By Jack Holland
Policing is undoubtedly one of the most emotive issues facing Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, it has entrapped Sinn Fein the way decommissioning has tied up the unionists.
Gerry Adams’s recent refusal to meet with the Royal Ulster Constabulary Chief Ronnie Flanagan was a clumsy move. His statement that no one who calls himself a nationalist or even a democrat could have anything to do with the RUC was, I fear, typical of the near hysteria with which his party and its fellow travelers here in the United States have been dealing with the problem.
Would Adams refuse to meet with the head of the Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, whose members have brutally murdered about 900 Catholics? Probably not, since Sinn Fein is all too happy to talk with their political spokesmen as they are to representatives of a government (the British) it has accused over the years of orchestrating everything from pogroms to shoot-to-kill tactics. This inconsistency is symptomatic of the party’s lack of any realistic policy on the police.
Sinn Fein refuses to budge on its demand that the RUC should be disbanded. So what is there to talk about? Rational debate is replaced by horror stories, stories of victimization, and general vilification of the police. When Chris Patten, who is chairing a commission to look at the matter, enters working-class nationalist areas to sample opinion, what he hears is a tale of woe laced with virulent condemnations. Talk of reforming the RUC is out of the question, he is told repeatedly. It is disbandment or nothing. That is, as far as the RUC is concerned, all Sinn Fein want to discuss are the terms of its surrender.
It is always a mistake to barricade yourself behind maximum demands, which you know are unlikely ever to be met. It is bad tactics, and bad politics.
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Representative of the current hysterics in which the Shinners are indulging is the diatribe against the RUC in Irish Northern Aid’s The Irish People of Nov. 21. It is also frightening in some of its implications.
It compares the police Community Relations officers to "diseased roaches" that infest your neighborhood or a "deadly virus spreading unchecked among Irish schoolchildren." The piece was written by Kate Sheridan, who is based in the mid-west. When the school informed parents in West Belfast that a community policing officer would be visiting the classroom to talk about safety, according to Sheridan one of them said: "The RUC have killed too many, ruined too many lives in our community. It gives you a sick, queer feeling in your stomach to think of them in your own child’s classroom."
"The RUC should be deported, not disbanded," another nationalist is quoted as having told Patten during a meeting called by the policing commission. The RUC is accused of using "drugs, blackmail, and torture" as a means of recruiting informers and of "bloody brutal treatment" of nationalists.
Statistics tell a somewhat different story. They show that the "bloody brutal" RUC has killed 53 people, 18 of them acknowledged as members of paramilitary groups, during the course of the conflict, far fewer than any of the other combatant groups. During the same period (1969-93), the Provisional IRA, for example killed 509 civilians, the vast majority of them innocent bystanders. 133 were the deliberate victims of sectarian attacks. That is not counting the number of informers and former IRA activists taken away and "executed" in cold blood by their own organization — usually after having been tortured. Nor does it take into account the civilians killed in bombings in England. But most of the IRA’s victims were Catholics. However, propaganda never lets facts get in the way of the party line. The Irish People concludes:
"As the RUC men make their way here and there, criss-crossing the communities, the call goes out: ‘Cover your noses, keep your kids indoors; the roaches have arrived.’ "
This kind of vilification belongs to conflict, not conflict resolution. And Sinn Fein and the IRA are supposed to be in a conflict resolution mode (if you’ll pardon the jargon). But clearly not when it comes to the RUC. In fact, the hatred it spews forth reveals something that goes far beyond the issue of policing. It exposes alarming if implicit attitudes towards Ulster’s Protestant community.
The RUC is probably the institution in Northern Ireland that is the most representative of ordinary Protestants, with all their faults and virtues. The force has some 13,000 members, full time and reserve. If their families are taken into account, we are talking about a fairly large segment of Northern Ireland’s Protestant population. The percentage of anti-Catholic bigots among them is probably the same as is found in the general Protestant population. But the majority are ordinary Ulster folk, though somewhat better educated than the average, and now, economically speaking, middle or at least lower-middle class. RUC officers have long ago moved away from working-class Protestant communities where for many years they have not been safe. This in itself is an interesting fact when considered in the light of Sinn Fein’s hysterical attacks on the force as loyalist bigotry incarnate. The RUC is intensely disliked by many loyalists, a dislike which has increased since the Anglo-Irish Agreement when hundreds of police officers were burned out of their homes. But it has also something to do with the fact that roughly twice as many loyalist paramilitaries have been arrested as republicans
When Sinn Fein propagandists describe the RUC as "roaches" whose presence makes stomachs turn, it cannot be very reassuring for Ulster’s Protestant population, the bulk of whom identify with the police. What does it say about the possibility of nationalists and unionists ever learning to live together and respect each other’s traditions? Not much — if anything, its shows the kind of gulf that still exists between the peace process rhetoric of reconciliation and the real ghettoized world of Northern Ireland. Essentially, Sinn Fein’s view of the RUC is a view from the nationalist ghetto. But it is a ghetto that Sinn Fein will one day have to leave behind if there is to be any hope of progress toward real reconciliation in Northern Ireland.