Policing Ireland's Twisted History

Policing Ireland's Twisted History

by Alan M. Wilson

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Ireland has long been a country of conflict. More than 400 years ago, the occupying English “planted” pre-Celtic Scots in the northern province of Ulster and divested the native Irish Celts of the land their ancestors owned for 2,000 years. This created a deep-seated enmity between the English and Irish, Protestant and Catholic—and it finally

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Ireland has long been a country of conflict. More than 400 years ago, the occupying English “planted” pre-Celtic Scots in the northern province of Ulster and divested the native Irish Celts of the land their ancestors owned for 2,000 years. This created a deep-seated enmity between the English and Irish, Protestant and Catholic—and it finally exploded in the Troubles.

Author Alan M. Wilson was on the front lines for the bloodbath that tore Northern Ireland apart from the late 1960s through the first years of the twenty-first century. Policing Ireland’s Twisted History reveals Wilson’s remarkable, true story of growing up in Belfast and serving in the Royal Ulster Constabulary as an inspector and as a member of an elite anti-terrorism unit. Wilson’s only goal was to help protect the innocent on both sides. Unfortunately, he became a target himself.

Brutally honest and unflinching, Wilson traces his experiences serving Ireland’s divided society for nearly ten years. From watching friends die to the tit-for-tat murders occurring on the streets to staring death in the eye more than once, Wilson reveals the deep, gut-wrenching search for the meaning of it all in the midst of the world’s longest-running terrorist situation.

A firsthand look at the Northern Ireland conflict, Policing Ireland’s Twisted History offers an eye-opening, intimate examination of this devastating struggle.

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Policing Ireland's Twisted History

By Alan M Wilson

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2011 Inspector Alan M Wilson Royal Ulster Constabulary (Retired) GC GSM (NI) MTS
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4620-6467-0

Chapter One

Politics and Policing

"Let it be remembered that the repression of crime – its prevention if possible, its detection when committed – is a vocation than which there is none more honourable or useful; none more essential to the well-being of the community society; none more certain of securing, in the right discharge of its duties, the approbation of every right minded person." J Stewart Wood, Inspector General of the Royal Irish Constabulary (1866).

Ireland was the first place in the British Isles where policing passed from magistrates to a police force when the Dublin Police Act 1786 legislated a fulltime uniformed police. The Dublin Metropolitan Police was soon followed by the Belfast Town Police. Sir Robert Peel, Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1814, drafted a plan for policing the entire island, and in 1822, the Irish Constabulary was formed. The prefix "Royal" was added to the name by Queen Victoria as a reward for the performance of its duties in suppressing the Fenian Rebellion in 1867.

The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) badge – the harp and crown – was conferred on the service in recognition of the award of the Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick and was adopted by royal permission in 1922 by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in Ulster on the devolution of government in what would then be referred to as the Irish Free State and the abolition of the RIC. The Order of Saint Patrick is the third highest order in British heraldry.

The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) policed all of Ireland outside of the city limits of Dublin from 1822 until 1922. Belfast and Londonderry had their own city forces until 1870 when both were disbanded because of the intensity of sectarian violence in those cities. The RIC replaced them. The RIC was predominantly Catholic since the majority of the people in Ireland were Catholic.

The RIC was a respected, organized and disciplined professional police service that led the way in modeling police practices and structure. It was instrumental in putting down repeated rebellions by movements intent on separating Ireland from the British Empire.

The Ribbonmen of 1858 and the Fenians of 1867 are probably the most famous antagonists in Irish history before the formation of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in the early 1900s and their derived forms since then. The "final push" (referring to the conflict of that period) for Irish Independence (1918-1922) by the Irish Republican Army, under the command of Michael Collins, saw systemic attacks on the RIC with the loss of much life: 725 RIC officers were killed in the line of duty at the hands of Irish terrorists in its hundred year history, and 550 killed between 1916 and 1922.

This shocking statistic is worsened by the fact that these men were neighbours of those who killed them as they were drawn from the community they policed and were co-religionists: Catholic freedom fighter-terrorists killing Catholic police officers. They had attended school, played sports and attended church with each other. They were in many cases extended family.

The Republican movement saw that Britain's danger in WWI was Ireland's opportunity. How much the intensification of the Irish War of Independence in 1918 came from soldiers returning from the war is unknown but is not considered a likely factor. Some had fought in British Uniforms in WWI and used the skills they had learned in the battlefields of Europe to expel the British from the twenty-six counties now referred to as the Republic of Ireland.

The intensification of terrorist attacks on police in what was to become the State of Northern Ireland in the Irish Province of Ulster resulted in the formation of the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC) in 1920 to support the RIC and then the RUC, as the slaughter of officers continued. One in twenty RIC was killed, and one in nine seriously injured, resulting in a number of Catholic officers resigning because of the difficulties of living in Catholic strongholds. The exclusively Protestant USC served with distinction from a government and pro-British perspective, but was a thorn in the side of the IRA and generally disliked by the Catholic population.

