Why the republican narrative of nationalist hostility to policing is historical revisionism which must be confronted
For vast swathes of the RIC and RUC GC's existence they were regarded as nothing less than an integral part of society, writes Richard Doherty
'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' The quotation, from LP Hartley's The Go-Between is well known, but probably not so well understood. After all, the history of our land is 'our' history. What can be 'foreign' about it? Too many focus on the last five letters of 'history' and assume they know the meaning of the full word.
But the past is a foreign country. It's a very different place from the one we inhabit today. This was brought home to me last week, following the announcement of the appointment of Drew Harris as Commissioner of An Garda Síochána. In Dail Éireann, Sinn Féin's leader, criticising the appointment, made the entirely false claim that the RUC had been disbanded.
In this newspaper Alan Simpson, a former senior RUC GC officer, wrote that the Royal Irish Constabulary 'were held in great distrust by the nationalist (sic) population as a whole as they were regarded as merely propping up the British landed gentry'. He also suggested that the 'one constant running through the history of the RIC and RUC was the ruthless murders of police officers on the street or at home'.
Simpson's first comment is wrong. His second is not the whole truth.
Policing in Ireland dates from the late 18th century. It evolved through the 19th century: the Constabulary of Ireland became the Irish Constabulary, later rewarded with the Royal prefix for defeating the Fenian rebellion. Dublin, Belfast and Londonderry had their own forces with the two Ulster town police bodies later being absorbed into the RIC. Throughout the island, police officers were part of their local communities, although none was allowed to serve in his native county, nor in that of his in-laws.
Victorian Ireland's small towns and villages boasted communities in which the four most prominent men were usually the parish priest, rector, schoolmaster and RIC sergeant. Although there were periods of tension, particularly with evictions, by the end of the century the Irish policeman patrolled a quiet beat.
Even with opposition to the Boer War and the creation of Sinn Féin in 1905, Ireland was peaceful enough for the authorities to remove firearms training from the syllabus for RIC recruits by 1910. In the years before the First World War, many RIC officers patrolled unarmed. Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) officers were always unarmed.
From north to south, and east to west, visits to churchyards and cemeteries on this island bear testimony to the popularity of policemen. Headstones, often elaborate and paid for by public subscription, mark many of their resting places, indicating proudly their calling.
In St Mary's Churchyard, Cloghcor, near Strabane, two officers share a grave. One, a sub-inspector, died suddenly in Strabane in 1851, the other, a young sub-constable, drowned in a mill pond while cooling off after Mass near Dunnamanagh in 1881. That second tragic death was still remembered by my father's generation, some three decades later. My grandparents and great-grandparents lie near the two policemen.
All that changed with 1916 and Yeats' so-called 'terrible beauty'. Then, between January 1919 and August 1922, nearly 500 officers lost their lives. With the formation in 1922 of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Civic Guard, which did not include the DMP initially, stability began to return. Until 1950, seven RUC officers were murdered on duty, one by a policeman who then shot himself. Of the others, five were terrorist victims. Six more officers lost their lives during the 1956-62 IRA campaign.
Others also died on duty, seven during the Luftwaffe blitz on Belfast in 1941, with some killed in traffic collisions or trying to prevent 'ordinary' crime. Every police officer's life is at risk, irrespective of where he or she serves, but for RUC officers that risk increased horrendously from October 1969 onwards; 301 other serving officers would follow Constable Victor Arbuckle in the grim tally of the decades that followed. A further 20 former officers were targeted and murdered.
It's difficult for us today to appreciate the world in which Victorian RIC officers served but what is certain is that they were neither untrusted nor considered as anything other than an integral part of society. The same held true for most of the RUC GC's existence.
So why the idea that the RIC was unpopular and untrusted? That comes down to the attempted rewriting of history, a key element of the Sinn Féin 'message'.
As with other words, Sinn Féin try to imbue 'history' with a totally different meaning. In their hands 'story' is the critical element; 'our story' is their version. Not for them the etymology of the word. Who cares that the original Greek word translated as 'historia' means enquiry?
Nor is 'history' the only word misunderstood by Sinn Féin. Martin McGuinness railed against one of Ireland's leading historians, Professor JJ Lee, dismissing him as a 'revisionist historian'. Professor Lee's crime? Disagreeing with the narrative that underpins those republicans who try to justify the use of physical force for political ends.
Not only did McGuinness not know the meaning of history but he had a perverted understanding of 'revisionist'. Just as an archaeologist will strip away at the crust of material encapsulating an artefact, so the professional historian must scrape away the crust of mythology ('everybody knows that …') from the narrative of the past. It's not always an easy task. Many others have deployed the word 'revisionist' pejoratively, as did McGuinness, but revisionism is an essential part of the historian's calling. Witness the levels of revisionism of First World War history in recent years.
In answer to the Sinn Féin leader's misleading claim that the RUC was disbanded, Malachi O'Doherty pointed out that not only was the force not disbanded but it was awarded the GC by 'the government'.
To add my own little bit of revisionism to Malachi's article, the award came directly from HM The Queen, rather than from her government. It did not appear in the London Gazette, the official government newspaper, and, to my knowledge, is one of only two gallantry awards that were not 'gazetted'.
The other, to Malta in 1942, was made by King George VI.
A final comment. A PhD may await someone who examines the social effects of the RIC in creating a broader Catholic middle class throughout Ireland.
Police officers seemed especially keen to educate their children. The many teachers, doctors and other professionals I have known, some of them relatives, who speak proudly of RIC grandfathers and great-grandfathers and their ambitions for their offspring is ample proof of that.
A noble story and a noble history.