By Jack Holland
The attempt to restructure the Royal Ulster Constabulary was never going to be easy. The fiercest proponents of restructuring, Sinn Fein, and its staunchest opponents, the Ulster Unionists, have too much at stake politically. Both have invested so much emotional capital in the matter that objectivity — or even the pretense of it — is almost impossible.
In the wake of colonial rule there are always bound to be policing problems, and the post-colonial situation in Ireland that has existed over the last 70 years is a case in point. The creation of two separate states in Ireland after 1921 presented policing problems in their most acute form.
However, in the Free State, in 1922 the issue of policing the new dispensation was solved quite successfully with a bold and dramatic gesture. Following the disbandment of the Royal Irish Constabulary, which ceased functioning as a force in May 1922, the new government established the Civic Guard as an unarmed civilian police force. This decision was implemented even though the 26 counties were about to be plunged into a civil war, as the Treaty and Anti-Treaty forces clashed. Ironically, the RIC — the force which became so strongly identified with British rule in Ireland — had during World War 1 quietly lobbied the British government to be disarmed and converted into a genuine civic constabulary. The government refused with tragic consequences for the force five years later.
In 1922, the Irish government, shakily installed, with mounting IRA resistance, was determined not to repeat the mistake of identifying the police force as an arm of the government. The new force was formally disarmed in September 1922. The IRA denounced it as a reformed RIC. There were former RIC members recruited, but the new force was basically made up of former members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police and the IRA. It soon became clear to the IRA that the Civic Guard was not the RIC in a new uniform. According to historians, it proved immensely popular throughout the Irish countryside, and was left more or less unmolested even in the midst of the bloody Civil War.
Though there was an initial attempt to intimidate the new force in April 1922 when its depot in Kildare was seized by Anti-Treaty forces, the IRA’s hostility turned to disdain and then to acceptance. In December that year it issued an instruction that its members were not fire on the guards. By then, the Civic Guard had adopted a blue uniform (jettisoning the old RIC green) and established itself not in large military-style barracks (as had the RIC) but in small provincial police stations, manned by a few constables who dealt only with "non-political" crime. The key, in other words, to the success of the Civic Guard was making clear that is was not a military or a paramilitary gendarmerie but a truly civilian police force. This way, it won the respect and support of the vast majority of the Irish people — including republicans.
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In today’s peacespeak, the police force was demilitarized.
Nationalists, especially Sinn Fein, have made the "demilitarization" of the situation in the North into one of their key demands. The Patten report indeed envisages eventually a "demilitarized," unarmed police force.
In October 1969, Lord Hunt had recommended that the RUC be disarmed, and it was. In September the following year, as political and sectarian violence gradually increased, a force-wide referendum showed a narrow majority (1,196 to 1,085) of policemen were still against rearming. This position was rendered difficult, if not impossible, to maintain, of course, as the Provisional IRA began killing police officers — the first two died at republican hands in a car bomb explosion in August 1970, a month before the referendum on whether the police should rearm. Despite the result of that referendum, the following November, guns were reissued to the force as personal protection weapons. So, technically speaking, the RUC remains an unarmed force, its arms being issued only for the defense of the constables.
The issue of disarming the police force is not a controversial one, compared to the proposal to rename it, and given the maintenance of the cease-fires there is no reason why the new force should not follow in the footsteps of the Civic Guards. Arms have not been linked to identity. To Unionists, the badge, the name, the flag are far more important.
In the Free State, in 1922, the RIC had no constituency to resist its dissolution. The RUC has. The RIC was defeated, the RUC was not — in fact, if anything it proved to be the key to containing IRA violence. This adds to the anger that many Protestants feel toward the planned restructuring of the force. However, this only makes sense if Protestants feel that the need to be defended against violent republicans remains. If the "war" is over, such defense becomes unnecessary and the need for a gendarmerie becomes redundant — a neurotic vestige of old problems. The question is, will Unionists ever accept that the IRA has abandoned the armed campaign for good?
Unfortunately, even if they did, they would still, I think, oppose many of the reforms envisaged in Patten. This is because, unlike their predecessor, the RIC, the RUC has become identified with one section of the community, and one political aspiration. To restructure the force means to threaten that aspiration, undermine that identity. It has little or nothing to do with policing but with Unionist politics and, more broadly, Unionist culture.
In the Free State in 1922, despite the Civil War, there existed a consensus on crucial aspects of the new state, and that consensus was reflected in an agreement on what the new police force should be. The civic consensus produce a civic police force.
That consensus does not yet exist in the North, regardless of the Good Friday agreement. Nationalists are eager for certain changes, while Protestants are suspicious of them or outright hostile. Hence the difficulties in creating an acceptable police force.
Choosing the right tactics can help, however. Sinn Fein’s demand for the disbandment of the RUC only made the creation of consensus more difficult and aroused Unionist fears. The SDLP’s approach is the only practical one under the circumstances — gradual reform, without triumphalist trappings, at least avoids exacerbating the problem, even though it may not entirely resolve it.