Black and Tans

Another force that was to become notorious was recruited in 1920 on the British mainland. The Black and Tans was a force of Englishmen, all former soldiers, who were drafted into the southern portion of Ireland. This created disaster as men who were equipped physically and emotionally for war in the trenches of Europe were deployed into a rural and urban civil war where the real enemy could not be easily identified. The RIC understood the Irish situation since they were part of it in every possible way, but the Black and Tans could neither be expected to understand or even care about the subtleties of Ireland's religious, class and socioeconomic difficulties.

The IRA literally "terrorized" by hitting and running in the frequent gun battles fought in the cities and countryside of Ireland. IRA men could blend into the local population, but Englishmen fresh from the war defending English interests were frequently guilty of roughhousing innocent Irish men, women and children. IRA attacks in the countryside were mostly aimed at killing police officers, soldiers, and government representatives and would be carried out by "flying columns" of seasoned IRA volunteers.

The Black and Tan Militia wore the black trousers of a police uniform and the top of a green army uniform: hence the name. They were supplied with basic troop transportation, and a WWI rifle and pistol. Picture truckloads of unruly angry and undisciplined soldiers roaming the cities, towns, and countryside of southern Ireland hunting an unidentifiable enemy: poor equipment, no real intelligence, no real direction, control, or mission. This unwilling (although they were escaping poverty in post-war England) volunteer army is hated by Irish Catholics to this day.

Croke Park Massacre

One of many horrible examples of official slaughter of innocent civilians is the Croke Park Massacre when the Black and Tans killed fourteen innocent spectators at a Gaelic football game. They drove into the stadium and opened fire with machine guns on the unsuspecting spectators to avenge the execution of nineteen British Secret Agents the previous night by the IRA in Dublin.

The Black and Tans are an example of what not to do in response to civil unrest. The subtleties of public order policing used now were unheard of then when governments the world over tried to bludgeon their populations into submission. It did not work then and it does not work now. Desperate circumstances often result in desperate decisions by public figures, but always with long-term consequences.

The Black and Tans returned to England when the Irish Free State was created in 1922, but the USC became an essential element in the security of British Northern Ireland. The USC is credited with defeating the IRA on numerous occasions. Catholic historian Tim P. Corrigan writes that, "The B Specials (the part time element of the Ulster Special Constabulary) were the rock on which any mass movement of the IRA has floundered."

Efforts to create political change peacefully through Home Rule Bills in the British Parliament from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries floundered time and again. Political debate had been going on for years without resolution –similar to the period from the 1960s through to the early 2000s in Ulster. Tony Blair, former prime minister of Britain, is reported to have said that a history degree would have stood him in better stead than his law degree, the point being that knowledge of history provides the possibility of not repeating the frequent mistakes of the past.

My father, besides holding his fulltime job with Belfast City Corporation, was a part-time officer in the Ulster Special Constabulary for almost forty years. In 1922 the USC numbered forty-eight thousand men; in 1969: fifteen thousand, many with previous military experience. Their primary function was to guard such targets as electrical substations, judges and government officials, police stations, and the homes of threatened police officers. They also served as a very successful information and intelligence base as their members performed regular jobs in every possible vocation. The USC wore a police uniform similar to the RUC but had a separate officer and NCO structure reporting within its own ranks. Their local commanders reported to the local RUC Commander.

I remember the weapons Dad had at home when I was a boy: shocking by today's standards. He always had his personal protection issue .45 revolver, but when I was a pre-teen, he also had a rifle or a sten gun (old version of a submachine gun). The guns were all stored in his bedroom wardrobe with the ammunition in boxes on the top. There were thousands of rounds.

By the time Dad died in 1965, the IRA had declared a ceasefire some three years earlier; the rifle and sten gun were gone, but the revolver was still there. To my surprise no one came to get it despite my frequent calls to the station. Three months later I walked three miles to the Spiers Place Station and returned the gun. The ammunition was picked up later the same week, along with his uniforms. The failure to promptly remove the weapon and ammunition and indeed the very fact as to how much was there, shocks me to this day. It certainly could not have happened during my time in the RUCR or RUC.

I am proud of my father's service in the USC regardless of the propaganda of the IRA. The existence of the USC must be seen in light of the murder of five hundred and fifty (mostly Catholic) Royal Irish Constabulary officers by the IRA in six short years prior to Irish partition in 1922. The Ulster state needed additional resources to help the police and the USC was the appropriate choice.

Life is lived in context and civil war can create situations in society which would be abhorrent in normal times. My dad's moderation served me well as I observed the attempts to change Ulster politics by violent means.

