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A View North What’s in a name? In the North, plenty

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

In Belfast, if someone said to you, "Sean’s away down to the Royal with his leg," you would know exactly what was meant. Sean has gone to the Royal Victoria Hospital to have his injured leg treated,

Interestingly enough, in view of the current controversy over the name of the proposed new Northern Ireland police force, as far as I am aware no one on the Falls Road, where the RVH stands, ever objected to using the term "Royal" to refer to Belfast’s most renowned hospital. The name was quite acceptable to nationalists and republicans in whose midst it was erected 100 years ago.

It was formally opened by King Edward VII on July 27, 1903 and soon thereafter became known simply as "the Royal." One would have thought that a good Falls Road republican would have objected to having this symbol of British imperialism staring at him every time he went up and down the Grosvenor or Falls Roads. But there was no campaign to have the name changed. Even the statue of Queen Victoria herself stood near the main gate on the Grosvenor Road, without ever being molested or defaced — except, that is, by the pigeons. But then, had it been Patrick Pearse himself he would have received exactly the same treatment.

It is another matter altogether with the name "Royal Ulster Constabulary." The Patten Report’s recommendation that it be changed has been met with outrage by Unionists and the British government’s attempts to accommodate some of their concerns has been greeted with fury by republicans and nationalists who suspect that the British are carrying the name out the front door only to try to sneak it in the back.

The Patten Report is quite explicit on the name. Recommendation 150 reads:

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"While the Royal Ulster Constabulary should not be disbanded, it should henceforth be named the Northern Ireland Police Service." This was later amended by the government to the "Police Service of Northern Ireland," PSNI being less open to derisive acronymics than NIPS.

What was clear became confused when the British began trying to calm Unionist nerves by saying "RUC" would be incorporated into the new force’s "title deeds." It is now admitted privately by the British themselves that "title deeds" was an unfortunate choice of words as it suggested that there might be formal occasions on which the RUC name would still be used. One official has suggested that it was "purely a figure of speech" and that "it was the government’s intention that once the Police Bill became law, the name ‘RUC’ would never be used again." That is, the term "title deeds" was meant to convey a certain continuity between the old constabulary and the new police service. This was obviously necessary since Patten makes it plain that the RUC was not being disbanded. It was being reformed, which means there is a relationship between the one force and the other.

As far as the policing issue is concerned, it would appear then that both Unionists and republicans have lost the battle to attain their aims. Apart from in the bill, it will be known as PSNI — a defeat for Unionists. But the RUC has not been disbanded — a loss for Sinn Fein.

Meanwhile, the controversy has put Sinn Fein in the awkward position of having to defend the Patten Report. Martin McGuinness recently called for the British to stop "bluffing" and implement it. This means that the party now backs a report which unambigiously says that the RUC "should not be disbanded," a clear rejection of one of its chief demands.

Names have an unusual importance in Northern Ireland because they carry the burden of history. RUC derives from the Royal Irish Constabulary, which had its origins in Robert Peel’s Police Bill of 1814. (It is to be noted, in passing, that the Royal Irish Constabulary served in loyal Ulster without Unionists objecting to the "Irish" in the name or to the fact that they were policed by mostly southern Irish Catholics.)

The Royal Ulster Constabulary was something of an anomaly right from June 1922, when it was formed to police the new Northern Ireland state. After all, Northern Ireland was not Ulster — only a truncated version of Ulster. The RUC’s writ did not run in counties Donegal, Monaghan or Cavan, all of which had been part of the old province of Ulster.

"Ulster" was, in fact, more of an aspiration than a place — the Unionist population’s vision of a sort of homeland, a laager that could be defended against the depredations of Irish nationalism. "Ulster" was a myth that Unionists’ needed. Their paramilitaries followed suit, with the "Ulster" Defense Association and the "Ulster" Volunteer Force. Nobody thought of calling their group the "Northern Ireland Defense Force." But if they thought they could turn Northern Ireland into Ulster, they were deluding themselves, as history has shown.

The waning of that myth is currently the cause of much insecurity, and it expresses itself in the stubborn defense of names and symbols associated with it. Nationalists and republicans insist they be abandoned with the same fervor that Unionists insist on holding on to them.

In contrast, when the 26 counties made the transition into an independent state, once the policing issue was settled, the government was content to leave behind many of the names associated with the old regime. Indeed, I think that Dublin has more "Royals" in it that Belfast. There is the Royal College of Surgeons, the Royal Dublin Society, the Royal Canal, the Royal Hospital at Kilmainham, the Royal Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire, the Royal Golf Club at Clontarf and the Royal Hospital for Incurables in Donnybrook. They are a testimony to history, and as such remain an important part of the Irish story. The fact that the new state was able to accept that history and not try to eradicate it was one indication of its stability.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the state to the north. In what was to become the Irish Republic, there was a clear-cut victory for Irish republicans, even if it was in one way only a partial victory. The British withdrew from the greater portion of the country. In Northern Ireland there is no victory. Instead there is a conflict resolution process that has removed the violence (or most of it) from the situation. But the conflict still goes on at another level, where names and symbols have become the battleground.

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