Joe Cushnan once viewed RUC as force to fear, but now 'he can see the other side'
Writer Joe Cushnan, who grew up in nationalist west Belfast, describes how his own opinion of the RUC has changed down the years - and how a new book shows the human face of its officers.
In the mid-1960s, I was barely a teenager. I was walking back from the shops, up the Glen Road in Belfast, when I spotted a 10-shilling note on the footpath. I picked it up, took it home, showed it to my mother and told her: "I'm going to hand this in to the police station as lost property." She looked surprised but did not deter me.
Off I marched back down the Glen Road to the station which was situated where the Falls Road, the Glen Road and the Andersonstown Road met, just across from the bus depot. In later years, this police station was hidden behind metal fences, sandbags and razor wire, but in those days it was open to the public. I was very nervous as I approached the front door.
Some bad lads in handcuffs had been marched into this building in the past. It was my first time ever in a police station and I remember a kind of rubbery smell from the outer coats officers used to wear. I told the desk assistant my tale and handed over the 10-bob note. He recorded the incident and said that if the money was not claimed in six months, I could have it back. He was very nice, not at all what I expected, but I left the station happy and contented, good deed done.
I was reminded of this story when I was reading a new book called A Force Like No Other: The Real Stories of the RUC Men and Women Who Policed the Troubles by Colin Breen.
In the 1960s/70s, growing up as I did in an area of Belfast labelled as Catholic, nationalist, republican, or all three, even someone apolitical would have been hard-pushed not to be very wary of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) or even harbour extreme hatred for them, their uniforms and their history of perceived or actual bias in favour of Protestant, loyalist and unionist agendas.
The RUC was a hero organisation to some and a villainous one to others, not an unusual state of affairs in a land of multiple conflicts. Various official reports over the years have exposed and emphasised many negative aspects of the RUC and what a controversial and skewed force it was before being reorganised and rebranded as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in 2001.
So for me to actually walk into a police station as a kid, alone, was a giant step. For me to be impressed (and relieved) that the desk assistant was nice was a big surprise.
Whatever the broader, general analysis of RUC history tells us, to my knowledge, little has been heard from individuals describing what it was like to go to work as a police officer during the Troubles, the pressures on them and their families and how they coped with atrocities and the constant threat of assassination.
This book collects the personal stories of RUC personnel in their own words and brings to the fore the human side as never before. Sure, there were bad apples, but there were also many more genuine law-abiding people out there doing a job of work, trying to earn a crust, trying to do the right things. The point here is that generalisations sometimes are, er, too general.
Through a mixture of fact, fabrication and manipulative propaganda, kids like me grew up to be afraid of the RUC. We were brainwashed to see all officers as corrupt, nasty and ever-ready with the truncheon. But, of course, all officers were not corrupt or nasty as the stories in the book illustrate.
The accounts, pretty much written as told to the author, are compelling. I was bracing myself for a rather turgid history of a police force. But this is far from it. There are grim details of brutal crimes and descriptions of emotional responses to horrendous incidents.
There are recollections of policing terrorism as well as more mundane and, for want of a better word, normal crimes like burglary, and accounts of procedural obstacles and political interference. These are stories of everyday lives "of what it was like to be a cop: never hanging police shirts on the washing line; lying to children and friends about the job; checking over your shoulder and looking under your car for bombs; always on the alert for things out of place. At times it stretched us to breaking point".
The police numbers within the overall death and injury statistics of the Troubles emphasises the dangers of putting on the uniform: "In 1983, Interpol named Northern Ireland as the most dangerous place in the world to be a police officer. The figures bear that out: between 1969 and 2001, 302 RUC officers were murdered, and over 10,000 were injured, 300 of them left disabled or seriously injured. Almost 70 officers committed suicide." In total, more than 3,500 people were killed and around 50,000 were injured. It was by any reckoning a brutal period in Northern Irish history.
But Northern Ireland being Northern Ireland, lighter moments shine out of the darkness. There is much humour in the memories too. One that stands out: a CID officer remembered a guy in the 1970s who was committing quite a few burglaries. Along with a colleague, the officer drove to the suspect's house. Outside the front door, there was a large group of men standing talking. "They were all wearing black armbands and dressed in Showaddywaddy gear."
Aware that they were about to interrupt a wake, the officers trod carefully, decided not to make an arrest at this obviously sad time, but they did have a quiet word with the man they came to question. It turned out it was not a family wake, but a gathering of Elvis Presley fans mourning the death of the King.
One time, I think in the late 1960s, two policemen came to our door looking for my big brother, then in his late teens. There was that rubbery smell again. They wanted to talk to him about a break-in.
On the Glen Road, a large house had been empty for a long time. My brother and a few of his mates broke in for a laugh. There was no furniture and not much else except a scattering of a few items. My brother ended up stealing a golf club and, however they found out, the police tracked down all the suspects. My brother ended up with a fine and a reprimand.
The officers on that occasion were of a serious demeanour but nonetheless professional. In my time as a manager in British Home Stores, Belfast, I encountered any number of RUC officers who came to deal with everything from bomb scares to disorderly behaviour to shoplifting. They were all exemplary in their duties.
In spite of encouragement by some of my friends, I never got involved in any organisations or their offshoots, steering clear of trouble which sometimes was a challenge in itself, especially on those occasions when I and many others had no choice but to walk home from the city centre because some hallions had set buses alight. It was all too easy to walk into a riot and, God knows, be scooped up by the cops. I probably would have seen a different temperament in the police station had that ever happened.
The stories in A Force Like No Other have reminded me of the importance of challenging stereotypes and how easy it is to infiltrate young minds with sometimes lifelong prejudices.
By the nature of my neighbourhood surroundings, I heard a lot of anti-RUC comments and, as you do as a kid, I took it all in and started to believe it, even to the point of repeating what I'd heard as the absolute truth.
But, hindsight and a book like this helps to separate fact from fiction and reinforces that at the heart of our history, human beings make the war and make the peace, human beings are the statistics of the dead and injured and human beings in police uniforms are out there doing a job they believe in and one that will earn them a living. Everyday people, everyday families, everyday lives. The bad apples will always be there but they are outweighed by the good ones.
Six months after I found the 10-bob note on the Glen Road, I got a letter from the Andersonstown police station telling me that no one had claimed the money and, at my convenience, I should claim it myself.
That very afternoon, there I was signing a receipt in exchange for 10 shillings. The same desk policeman was just as nice and I left with a beaming smile and a list in my head of what I was going to buy. I can't remember if there was a halo over my head. Honest Joe!