Even in high school I was interested in the politics I saw developing around me. I did not understand them, but I knew something big was happening. What I did not know was that it had all been tried before in British All-Ireland pre-1922. I was witnessing a continuation of the same problems: discrimination and social injustice.

I remember my father's friend and fellow USC officer telling stories of the Second World War when he had driven an American Sherman tank. He would puff on his pipe, and enthral me with his recollections. The Sherman had a flame thrower as one of its weapons – a fierce weapon that was used effectively to burn out the enemy from brush and bunker alike. This man's crew would not use it because it did not seem fair in a fight. What a concept: fair fighting rules in the bloody war against the Nazis! Dad never talked about his service but I remember one of these fireside talks when my mother had a story to tell. During the Second World War the Nazis bombed Belfast, and my mother recalled fleeing with my two brothers (then four and five years old) to the hills which surround the city on three sides. She took them to the Cave Hill and from there watched the Nazi bombers pound Belfast. On one particular occasion she saw into the cockpit of one of the planes as the aircraft turned to leave the city valley. She said the pilot looked like he was just a boy in his late teens. This vivid image was imprinted on my young mind.

Belfast was as far as the fuel that a German bomber could use and still get back home, so the Germans were anxious to drop their bombs on the first run and avoid any RAF fighters. Thousands were killed in what was supposed to target the industrial areas but was an indiscriminate slaughter. Belfast had German bomb damage right up to the start of the Troubles; some of the damage broadcast across the world by international journalists was in fact from the Nazi bombings of WWII.

War and the Troubles: many of the same Ulstermen stepped up for both. My dad was one of them. Dad died of a heart attack at fifty-eight not long after his colleague and best friend Mr. Hermon died at the same age. War and terrorism: perhaps too much stress was the cause as they had lived their whole lives in the context of war: as children during WWI, as participants in WWII, and during the continual IRA campaigns from 1916 to the end of their lives. They, like so many Ulster men, women and children never saw peace and rarely talked about war.

Members of the RIC, the RUC, and the USC served as ordinary people doing an extraordinary job in the uniform of the state. They were not political animals; they were police officers who served with distinction in terrible circumstances believing generally that the politicians would perhaps get it right. Parliamentary debate and agreement was how to change society, and they believed that as police officers who earned their pay, fed their kids, and husbanded their wives, the terrible events of history would become lessons.

How wrong they were! The politicians of Ulster who understood the reality of the situation and embraced the risks of change were shouted down by the greedy, the fearful, and the bigoted. Protestant and Catholic police officers were great friends who saw beyond the simplicity of segregation. They embraced the reality of public service and the responsibility of serving people in a divided society that was overshadowed by the ignorance of pseudo-religious division.

Police officers are usually the victims of reprisals because of political failure, and this is because they are the first line of defence of a civil society. Police officers do not want to be soldiers; they enjoy helping protect good people from bad.

(In my case I would never have been a police officer had the IRA terrorist campaign not been going on around me. A career as an engineer was more appealing to my temperament.)

The USC served as the Home Defence Force during the Second World War when the Irish Republic remained neutral and the IRA assisted the Nazis by spying on the British naval presence in Ulster ports. This connection was to become the norm as they later aligned with Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, the PLO and Lebanese terrorists, and more recently FARC terrorists in Columbia.

Much of the terrorist expertise demonstrated in the Middle East can be attributed to the IRA's training of these terrorist groups including those who would eventually kill over three thousand, mostly Americans, on September 11, 2001. Strange bedfellows perhaps, but terrorist connections have more to do with the absence of morality and the existence of a common enemy than they had to do with politics.

The division of Ireland in 1922 did nothing to assuage the difficulties which existed within the Ulster Catholic communities where Catholics felt like second-class citizens. Remembering that the island was divided along religious lines, it is not surprising that the Catholic influence dominates the Irish Republic and the Protestant equivalent dominates Ulster.

This has been used as an excuse by Ulster's Protestants, but I believe that with the responsibility of government comes a requirement to protect minority rights. Catholics were a large minority in British Ulster (forty percent) and many (just under twenty-five percent) did not accept the right of Britain to partition Ireland. The original IRA struggle was to remove British control from all of Ireland so nationalists on both sides of the new border of 1922 saw it as an inconvenient first step towards the final goal.

More surprising indeed is that the common religious guide of both camps – the Bible – was not used as a uniting force even though it is a source for models of hospitability and forgiveness.

Religious people, the world over, appear to develop selective vision when it comes to the treatment of those outside their own chosen tribe or group.


Excerpted from Policing Ireland's Twisted History by Alan M Wilson Copyright © 2011 by Inspector Alan M Wilson Royal Ulster Constabulary (Retired) GC GSM (NI) MTS. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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