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Malachi O'Doherty's Fifty Years On: A fair cop: working as a trainer with the RUC - extract


Mo Mowlam
Mo Mowlam
Pat Finucane

By Malachi O'Doherty

While I was slow to work out ways in which I could be of value to the RUC trainees - and many groups passed through, getting little from me - they taught me about themselves.

I picked up gossip occasionally, but little real intelligence. Once at a desk I saw a wee piece of fluted dowelling rod tapered a little at one end and with a loop through the other. One of the other trainers told me that it was the safety peg for an under-car bomb.

I learned that the police thought of themselves as the third community in Northern Ireland. Since the trouble over Orange parades, many had had to move out of Protestant areas for their own safety.

Fewer than one in 10 of them were Catholic, but that meant that there would be, on average, one Catholic in the group I was dealing with at any time.

They would often reveal themselves and say they were comfortable in the RUC. The most common point made was: "We never talk about religion." Once, sitting at a desk waiting for my class to start, I found a leaflet about the activities of an evangelical prayer group, so leaving religion out of it was not a custom universally applied. There were divisions of opinion still about how they would deal with the trauma of violence. There was a policewoman there who had been a trainee 15 years earlier in Enniskillen when the training centre was bombed. She told me how the chief constable at the time, Jack Hermon, had visited them that night and congratulated them on the work of the clear-up.

He had given her a little patronising chuck under the chin with his fist to remind her what tough people they all were. But as she spoke to me, telling me this story, she stroked her arms and shoulders nervously and it appeared to me that she was still wiping the dust off her clothes.

I went to Maydown every fortnight in training time for three years and became a familiar face to the staff, including the guards at the gate, but I never saw a group of trainees more than once. Any mistakes I made would be corrected with future groups, never put right with the groups I made them with.

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The men were outrageously sexist. There were rarely more than two women in the group and the men would often speak over them in a way that they would not speak over other men. Some of the women dealt with the sexism by adopting the brash humour of the men. They sought to be "one of the boys". One told me that she had grown up with three older brothers and nothing about men surprised her.

There were big changes being anticipated in the RUC at this time. The secretary of state, Mo Mowlam, had said that there would be police reform, though the negotiations to the Good Friday Agreement ultimately backed away from the challenge and passed it on to a commission chaired by the former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten.

I believed that the 'Royal' in Royal Ulster Constabulary would be scrapped.

Senior officers were appalled: "What about the Royal Victoria Hospital? There are no complaints about that."

I shifted away from trying to persuade the trainees that I had valuable insights into the Catholic community that they would benefit from hearing. They were all brighter and more thoughtful people than I had taken them for. Well, nearly all.

I had been researching the joyriding culture in Belfast around that time and I had spoken to many of the young lads who stole and raced cars. It was nihilistic and it was illiterate. It was also rooted to a high degree in republican families and I was developing a theory that it was largely the kickback of kids whose fathers were in the IRA.

I told them the stories of joyriders who were absolved of prosecution if they agreed to become paid informants, often for little money. What would happen was that a boy or young man who had been caught in a stolen car would be questioned by a Crime Branch detective and, at the point at which he was to be charged, another officer, from Special Branch, would enter the room, take the prisoner away and no charge would be levelled.

It felt like a breakthrough when one of them said, "It isn't right." But he then went on to say: "Our primary responsibility is to protect lives and I can live with this if I can believe that Special Branch is saving lives by gathering intelligence in this way."

But what about Pat Finucane? Finucane was a solicitor, who was disliked by the police because the IRA used him as a defence solicitor for its members. This complicated the turning of IRA prisoners.

Special Branch would hold a man, work on him through blackmail and other pressures to get him to become an informant, and then the first person from the outside that he would speak to would be Pat Finucane. The RUC feared it was losing possible agents at that point in the process. One night, Finucane had answered his front door to a caller and was shot dead.

Numerous investigations in later years pointed to the killers having been directed to Finucane by Special Branch. So, what did the trainees think of that? I said: "What if Special Branch conspires in murder? Is that okay?"

And the young man who had responded to my question about joyriders being beaten up or used as informers said: "I have difficulty with that."

That remains the strongest allegation against the police response to the paramilitaries: that they colluded with killers, at least as far as turning a blind eye to killings, or covering for them afterwards when they were running them as agents.

Adapted from Fifty Years On: The Troubles and the Struggle for Change in Northern Ireland by Malachi O'Doherty, published by Atlantic Books on August 1, priced £18.99

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