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'I felt I'd a duty to give the men and women of the RUC a voice... I am grateful for their trust'

Award-winner: film-maker Gerry Gregg was keen to get involved
Award-winner: film-maker Gerry Gregg was keen to get involved

By Gerry Gregg

When executive producer Kelda Crawford-McCann approached me to make a film on the experiences of members of the RUC as part of BBC Northern Ireland's series of documentaries marking the 50th anniversary of the arrival of troops in the province, I seized the opportunity.

As a Dubliner, I wasn't the obvious choice, but the challenge of recording the testimonies of RUC officers who had served in and survived the bloodshed and heartbreak of the Troubles was a story I felt needed to be heard.

As a trainee producer/director at RTE, the inspirational (journalist) Eoghan Harris acquainted me with a maxim, Dowling's Law, in honour of his colleague and mentor, the television producer Jack Dowling.

It was Dowling's view that memorable television creatively engaged with viewers, challenged stereotypes and forced the audience to face up to its prejudices. Dowling's Law means documentaries have to present insights that show viewers the world in a new light.

It's against this background that I seized the opportunity to make Cops on the Frontline, where former RUC officers tell their story in their own words.

It wasn't my first time making a film about the RUC. Twenty-five years ago, I made a television series, Inside the RUC, with the Deasy brothers, Seamus on camera, and Brendan on sound.

We were embedded with several RUC units, filming everything from drug busts to murder investigations. It coincided with a critical time of change for the RUC.

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A quarter of a century on, the same team reassembled to make a new BBC Northern Ireland documentary: Cops on the Frontline.

The RUC is the subject of ongoing critical review and investigation. Serving a divided community means, in some areas, RUC officers are seen as brave heroes, while in other areas they're seen as a sectarian force, incapable of impartially upholding the rule of law.

Given this, it's no wonder many RUC officers prefer to keep their heads down and their mouths shut rather than confront any partisan version of history. But their role and memories are a part of the wider Troubles story which needs to be told.

Researcher Dr William Matchett and I started meeting former officers. Immediately, I was struck by the level of demoralisation among their ranks.

Many felt there was no point in breaking cover and sharing their stories. What was the point of going on camera and being set up for public derision - and maybe worse - after all these years? Self-preservation was understandable.

We criss-crossed Northern Ireland, we spoke to a representative range of former officers. They all had memorable stories.

All expressed frustration; of their belief that the police perspective was absent from the debate about the past. Some of those we met decided, for personal and family reasons, they weren't able to take part.

Then we met Danny Brennan, a GAA man from near Loughinisland in Co Down and a former RUC Inspector. Danny sat us down over coffee in a Belfast Hotel and talked - and talked.

He recalled restless nights, where ghosts from too many murders perpetrated by republican and loyalist killers came back again and again.

Would Danny go on camera?

"Who's going to stop me? I have been waiting for 20 years to tell my story."

Then we met Jeff Smith. Jeff was paralysed by an IRA roadside bomb that killed his fellow officer in the patrol car he should have been driving.

Jeff described waking up from a month-long coma. When his father came in to see him in hospital, he asked his dad: "What's my name?"

Would Jeff Smith go on air?

"I will," he said. "We're getting a raw deal."

And more stories came. Glynnis Breen was one of them. She, like all female officers, was unarmed until 1994.

She was 19 years old when she came face-to-face with a three-man IRA gun team in the early 1980s.

She was shot as she tried to escape. She played dead, as her colleague Constable Alan Caskey was murdered.

Would Glynnis Breen break her silence?

"In memory of Alan Caskey, whom I think about every day, I will."

We had many other meetings similar to those with Danny, Jeff and Glynnis.

All the men and women we met felt that, if they didn't speak out, they might never get a second chance.

Years of pain and trauma, mixed with pride and a sense of duty, compelled the men and women who feature in Cops on the Frontline to sign up and set the record straight, as they see it.

As a film-maker, I have chronicled the conflict in the Balkans War in the former Yugoslavia.

I have created a trilogy of documentaries charting a Holocaust survivor's search for justice and campaign against the far-Right.

As I see it, the stories in Cops on the Frontline are an important part of the narrative in the history of the Troubles.

I felt a duty to give the men and women of the RUC a voice.

The former officers reveal, with searing honesty and sincere emotion, the human cost of upholding the rule of law.

I will be forever grateful for their trust and for letting me share their stories with the world. And this is their story.

Cops on the Frontline is available on BBC iPlayer and will be broadcast on BBC One Northern Ireland on Monday at 9pm. Gerry Gregg is one of Ireland's most accomplished film-makers, with a distinguished track record including the Emmy Producer/Director Award-winning Dispatches series for Channel 4 in 1999 and the 2015 IFTA and Celtic Media Festival Award-winning documentary Close to Evil, which he wrote, directed and produced

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