Gravestones book tribute to 302 RUC members
In an extraordinary tribute, a former RUC officer has photographed the graves of all 302 members of the force who were killed by terrorists. As he launches his memorial DVD, he tells Ivan Little how he narrowly escaped death himself.
Try as he might to sound dispassionate about it all, there's no disguising Ian Forbes' emotion as the retired policeman surveys the sea of 302 faces on the poster of the RUC victims of the Troubles and points to where his picture would have been in the roll of honour if the IRA had had their murderous way 38 years ago.
"That would have been me in the top right hand corner," says the 78-year-old Tyrone man who thanks God for saving him and his family from death during a gun attack on his home which nevertheless left him and his young daughter seriously ill.
"My photo would have been right there between Mervyn and Charlie. And I know I'm lucky that I'm here today looking at that poster, not featuring in it."
Just a few feet away on another wall in the study of his Co Down home is a framed picture of a police officer who wasn't so fortunate - Ian's father Thomas who died four days after a firefight with a terrorist gang in Dungannon in April 1942 - making him only the fifth RUC man to die after the establishment of the force 20 years earlier.
Ian Forbes was only nine at the time of the killing which left his mother to bring up 10 children on her own at the height of the Second World War.
"I can still remember watching the policemen marching down Irish Street with his coffin which was then taken to my father's home place across the border," he says.
And it was there standing alone with his thoughts and his memories in that same tiny Co Cavan churchyard that Ian hatched the plan which has seen him visit all but one of the graves of the RUC officers killed in service during its 79-year history and who were buried, not cremated.
"I go every year to tend to my father's grave and it occurred to me that he had been forgotten by everyone apart from his family and I also realised that all the murdered officers had also been largely forgotten," he says.
And so started Ian's remarkable five-year pilgrimage over thousands of miles around Northern Ireland and beyond to trace and photograph all the graves.
"The first fatality was a Constable John Ryan who was shot dead in Belfast in 1933. And his was the last grave I found," says Ian, who served for 30 years in the force and who is now a member of the Disabled Police Officers Association.
It turned out that Constable Ryan was buried in Thurles in Co Tipperary and a member of the Garda Siochana volunteered to help.
"He cleaned up the grave and took a photograph of it. It's the only one I haven't personally visited. But I hope to go there very soon," says Ian.
Tonight Ian Forbes will launch a sombre 90-minute DVD collection of the photographs of every single grave of the RUC victims who include no fewer than 29 officers whom he knew well.
"Yes, I lost a lot of good friends - I either served with them or played cricket or rugby with them. That works out at almost one in 10 of all the RUC officers who were killed," says the ex-CID man who used all his detective skills to find the graves.
"It wasn't easy. I had to call on my contacts and friends to help me locate the churchyards where the officers are buried but then many's a time I had to search long and hard to find the actual graves."
And it was an emotional journey for Ian. "I am not ashamed to say that I dropped a few tears along the way, especially for one former colleague David Dorsett who was one of two policemen killed in a bomb attack in Londonderry in January 1973.
"He was an ex-Navy man from England and a champion boxer in his day. He was a brilliant fella and we went fishing together. I was at his funeral but I still cried when I stood at his grave again."
It wasn't long after his killing that Ian Forbes came within inches of death himself.
"I had just returned home to Downpatrick and I was heading to the front door after putting the car in the garage," he says.
"It wasn't for the want of trying by the IRA that they didn't kill me and my family. Twenty six bullets hit the house. Two of them wounded me and my nine-year-old daughter who was sleeping in her bed was also hit."
By an eerie twist of fate Wendy Forbes was exactly the same age as Ian was when his father was shot. Ian like his father was aged 40 at the time of the attack.
He adds: "My wife Carrie ran outside and started shouting at the gunmen and a couple of bullets went through her clothing but she wasn't injured. But I'm convinced that the Lord saved us. I'd heard a voice telling me to run after I left the garage and that's just what I did. I later asked Carrie how she knew to tell me to run but she said she hadn't said a word. I maintain that it was the Lord speaking to me."
He was off duty recovering from his injuries for nine months and moved out of his Downpatrick home. He later discovered that only a few months before the shooting he'd helped one of the two terrorists who tried to kill him.
Ian adds: "I caught him stealing drink from a pub but I urged my Chief Inspector to let him off with a caution because I told him - and I remember the words well - that he wasn't a bad lad," he says.
Ian's daughter Wendy and her sister Jean both followed their father's footsteps into the RUC.
