was also unable to attend family weddings or funerals because he would have been a prime target."
He says he has no regrets about his time in the RUC, but he left the force in 1991 and opened a shop in Bangor.
He later fought unsuccessfully for an Assembly seat in North Down in 2011 for the Ulster Unionists, but he has now quit the party.
Colin has dismissed any suggestion that his book is propaganda.
"Anyone who gets that idea is misreading the book, which is simply telling what happened. There's no opinion of mine in it," he adds.
That's not, however, to say that Colin has no opinions on what he says have been attempts to discredit the RUC.
"I do feel that history, in many ways, is being rewritten by some people and that it's not being very objectively reflected upon.
"My own personal feeling is that there are people now who are terrorists and they're just common criminals who are involved in acts of terrorism.
"And yet they are trying to equate themselves to grand soldiers or whatever. But they seem to forget that they blew up men, women and children, and if the book has a message, it's to remind the men and women of violence about what they did during the Troubles.
"I'm talking about all terrorists, loyalists and republicans. If my would-be murderers had succeeded in killing me, I'm sure it wouldn't have mattered to my mother which ones got me.
"It's often said that there are three religions here - Protestants, Catholic and police officers. And, when the phone rang, the RUC just responded without asking who was calling.
"And had it not been for the police holding the line, creating a vacuum where peace could be discussed, we might not be where we are today."
Colin says he believes RUC officers did their job with impunity, adding: "I never saw any bias from any quarter."
Colin has just finished writing a three-part crime drama for the BBC and he's also working on two documentaries - one of which will be shot in the USA.
Even before his book hit the shops, he received a ringing endorsement for it from across the Atlantic from his friend, the former golfer turned commentator David Feherty.
In a tweet, he said: "Great read, very moving and funny."
A Force Like No Other: The real stories of the RUC men and women who policed the Troubles by Colin Breen is published by Blackstaff Press, priced £9.99