Hearts and Minds

Almost exactly a century ago¹, the Connacht Tribune editorial bemoaned the increasingly lawless state of Galway. The editorial contained the following observation of the police force – the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC):-

…Dublin Castle, in its wisdom or in its utter recklessness, has imposed militarism in its most vicious form on an already over-militarised police force.”The keepers of the peace” fulfil their primary purpose no longer. They have been concentrated at central points. Their barracks have been converted into redoubts. Patrols are no longer taken in the ordinary way…

Things would get a lot worse during 1920. There were already 55,000 British troops stationed in Ireland, and increasingly, policing operations were often backed up by the military. In addition, the British government had begun recruiting in the UK for 1,500 extra men to join the RIC. They would become the ‘Black and Tans’ and Auxiliaries,  and they both had a reputation for brutality and lawlessness.

Recently, the Minister for Justice announced that the members of the RIC and its Dublin counterpart (the Dublin Metropolitan Police -Dublin had its own police force back then) would be commemorated on January 17th as part of the various ceremonies to remember the decade of events in Irish history that unfolded a century ago. Unsurprisingly, there has been some resistance on social media and the Mayor of Clare, who was invited to the event, has declined the invitation, saying that it is historical revisionism gone too far.

It’s odd – politicians are often criticised for pandering , but rarely get thanked for doing something that’s necessary or correct, even if unpalatable. Most of the RIC were Irish, and many were Catholic (even 10% of the Black and Tans were Irish). After Independence, many went back to their farms or businesses and lived out their lives in the Free State like every other Irish citizen. After partition, the RIC morphed into the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), which was in turn replaced by the PNSI after the Good Friday Agreement 2 decades ago. For the Unionist community, the RIC were very much keepers of the peace and their protectors. I very much doubt the current Irish government think that commemorating the RIC, DMP and their associates is going to make them more popular, but it is part of the commitments made by successive Irish governments to acknowledge all traditions on the island². If there is every to be a united Ireland, we’ll be commemorating many groups and traditions precious to Unionists and reviled by nationalists. And vice versa. If that’s the worst sacrifice that needs to be made, we’ll be doing well.

The best thing that can be done is to remember the events and acknowledge the impact on all sides. As for the Mayor of Clare, he’s looking to win a seat at the next general election, and his ‘boycott’ will get him a bit of publicity. He might want to reconsider. He is a member of Fianna Fail – a party founded by Eamonn de Valera and originally drawn from the rebels who resisted the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. If he thinks acknowledging the RIC involves too much revisionism, wait until we get to commemorating the Irish Civil War.

¹Connacht Tribune, January 3rd, 1920, p4

² Video and excerpts from Brian Cowan’s 2010 speech on the forthcoming decade of commemorations.