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Force in line of fire: Ex-RUC man's new collection on policing Troubles

Second volume of interviews with those on front line during Northern Ireland's bloody conflict

Colin Breen, author of A Force Like No Other: The Next Shift: More Real Stories from the RUC Men and Women Who Policed the Troubles. (lLiam McBurney/RAZORPIX)
Colin Breen, author of A Force Like No Other: The Next Shift: More Real Stories from the RUC Men and Women Who Policed the Troubles. (lLiam McBurney/RAZORPIX)

Former RUC man turned journalist Colin Breen is back with a second volume of his candid interviews with police officers who served during the Troubles.

Following the success of A Force Like No Other which was published in 2017, Colin was contacted by many other former officers keen to tell their stories.

The first volume of A Force Like No Other recalled horror stories from the Troubles alongside tales of everyday life as a cop, featuring characteristic black humour of men and women on the front line.

Volume two - The Next Shift - features a similar mix of light and dark, but Colin has noticed a shift in tone in his latest interviews.

"I think there's a slightly darker tone in this book. The issue of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) became very apparent to me.

"I also became more aware of the stories of the RUC reservists, particularly those living on the border - they were part-time police officers and full-time targets."

From the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969 to 2001, 302 police officers were killed, more than 10,000 injured and hundreds left disabled or seriously maimed.

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The new collection of stories tells of men and women struggling daily to cope with the trauma of past events, including the murders of colleagues and friends.

The following are abridged extracts from just three of the dozens of tales in A Force Like No Other: The Next Shift.

In THIS first story, an officer who was based at Belfast Regional Control (BRC) at Castlereagh RUC station in March 1988, when Corporals Derek Wood and David Howes were pulled from a car by republicans, says he heard one officer on the ground claim he was in a position to rescue the abducted men.

When I worked at BRC at Castlereagh, there was a room which was only manned on special occasions.

One such occasion was March 19, 1988, the day of the funeral for loyalist Michael Stone's victims. Stone had murdered three people at a funeral, held in Milltown Cemetery, for an IRA team killed in Gibraltar by the SAS.

Belfast on the day of the funerals was like a powderkeg.

There was a massive police presence on the ground (in west Belfast) and the room in BRC was manned with high-ranking police and Army officers.

The story of Corporals Derek Wood and David Howes is now well known. They got caught up in the periphery of the funeral cortege that afternoon.

Realising the danger they were in, they panicked and tried to accelerate out of the area.

The crowd, already tense, feared it was another attack, and immediately engulfed the corporals' VW Sirocco.

As mob fury erupted, the corporals were very quickly dragged from their vehicle, stripped to their underpants and severely beaten.

As this tragic scene played out it could be seen live in the control room on the heli-tele picture feed coming from an Army helicopter above the scene. The men were dropped over a seven-feet high wall into Casement Park GAA ground and driven around to some waste ground in Penny Lane.

There, both of them were shot several times - all watched live in the control room.

The SPG (Special Patrol Group) were there in numbers on the ground and one section of them, and one officer in particular, could see what was going on and asked for permission to go in and save the two men.

The request was denied.

He was ordered: "Stay where you are."

Every 30 seconds, he demanded: "I can go in and save these two men."

But every time he was told: "Stay where you are."

We watched in silence as the murders unfolded. It was thought they were two more loyalists doing what Michael Stone had done.

When it was realised half an hour later that the now deceased men were military personnel, the Army officers left with their heads hung low.

ONE former RUC officer says that but for a sudden change in the weather there could have been many more victims of the IRA's infamous Poppy Day massacre - and he would almost certainly been one of those killed at the cenotaph.

My worst experience in the police was on November 8, 1987 - the Enniskillen Remembrance Day bombing.

I was the police officer who was to lay a wreath on behalf of the RUC.

The weather was absolutely horrendous that morning. It was blowing a gale and the rain was coming down really hard.

As we were getting ready to parade up to the cenotaph and lay our wreaths, all of a sudden the rain stopped and the sun came out.

The officer in charge of the parade immediately made the decision that we should all take off our topcoats (raincoats). It was obviously going to look smarter if we were just wearing our dress tunics.

We must have taken 10 minutes to put our topcoats in the Land Rover. It wasn't just us, the whole parade changed - UDR soldiers, Girl Guides, Boy Scouts and people from all the services.

There is no doubt in my mind that the time we took to change saved our lives.

We were just walking up towards the cenotaph when the bomb went off.

Suddenly coming out of the dust were people running in all directions. Many were injured, some worse than others. Blood was pouring out of them. A young boy came out of the dust towards me, he was bleeding badly and collapsed when he got to me. He couldn't have been more than six or seven years old.

I knew every single one of the people caught up in the explosion. Friends with terrible injuries everywhere.

We were on our knees digging with our bare hands until after 5pm that day. I helped pull Gordon Wilson from the rubble.

When I got home I just collapsed into a chair and cried for three or four hours. Had we not stopped to change our coats, God knows how many of us would have been dead or seriously injured. That's why so many of the people who were killed that day were members of the public.

I still get flashbacks, but I don't get the vivid dreams as much now - it used to be all the time. When they do come, they are just awful. I wouldn't wish them on anyone.

This ex-officer based in west Belfast recalls the day UVF hardman Gusty Spence found a police officers' Christmas party just too rowdy to handle.

In the early 1980s, I was transferred to the secure ward of Musgrave Park Hospital in Belfast which was used to treat anyone serving a prison sentence who required a minor operation.

It was also used to treat injured police and military personnel.

It was coming up to Christmas and, as luck would have it, we only had one prisoner due in over the holiday season - Gusty Spence, a senior UVF man convicted of the sectarian murder of Peter Ward in 1966 in Malvern Street. Gusty was housed in the number one ward.

We had our Christmas party arranged, and were all organised for Christmas dinner but now we had to decide what to do with Gusty.

In the end we brought him down to our common room to spend Christmas with us, which seemed easier than us having to spend time with him and miss the party.

We had a nice meal, watched TV and had a few drinks.

As the day wore on, some of the younger members of our team got a wee bit rowdy as the drink set in.

They started to shoot at everybody with a fire extinguisher, as a result of which Gusty, the hard-nosed UVF commander, said to me: "Billy, take me back to my f*****g ward, this is desperate."

A Force Like No Other: The Next Shift by Colin Breen (Blackstaff Press) is in bookshops this week.

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