"I was proud as Polly as I watched their passing out parades," says their dad who joined the RUC on July 21, 1958. "They've now left the police to raise their families."
Two of Ian's brothers also served in the RUC along with three sisters, five nephews and a niece.
"Yes you could say it ran in the family. I think there were 13 of us serving with the police at the same time," says Ian.
"But even through the worst years, I never gave up hope. I just didn't want my grandchildren to see what we all saw."
Ian hopes his DVD - produced by his friend Don Black - will stand as a lasting memorial to the hundreds of policemen and women who "gave their lives for the community and for peace".
He says the DVD, which includes tributes to the small number of RUC officers who were cremated, has given him an inner peace. "I am proud of what I have achieved. I visited a total of 303 graves and completing the DVD has given me a great sense of satisfaction. Admittedly, it did take over my life. But it was worth it and it certainly brought me to places I had never been before - places where I didn't feel exactly comfortable as a retired policeman.
"I even went with a friend to Milltown cemetery in west Belfast where there are four RUC graves."
They, like many others around Northern Ireland and in border counties, don't have any RUC insignia on them or indeed any mention of the force.
But Ian Forbes was able to spruce up a number of the graves which had fallen into disrepair.
"The RUC George Cross Foundation were magnificent. They gave me the necessary funds to clean up the graves and to buy a headstone for one officer whose burial plot had been marked only by a flowerpot," says Ian who's also compiled four 'hard copy' albums of the grave photos which he's giving to the foundation.
The title of his DVD - Gone But Not Forgotten - is patently intended to pay homage to the RUC officers who died at the hands of terrorists, loyalists and republicans.
But there's also a sense that the name could equally be applied to the RUC itself. For though he diplomatically avoids the politics of disbandment, it's clear that Ian Forbes still has a burning pride and passion about the old force.
"It definitely was one of the finest police services anywhere in the world and it was terrible to lose so many good people. You wonder what it was all for," he says.
He adds: "But I can only wish the PSNI all the very best and it was dreadful what happened to young Ronan Kerr in Omagh. "When I started off with this project, I didn't think that police officers would still be dying like that at the end of it."
The last grave on Ian's DVD roll of honour is that of Stephen Carroll who was shot dead by dissident Republicans in Craigavon in March 2009.
He was a PSNI officer at the time of his killing but he had also served with the RUC. Ronan Kerr obviously wasn't a member of the force and his killing came too late for any kind of acknowledgement on the DVD which Ian Forbes hopes is a one-off which will never, ever have a sequel.
Lost lives of the RUC
The first RUC man to be killed in the Troubles was Constable Victor Arbuckle from west Belfast. The 29-year-old Protestant police officer, who was married with two children, was shot by the UVF in the Shankill area of Belfast during street protests by loyalists on October 16, 1969 against the disbandment of the B Specials and the disarming of the RUC. A Catholic officer, Sergeant Dermot Hurley, who was standing next to Constable Arbuckle when he was shot, was later killed by the IRA.
RUC men Samuel Donaldson (23) and his colleague Robert Millar (26), who were both single and Protestant, were the first police officers to be killed by the IRA in a booby trap bomb which was hidden in a stolen car parked a mile from Crossmaglen on August 12, 1970. While Constable Donaldson (pictured) was from Armagh, Mr Millar from Antrim had just joined the RUC and went straight from the force's training depot in Enniskillen to duty as a constable in Crossmaglen RUC station.
On February 28, 1985 Constable Donaldson's brother, Chief Inspector Alexander Donaldson (41), a father-of-three, was killed in an IRA mortar attack on Newry police station which claimed nine lives - the biggest single loss of police personnel in any incident during the Troubles. He was the highest ranking officer to be killed in the attack.
Reserve Constable Raymond Denham, a 42-year-old Protestant who was married with two children and an electrician by trade, was shot at his Falls Road workplace Carrington Printers on January 12, 1972. He was the first police reservist to be killed. The RUC man, who had worked at the printers for 10 years, was shot in the back and the head by two gunmen, while another held a gatekeeper down.
RUC Reservist Mildred A Harrison (26) was the first female officer to be killed. The Protestant mother-of-two died when a UVF bomb exploded at the Catholic-owned Ormeau Arms at Abbot's Walk in Bangor on March 16, 1975, where she was passing on duty.
On January 23, 1993, 21-year-old Catholic RUC man Michael Ferguson, from Omagh, was shot twice in the head by a lone IRA gunman when on duty in Londonderry. His killer escaped despite being hit by a car as he ran off down Shipquay Street in the city. Constable Ferguson's father had served 30 years in the RUC.